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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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Amtrak takes (yet) another step in the wrong direction

There are two stories from RailPAC that actually confirm that: 1) Amtrak management simply does not get it and 2) the agency is in serious danger of being left behind once true competition begins.

The first one is from the group's president while the second one points out doublespeak from a national operator that contains Northeast-centric management. 

In regards to Paul Dyson's commentary, Joe Boardman clearly has one foot out the door since he is ripping his own staff while he refuses to go after Union Pacific. It also shows that the Amtrak boss has revealed himself for what he really is--a career bureaucrat who is angling for the next available government job. Given that Amtrak doesn't really care about expanding on its own (i.e., adding non-state supported routes to the National System), it's time for the company to retire the "America's Railroad" gimmick. Let's be honest: Boardman only began using it when SNCF and JR Central drew up their own plans and posed as real threats in 2009. Even though High Speed Rail Mania is over, Amtrak has to deal with the likes of Virgin, First Group, and various AIPRO members bidding for corridor and long-distance services.

If Amtrak senior management really cared about cutting the company's costs, someone over in D.C. would have figured out a way to put rehabbed Superliners in Beech Grove, IN back into service while also adding equipment to help out the western states. It's really sad that those states are forced to supply cars for long-distance trains because the national organization is unwilling to do so.

I applaud Dyson's advocating a breakup of Amtrak for at least getting a conversation going on how to break the monopoly. Proposing a breakup of Amtrak has been dormant since 2002 when Amtrak, Congress, the Bush Administration, and rail advocates completely ignored the recommendation from the Amtrak Reform Council. The rail unions are also a part of the problem since they were on the forefront in turning back any breakup plans then and again last year when the divestment of the NEC was seriously being discussed. Just separating the long-distance network from the Northeast Corridor would produce more jobs and let the non-NEC network grow. If the private competitors are stymied by legislation and/or the FRA, this would have to be the option of last resort because people are tired of being led by the nose of an organization that pretty much says that only passengers on a 457-mile line between Washington and Boston mean anything while they are screaming for better train service in their own communities. Personally, I still think that my consortium idea would be a better fit if we are to get a national rail network going again in this country.

Not only does NARP need to be called out but so do the various organizations that hate competition because they claim to want better train service but they throw their hands up when pressed for solutions and they tend to ignore anything that is outside of the scope of Amtrak when others provide ideas.

Regarding a conspiracy: I wonder if the real conspiracy was for the feds to gauge interest from foreign and independent operators, only to pull the rug when times got rough. Such a move would then lead to the current monopoly being preserved.

Here's what the public needs to know about Russ Jackson's commentary:
  • Amtrak's so-called "aggressive agenda" is virtually centered in the NEC (where else?) with a few bones thrown in for eastern long-distance and Cascade routes (10 of the 13 listed items were NEC first or NEC only)
  • Boardman's refusal to press UP on making the Sunset Limited daily is proof enough that this route needs to be transferred pronto and that Congress has to act by letting the private sector handle other long-distance routes. It also shows that the Amtrak president/CEO is unwilling to fight the big boy railroads when the hosts' price tags are exaggerated at best and full-out extortion at worst
  • Amtrak is not interested in expansion. If anyone wants to make a claim to that giving the agency more money will make things better, I have a rail tunnel to sell you. All or almost all of the non-NEC work is coming out the pockets of one state or another
  • “One of the things I learned in the transit business before I came to Amtrak is that as I added more trains during the peak hour my losses increased. Right now, the business model that exists for long-distance trains is that as you add trains your losses increase, and that is our policy direction coming from the administration and Congress, so Amtrak believes that is achieved by rebuilding the equipment we have.” As for that quote, I have this to say: If that is true, Mr. Boardman, then your company is clearly doing something wrong. What about that record ridership that you bragged about last fall? What about the fact that western trains like the Zephyr and the Builder are so packed that people are turned away during the summer? And your organization doesn't want to make all overnight trains daily? I'm sure that someone with a better business plan could--I don't know--find a way to make a profit and add frequencies along congested routes

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