Time is running out for daily operation of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. It could also be running out for the very concept that a train could provide reliable transportation between far-flung communities every day, with same-day connections to other trains, at least in this country. With various exceptions, this has been the basis of Amtrak’s long-distance train network for the first 49 years and five months of its corporate existence, as well as for nearly 140 years before Amtrak began operations in 1971.
Author: David Peter Alan
For almost half a century, passenger rail service in the United States has resided in the public sector. Despite its unusual statutory charter, Amtrak’s voting shares belong to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Every transit agency that runs trains in its metropolitan area is owned by some sort of public entity, whether based in state or local government, or a separate public-sector authority. Times are changing, though, and certain private-sector entities have expressed interest in running passenger railroads.
Beginning Oct. 1, Amtrak is reducing service on its entire long-distance (L-D) train network from daily to three departures per week, except for the two trains that already run only tri-weekly-only schedules, and the Auto Train.
The honeymoon between Brightline, the private-sector luxury passenger train in Florida, and the Virgin brand is over. It lasted for fewer than two years. When we reported about the change in branding from Brightline to Virgin Trains USA late in 2018, it appeared that the edgy and innovative Brightline brand was headed for oblivion. It now seems that the COVID-19 virus is responsible for the reversal of events that led to a parting of the ways. Whatever the reason, the Brightline brand will now live again.
Exactly a century ago, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 1920, diversity in music took a giant leap forward. The occasion was the first recording session that featured a black popular singer, backed up by a jazz band from Harlem, performing the first record widely accepted as an example of the blues. That event changed the music business forever, and reinforced the universal kinship felt by everyone who plays jazz, or has a serious interest in it. It is not unlike the kinship shared among those of us who are serious about our trains, our transit, and the policies and procedures that keep them in service.
As the COVID-19 virus began to sweep across the nation in March, everybody seemed to cling to the hope that it would do its damage and move on quickly, so life could return to “normal.” Rail transit in most cities switched to weekend schedules on weekdays. Most of the country’s commuter rail providers did that, too.
This year, Americans held what may have been the most subdued observance of the Fourth of July in the nation’s history. There were few parades, town celebrations or fireworks displays in recognition of the nation’s birthday. In short, there were essentially no parties or events, so few people had reason to go anywhere.
This writer began working on this series on June 19. It was Juneteenth, the day an increasing number of Americans of all colors and heritages now view as an occasion to celebrate freedom. Part of the freedom that many Americans treasure is the freedom to travel, as stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The “right to travel” is one thing, in the sense that government cannot unduly restrict travel (as questionable as that assumption may appear these days), but there is also the issue that this sacred “right” can be limited if access to mobility is also limited. Millions of Americans who depend on Amtrak for part of their travel are about to lose a significant portion of the mobility they have today.
A railroad battle is shaping up in Miami. Two competitors want to serve potential commuters into Brightline’s new Miami Central downtown hub. It may not be as dramatic as the Chile War, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande Western literally fought armed skirmishes to determine who could build new rail lines in the New Mexico Territory in the early 1880s, but it nevertheless is a battle.
While the COVID-19 virus was occupying most of our attention, an event so unforeseeable and strange occurred that anything remotely resembling it had previously been considered unthinkable. For a brief time in April, oil literally became equivalent to trash. It brought a negative price on the market, which meant that its owners had to pay to get rid of it, as the cost to store it kept rising. That phenomenon was a momentary hiccup of our virus-based economy, but it says something about supply, demand and the cost of infrastructure. This does have something to do with the Gateway Program, and it is time for the members of the Board of the Gateway Development Corp. (GDC) to start noticing some recent changes. As of the May 28 meeting, they had not.