Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Big Lie

While of course hardly either the first or last time a government will falsely represent its actions or intentions to those who are governed, I'd like to address how intentions were set aside regarding Amtrak Long Distance (LD) routes.

First, allow me to note that, although hardly some kind of avid railfan hobbyist, I enjoy riding trains. In fact, it seems as if I go a year without a "ride for real", i.e.somewhere to go and a Long Distance train is convenient, I'm out taking a joyride, i.e. the only reason I'm traveling is to ride a train.

But simply because I enjoy riding trains is not reason for me to join an advocacy group to seek more of such, or for that matter even maintaining the existing system. Even if in certainty there isn't any publicly circulated written material to support such, the strong inference remains that the Class I industry (OK let's get the disclaimer out of the way: author holds long positions in KSU, NSC, UNP), in which I was employed on A-Day or May 1, 1971, was victim of "the Big Lie'. That lie was simply the industry was told that within five years, 1976, the Long Distance trains would start to be discontinued in an orderly fashion (New Orleans-LA Sunset and New York-Chicago, but tri-weekly and via circuitous routing, Cardinal would be first; Lake Shore (NY-Chicago via most direct route and six major population centers along such) would likely be last. That plan actually started with the 1979 "Carter Cuts" that took care of the Chicago-Miami Floridian and the New York-Kansas City National Limited, but as endemic with any social program, which is what I believe Amtrak LD to be, politics get in the way.

That was as far as what the Class I's were promised got.

The Clinton-era "Mercer Cuts" only addressed the "political" routes (Chicago-Portland Pioneer and Chicago-LA Desert Wind) added during the '80's when powerful Congressmembers thought a train was a means to "bring home the bacon" to the folk that marked the ballots.

The Bush 43 administration was able to do some minor "pruning" namely the Three Rivers (a secondary NY-Chicago route with only Pittsburgh as an intermediate population center) and the Orlando-New Orleans Sunset East, whose political supporters simply had "moved on".

Somehow, even though the incumbent Obama administration is moving more "centrist" during the second half of the first term (sound like Clinton, anyone?), I think Amtrak cuts surely to be proposed by the Republicans (especially their populist fringe movement; AKA the Tea Party) may meet "resistance" from 1600 Penn; a "weapon" is that LD ridership is on the rise.

But the fact remains that LD's are costly to operate and cannot command the fare level (in Coach at least) that can the Corridors - especially the Northeast. What is often overlooked is the indirect cost to the Class I railroad industry arising from the interference that any train operating on a schedule has upon an industry that no longer conducts its operations on a "boulevard of steel" but rather that of an "industrial pipeline". Imagine how a train operating at 79mph and on a strict schedule (and people aboard who can pick up the cell phone and say "Hi Congressman") will affect freights that operate between 45 and 60mph. They will simply have to take sidings to allow this 79mph object to get through, and in the case of an Amtrak train, is "not doing very much' to contribute to that investor owned railroad's bottom line.

So put it all together and had an industry that be assured was far more "desperate" than it is today had this magic wand waved in front of them that you will be relieved of the costs of operating these trains that have been imposed upon you by regulatory fiat and they will start to be gone in five years, but in fact turned out to be a "buddy, you're stuck; sorry 'bout that" situation, I think no Class I would have signed up. Accordingly there would have been no Amtrak, and the LD's would have come off quite quickly after the statutory (under RPSA '70) five year moratorium expired, if not sooner. Any that somehow survived would have been immediately gone once the industry was deregulated from rates and services under the 1980 Staggers Act.