Guest column: Another Amtrak CEO…and flyover country

04 Jul
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July 4, 2017 – Commentary by Russ Jackson – 

Commerce, Oklahoma (not California) is a small town in the northeast corner of Oklahoma near the Kansas border, population 2,400 hardy souls.  This town sits astride the original Route 66 highway, several bypassed miles away from Interstate 44.  It is small town America personified, in what today is labeled “flyover country.”  Commerce is the home town of hall of fame baseball great Mickey Mantle, and it is a Mantle quote that brings us to the topic of this article.  In referring to his upbringing Mantle said, “I guess you could say I’m what this country is all about.”  Route 66 is much of what is right with America.  So is the passenger train.  The current question is, do the Congress and the Amtrak leadership understand this, or do they consider a train going through rural America to be superfluous in today’s economy?

In December another CEO will take the reins of the National Rail Passenger Corporation, aka Amtrak.  His name is Richard Anderson, and while he comes from a railroad family, his father having worked for the AT&SF in the Houston, Texas area where Richard grew up, his life has been spent in the airline industry, most recently Delta Airlines, headquartered in Atlanta like major offices of the Norfolk Southern Railway.  The current Amtrak CEO, Wick Moorman, was CEO of Norfolk Southern before taking, as he said, a temporary job heading Amtrak.  Southern boys.  Came up through the ranks.  Now comes the challenge for Moorman, to teach Anderson “the ropes” of railroading.  What will Wick tell Richard about the Amtrak long distance trains…you know, the ones that operate in and serve “flyover country”?

Will Anderson learn that the Northeast Corridor is a profit center for Amtrak?  (It isn’t.)  Will he learn that the long distance trains are “big losers,” as Wick’s predecessor allowed the world to think of them?  (They aren’t.)   Moorman has decried the Trump Administration’s 2018 budget request that eliminates money for the long distance trains.  Trump’s Budget Director has said that money for un-needed items that may have outlived their usefulness have to go.  Well, let’s see.  Amtrak’s own reports continue to show the NEC with a profit and the long distance group with a big loss, as Andrew Selden found, in the aggregate totaling several hundred million dollars.  Pete Loomis did a long division that shows the loss for the long distance trains by these figures comes to several tens of thousands of dollars of loss per tripwhich is ridiculous on its face.  No wonder the Congress and the press take the “profitable NEC” and the “loser long distance” trains to be just that, and take it as gospel, which we know it is not.  As a group the long distance trains are cash-positive.  If Amtrak insiders and too many outsiders really believe those two fake ideas, then why did Amtrak put in their own 2018 Budget Request the following?

“The Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation proposes the elimination of Federal funding for Amtrak’s long distance services.  Enactment of such a proposal would drastically shrink the scope of our network, could cause major disruptions in existing services, and increase costs for the remaining services across the Amtrak system.  Amtrak’s initial projection is that eliminating long distance services would result in an additional cost of approximately $423 million in FY 2018 alone (we think it’s more than that), requiring funding from Congress and our partners rather than less.”  (emphasis mine)  So there, they said it.  Now it is buried in their budget request and will it be forever dismissed or ignored, because all that anyone has seen for years is the “profit” and “losers” idea?  But wait!  Amtrak reports that the deferred NEC maintenance is $473 million per year, so what Mr. Moorman has done for us is give us almost exactly the amount of cash the long distance trains contribute, $423 million a year, and had that maintenance not been “deferred” and properly charged to the NEC would the corporation be breaking even?  As for the “partners,” that means the state-supported train routes like the three in California.  Mr. Selden says, they “cannot lose money because states make up the difference between revenues and Amtrak’s fully-allocated costs, so they are approximately cash-neutral to Amtrak.”

Now back to flyover country.  (I hate that term, but it applies.)  In his acceptance statement press release, Richard Anderson said, “I’m passionate about building strong businesses that create the best travel experience possible for customers.”  Well, how great is it?  According to Amtrak’s financial report, since last October system Ridership is up 2.1%, Revenue up 3.0%.  Nice.  Shows growth.  And, three new real growth projects are under consideration:  1) Closing the gap between Oklahoma City and Newton, Kansas; 2) Extension of the Crescent from Meridian, Mississippi, to Dallas and Ft. Worth; and 3) Finally re-extending service across the Gulf Shore from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida.  All of these are worthy projects for the southern boys to work on, but what is the missing factor to all of them?  State support, and approval by the freight railroads:  the BNSF, the Kansas City Southern, and the CSX.  Are any of them going to get on the bandwagon?  Mr. Anderson will have a full time challenge dealing with those hard nose guys.  Speaking of the OKC gap northward, Amtrak ran a very well received test train on that route.  One of the cities that would be served is Wichita, Kansas.  Recently this writer attended an event where a young couple from Wichita told me that they hadn’t heard about the test train, but they really want a train that can take them places.  They have dropped friends off at the Newton, KS, station to ride the Southwest Chief; they know a potential candidate for Kansas Governor and after our talk will bring up Amtrak with him.  Now that’s what happens when rail is discussed out here in “flyover country.”

Two California Zephyr trains in the Colfax, CA, station at the same time! Train #6 was running 20 min late and 5 was running an hour late on Friday, June 30, 2017, when #6 arrived first and 5 arrived about the time 6 moved up for the sleeper stop. (Photo by Ralph James)

This summer has been an operating challenge for Amtrak, perhaps more-so than in some years past.  Heat, flooding, mechanical problems, and more heat have had a depressing effect on trains.  RailPAC member Ralph James, who lives up in the cool Sierra Nevada near Colfax, reports that the California Zephyr’s summer consist has “regularly been three coaches and three sleepers plus the transition dorm/sleeper, the first time he’s seen three sleepers on a regular basis in a long time.”   That shows a growth attitude exists here in the West.  But, James says,  “Timekeeping  for 5 and 6 has been sporadic at best with some three and four hour delays across the Midwest and Rockies frequently.”  A look at the Southwest Chief shows the train can run on time until it gets to northern New Mexico, and then can lose up to to four hours up there.  RailPac member Mike Palmer wrote recently that he was waiting on the Atlanta, Georgia, platform for Crescent #20:  “It is blocked a few miles away, because a (NS) freight train broke down in front of it and has been sitting at the station.”  The situation was cleared, and the Crescent finally arrived and departed two hours late.  Just a few examples, but to new CEO Richard Anderson we say, “Pay attention to what is going on in flyover country.  These passengers are your real bread and butter, so DON’T write us off and think all that matters is what happens in the Northeast despite what those politicians tell you.  If you want to know more about “us,” or even if you don’t, come talk to us out here.  We want the trains and we want them to be reliable, clean, and staffed by people who know what to do and how to make all your customers feel that they are valuable and should come back again.  Too much to ask?

Russ Jackson, RAILPAC aka editrail@aol.com