This past Saturday, May 1, Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, turned 50.
So, what do we make of it, 50 years later? A train wreck (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)? A money-losing failure? A needed part of our transportation system that has never had the resources to do its job?
Amtrak is a little bit of all of these. There is no question passenger trains have been successful in other countries, and they could be successful here, too. As I see it, Amtrak’s two biggest problems are these: they do not have a designated funding source, and their mission has never been well-defined. The nation has never told Amtrak just what we want and expect from them.
I believe part of the problem is Amtrak was not well thought out when it was conceived. Passenger train revenues and ridership had been declining for years when the discussion began about having a government-sponsored entity take them over. The initial legislation to create Amtrak was introduced early in 1970, but things became rushed after the Penn Central bankruptcy in June of that year. The failure of the nation’s biggest railroad seemed almost to create a panic to get Amtrak started. As a result, Amtrak had been inadequately planned when it began operations on May 1, 1971.
When I say Amtrak does not have a designated funding source, I’m saying they don’t a source of funding similar to that of other transportation entities. For example, the Arizona Department of Transportation’s designated funding source is the state’s fuel tax. Many transportation authorities, including airports, have designated funding sources like excise, sales and property taxes. Their actual costs are hidden because they have these steady sources of public revenue.
Amtrak appears to be very expensive because they have to beg for money every year. Curiously, as Brian Solomon noted in his book, “Amtrak: A Color History,” Amtrak pays a greater share of their expenses from their fare boxes than many of these transportation authorities.
It’s worth noting that Amtrak has thrived when the states have become involved. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and the New England states have invested in Amtrak and have made sure they have adequate, reliable funding. They have some great rail passenger service.
As for its purpose, just what is Amtrak’s mission? It’s not just operating rail passenger service, but why is it operating rail passenger service? What should be its goals?
Perhaps the goals should include focusing where passenger trains have been most effective and popular. We’ve know this for more than 60 years. In the mid-1950s, the New York Central Railroad had a Passenger Research Bureau. They found passenger trains worked best in short to medium distances with daylight runs in crowded population corridors. They concluded the Central’s biggest problem was it was focused on overnight, long-distance trains.
None of the Passenger Research Bureau’s recommendations were ever carried out as the Central’s management decided to focus on eliminating passenger service completely. However, subsequent events have shown they were on to something. Amtrak’s biggest successes have come in crowded corridors.
There’s the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. There are other successful corridors, like New York to Buffalo, Chicago to Detroit, Chicago to St. Louis, Los Angeles to San Diego, Oakland to Bakersfield, Calif. and Seattle to Portland.
There are corridors in this country that have no rail passenger service. Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Phoenix to Tucson, Cleveland to Cincinnati, and Detroit to Pittsburgh come to mind. I think a good corridor service in Texas would be a loop between their major cities. It would start in Dallas, head through Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth and end back in Dallas. A second loop would go the other way.
Maybe corridors are where Amtrak should focus. It’s there that they can compete with air travel and the private automobile. Let’s face it: when it comes to “greenhouse gasses” and congestion, the real problem isn’t the airplane. It’s the private automobile. If people can be persuaded to leave their cars at home when they travel out of town, that’s a good thing for the environment.
It’s always possible Congress will define Amtrak’s mission, and give them the funding to carry out that mission. For now, however, I thought Brian Solomon described Amtrak best: the scrawny step-son of once wealthy parents who has to make his way through life in an out-of-style and ill-fitting suit. He keeps a smile on his face, and he takes on all bullies who challenge him. He has friends, and he’s waiting for the resources to do the job he was meant to do.
It’s time we, as a nation, told Amtrak what we expected from them and gave them the resources to do it.