A Hard Sell and a Long Shot

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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In October, I reported on three events that took place within three days, all of which concerned the possibility of more Amtrak-operated state-supported trains in the Midwest. The events are now over, including the Oct. 15 online conference sponsored by the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). In light of that conference, it appears that, despite the hopeful-sounding talk from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIRPC), getting more state-supported trains and corridors in the region will be a hard sell and a long shot.

There seems to be little connection between the concurrent conferences sponsored by MIRPC and RUN. The former included various transportation officials who would be the “players” in the event that any new trains or corridors are established. All presenters at the latter are or were citizen-advocates on the ground who would be expected to take a large part in pushing for new services, with or without support or acknowledgment from the “official stakeholders” who possess more money and political clout. 

The only person who might bridge the two events is Derrick James, Amtrak’s Chicago-based Government Affairs Director. Representing Amtrak at the RUN conference, he summarized the newly passed infrastructure bill and Amtrak’s Connect US initiative for eventually adding state-supported services. He also reported briefly about the MIRPC conference in Detroit, which he attended but did not present at. James was enthusiastic at the prospect of more trains, and he has a good reputation, but it is unclear how much he can actually do to put those new trains on the rails.

My own role at the RUN conference was to deliver the closing remarks, summarizing the current situation and placing the conference presentations in perspective. For that reason, it would not be appropriate for me to report on the conference as a news story. Instead, this piece is a commentary, and I learned some things while preparing my remarks that I believe deserve to be mentioned here.

After RUN Chair Richard Rudolph opened the conference and described RUN for the non-members listening, Dana Gabbard blasted Amtrak’s proposed 2035 map, which has been a major topic of conversation among advocates since it was introduced last spring. Gabbard is a RUN Board member and Secretary of the Southern California Transit Advocates, based in Los Angeles. I commented on the Amtrak plan in an article posted here on April 9, entitled Amtrak’s 2035 Map: Hopes and Challenges. My own criticism of Amtrak’s plan was mild, compared to Gabbard’s.

Amtrak’s 15-year vision calls for “improved service in major cities currently underserved by rail like Houston, Atlanta and Cincinnati, and new intercity passenger rail service to cities such as Las Vegas, Nashville, Columbus, Phoenix, and Wichita, with increased access for many towns and cities in between.”

Gabbard blasted the plan on several fronts, noting a disclaimer that the plan “merely illustrates” future possibilities and saying that it was “a disclaimer that proves nothing.” He also raised the issue of the amount of money that would be allocated for the entire program: $5 billion per year for 15 years. He questioned just how many routes could be established for that amount of money. A comparison that Gabbard did not specifically make is that the proposed Gateway Program in northern New Jersey and into Penn Station New York is now estimated to cost $34 billion over a slightly shorter period—more than 45% of the $75 billion proposed for the entire Amtrak 2035 program. Even in the highly unlikely event that the states were to sign onto building so much infrastructure and starting so many trains, the $75 billion proposal would not come anywhere near the full cost of so many restorations or new starts.

Although the RUN conference did not have a political theme, it is clear that politics dominates every decision about where trains run. Illinois is the only reliably “blue” state in the Midwest these days, and it is the only state that sponsors two corridors from Chicago: to St. Louis (five trains, including the Texas Eagle) and Carbondale (three trains, including the City of New Orleans). There are also two trains from the Windy City to Quincy—not a corridor, but useful trains, nonetheless. Elsewhere in the region, Michigan (a “purple” state) keeps the Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit and onto Pontiac going, but the route has never hosted more than three trains east of Battle Creek, barely a corridor. There is also a single train to Grand Rapids, but no train on a convenient schedule for accessing Michigan points without incurring the expense of spending two nights in a hotel room. 

In fact, there are no corridors and only three state-supported trains running in any “red” states. There is the Heartland Flyer in Texas and Oklahoma, but the Sooner State’s legislature has threatened to kill it on several occasions. There are again two daily trains between St. Louis and Kansas City, but service was cut to one round trip recently, and some advocates were surprised when the second frequency was restored. The Piedmont corridor operates in North Carolina, which has gone from “red” to “purple” in recent years, while all other corridors are located in the Northeast and the West Coast, strongholds for the Democrats, the recent election notwithstanding. There is an initiative to introduce two new daily Amtrak trains in a Republican-dominated area in the South: between New Orleans and Mobile. As Railway Age has reported extensively, prospective host railroads CSX and NS are fighting against the Amtrak proposal vigorously before the STB. Times may change and Republicans may someday become more amenable to trains, but it does not appear likely that such an outcome will occur anytime soon.

The theme of the RUN conference was “You Can’t Get There from Here!” as efforts to establish more trains and corridors in the Midwest have been stalled for years. RUN held an “in-person” conference in Chicago in 2013. Presenters described their proposals for service to the Quad Cities and Rockford in Illinois, and across the state line to Dubuque, Iowa. Advocates from Michigan were pushing for local trains between Detroit and Ann Arbor and “Wally” service north of Ann Arbor on the historic Ann Arbor Railroad. Spokesperson Marc Magliari represented Amtrak, while longtime advocate F.K. Plous and academic Joseph Schwieterman from the DePaul University faculty presented the theory underlying advocacy in the Midwest. Despite that push, there have been no new services initiated there since that time. 

The October 2021 RUN conference also featured advocates in the region with new ideas that appeared to make sense. Ohio advocate Stu Nicholson suggested looking for allies, especially “young professionals” organizations. Fred Lanahan of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance (IPRA) described a proposal that is not on Amtrak’s 2035 map: a corridor running east of Chicago along historic Pennsylvania Railroad tracks through Fort Wayne to Lima, Ohio, and then to Columbus. Tim Porter, Chair of the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association, called for service between Toledo, Detroit, and Ann Arbor, a route that connected at Toledo with Amtrak’s Lake Shore and Capitol Limited trains until 1994. John Guidinger, Chair of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers and Ken Westcar of Transport Action Ontario shared several proposals to link Detroit, Toronto, and other places in Michigan and Ontario. These ideas made sense, but Amtrak and the elected officials who rely on State Rail Plans and quasi-official organizations with professional staffs apparently never get to hear them. 

It would not be fair to blame the advocates for that result. Rather, the problem lies with the officials who give an ear only “professional advocates” who are paid for their advocacy. Dedicated civic volunteers, no matter how much they know or how much they ride transit, are often considered irrelevant and never considered “stakeholders,” even though such advocates could be useful allies when it comes to establishing and promoting new services. I recently reported to you on the FRA’s new report on potential passenger rail routes and corridors in the region. Of the 54 “stakeholders” listed, only three have any role as advocates for riders. Two of them, Jim Matthews and Sean-Jeans Gail, are salaried employees of the RPA (Rail Passengers Association), located “inside the Beltway” in Washington, D.C. The other is Rick Harnish, head of the High-Speed Rail Association, which promotes high-speed rail in the region. Harnish is the only Midwesterner who is an advocate and also considered a “stakeholder” in the FRA report. The RUN conference featured plenty of advocates who are knowledgeable, but were left out of the “official” proceedings. Sadly, this sort of treatment by the “insiders” ends up excluding the allied constituency that could help them the most in their efforts to get more routes up and running.

Advocates, except for the RPA leaders and Harnish, had no voice when it came to the proceedings of the MIRPC, the “official” organization that will push for more trains in the region. There is no way to tell if the “professionals at the table” have experience riding trains, but the advocates at RUN and the state-level and regional organizations do. That attitude on the part of the “establishment” shows a certain disrespect for the level of experience and innovation that the citizen-advocates often possess. Failure to use the advocates as a resource can lead to sub-optimal scheduling and cost-effectiveness.

For example, Wisconsin and Minnesota are planning to add a second train on the part of the Empire Builder route between Chicago and St. Paul, making the same stops. The people “at the table” see the current proposal as a manifest improvement over the current situation, with only one train. It would constitute some improvement, as I wrote in the RUN Newsletter, but the proposed schedule would not be optimal, because the two trains would be scheduled only about three hours apart, it would take two train sets to run the proposed schedule, and there would probably be an added capital expense for building a new passing track. My scheduling proposal calls for an early-morning departure from Chicago, a quick turnaround at St. Paul, and a late-evening arrival back in Chicago. That would allow riders a choice of departure times during different parts of the day, and it could be operated with a single trainset, which saves costs on both the capital and operating sides. Such a schedule would also be feasible because Canadian Pacific, the host railroad, has performed well when dispatching the Empire Builder over its rails. Ideas like this deserve consideration, but keeping advocates away from the table precludes it.

In late July, I reported on the founding of the Lakeshore Rail Alliance, an initiative that brings groups along the Lakeshore route together to push for more trains on that line. Michael Fuhrman, Executive Director of that organization, introduced it at the RUN conference. At a similar conference in 2012, Brian Rosenwald (RUN’s favorite manager at the time) represented Amtrak. He told attendees that “You should ‘own’ your line.” Fuhrman and the organization he represents are taking that advice now.

I don’t know whether or not the idea will spread, or what effect Fuhrman’s organization and similar ones yet to be formed could eventually have. There is a lot to be done, but few decision-makers have even acknowledged that citizen-advocates exist, much less allow them to have a role in decisions that affect them and their constituents. The advocates can (and often do) prove themselves to be the most-knowledgeable and most-enthusiastic allies the decision-makers can have, but the latter must recognize the former as genuine stakeholders, or there will be no progress. That means the nation’s passenger rail network could remain unchanged for decades to come, if we don’t lose more trains like the Hoosier State, which was discontinued in 2019. The national network is frozen by statute, and efforts to establish new state-supported trains and corridors have not gotten anywhere, either.

For their part, advocates must continue to demonstrate that they know enough about the issues and about the art of advocacy that they deserve to be taken seriously. They have demonstrated that they can make the environmental arguments and those that appeal to the sense of social equity and justice. They also need to make the “business case” for trains. Michael Furman, for one, knows how to do that. He spent much of his career managing civic projects in Erie, Pa., so he knows how to make the case to local business leaders and elected officials. That is an integral component of effective advocacy.

If there are to be any new passenger trains coming onto U.S. rails, it is essential that decision-makers and advocates work together. Some of those advocates demonstrated at the RUN conference that they are up to the task. If that does not happen, you still won’t be able to get there from here in the future, any more than you can today. That will not only be true in the Midwest, but everywhere else as well.

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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