What Will Become of Amtrak If It’s Left Out of Plans to Expand HSR?

When President Obama and Secretary LaHood talk about their bold new vision for high-speed rail, you don’t hear them mention the country’s very own train company, which just celebrated ten years of providing the closest thing this country has to high-speed rail service, in the Northeast Corridor.

Will this be the face of future high-speed rail service in Florida and California? Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/aarchitect/##aarchitect/flickr

The administration has doled out $10.5 billion so far for rail improvements around the country. Some of that is going to existing rail lines that Amtrak runs, such as the Cascade service in the Pacific Northwest, which is using federal funds to improve on-time performance, increase frequency of service, improve signaling, and slowly increase top speeds.

But the banner projects are new, next-generation high-speed lines in places like Florida and California. Service on those lines is being opened up to competitive bidding. Will Amtrak be part of it? And if not, will the nation’s 40-year-old rail giant fade into irrelevance?

Florida is expected to issue a call for bids any day now (assuming Governor Rick Scott doesn’t decide, in the end, to kill the project like his colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio). The state only represents a prospective 2.4 million riders a year (compared with about 13 million on the NEC) but it’s enormously significant because Florida and California are the only new lines projected to run passenger rail service on dedicated tracks – not competing with freight trains.

Where intercity passenger trains compete with freight – in most of the country these days, excluding the NEC – “Amtrak can only run a handful of trains per day because they’re leasing space on a freight railroad that doesn’t keep the schedules,” said Petra Todorovich, an expert on high-speed rail with the nonprofit America 2050. “When [freight trains] fill up their cargo from the yard, then they leave the yard. So Amtrak is trying to run passenger trains on a schedule on tracks that are owned by a railroad that doesn’t keep a schedule.”

That’s why rail service in much of the country has been infrequent and unreliable and has been in a poor position to compete with private automobiles or air travel. Amtrak continues to run those lines as a public service, in many cases mandated by Congress – but they’re not profitable or efficient.

So a dedicated track for passenger rail in Florida and California presents a unique opportunity for rail to show off what it can do for other parts of the country, which haven’t historically had world-class train service.

Amtrak has teamed with French National Railway Corporation (SNCF), in partnership with Bechtel, to offer a bid to design, build, operate, maintain and finance the Florida line.

Amtrak recently brought on Al Engel, a leader in the field, to lead its new high-speed rail division. Todorovich says his hire, along with the creation of the division, sent a message that “Amtrak is going to go after these opportunities.”

“Amtrak is certainly disappointed that we aren’t a factor that’s built into every corridor,” Engel told Streetsblog, “because we do operate passenger services in Florida, and California is our second largest market. It would be unfortunate if a state had to proceed without the benefit of Amtrak’s involvement.”

Still, Engel says Amtrak is in a good position to win the contracts for the new high-speed lines. He points to Acela’s 10-year anniversary of “successfully operating and growing the market for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor.”

Amtrak's new HSR division head, Al Engel, speaking in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station about Amtrak's plans for HSR in the Northeast Corridor. Photo: ##http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://a.abcnews.go.com/images/Business/c4e7bd5e0d1349c7b93c801a727245f9.jpg&imgrefurl=http://abcnews.go.com/meta/search/imageDetail%3Fformat%3Dplain%26source%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fabcnews.go.com%252Fimages%252FBusiness%252Fc4e7bd5e0d1349c7b93c801a727245f9&usg=__nTTLRXE-duP45JUAlg2l26U_MNs=&h=341&w=512&sz=41&hl=en&start=0&zoom=1&tbnid=wtLShFmqp2HvnM:&tbnh=123&tbnw=164&ei=tHdITd_QO8bDgQfI-JjeBQ&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dal%2Bengel%2Bamtrak%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DX%26biw%3D1024%26bih%3D522%26tbs%3Disch:1%26prmd%3Divnso0,3&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=289&vpy=209&dur=870&hovh=183&hovw=275&tx=105&ty=93&oei=tHdITd_QO8bDgQfI-JjeBQ&esq=1&page=1&ndsp=15&ved=1t:429,r:6,s:0&biw=1024&bih=522##Matt Rourke/AP##

“We work with 16 different unions and deliver a very popular service, and our ridership statistics show that,” Engel told Streetsblog. “All that experience of working with labor, the operating equipment, the reservation systems, the marketing, all the different aspects of providing a successful passenger rail service in the United States – we can bring all that strength and all that experience to Florida, or California, or the Midwest.”

He added that Amtrak also has decades of experience working with the regulators at the FRA.

Amtrak’s critics have long said that the company is a money pit for federal funds. Republicans recently proposed (again) to eliminate funding for Amtrak. But Engel says it’s not a fair criticism.

“You have to compare different modes on an equal basis, which is never done. The aviation system is heavily subsidized,” Engel said. “We’re providing routes that are desired by those in leadership positions. We also are operating with agreements that were statutorily established in terms of our labor and the routes that we provide.” Besides, in the NEC, he said, Amtrak turns a profit, recouping 121 percent of its expenses.

Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers agrees that the Amtrak gets a bad rap.

“My view is that they have been under this survivor mentality – I mean, you can’t do a good long-range plan if you don’t know how much money you’re going to get year after year. You can only plan as far out as one year unless there’s a multi-year authorization.” The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 funded Amtrak though 2013, alleviating some of the problem Kenton referred to – for the time being.

Kenton says Amtrak is in a good position to compete for the high-speed rail contracts because of their long experience operating in the United States, their good relationships with the railroads, and the economy of scale. But he welcomes competition from other companies around the globe.

“If there’s competition to bring the fares down and for better customer service, that would be good for the passenger,” Kenton says. On the other hand, though, it could be detrimental “if the other operators don’t work with Amtrak on cross ticketing, so you wouldn’t be able to book through-tickets to a place that’s only served by a non-Amtrak line.”

The stimulus money for high-speed rail will create jobs and build needed rail improvements in this country, no matter who builds it. But if Amtrak runs it, it could help strengthen the struggling public company by adding new lines that are generating significant buzz.

But will Amtrak survive if it doesn’t nab these high-speed routes? Certainly Amtrak is going to fight hard for the chance to run them, but Engel didn’t seem to think it was an existential question. And he’s still hopeful that much of the federal money will find its way to Amtrak. He wouldn’t engage in “forecasting” but he said that while Amtrak was in a good position to compete in Florida, “California is going to play out very differently than Florida.”

NARP’s Kenton isn’t burying Amtrak just yet. “For the foreseeable future, they’ll have a lock on the long-distance national network trains which will tie these other corridors together by rail and provide an alternative to driving and flying even over long distances,” he said.

Engel said that even if the team Amtrak has put together in Florida isn’t victorious, Amtrak could still be brought on to help the winning team. And other observers see a role for Amtrak in partnering, at least, with whatever rail operator ends up running the lines.

And of course, billions of high-speed rail dollars are aimed at shoring up existing mid-speed corridors already operated by Amtrak, which will continue to be operated by Amtrak. Dramatically improved service on lines that have been long left for dead will arguably do as much to raise Amtrak’s profile as the headline-grabbing high-speed lines elsewhere.

  • Rails

    Amtrak has always been screwed over by the freight railroads. While the law mandates that track priority be given to Amtrak over freight trains, Amtrak is always forced to pull over and let freight trains pass. Why? Because the rail traffic controller works for the freight company.

    Why can’t rail traffic control (like air traffic control) be a government-provided function, so that we could ensure that passenger trains can maintain a schedule?

  • Ocean Railroader

    Amtrak and Florida have plans to extend the regular passanger trains down to Miami from Northen Floridia. What is intersting is that small 80 mile high speed rail line is going to meet up with this new route too. This new route also stops at Coco Beach where the criuse ship terimals are at. So if this new rail line opens up someone could take a train from the airport go down the 80 mile long high speed rail line and get on a criuse ship at Coco Beach.

  • Irwin

    The CA and FL HSR authority are construction entities first and foremost so that’s their primary purpose. If Amtrak wants to provide HSR service on these tracks after they are constructed, I’m sure they will be common carriage access just like they do now over freight railroad track.

    HSR track is like airport runways.

    Amtrak is like an airline.

    One follows the other… I don’t necessarily see that there is any problem here. Amtrak will probably be one of many rail service to eventually provide service on CAHSR tracks (Desert X and CAHSR itself being the other likely candidates).

  • So, Amtrak’s main qualification is that they have 16 labor unions, and have good working relationship with FRA regulators…

    Has April 1st come early this year?

  • David Orr

    Taking a page from the Shinkansen operations (Bullet Train) in Japan, various train departures and lines are operated by services sponsored by various Hotels, choosing food and onboard staffs in actual competition amongst themselves for the passenger approvals and repeat boardings as their service is listed in the schedule and train brochure publications…and the trains run on time, seconds from their published departure and arrival times. Imperial Hotel is among them and the menus in the diner reflect appropriate selections with a range of prices covering the tastes and desires of passengers. Since times between large cities range from slow (nearly 4 hours for the slowest, stopping at nearly all the rapid service stations) and only 2 1/2 hours plus Tokyo to Kyoto) lingering meal experiences are not many, but long snacks and beer/wine experiences are regular, all the while enjoying the passing scenery on welded track with smooth departures and arrivals, all in all a dream coming to the US as well. Cheers! and All Aboard.

  • David Orr

    Taking a page from the Shinkansen operations (Bullet Train) in Japan, various train departures and lines are operated by services sponsored by various Hotels, choosing food and onboard staffs in actual competition amongst themselves for the passenger approvals and repeat boardings as their service is listed in the schedule and train brochure publications…and the trains run on time, seconds from their published departure and arrival times. Imperial Hotel is among them and the menus in the diner reflect appropriate selections with a range of prices covering the tastes and desires of passengers. Since times between large cities range from slow (nearly 4 hours for the slowest, stopping at nearly all the rapid service stations) and only 2 1/2 hours plus Tokyo to Kyoto on Super Express Nozomi) lingering meal experiences are not many, but long snacks and beer/wine experiences are regular, all the while enjoying the passing scenery on welded track with smooth departures and arrivals, all in all a dream coming to the US as well. Cheers! and All Aboard.

  • Peyton Bass

    “Why can’t rail traffic control (like air traffic control) be a government-provided function, so that we could ensure that passenger trains can maintain a schedule?”

    Really? Do you think the Class 1 railroads are going to hand over their operations to the FRA? Should the FRA only oversee routes currently served by Amtrak? Who pays for this, the tax payer, or the host railroad who will pass the costs onto Amtrak?

    No, the Feds. do not need to oversee the dispatching of eight freight or paxs traffic.

  • Frank

    My heart bleeds for the poor folks at Amtrak… which runs routes based on how many Senators they can get to vote for their worthless subsidized service. Last time I rode Amtrak, we were delayed 3 hours. Boo hoo for Amtrak’s Capitol-Hill connected management — maybe they’ll have to find real jobs. I’ll take the $20 bus to NY next time. It’ll be good to not feel like such a privleged blood sucker of everyone else’s teats.

  • Davis Dure

    In cases where state and federal money is being used by Amtrak to fund capacity improvements on certain “incremental” high speed corridors which share track with freight railroads, Amtrak is able to take increasing control of its own destiny by tying the improvements to carefully worded “Service Outcome Agreements” with the host freight railroads.

    These agreements, enforceable as contracts, specify both the frequency of future Amtrak service and the maximum acceptable dispatching delay to that service, in return for the specified investments. These shared-track corridors will thus enjoy significantly more reliable service than is typical of Amtrak’s long distance trains, or even of existing corridor operations where such agreements are not in place.

  • Richard

    CalTrans can be the arbitrator of HSR dispatch times, just as they own the engines and rolling stock used in the Capital Corridor and San Jouquin trains today. The State of California is inefficient; the Feds are worse.

  • Michael Mahoney

    The US is the only country that runs publicly owned passenger trains on privately owned railroads, except Canada, and they have the same punctuality problems we do. For most of the US, “high speed rail” means “high speed Amtrak.” The USDOT recently proposed a plan, consisting of more trains, faster trains, and draconian penalties for freight railroads that delay passenger trains. The draconian penalty idea lasted about a week.

    We have to join the rest of the world. We have to lay our own tracks, so we can run our own trains without interference. Start in key corridors, then expand. It will cost a bundle; everything worthwhile costs a bundle. Amtrak could do it, but their corporate culture is sclerotic and defeatist; better to start with a new agency.

  • John Dough

    “We have to lay our own tracks, so we can run our own trains without interference.”

    Yeah, now you’re talkin’!

    “We” ought to be able to do that for, what, $160 million per mile or, $500,000 per passenger, don’t you think?

    Hey, let’s ask China if they can spare a couple of trillion yens.

  • “And of course, billions of high-speed rail dollars are aimed at shoring up existing mid-speed corridors already operated by Amtrak, which will continue to be operated by Amtrak. Dramatically improved service on lines that have been long left for dead will arguably do as much to raise Amtrak’s profile as the headline-grabbing high-speed lines elsewhere.”

    If Amtrak loses out in both CA and FL as I suspect that it will, it will be a big blow, but it won’t doom the carrier because just as you astutely point out, Tanya, Amtrak controls the bulk of propsed HSR corridors that are at Regional HSR speed or below.

    As I have contended for some time, it would be a benefit if Amtrak DIDN’T operate either Express HSR route because the national carrier would be forced to improve its product or otherwise see more routes be operated by foreign companies. Already, SNCF has plans to operate an Express route between Chicago and Detroit via Ft. Wayne. Such moves would also force Boardman and Company to shape up or ship out. Let’s face it, a monopoly is not in the best interest of the public.

  • “So Amtrak is trying to run passenger trains on a schedule on tracks that are owned by a railroad that doesn’t keep a schedule.”

    Huh? That’s bunk. This so-called expert needs to turn in her “expert” credentials. Do she honestly think that railroads could move all the freight and crews around on an ad hoc basis?

    As for a profit on the Acela … Amtrak has long been known to cook the books. If it weren’t a quasi-gov’t organization, people would go to jail for its accounting practices.

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