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Monday, September 14, 2009

Amtrak Runs Off The Rails

I left Memphis via Amtrak on board The City of New Orleans on Friday night. The train ride was nice as always, unfortunately I was left cold on the train because I had the misfortune of leaving my 10 year old sweatshirt in Mississippi unknowingly (although I'm glad to know that I will eventually see it again since my country relatives were able to retrieve it). Well what I mean is that the climate controls on the train goes up and down and thankfully it wasn't left stuffy however it was too cold for me!

Anyway this mention of a train ride back from the south allows me to talk about Amtrak and I found this great article from a man who is an American who have lived in Switzerland for nearly two decades now. Basically, he talks up what he likes about Amtrak, but is somewhat cynical about the government investment that has been inserted into Amtrak since the Obama administration took over.

From Matthew Stevenson at New Geography:
Even though the American freight-train business has enjoyed a renaissance in the last twenty years — companies like the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and CSX are admirable for their competitive spirit and financial results — I am skeptical that Amtrak is the company that can lead the way to the re-birth of U.S. passenger service. Freight, let's remember, only flourished when Conrail was privatized and the industry deregulated.

To be clear, the $8 billion appropriated for high-speed corridor service has yet to be earmarked, and is best understood as discretionary funding that can be doled out to the states, if not to loyal unions. For his part, Senate majority leader Harry Reid hopes to open a drawbridge to fund high-speed rail service between Anaheim and Las Vegas.

Somehow, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. can restore its economic prosperity by rushing heavy rollers to the blackjack tables in Vegas.

Now in its thirty-ninth year of operations, the government-controlled Amtrak provides good service between Boston, New York and Washington, and Los Angeles and San Diego. Elsewhere, it’s a land cruise company.
Beyond the corridors, Amtrak plies routes that were hastily drawn in 1971 to insure that they touch as many congressional interests as possible. That means meandering sleepers from New Orleans to Los Angeles, or Chicago to Seattle, which are a delight to vacationers (myself included), but inconsequential to the business of America, which drives or flies in order to get somewhere. Amtrak handles less than 1% of America’s intercity travel.

To defend Amtrak for a moment, it has been chronically under-funded, owns little of the track on which it operates, defers its schedule to freight interests, and is hostage to union rules, Congress and microwavable food. European trains get more subsidies in a year than Amtrak has gotten in its lifetime.
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While I am all for spending stimulus money, or any money, on American passenger service, I have yet to see anything remotely like a good strategic plan for its restoration. The glossy maps projecting new corridor services depend on the states, not Amtrak, to realize the dreams.

Nor am I sure that throwing money at the Amtrak model will do much more than refurbish some Amfleet coaches and make congressmen look good in mid-term elections. The railroad, like many in American history, strikes me as better at delivering pork than passengers. The current chairman is a former small-town, Illinois mayor, and Joe Biden’s son was a board member until February 2009.

Perhaps equally important, where is Amtrak’s passion for railroading? Why hasn’t the route map changed in forty years? Where are the car-carrying trains, the elegant stations, the sleepers that cater to business people with showers and wi-fi, or even the special tourist trains that would take travelers across America to Civil War battlefields, major league baseball games, rock concerts, or national parks?

Why do cities like Phoenix or Louisville have no trains at all? Where are the creative railroad financiers, selling sleeping cars as timeshares or condos? If it’s truly a government-run corporation, why aren’t there more investment-grade Amtrak bonds in world markets?
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I would love to think that for $8 billion, corridor service would flourish and that German-style trains would pop up around the country. Heck, I would love to ride a Romanian sleeper between New York and Bangor, Maine.

Despite my hopes, my fear is that the transportation stimulus money is probably going to end up on a roulette wheel in Vegas.
You know many years ago I described taking a long distance Amtrak train in exactly the way Stevenson described, "land-cruise". I more or less described such a train as a cruise ship on land. Meals are made aboard the train and there is a diner in addition to literally having rooms aboard the train. Although perhaps cruise ships aren't the only example to compare a train to.

I think that's Amtrak's asset. Besides you can't have on the plane what you have on the train. I like the idea of a sleeper car and getting a full course meal in the dining car. On the train you have to spend a lot of time riding, but one could either sleep or enjoy the scenery. Of course for some they don't want to spend a lot of time doing that. Their time is best spend getting there as soon as possible.

The question that could be asked after reading this article is whether or not their are entrepreneurs out there who can make train travel appealing again? This is something I should ponder, but what do you think out there. Should Amtrak eventually be privatized with the possibility that an Amtrak network could eventually expand and do record business?

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