What Would Meaningful Amtrak Reform Look Like?

For the past two years, Amtrak has been under constant attack from House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL), who has used his gavel to bully the rail company. He likes to call it a “Soviet-style” monopoly and he goads it for losing money on everything from long-distance routes to food service. His vitriolic diatribes against Amtrak have become white noise, and they’re about to fade into the background as Mica surrenders his post to Rep. Bill Shuster next year.

Will Amtrak's reorganization plan be enough to turn the rail line around? And will it be enough for the GOP to call off the dogs? Photo: ##http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/30/12/Strategic-Plan-2011-2015.pdf##Amtrak/Gary Pancavage##

Still, Mica got a chance to trot them out yesterday at a Transportation Committee hearing on Amtrak’s reorganization plan.

Mica and Shuster teamed up last year to push a plan to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service – the only place where Amtrak makes money. Republicans have also ceaselessly advocated for ending – or at least dramatically cutting – Amtrak’s government subsidies.

That demand doesn’t sit well with Democrats like Rep. Laura Richardson, who pointed out in yesterday’s hearing — as some Democrat always does — that “we spent more in one year with the oil and gas and energy companies and their industry than we have spent in the life of the program of Amtrak.”

The Mica-Shuster privatization proposal also met with such a fierce backlash that Mica and Shuster were forced to shelve it.

Amtrak has a different idea for how it’s going to move into the 21st century and, they hope, become “more like a business and less like a government agency,” according to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. The Government Accountability Office criticized Amtrak in 2005 for not having a strategic plan, and the rail agency jumped into action – if acting six years later can be considered “jumping” – and is now in the middle of a reorganization that started last year and is due to be complete by the end of next year.

The strategic plan includes safety improvements, better risk management, energy efficiency, and lots of internal operational changes that the public will probably not perceive.

The plan’s main dish is to segment the company into six “business lines”: Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Investment Development, Northeast Corridor Operations, State Services, Commuter Services, Long-Distance Services, and Corporate Asset Development.

Again, such internal corporate restructuring may not get most people’s pulses racing with excitement – but Dan Schned of the Regional Plan Association says there’s a nugget of gold buried in there.

“We’ve applauded their reorganization of their Northeast Corridor services, in particular the creation of two separate Northeast Corridor divisions,” Schned said. “That’s something that we have found to be very successful in other countries around the world, as they’ve unbundled their national railways and created separate infrastructure managers and operating divisions that can create open access.”

That means that one arm of Amtrak can focus on improving infrastructure, which has suffered from underinvestment, and attract private capital to help finance it. Meanwhile, the other arm can focus on building ridership by improving reliability, customer service, and on-time performance — and also, potentially, by inviting competitors to bid on the services.

Schned looks to Germany’s Deutsche Bahn for a model that he says “looks quite a bit like how Amtrak has envisioned their reorganization.” It hasn’t been without its downsides, he said, but it has allowed Germany to triple investment in the rail line.

Perhaps the most meaningful change Amtrak could make would be to find a way to reduce interference by host freight rail companies. On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak owns its own track. But in most of the rest of the country, it runs passenger trains on freight rail tracks and often ends up stuck behind freight trains, which don’t run on a schedule. The impact on Amtrak’s reliability is incalculable.

Stimulus-funded high-speed rail grants helped fund new stakeholder agreements with some of the freight rail lines, and Amtrak’s strategic plan includes achieving “host railroad partner relationships,” though not much is said about what that would entail or how it would be carried out.

Some critics, notably Stephen Smith (who writes for Bloomberg, Forbes, and Market Urbanism), point to FRA regulations as a major obstacle for U.S. passenger rail. He faults the agency for requiring heavier train cars, which use more fuel and reduce speeds. The FRA says they’re important for safety; Smith argues that the reverse is actually true. Smith and others also criticize the way the FRA has mandated Positive Train Control, at the cost of billions.

Another source of inefficiency that Congressional critics don’t seem to want to address is that Amtrak loses money, not (just) because of its own mismanagement, but because Congress mandates Amtrak to run long-distance routes as a public service, and that business model will never yield a profit. When Republicans call for the end of subsidies and sneer that Amtrak should gets its financial house in order, they don’t also propose eliminating the requirement that Amtrak serve the millions of people who have the misfortune of living outside the Northeast Corridor.

None of these issues are addressed in Amtrak’s strategic plan.

It’s possible that the most important goal of the plan is to placate Republicans who have been out for blood. But far from celebrating Amtrak’s attempts to shake things up, the GOP has responded with more doom and gloom.

In yesterday’s hearing on the restructuring, Mica didn’t have many substantive critiques of the plan but did warn that Amtrak “must not just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic again,” indicating, one assumes, that Amtrak could meet the Titanic’s fate if it does.

Mica said that past reorganizations have lacked clear goals, and that Amtrak has suffered from a lack of accountability. He’s made clear that he doesn’t plan to back off his siege of the system for a minute, until he surrenders the gavel to Shuster: Mica’s planning two more hearings on passenger rail during the lame duck session.

There’s reason to hope that things could change, however. As Keith Laing reports in The Hill, Shuster is expected to take a “less confrontational” tone as chair. Though Shuster worked hand-in-hand with Mica to sell off Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, he told reporters after yesterday’s hearing that he’ll take a middle road between Amtrak apologists and the haters.

Shuster acknowledged that Democrats are right in pointing out that passenger rail systems all over the world receive public subsidies, but said there’s a middle ground between breaking up Amtrak and selling it off or maintaining the status quo.

The current passenger rail authorization law, which funds Amtrak, expires next year, and Shuster will have the opportunity to preside over the process of finding that middle ground.

  • I use Amtrak weekly between Philadelphia, Pa. and Lancaster, Pa.  Overall, it’s a pretty good service.  I am just sad it’s going to take decades, at current funding levels, for the NE corridor to upgrade to functional European speeds (200 mph+).  In 20 or 30 years from now, the current plan for rail development in the NE will be outdated and speeds considered slow.  It’s a shame the government is dragging its feet on intercity passenger rail upgrades.  

  • Joe R.

    @facebook-8208771:disqus I’d love to be proven wrong, but right now based on current research 360 to 400 km/h ( 224 to 248 mph ) looks to be around the limits for steel wheel on steel rail. Japan has already realized this, which is why there are plans to construct a maglev line between Tokyo and Osako. If we can get NEC speeds up around 200 mph, then it will probably still be close to state-of-the-art for rail even 30 years from now. This may be “good enough” given the typical travel distances in the NEC.

    We will need to go much faster if we want to replace air travel, but for that we’ll need maglev in evacuated tubes. That’s not going to happen before about 2030 anywhere. I’d love for the US to become a world leader in that area.

  • Stephen Smith

    Wasn’t this what David Gunn was fired for opposite?

    http://youtu.be/yD00vAXHWWg?t=4m7s

  • Stephen Smith

    Sorry, *opposing

  • Bus transit

    The long distance routes are an important part of Amtrak’s subsidy structure, assuring political support in the Senate, where rural interests punch outside their weight class. Nor are they all equally costly: the AutoTrain shines on ridership and revenue. The PRIIA bill has moved Amtrak to a partnership, rather than pork, model on the short-distance services, requiring states and regions to pony up capital and operating assistance for short-distance routes. While the transition has not been without its bumps, the VA and NC services are a bright spot for this model. Stronger regional services will ultimately provide the trunk for higher speed train service.

    We should not expect HSR to supplant air traffic except in short distance markets, where HSR is clearly superior to both the customer and to the government which must inevitably subsidize air service.

  • Why is everyone so eager to get government services functioning like businesses? When I hear that, all I can think of is the most irritating experiences with large scale monopoly businesses like Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. Operating like a business simply means higher prices, hidden fees, customer service hassels and big bonuses for management — that isn’t how Amtrak should be run. 

  • Paul C

    Why is it that Highways are not expected to run without government support?

    I want to see HSR take off in this country. How can I help?

  • keenplanner

    1.  Remove the conflicts with freight carriers (who have the right-of-way and cause delays)
    2.  electrify everything
    3.  Hire a director from Germany or Switzerland who knows how a world-class rail service   should work.
    4. Funding.

  • Davistrain

    Funding!  That’s “The Word” without money, nothing happens.  Until more people in this country realize that electric railways using power derived from diverse sources are the way to go, we’ll still be stuck in our highway/airline system.
      As far as “evacuated tube maglev” is concerned, unlike high speed trains, which can use existing tracks, just at lower speeds, maglev requires a whole new infrastructure, built at a staggering capital cost.  Has anyone gone beyond the “artist’s conceptions” to figure out how much steel, concrete and other materials would be required, for example, to build one from LA  to Chicago?  Then there would be the energy to pump most of the air out of the tube.  (presumably the system would be so fast that just one tube, with the train shuttling back and forth would suffice).

  • Joe R.

    @b9079a2928b221307247ecba46d1ed0f:disqus China actually plans to have an evacuated tube maglev system operating at around 600 mph within ten years:

    http://www.thephysicist.co.uk/2010/08/china-developing-evacuated-tube-transport-ett-maglev-trains/

    Yes, maglevs of any sort require an entire new infrastructure, but we’re fast approaching the time where we need to find something to replace airplanes. Also, airplanes have been stuck at 600 mph for decades due to energy use and sonic boom concerns. Evacuated tube maglevs aren’t going to be door-to-door systems. Most likely, you’ll have stations only in major cities, and you’ll have conventional high-speed rail feeder lines to these stations from points up to a few hundred miles away. The idea here is maybe most people will be an hour or so away from a maglev station. If the maglev can cross the country in, say, one hour, then the majority of trips in the US can be done is three to four hours. This handily beats flying. For trips under about 500 miles, HSR works well also compared to air.

    Evacuated tube maglev can be thought of as the third tier in a multitiered, interconnected network. The first tier is local transit (subway, rail, light rail, and bus) to HSR stations. The second tier is HSR connecting maglev stations in major cities to smaller cities. The third tier is evacuated tube maglev. A long trip will typically involve all three tiers. An intermediate distance trip will only involve the first two. A local trip will obviously just need local transit.

    If you want to get fancy, you could make ETT vehicles which can carry high-speed trains, effectively combining the second and third tiers for certain trips.

  • keenplanner

    I think Maglev isn’t as energy efficient as rail. but it has many advantages including increased climbing abilities, smooth/quiet ride, and speed.  HSR is also capable of speeds up to 350MPH, but that would mean re-engineering the geometry of curves, more tunnels, etc. 
    With much of the bay area transportation infrastructure vulnerable to climate change, the state should be asking itself where to spend transpo $$.  Should we replace 10-lane freeways, or build something smaller with HSR or BRT, which both have more person thru-put than auto facilities. 
    Did anyone else notice that the new Bay Bridge project didn’t include raising the toll plaza?   Your transportation dollars at work.

  • Anonymous

    Amtrak is saddled with out of date craft union work rules that micromanage what employees can do. Amtrak cannot be made to straighten up and runright without revamping its labor agreements. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Japan’s rail system is privately owned.

  • bee

    As aforementioned by Keen Planner, a large portion of the tracks on th NE corridor are not owned by Amtrack, thus  Private Freight Trains are given priority and this of course slows Amtrack down. As long as Amtrack doesn’t own the rails, putting in a high speed anything is an act of futility.

  • The Pedestrian

    1.  Get rid of Amtrak where it is least used and put savings into places it is most used.  
    2.  Look for places usage will probably increase (Cascades, NE Corridor)
    3.  Routes that make sense in the drive – train – fly equation.  Nobody is taking a train from Boston to New Orleans.
    4.  Faster trains (no matter what the technology).
    5.  Stop making NE Corridor riders pay for the rest of the system.

  • The Pedestrian

    … or we could just let Deutsche Bahn run the whole thing.

  • Joe R.

    @74290b98ecc3776a7a0890b39acece88:disqus To add to your list, we could also ban domestic flights for distances where it really makes no sense to fly, like under 300 miles (or 750 miles if we had good HSR). Short-haul flights cause a lot of airport congestion and also use a lot more energy per mile compared to long-haul flights. The irony is despite perceptions to the contrary, they don’t even provide faster travel compared to taking the train. Bottom line-we need a carrot-stick approach to transportation. It’s good to try to encourage people to use the mode which makes the most sense for the distance. At the same time though, we should make the least sensible mode either very expensive, or ban it outright.
    BTW, there will be some people who would still opt to take a train even over very long distances regardless of whether air is faster or not. That includes people who won’t fly at all and don’t own a car (I’m in that group), as well as people who just prefer something more civilized to flying or driving. 

  • Anonymous

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : there is no need to “ban”  flights. Let the marketplace sort out itself! Enough of this ban-this, ban-that. If trains are good, they will attract ridership. Let the gov’t OUT of deciding where airlines should fly, please. 

  • Anonymous

    @74290b98ecc3776a7a0890b39acece88:disqus , it wouldn’t be a panacea to “let DB run the whole thing”.

    The elephant in the room outside the Northeast Corridor and some few scattered ROWs is that freight railways own the tracks and have rights of operating them as they seem fit. Therefore, the American rail system is geared (quite successfully, it must be said) to transport long haul cargo. Whenever there is a conflict between passenger and cargo, the railways will take whatever action helps their core business (such as removing a dual tracked sector and replacing with just a single track to increase loading gauges, or reducing superelevation since freight trains go slower).

    Since ROW is invaluable to Amtrak for not-so-frequent services, railways can charge a lot of money (CSX wants US$ 720 million to restore passenger twice-a-day-per-direction traffic between New Orleans and Florida, for instance) for the privilege of using their property.

    Now, would it be economically and politically feasible for the fereral government to use eminent domain, buy hundreds of miles of rail tracks and put then under some sort of general public open access system? That would cost more than 18 billion dollars for key routes (currently operated already by Amtrak as guest operators of BNSF, CSX, NS etc.), let alone years of litigation and political pandemonium.

  • Joe R.

    @andrelot:disqus The marketplace sadly doesn’t always weed out the worst or least efficient way of doing things. Look at all those stupid horribly wasteful “single-serving” prepackaged foods, for example. And don’t get me started on one-use alkaline batteries. I’ve never been a big fan of banning things-except when those things affect people who have nothing to do with them. I really can’t think of a clearer example of something which affects lots of people negatively for the convenience of a relatively few than short-haul flights. The noise and pollution these planes put out affects literally millions under the glide path just for starters.

    The government sadly already has a hand in this, but not in the way it should. It’s giving an unfair advantage to petroleum-based means of transport with both direct and indirect subsidies to big oil. Maybe just forcing flyers to pay the true costs of the damages caused by flying (that includes both noise and pollution) would put short-haul flyers out of business. I’m more than a little tired when people act like *any* profit making venture is good, and should be left to its own devices. I submit that the damages caused by the airline industry far exceed any taxes they may pay. That goes double for short-haul flights.

    It’s not always a good thing if somebody may want something, and someone else may make a profit providing it. Business never looks at the big picture, nor should it. Corporations exist solely to make profits for the CEO, shareholders, etc. without any conscience. It’s up to somebody (not always government) to have some oversight here. If the net costs to society of doing a type of business exceed the benefits, then that business either must not be allowed to continue, or must be made to pay the true costs of the damages it causes. Remember these damages must be paid for one way or another regardless. If the general public pays through taxes, then it’s effectively giving an indirect subsidy.

  • Anonymous

    andrelot,

    As long as Government continues to subsidize all major forms of transportation, including roads & highway, trains, and planes, the Free Market will never be able to decide anything.

    Additionally, CSX has made no such demand of Amtrak.  In fact, as long as Amtrak sticks to the 3 days per week schedule of the Sunset Limited, CSX can’t charge Amtrak anything more than the normal fees that they were charging pre-Katrina.  This is one of the reasons that Amtrak hasn’t actually cancelled the train, but instead suspended it.  

    The other major reason is that Amtrak doesn’t have to give the 180 day notices that would allow communities & cities to protest the removal of the train.

    Only if Amtrak decides that it wishes to run trains with greater frequency can CSX ask Amtrak for help in fixing up infrastructure to accommodate the increased service.

  • Anonymous

    The Pedestrian wrote: “5.  Stop making NE Corridor riders pay for the rest of the system.”

    Amtrak would be happy, and in a better position, if NEC riders actually paid fully for their rides.  Right now NEC riders manage to cover their operating costs, but there isn’t nearly enough money left over to cover the capital costs of the NEC.

  • Meaningful Amtrak reform to me would resemble the following:
    1. Lease the NEC to a joint USDOT-FRA entity that would handle the much needed track and infrastructure upgrades. The entity would be publicly owned/operated and Amtrak would get ownership back after all upgrades are done.

    2. Eliminate onerous guidelines like the liability provisions and FRA standards that make railcars look like gigantic tanks. 

    3. Enforce PRIIA guidelines, especially Sections 209 and 214.

    4. If  #3 proves to be a hassle, pass a new law that either promotes REAL competition outside of the Northeast Corridor OR break up Amtrak into either a) several regions or b) NEC vs rest of the nation. The thing is if lawmakers are really serious about alternatives to Amtrak on the rails–excluding shortlines and regionals that own their tracks–they need to set new guidelines for passenger operations that do not resemble the failed licensing provision. If the host railroads do not want to cooperate with independent passenger entities, Congress needs to tell them that THESE RAILROADS will have to operate the routes themselves!

    5. Mandate that Amtrak put some of its long distance routes up for competition since its management isn’t overly concerned about their viability. 

    6. Develop a blueprint for an efficient nationwide passenger rail system. Here, I’m talking about double and triple tracking passenger routes with some parts of the country having separate passenger and freight ROWs. Instead of running around like decapitated chickens with HSR routes that mostly don’t connect, it is well past time to rehabilitate tracks that once had pax trains on their routes (I know that it isn’t sexy but rebuilding must be done before we get 200 mph service).

  • Anonymous

    Amtrak’s biggest problem is that there isn’t enuff of it. Congress needs to authorize the purchase of hundreds of new cars and dozens of locomotives for the next 6 or 8 years to replace obsolete equipment and expand service. 

    Under the Obama-Biden team, Amtrak has made remarkable improvements. Remember when every article about Amtrak started off discussing the commonplace delays? Nowadays, Amtrak’s ontime performance is about 82% on its long distance trains, and getting a bit better every year.In the past year or so, more than half of Amtrak’s trains have begun to offer free Wi-Fi, and more passengers are getting Wi-Fi with every passing month.This past summer, e-ticketing rolled out across the system. Also, the food & beverage sales have gone all electronic, the way airlines offer snacks. This spares the staff from counting nickles and dimes and frees their time for more customer service, while allowing real time inventory control. (Eliminating cash also eliminates temptation, if you get my drift.)Passenger totals have increased for 9 of the past 10 years, with a record 31 million plus in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. As a result, Amtrak’s operating subsidy, as adjusted for inflation, is barely half what it was eight years ago. And the dreaded long distance trains get an operating subsidy of a little more than $2 per U.S. resident.The Stimulus included about $10 billion in funds for improving rail. The HSR part got the press, but the law required that most of the money go to regular Amtrak rail projects. The money was disbursed thru the states, and that process was half a mess. Tea Bagging governors killed various projects, and other investments were delayed for years because many states just weren’t ready. For example, on Dec. 1, 2012, the State of New York officially took control of a stretch of track from Poughkeepsie (about halfway up the Hudson from NYC) thru Albany to Schenectady (some distance toward Syracuse in Upstate NY). Only now will funds be released to replacing miles of obsolete signaling with a state of the art system; build a fourth track thru the Albany-Renssalear station; doubletrack the route from Albany to Schenectady; and begin planning to replace a bridge over the Hudson nearly 150 years old. Amtrak will now control scheduling of trains, not the former freight operator.Taken together, the work around Albany will cut the trip time of Amtrak-operated trains including the Adirondack to Montreal, the Maple Leaf to Toronto, the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, the Ethan Alan to Vermont, two Empire Corridor trains to Buffalo, and half a dozen trains that run NYC-Albany.Bigger changes are coming on the route Chicago-Kalamazoo-Ann Arbor-Dearborn-Detroit-Pontiac. After Chicago, Ann Arbor is the busiest stop on the line, Dearborn next, Detroit after that. Here the State of Michigan acquired the right of way from Kalamazoo to Dearborn; Amtrak already owned a 100-mile stretch from Kalamazoo toward Chicago. Stimulus funds are being spent to upgrade the newly acquired section to allow 110-mph over most of its length. It ain’t HSR, but it will cut an hour or more from the trip time. There’s another couple of dozen projects across the country. But.As Amtrak’s service improves, it has run out of capacity. Its trains are full. It needs more cars and locomotives to meet demand and begin to grow. It has a fleet renewal plan proposing to buy more than 1,200 new cars. It proposes to add more cars to the Acelas on the NEC, and then buy more Acelas to run twice as many trains — departures every half hour instead of the once an hour schedule today.

    Investing and improving Amtrak does not compete with or distract from building HSR. In some cases it is exactly the same thing. 

    On the NEC, speeds are held down by bridges that are too narrow and carry too few tracks. Rebuilding those bridges for the Acelas will make them ready for true HSR trains down the line. Today the slowest section on the NEC is the tunnels under Baltimore that date to before the Civil War. The tunnels are too narrow for added tracks, and the sharp turns make high speeds impossible for any trains. The tunnels will have to be rebuilt and/or replaced for HSR. If those tunnels are rebuilt soon, all of Amtrak’s current trains will go faster while other sections of the HSR line are completed.

    In many places, politicians and the press will be more likely to favor future investments in HSR if the current investment in Amtrak prove that people will ride trains.

    For most of the 40 years that Amtrak has existed, Congress has begrudged it much investment. That assumption has always been that Amtrak would wither and fade away. Because gas was cheap, cars and planes would make passenger trains unnecessary. But in the past 10 years, Amtrak’s success has proved that it’s not going away. Obama’s Stimulus funds will guarantee better service and higher ridership for the rest of his term. If we want to see passenger trains, including HSR, get federal investment in the future, we need to support more investment in Amtrak now.

  • JeffreyK

    Has ANY oil-loving GOP member of Congress ever explained why highways and airports aren’t expected to turn a profit but Amtrak is supposed to pay its own way?

  • Anonymous

    Stephen Smith, yes, it looks like what David Gunn was fired for opposing. 

    But perhaps it is jedi mind trick. Since the Repubs are against anything that Obama-Biden-LaHood-Amtrak are FOR, now the Repubs will turn around and oppose carving up Amtrak with the NEC as some stand-alone thing. And we can let them have their way this time by keeping Amtrak whole.

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