First in a Series: Has Amtrak Declared War?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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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.

Amtrak declared war on its riders by imposing, effective Oct. 1, 2020 (the first day of it 2021 fiscal year), service cuts on long-distance (LD) trains so severe that the national passenger train network, as we have known it for nearly 50 years, will cease to exist. It could become as irrelevant as Canada’s two famous long-distance trains, the Canadian and the Ocean, that once brought people from Toronto to the western provinces and from Montreal to Atlantic Canada. At the present time, neither of those trains are running.

Amtrak 98, the Silver Meteor.

To make matters worse, Amtrak is implementing additional cuts, eliminating one of the two daily trains between New York and Florida on July 6, without waiting for its own threatened implementation date of Oct. 1. Either the Silver Meteor or the Silver Star, which run on different routes in the Carolinas, will operate on any given day, but not both. In effect, Amtrak has fired the first major volley in its campaign against L-D trains and the people who ride them. For anyone who cares about keeping them, the time for action is now.

Amtrak has announced it will reduce the frequency of every L-D train in its skeletal network to only three times per week, rather than running every day, with only two exceptions. On Oct. 1, not one single person will be able to walk or take transit to any Amtrak station and get on a long-distance train without checking first to see if that train is operating that day, if Amtrak gets its way. William C. Vantuono, our Editor-in-Chief, reported the story here on June 16 (Amtrak Slashing Service. Will It Be Permanent?).

There is much more to the story, though, especially how it will affect Amtrak’s riders, whether they come from the cities or the smaller towns that Amtrak serves, and whether they are motorists or depend on Amtrak and local transit for all of their mobility.

Sunset Limited

Amtrak claims that it is making these cuts for economic reasons, related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of ridership that has accompanied it. Given Amtrak’s announced ideology and recent history, this writer finds Amtrak’s assertion very difficult to believe. It appears, instead, that Amtrak plans to phase out the L-D trains and become a disjointed set of short corridors, at least in the short run. The first cut takes effect July 6. Everyone who cares about viable trains to ride must fight as hard as possible to keep those trains operating daily, while also making a best effort to get the allies needed for victory. For anyone who wants the trains to keep running, this is not the time for rivalries or distractions. It is the time to fight.

On June 15, Texas Rail Advocates posted the notice of the proposed cuts from Roger Harris, former airline executive and now Chief Marketing and Revenue Office for Amtrak. The organization also blasted Amtrak for the proposed cuts, saying: “In what has been described as a ‘slash and burn’ mentality, passenger rail carrier Amtrak is set to cut service on its national network trains from daily service to tri-weekly” and “Texas and other states would be severely impacted by cutting daily train service to midsize and smaller towns and cities already struggling with either reduced or no air or intercity bus service” (Id). Other passenger rail advocates and their organizations have leveled similar criticisms against Amtrak since the service reductions were announced.

This writer is a regular Amtrak rider, and has been since Amtrak started in 1971, having logged about 900,000 miles on Amtrak over the years, ridden every mile of the system, and visited more than 400 destinations now served by Amtrak (and about 30 places where Amtrak no longer goes). Will those totals ever increase to 450 destinations or one million miles? That will depend on what happens over the next three months.

William J. Flynn

William J. Flynn, another former airline executive, is now the head of Amtrak, although his predecessor, fellow airline man Richard Anderson, is still around for now. This writer speculated about Amtrak’s future here in Railway Age on May 24 (From Anderson to Flynn to … ????). Now we have the answer, and Amtrak’s future looks significantly worse, at least for many of Amtrak’s employees and millions of riders.

On May 25 in a 12-page letter to Vice President Mike Pence (as President of the Senate) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Flynn demanded a supplemental appropriation of $1.475 billion for the next fiscal year (at 2), which begins Oct. 1. Download it here:

The letter listed every L-D train and explicitly identified the status of each of those trains (except for the Auto Train; more on that later) as “service at risk” (at 12). Even with the supplemental appropriation that Amtrak demanded, service on the long-distance trains would become “reduced service” (Id.). We now know what that would mean. The Florida train situation is especially noteworthy, because Amtrak implemented the threatened service cuts effective July 6.

Thus, it appears that Amtrak management is arbitrarily and capriciously implementing its threat before even Congress, USDOT officials, advocates for the riders, or even the riders themselves, will have any opportunity to take notice of a particular threat and react to it. If the Florida train action is not evidence of Amtrak’s reckless disregard for its customers, it is difficult to imagine what is. Amtrak is also implementing these service reductions without clear and obvious notice to any stakeholders, including potential riders, until they attempt to navigate the “reservations” section of the Amtrak website. It appears, at least to this writer, that Amtrak is jumping the gun by starting to implement its own threat almost three months prior to its official implementation date. This looks like malicious intent.

Amtrak’s timing may demonstrate such intent. The Amtrak statute, 49 U.S. Code §24706(a) states that Amtrak must give 180 days’ notice before “discontinuing service over a route,” whatever that means. On an “entire route” basis, there would still be some trains running, but a majority of the trains on every L-D route would be “discontinued” under Amtrak’s plan. The current situation could be covered by §24706(b)(1)(A), which allows Amtrak to discontinue service during “the first month of a fiscal year if the authorization of appropriations and the appropriations for Amtrak are not enacted at least 90 days before the beginning of the fiscal year … ” because the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. As that provision is worded, it may already be too late for Congress to increase Amtrak’s appropriation to cover daily operation of the L-D trains and be sure that those trains will, indeed, operate every day. Of course, Congress has the authority to change or override that provision and require that Amtrak continue daily operation on the affected trains. We will have more on that later in this series.

Under Amtrak’s now-announced plan, the state-supported corridors and trains may or may not do much better, depending on whether Amtrak gets its way. Regarding them, Flynn wrote, “With no supplemental FY21 funding, many services will be suspended or operating on a skeleton schedule. Several services would likely be shut down entirely, and in the event that they were later able to restart, they would require significant resources to do so. Many of Amtrak’s PRIIA Sec. 209 state partners have stressed the need for federal funds in lieu of state payments” (at 11). Alternatively, “With the requested supplemental FY21 funding, most, if not all, of the Sec. 209 services will resume. However, some services are likely to operate on a reduced schedule for some of FY21” (Id.). The demand letter indicates that the L-D trains could get the axe if Amtrak does not get the requested appropriation, while they could still be hampered somehow by the proposed service reductions, even if Congress complies with Amtrak’s demand and the Administration agrees. At least most of the state-supported trains would survive if Amtrak gets the money it wants.

Ironically, some state-supported trains will continue to run every day (although some states have suspended the trains within their borders due to the COVID-19 virus), while their connecting trains would run only three times per week. Jordan Green reported that irony in the June 21 edition of Oklahoma City’s paper, the Oklahoman: “Though the [Heartland] Flyer’s frequency hasn’t been reduced, the schedule of other major trains in the region will be … The Texas Eagle, a long-distance train connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, passes through Dallas. The Southwest Chief, another long-distance train, passes through Kansas and also connects Chicago to Los Angeles. Both trains will begin operating three days per week beginning Oct. 1, the start of Amtrak’s new fiscal year.” The Heartland Flyer runs between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Such is the patchwork of service that Amtrak is plans, complete with questionable connections.

New Alstom-built high-speed trainsets are expected to enter revenue service on the NEC in 2021.

If Amtrak gets its way, the Northeast Corridor (NEC) would survive with “moderate-normal service,” while, if not, there would be “greatly reduced service” on the Acela trains and merely “reduced service” on the other trains on the NEC (Flynn letter at 11). Advocates for the NEC have been at odds during the past few years with advocates for the rest of the system, who claim that Amtrak is taking money from the rest of the country to feed the NEC, which has turned into an insatiable money pit. Some have even said that the L-D trains would be profitable if their riders were not forced by Amtrak’s questionable non-GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) accounting to subsidize the NEC. We do not have full knowledge of the facts, because nobody seems to believe Amtrak’s numbers or trust Amtrak’s accounting methods.

Amtrak Keystone Corridor. Jim Blaze photo.

In any event, the NEC will survive somehow, whatever else happens to Amtrak. Amtrak’s NEC Future project may not be the answer ultimately, but there are plans now under consideration like AIRNet-21 (proposed by the J.P. Morgan organization), AmeriStarRail (endorsed by former Amtrak CEO Paul Reistrup), and several other plans proposed by private advocates that could also be included in future discussions. There was also a proposal from the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University that would have emphasized operations on the NEC by local railroads such as New Jersey Transit.

In short, the corridors will still have daily service at some level, even if some of the trains on the NEC are eliminated. If Amtrak cuts service from two daily trains in each direction to one (as could happen on some Midwestern routes) it would constitute a highly adverse event for the riders and the state(s) involved, but limiting travel only to certain days of the week would be much worse.

For the state-supported trains, and especially for the long-distance trains, Amtrak is the only game in town. Until the COVID-19 virus hit, ridership everywhere on Amtrak had been growing, including on the L-D trains. Those trains have kept running their full schedules through the crisis, and they are still running today. Advocates had consistently given Amtrak high marks for keeping them going. If Amtrak management implements its plan, though, they will begin their death-spiral later this year.

The prognosis is grim. Amtrak management knows or should know that, because “America’s Railroad” has been there before. In the mid-1990s, Amtrak hired Mercer Management, a consulting firm, to help cut costs. Mercer convinced Amtrak to eliminate a number of routes, and to cut the frequencies on several L-D trains to three or four days per week. The eastern trains were spared, except that the Crescent ran south of Atlanta to New Orleans only three times a week.

Southwest Chief at Devil’s Throne, N.Mex. Wikipedia photo.

The only L-D train west of Chicago that still operated every day was the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles. Ironically, that is the train that former CEO Anderson targeted for a path to elimination by proposing that service in the middle of the route be eliminated and replaced with an 11-hour bus ride. The Coast Starlight was spared for the most part during the Mercer era, having been reduced to five frequencies per week for a few months. Fortunately, most of those cuts were reversed in 1997. The tri-weekly Pioneer over the Union Pacific between Denver and Portland/Seattle and the Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles (also tri-weekly and over the UP) were the casualties at the time, but the other trains were restored to daily operation.

In short, the less-than-daily operations were not successful, as ridership and revenue plummeted.

If Amtrak now cuts service as planned, it is reasonable to expect that at least some riders will refuse to plan their itineraries around the days on which Amtrak is willing to provide a train. Most will use their automobiles, while others will either take an airline (if possible), or just not make the trip. If there is a missed connection (an occurrence that happens more often than it should), it would cost a traveler two or three days, not just one. If the trains become unreliable for potential riders, they will become unpopular with members of Congress, because they had already become unpopular with the members’ constituents. That could endanger other Amtrak services, including the NEC.

The political balance between the Northeastern states and the rest of the country, both Democrats and Republicans who vote to keep Amtrak going, could break down. That breakdown could affect the states that pay to support trains or corridors. If the delicate balance that preserves the trains fails, it could be the end of Amtrak as we know it. It could severely damage local rail transit in and near several major cities, too.

It is difficult to discern how Amtrak’s attack on the L-D makes sense, under the present circumstances. At this writing, those trains are outperforming the state-supported trains and corridors, and even the NEC, for ridership.

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) is a national advocacy organization that pushes for an improved Amtrak and better rail transit (this writer is on RUN’s Board). RUN recently issued a Call to Action, encouraging advocates and other riders to contact their members of Congress to oppose the proposed Amtrak cuts. It can be found on the organization’s website. As part of that initiative, RUN reported: “Ridership is coming back: Long-distance ticket revenues climbed 71%, from $6.8 million to $11.6 million between April and May, operating with approximately the same frequencies, Northeast Corridor billing rose about 60% from $1.5 million to $2.4 million, and state-supported trains generated less than a 50% increase, from $2.3 million in April to $3.5 million in May. The existing long-distance service provided almost double the May revenue of Corridor and state-supported operations combined.” So it appears that, in effect, Amtrak has chosen to punish its most loyal riders.

Amtrak has claimed that it plans to implement the severe service reductions because of the COVID-19 virus, which has reduced Amtrak’s revenue, even though the railroad recently received a grant of $1.02 billion from Congress to help it through the shortfall. A close look at the facts renders Amtrak’s excuse questionable, if not worse, as we will explore in the next article of this series. In short, the economics of cutting to less-than-daily operation would ultimately cost Amtrak more money—not less.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

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