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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Monday, July 26, 2010

Amtrak's Worst-Case Scenario

After thinking it over, I have decided to go ahead and publish this viewpoint.

During the Amtrak Era, many rail advocates have tied the future of intercity rail travel to one party. However, overconfidence with Democrats controlling two branches in D.C. has resulted in Amtrak service being slashed within a 2 1/2 year span--the Carter administration ordered the 1979 cuts while Tom Downs took consulting firm Mercer's advice 16 years later and reduced the system to almost nothing while Clinton did nothing to stop the systematic destruction of passenger rail.

Now, I don't think that President Obama will allow any gutting of the Amtrak system--even with the fear of what could happen in November. Even if the GOP does win one or both chambers of Congress, they wouldn't have the necessary 67 votes to kill Amtrak (a veto-proof majority in the Senate is what we should really be talking about). After all, Obama can veto any anti-rail measures that a transit-hostile legislative branch throws at him. Furthermore, does anyone think that a President Palin or Romney would even have 60 Senate votes to do away with the national carrier if either one wins in two years? I certainly don't think so.

Instead, the absolute worst thing that can happen to Amtrak is for its system to be gutted by competitors. How? Amtrak could strike out on much of the HSR bidding by watching foreign operators and domestic transit agencies outbid them, lose some of its long-distance routes to friendly host railroads like Norfolk Southern, and watch new companies experiment in other areas of intercity rail travel.

So, a future lineup would leave Amtrak with the following: the NEC, every other Northeastern route, Midwestern routes that qualify at the Regional HSR level and below, existing California Conventional service, Cascades service, Carolinian, all Silver Service routes, Cardinal, the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle's successor, and Coast Starlight, with its only pickups being the northern portion of SEHSR (with which the present-day Piedmont will be integrated into) and part or all of the Ohio Hub. The short story being that everything else would go to the hosts, transit agencies, and foreign operators, but in the end, Amtrak would still operate the most routes in the U.S.

If anyone doubts anything I said in the preceding two paragraphs, I can only tell you that it would only take one member of Congress. For argument's sake, let's say that Amtrak runs the 3C route and Spain's RENFE operates the Chicago-Cincinnati and Columbus-Cincinnati routes. A congressman or congresswoman from the Cincinnati area could threaten to hold up funding for Amtrak unless the Spanish carrier is included in future funding plans. Suddenly, Congress--regardless of which party has control--would have to evenly spread out the money to anybody running a railroad in America.

The president could have given $16.5 billion to Amtrak, but he gave $8.5 billion to the states to develop their high-speed rail plans last year. That move should say something to the Amtrak higher ups: The most Amtrak-friendly president in history diverted more than half of the economic stimulus money intended for intercity rail away from the national carrier! I have said for some time now that Amtrak can only get better if the likes of East Japan, DB, and SNCF beat it out for many of the nation's high speed rail corridors. Being cornered by multiple operators would mean that Boardman and Company would have to reinvent itself rather than be complacent.

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