At Amtrak, it’s no longer 1950

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

WATCHING WASHINGTON, MARCH 2019 – Amtrak seemingly operates in the shadow of a Bat Signal over Gotham—that specially modified searchlight displaying the emblem of a bat, and intended, when lighted, to summon superhero Batman. Rather than Batman, the Amtrak sentinel, with a passenger train emblem, summons self-appointed management surrogates—hopefully helpful railfans; well-intentioned but cash-strapped lawmakers from federal, state and local government; and, surely, the snoopy press corps.

Patience, persistence and self assurance are required to superintend Amtrak, where there is heard daily uninvited reproaches: The train schedules are inconvenient; delays are too many and too long; service should be inaugurated or expanded; full-service dining cars should be restored; the books are cooked; and management is secreting a dystopian agenda to destroy service. It’s enough to make a preacher cuss.

Welcome to the work-a-day environment of Amtrak President Richard H. Anderson and Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner, a duo struggling, as did the mythical Odysseus, to navigate the narrow strait between the twin monsters Scylla and Charybdis.

Anderson, 63, arrived in July 2017 with a background in the most competitive of people transports—commercial airlines, where he was Delta’s CEO. The 43-year-old Gardner, who arrived in 2009 and quickly climbed the ladder, contributes a freight rail pedigree augmented by a decade advising congressional Democrats, following operating positions at Maine Central (now part of Pan Am Railways) and short line Buckingham Branch Railroad. His rail career began as an unpaid Amtrak intern.

Among Gardner’s Senate mentors were Tom Carper (D-Del.) and now-retired Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the latter having devoted substantial intellectual effort to rail issues.

As a senior congressional aide, Gardner learned that to lead a public transportation agency is to endure a smorgasbord of unpleasantries, as no such agency on the globe operates without subsidies, and all lack sufficient resources to meet unrelenting demands.

“Amtrak is not an independent actor,” says Gardner, who invited this column into the belly of the beast to discuss the incessant brickbats hurled Amtrak’s way. “We are a congressionally chartered private corporation, with a mission established by law for a public purpose. It is the role of Congress to fund the rail passenger network the public wants.” That network includes a combination of national long-distance routes, regional corridors, and state and local shorter-haul service.

Actually, Amtrak answers to a trilogy of masters—the Executive Branch that includes the Department of Transportation and White House, which nominates Amtrak board members; the Legislative Branch, which authorizes Amtrak’s mission, confirms board members and appropriates federal subsidies; and the marketplace, which determines passenger modal choice. Increasingly, state governments and quasi-governmental state and regional authorities are providing funds and direction.

Not overlooked by Gardner is the change in American demographics. “Millennials take over as the largest American cohort this year, replacing Baby Boomers as Amtrak’s core market. As demographics change, so must Amtrak’s public purpose,” he says.

The Amtrak network, hastily cobbled by Congress beginning in 1970, was secondary to relieving privately owned, primarily freight railroads of the unsustainable financial hemorrhaging of hauling passengers. That 1950s-era route structure, although occasionally tweaked, is, says Gardner, out of touch with the additional 118 million people who now live in America compared to 1971—exemplified by the millennials who tend to cluster in metropolitan areas and desire public transit out of environmental consciousness and convenience.

Amtrak, says Gardner, has not met their expectations—not along the population-dense Northeast Corridor (NEC), where market share is being lost to amenity-stocked motor coaches with more convenient suburban boarding points; nor between many intercity pairs that lack Amtrak service entirely. An example is the 240-mile Houston-Dallas corridor, linking the nation’s 4th and 5th largest metropolitan regions.

“Too many population centers rely on a single, often chronically late long-distance train a day, with uncompetitive trip times and intermediate-point arrival and departure times that run counter to leisure time and business travel demands,” Gardner says.

“That a sizeable number of travelers are willing to spend four hours on a bus between Washington, D.C. and New York indicates we’ve created neither enough station access to the NEC nor capacity to compete with other discretionary travel modes,” Gardner says. “If we can provide a service that meets or exceeds the bus competitor at the right price, people will trade up to rail in those markets.”

Among potential strategies is providing a higher-speed NEC Acela Express service for those seeking the shorter trip time between major business centers, while offering smaller regional markets between Washington, D.C. and Boston a separate service, competing price- and amenity-wise with bus.

As for Amtrak long-distance routes, trains typically pass through vibrant and growing intermediate cities at such inconvenient times and with so few frequencies as to discourage a wealth of new riders. “We must address younger riders early in their working careers who seek commercially relevant 21st century service, not the 20th century Amtrak model,” Gardner says.

“Millennials,” says Gardner, “have no relationship to the past network, or the pre-airline and pre-Interstate Highway glory days of rail. They seek utility and comfort—grab-and-go food and workplace productivity. We are not a preservation society. Our job is to create modern and relevant products and services that can grow rail trips and provide real transportation value with the scarce public dollars we receive.”

Inescapable is that of 32 million Amtrak riders last year, just roughly 650,000 booked sleeping accommodations. “While we believe there is still a market for long-distance rail travel that provides an experience, the obvious real demand is for corridor trains of 300 to 400 miles connecting intermediate city pairs with frequent, conveniently timed service,” Gardner says.

“Corridors work for the same reason unit trains work for freight railroads,” he says. “We must focus on actually moving people by offering convenient alternatives to congested highways and limited air service—not just traversing landscape. That a city pair like Atlanta and Charlotte doesn’t have fast, frequent Amtrak service is an outrage. We are developing a long-range plan to grow the network across the nation in the corridors we think offer the most promise.”

Dollars, of course, are scarce, and wants are plentiful. The 457-mile NEC, for example, which is owned by Amtrak—except for 103 miles under state ownership—has an estimated backlog of $40 billion in capital projects just to put it in a state of good repair.

“The bottom line is that we continue to rely on investment from public entities for the major capital needs of the network,” Gardner says. “We weren’t put in business to achieve a profit for the government, but must continue to reduce the operating loss. What we are pursuing is incremental progress through continual financial improvement while growing ridership. We want to be viewed as a safe, well-run, capable steward of public funds, and a viable vehicle for growing passenger rail service nationwide.”

As for an increasingly acrimonious relationship with freight railroads that host most Amtrak intercity trains—a kerfuffle playing out in the courts—Gardner says the freight network is “not optimized for the quality we need. I take some level of excitement with Precision Scheduled Railroading, which means running freight trains as we run passenger trains—concrete schedules and a high level of reliability. As they move toward that, it could be great for us.”

The new Congress installed new chairmen of rail authorizing committees—Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) now chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, succeeding Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who retired; and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, succeeding John Thune, who was elevated to Majority Whip.

Gardner is buoyant Amtrak will not be overlooked by Congress, although annual appropriations are extremely difficult for recipients of discretionary funding. Amtrak is especially attentive to pending reauthorization of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which will establish new, long-term funding targets. “The question of whether America needs intercity passenger trains has long been answered in the affirmative,” Gardner says.

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight, all published by Simmons-Boardman Books. Wilner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

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