Chicago Cooperation=More Midwest Trains?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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In an unusual twist of circumstances, there are three events ongoing at this writing that have a lot to say about Amtrak corridors and trains in the Midwest. All were scheduled to take place within a three-day span.

The first occurred on Oct. 13. It was a press conference in Chicago that featured officials from Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC). 

At this writing, the second event is in progress. It is the MIPRC’s annual meeting in Detroit, taking place Oct. 14-15. The agenda will focus on the report unveiled at the Oct. 13 event and how the cooperating agencies hope to bring more trains and corridors to the region. Also on Oct. 15, there will be a virtual mini-conference sponsored by the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), a nationwide rider-advocacy group that calls for improvements at Amtrak, more rail transit and better connectivity between the two. Ironically, the theme of that conference will be “You can’t get there from here!—the Midwest’s missing passenger connections and what’s being done about them.”

In a sense, all of those events have focused or will focus on efforts to improve the region’s passenger rail network by bringing more trains to serve its population. The RUN conference will feature advocates active on the ground, while the FRA and MIPRC events will feature Biden Administration and elected officials, along with a new report authored by the firms that Pat Foye, former Chair and CEO of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) called the “Transportation Industrial Complex.” Can, or will, these communities work together? 

The background for all three events can be found on Amtrak’s map of the Midwest, which has not changed much since the 1970s and early 1980s, at least as far as routes are concerned. There are more trains on most of the routes today than there were decades ago, but the lines on the map have changed little over the decades. Corridors radiating from Chicago to St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Carbondale, Ill. formed the basic network. Illinois sponsors two round trips between Chicago and Quincy, which started more recently, although there were once trains to places like Peoria and Decatur that no longer run. There are also trains across Missouri, between St. Louis and Kansas City. There is the Pere Marquette between Chicago and Grand Rapids, but there is no longer a Hoosier State between the Windy City and Indianapolis. The long-distance network radiating from Chicago has remained essentially unchanged since 1985. Today it is frozen by the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA), which defines Amtrak’s “national network” as being limited to trains that ran in 2008.

What can be done about it? On the corridor side, at least, states or groups of states can sponsor trains or corridors, and MIPRC is promoting more of them in the region. The reason for the news conference was the FRA introducing a report on the subject. The event was a pre-COVID-style news conference, held at Chicago Union Station, and without any streaming or any other “virtual” component. In other words, it was a strictly “in-person” event, a format that works well for local, not national, coverage.

FRA’s press release described the flavor of the event, but not much of the substance. It began with the event’s purpose: “The FRA today released the Midwest Regional Rail Plan (MWRRP), a detailed, 40-year multistate framework for restoring, modernizing and expanding the existing intercity passenger rail network in the Midwestern United States.” The next paragraph described the study: “[T]he culmination of an intensive cooperative effort led by FRA and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC), and developed in partnership with 12 state departments of transportation, as well as Amtrak, freight railroads, transit organizations, councils of government, metropolitan planning organizations, chambers of commerce, regional railroads and advocacy groups. Over a two-year period, these entities hosted stakeholder workshops and undertook the research and analysis underpinning the report.” 

I will discuss who the “advocacy groups” were and who they represented later in this report.

The release quoted FRA Deputy Administrator Amit Bose as saying, “This plan exemplifies the very best of our regional rail planning efforts and interstate partnerships.” Bose “applaude”d the participants for “working together toward a modern passenger rail system that connects communities of all sizes and support jobs and commerce across the Midwest.” MIRPC Director Laura Kliewer was quoted as saying, “The synergy of looking at passenger rail development from a regional system viewpoint—rather than just an individual corridor or state—is invaluable. MIPRC looks forward to using this regional development plan to build out a strong Midwestern passenger rail system.”

Among the pleasantries was this: “Passenger rail is becoming an increasingly important transportation mode to meet the travel needs of both urban and rural communities in our region,” said Kansas DOT Secretary Julie Lorenz, who serves as the chair of the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials (MAASTO). “The Midwest Regional Rail Plan has been an important process because it gave states seats at the table and opportunities to stress the importance of passenger rail to them and the region.”

1972 Amtrak postcard of the Southwest Chief

A bit of fact-checking indicates that there has never been a passenger rail corridor in Kansas, unless you include the frequency of intercity trains operated by the Santa Fe in the state until the late 1960s. Since 1972 (when a second train ran briefly), there has only been Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. Wichita, the state’s largest city, has not hosted a passenger train since 1979.

The Midwest Regional Rail Plan Final Report is a 198-page policy document authored by several consulting firms, most notably WSP USA. Download below:

The report’s Executive Summary begins: “The Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study (MWRRP) is an intercity passenger rail network planning study, led by the FRA, in partnership with stakeholders across the Midwest. The MWRRP sets forth a strategic 40-year vision for the Midwest’s passenger rail network, addresses topics including network configuration, service levels, financing and governance. The study is the third in the FRA’s national rail planning effort, and follows the studies in the Southwest and Southeast regions of the U.S. These regional rail planning efforts are intended to support existing state rail plans and long-range transportation plans (LRTP).”

The map following the Executive Summary has the appearance of an advocate’s dream or railfan’s dream, or both. It shows a huge and sprawling passenger train network radiating outward from Chicago in all directions. It not only includes the existing trains, but also many routes that have not hosted a passenger train for more than a half-century. Of the 34 other cities shown as black dots on the map, exactly half of them (17, including Toronto, Ontario) are served by one or more daily trains (Michigan’s capital, Lansing, does not have a train, but the Blue Water stops nearby in East Lansing), while eight are served by two or more trains. Two host a tri-weekly train (Indianapolis and Cincinnati on the Cardinal), while the rest have no passenger trains at all. Sioux Falls, S.Dak., has not hosted one since 1965. Can the region fill out a network by inaugurating service in places where only the most-senior residents even remember a passenger train in their city or town? It will be difficult but not impossible.

The FRA’s efforts appear well-intentioned, and stockpiling a treasure trove of data can be a useful exercise, depending on whether it is used, and how. Still, similar reports about the Southeastern and Southwestern regions have not resulted in the establishment of new trains or corridors in those places.

There are no corridors at all in the South, except for the Piedmont service in North Carolina and the trains in Virginia, which are Northeast Corridor (NEC) trains that have been extended south of Washington, D.C. The North Carolina service is the result of a state initiative, and there is an ongoing project in Virginia to add more trains to existing routes and purchase some existing track to enhance corridors within the state, but that program is also a state-level initiative. There are no corridors in the Southwestern part of the country, either, except within California. Again, those corridors are all state-level initiatives, as California is proving itself to be a pacesetter in rail corridors and rail transit.

The agenda of the MIPRC conference in Detroit details a theme of cooperation. That has not been a hallmark of prior efforts by Midwestern states to establish trains and corridors, but the region’s states may be able to come up with a winning formula this time. If they do, it would require a significant amount of change from past practice.

Amtrak Lincoln service

In reality, Illinois is the only Midwestern state that has developed more than one corridor. The Lincoln service between Chicago and St. Louis now has four daily round trips, plus the Texas Eagle. Only in 2006 was a third train added between Chicago and Carbondale (that count includes the one to New Orleans) and a second train added between Chicago and Quincy. Missouri has two trains between St. Louis and Kansas City, but reducing service to a single round trip has often been threatened and did occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Michigan, the Wolverine route has never had more than three round trips daily, and the Pere Marquette route to Grand Rapids has never had more than one since before the Amtrak era. In Wisconsin, the Chicago-Milwaukee trains keep running, but there has been no expansion north of there. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker famously killed a plan that would have enhanced the Hiawatha route to Minnesota and re-route the trains to add Madison as a stop. 

Elsewhere in the region, the picture has been even worse. In 2019, Indiana killed the Hoosier State, which provided service between Chicago and Indianapolis on the four days a week that the Cardinal does not run. Ohio almost had the long-awaited 3C+D corridor (which would have served Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton), but former Republican Gov. John Kasich killed it about the same time Walker killed the Madison project. While the current governor, Republican Mike DeWine, is not as staunchly opposed to transit as Kasich was, it appears unlikely that he would fund the corridor terminated by his predecessor. 

John Kasich. CNN photo

The other states in the study area were Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. None of those states have any corridors or other state-supported trains. They have only a single long-distance train running within their borders, except South Dakota, which lost its last passenger train several years before Amtrak was founded.

“Ultimately, implementation of the plan will require extensive coordination among the participating states and stakeholders,” the FRA press release concluded. “However, unlike many other regions, the Midwest already has an established governance structure supporting passenger rail development. MIPRC has served and will continue to serve as an advocacy and governance organization to advance the vision set forth.” Maybe it will, and the Detroit conference agenda demonstrates that the members are making an effort. As I’ve shown, the states have been spotty in their efforts to establish state-supported trains and corridors up to now, and some of the states have killed planned corridors or even an existing train outright.

One factor that makes it more difficult to establish new trains is Amtrak’s formula for starting state-supported services. Amtrak will pay 100% of the cost for two years, and then, in descending scale, kick in 90%, 80% and 50%, respectively for the next three. After five years, the sponsoring state or states will be required to pay the full cost of running the trains. Some governors who canceled rail projects complained that the operating cost would be too high, and Amtrak’s plan gives some credence to that argument, intentionally or not. 

Stacey Mortensen

To make matters worse, many independent rider-advocates and organizations have complained about the lack of transparency in Amtrak’s accounting rules, which imbues Amtrak’s numbers with an inherent lack of credibility. They are not alone. Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, made a similar complaint in a statement to the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee on Nov. 13, 2019 (download below).

“We have encountered significant structural challenges with our attempts to manage the San Joaquin service,” Mortensen said. “Amtrak’s lack of data transparency, resistance to data sharing and collaboration, inability to fairly determine a cost sharing formula, and higher-than-average costs when compared to other public passenger rail services has caused our agency to question the future viability of the service under this structure … The fact of the matter is local Amtrak employees are held hostage to a broken national structure. When it comes to any of our requested changes, the structural limitations of Amtrak have crushed any attempt at resolution, despite having local Amtrak employee buy-in. We have been struggling for several years to justify the continued, disparate financial burden the Amtrak contract places on California taxpayers.”

With high costs spurred by monetary demands that are purportedly justified by unreliable numbers, Amtrak’s cost requirements imposed on states may be too much for them to afford, especially in these times, when the COVID-19 virus continues to ravage the nation and its economy. Local economies are being ravaged, too, and even the best cooperation at the intergovernmental level will not necessarily be enough to allow many states to afford the cost of sponsoring new passenger trains and corridors. 

I have called for statutory reform of Amtrak. So have other rider-advocates and officials who envision a less-political and more-credible Amtrak as being in a better position than the current Amtrak to operate the sort of robust network of long-distance trains, shorter route, and corridors that a sizable majority of Americans consistently say that they want. That will require statutory reform, which could create an atmosphere where elected officials, transportation professionals and riders who advocate for more and better trains for themselves and their fellow riders can work together toward building the strong network of trains that has eluded all of us for all of Amtrak’s first half-century.

Part of including an appropriate variety of stakeholders includes recognizing rider-advocates as a vital stakeholder group and giving those advocates a genuine “seat at the table” when issues are discussed and decisions are made. Of the 54 listed “stakeholders” who participated in the discussions, the FRA report only listed three who have anything to do with advocating for riders: Jim Matthews and Sean Jeans-Gail of the Rail Passengers’ Association, and Rick Harnish of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. It can always be argued that a few are better than none at all, but that few do not include the breadth of riders or of their advocates. Where was RUN, which has several Board members in the region? Where were the state and local advocacy organizations, like the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance (IPRA) and All Aboard Ohio? They and many other such organizations were not at the table, so their constituents were not represented.

Where do the FRA, Amtrak, the MIPRC and everybody else concerned go from here? There seem to be two choices. One is that they can rely on past policies and continue to go nowhere. The other is that they can take the rider-advocates seriously and campaign for reform at Amtrak, an appropriate role for the FRA, and a program that will provide a better deal for state sponsors of trains and corridors than they have now. 

Time is of the essence. As noted before, the theme of the Oct. 15 RUN conference will be “You can’t get there from here!” That will remain true in the Midwest until everyone concerned works together to bring about some changes that we all need. That includes Amtrak, the FRA and the MIPRC.

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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