Advocates of the Nation Unite! We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Trains!

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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It feels a little strange to paraphrase Karl Marx in this publication, but the circumstances seem to warrant it in this instance. There are advocates all over the country who want an improved Amtrak, at least as they see it, and this writer knows or has known many of them. Unfortunately, sometimes their advocacy serves to undermine the efforts of other advocates, pitting two advocacy camps against each other and furthering the goals of the anti-rail forces who want to make our trains disappear permanently. A recent editorial piece here in Railway Age, a blog post, a magazine story and an advocate’s response to it from earlier this year comprise two cases in point.

In Deciphering the Amtrak Puzzle, posted here on Aug. 5, Minnesota advocate Andrew Selden argues that Amtrak should augment its long-distance offerings, especially by expanding routes and opportunities for passengers to make connections to other trains. He also argues that shorter-haul services are not cost-effective, because they would require additional expensive infrastructure, and he implies that using automobiles for shorter distances makes more sense than providing more trains.

This writer agrees with him about long-distance trains, for the most part. The current Amtrak long-distance network looks much like it did in 1971, and the last addition of any route where Amtrak operates today came almost 40 years ago. Most of Selden’s recommended route extensions make sense, and it would not be difficult to accomplish them in theory. Getting the potential host railroads to go along is a different matter, but that difficulty alone should not hinder advocacy efforts. Many advocates, including those from the Northeast (this writer among them), want an enhanced long-distance train network. The Rail Passengers Association (RPA) has called for one, as has the Rail Users Network (RUN), many of whose members come from the transit-rich homeland of the Northeast Corridor.

If Selden had argued solely for more long-distance trains and expansion of the network to serve more communities, it would have been difficult for this writer or any other advocates to quarrel with him. His assertion that private operators would step in to provide long-distance passenger trains is questionable, and we note that neither Warren Buffett nor Matt Rose ever suggested that BNSF should restore the North Coast Limited or any other historic trains under its own auspices. Still, essentially all advocates are fighting Amtrak’s efforts to dismantle its skeletal long-distance network, and rightly so.

Yet, Selden couples his advocacy for long-distance trains with discounting the feasibility of expanding, and even running, shorter-distance corridors. He goes so far as appearing to concede that segment of travel to the automobile—an attitude that discounts the millions of Americans who depend on public transportation, and the millions more who are motorists but would prefer to ride the train if there were a train to ride.

Other advocates have made similar arguments. Still, as badly managed as it is, Amtrak has three components that are structurally distinct: the long-distance trains, the state-supported trains, and the NEC and its branches. Due to the pitifully tiny magnitude of the Amtrak network, the complete lack of any long-distance services provided by anyone else, and the politics that govern the nation’s transportation policies, ideas by advocates that pit one part of the nation’s minuscule passenger train network against another part can hurt all of it.

There was a similar case in point several months ago that attracted the attention of the advocacy community. On March 25, a man named Jason Torchinsky posted an anti-Amtrak rant on a website called jalopnik.com that makes famed anti-rail and anti-transit activist Randall O’Toole’s latest book-length scream (reviewed by this writer for Railway Age and appearing on www.railwayage.com on Nov. 13, 2018) seem downright complimentary. Torchinsky titled his piece “I Took Amtrak Instead of Flying and It Made Me Want to Die a Little Bit,” and he began: “It started, I think, as a joke,” and then mentioned that he was on his way to an automobile show. The “About theAauthor” notation identifies him solely as the owner of a number of vintage automobiles, which renders it difficult to fathom how he could consider himself knowledgeable about Amtrak (or the buses that he lauds, for that matter) without mentioning any rail-related (or bus-related) credentials that he might have possessed.

Torchinsky’s piece might have been relegated to its section of the blogging realm, if it had not been for Art Carden, who responded the next day on the Forbes Magazine website. Carden is an economist based in Birmingham, Ala., and not merely as an automobilephile. His rant was stronger, titled: “Is It Time to Pull the Plug on Amtrak?” He began: “I’ve taken Amtrak between Birmingham and New Orleans several times, and I will almost certainly do so again at some point in the future; however, Amtrak’s performance suggests that it’s time for taxpayer-subsidized rail service to go quietly into the night. To join the choir invisible. To cease to be.”

By Carden’s own reckoning, if he gets his wish, he had better take those Amtrak trips soon. Why he wants Amtrak to disappear but still expects to take the trip again, especially when he lauds “competing” air and bus services as well as the joy of driving an automobile, he does not explain. Carden repeated the questionable mantra that the Northeast Corridor is the only component of Amtrak that is “economically viable,” and he goes on to tout bus travel, without actually saying that he would take the bus. He makes the bus schedules appear better than they actually are (especially Megabus), and he concludes by saying that, if Amtrak were to disappear, “Intercity bus service would likely expand to fill the gap,” an assertion this writer found to be absolutely untrue while investigating what happened when Greyhound Canada ceased all operations in the Western part of that country.

Some advocates posted their responses to Carden. One, in particular, was reasonable. It came from Chicago advocate and Railway Age contributor F.K. Plous, who blamed federal policies that have subsidized highways and air travel, at the expense of rail, for the past several decades. Specifically, Plous said: “Of course flights to Birmingham are faster and more reliable than taking the train. Since 1946, the federal government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars in capital into airport construction and improvements, and since 1958 has poured billions more in subsidies into the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system to make sure that happens. But to the layman, only trains get government subsidies. The highways and civil aviation just live off magic money from who knows who, and who cares?”

Selden sent a strongly worded response to Forbes, in which he criticized Carden for perpetuating “long-standing falsehoods concerning Amtrak and the performance of its various trains.” He could have questioned Carden’s credibility generally regarding his attack on Amtrak’s long-distance trains, but he refrained from doing so. Instead, he chose to dispute only Carden’s brief mention of the NEC, and used the rest of his communication to denounce the NEC itself, saying: “The Northeast Corridor is emphatically not self-sustaining” and went on to praise the longer-distance trains.

Most of Selden’s comments have merit, such as his criticism of Amtrak’s accounting methods, which other advocates (including George Chilson, former head of the National Association of Railroad Passengers) have also found objectionable. However, as an advocate for the entire Amtrak system, this writer reads comments like Selden’s and “dies a little bit” like Torchinsky says he does while riding on an Amtrak train.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson and his deputy, Stephen Gardner, have recently been criticized severely for pitting the corridors that they would like to keep against the few remaining long-distance trains, which they apparently would like to kill. In contrast, Selden praises the long-distance trains as unsung profit centers for Amtrak, while asserting that the NEC is a money pit into which the rest of the nation’s trains would fall to their doom.

Managers like Anderson and Gardner pursue one “divide-and-conquer” strategy, while some advocates pursue a different “divide-and-conquer” strategy. In the long run, divisive strategies among advocates will probably not hurt Amtrak management much, but they could end up forcing some or all of the nation’s riders to live with fewer trains.

Yes, Amtrak is political. Everybody knows that. So is the local transit that serves our communities, if we are fortunate enough to live in communities that have it. So are decisions about highways and automobile use. In short, passenger transportation has left the private sector for the most part, and the public sector has picked it up. Public transportation is located squarely there, and it is not moving back. That means politics, and keeping Amtrak going at all has involved striking political deals and balances for the past 48 years. That will continue to happen. It is particularly difficult at this time, because the country has an Administration that is more hostile to Amtrak and local transit that others have been historically, although none have been supportive of Amtrak or local transit during the period since Amtrak began operating.

Maybe this writer, who lives in the middle of the NEC and also rides many of Amtrak’s long-distance trains and state-supported trains regularly, is more aware of the need for a balanced policy, both in terms of transportation and politics, than most people. The fact remains that it is always necessary to tell elected officials from the Northeast region that the nation needs trains in other parts of the country, too. It is also necessary to tell similar officials from elsewhere that both the regional and national economies depend on a strong passenger-rail network in the Northeast, which includes both Amtrak’s NEC and the many local rail lines operated by the region’s transit providers, like New Jersey Transit, and SEPTA in Philadelphia. Another fact that remains is that arguments like Selden’s would not go over well among members of Congress from places like this writer’s home state of New Jersey.

There seems to be no dispute among the advocacy community that there are a lot of problems with today’s Amtrak. It is difficult to evaluate Amtrak’s performance, since its non-GAAP accounting—as correctly pointed out by Selden—makes little sense. Riders are losing amenities and on-time performance is declining. It appears that we are going back to the time when we must fight targeted battles to save specific trains from extinction, when there should be general agreement that the nation needs more passenger trains everywhere, rather than fewer of them. If anything, the situation is getting worse as we watch. This writer recently posted an obituary for the Hoosier State train here, and other trains could die the same way in the future.

There is nothing wrong with zealous and passionate advocacy for a particular train, for trains in a region, or for trains everywhere in the nation. The more of us who advocate for passenger trains of every kind, the harder it will be for elected officials to ignore us, and the more likely it will be that they will be supportive. For advocates to pit one part of Amtrak against another is counterproductive. It stems from an attitude of disdain for trains and riders elsewhere in the country, and it dovetails all-too-well with Amtrak’s apparent objective to get rid of some trains and make the remaining ones less-desirable or less-enjoyable to ride.

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, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. 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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