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Train in Vain

Amtrak struggles from one crisis to the next, with its mission as a national transportation system still unfulfilled

By Shawn Stone

Photo by Joe Putrock

It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station. And it’s a day like any other in the old station’s nearly four decades of use—if you ignore a few untidy facts. The café in the station is closed, leaving patrons to make do with vending machines; the parking area has been revamped from its previous, straightforward layout into a complex maze of asphalt and concrete better suited to a suburban mall; there’s a beautiful new $53 million station towering, unused, over everything.The waiting room is packed with passengers waiting to board trains. The Lake Shore Limited, a long-distance train from Chicago, is split into its two sections: The New York City-bound No. 48 train rolls away, while Boston-bound No. 448 prepares to board passengers on the main track. Even at less-than-half the size of the combined Lake Shore Limited, it’s an impressive sight. The two lead General Electric locomotives (needed to haul the train through the geographical challenges of the Berkshires) are freshly painted in the new blue-and-silver Amtrak “Acela” color scheme, and are followed by a mail and express car, another mail car, a first class sleeping car, a coach, and a coach/cafe car. Standing trackside, everything vibrates as the two big diesels power up.

There’s another train over on track one, a regional Empire Service train stopping on its way to New York City from Niagara Falls. The two really shouldn’t be in the station at the same time, but the Lake Shore rolled in 59 minutes late. (It has for years been affectionately—well, maybe not so affectionately—called the “Late-for-Sure Limited.” By normal Lake Shore standards, 59 minutes isn’t particularly late.) After some moments, the passengers are allowed to board both trains, and the station empties out. The westbound Lake Shore heads toward Pittsfield, and the Empire train rolls south to Hudson.

Everything is working smoothly. The Amtrak employees are courteous and efficient. The trains operate without a hitch. One wouldn’t think that the railroad had just barely survived one financial crisis, and was on the verge of yet another.

Presumably, a lease to use the Capital District Transportation Authority’s new, copper-domed behemoth will be inked soon, and the current, humble station will be abandoned and demolished. Though not built by Amtrak—the old New York Central Railroad put it up before scurrying across the river from Albany’s Union Station—its aesthetic blandness and uninspiring size are of a kind with most of the stations used by Amtrak. These stations have a nickname: “Amshacks.”

“Amshack” is pretty good indication of the mixed regard in which Amtrak is held, even by many of its supporters. They realize that while Amtrak most often does its best, it isn’t what it is supposed to be: a real national passenger railroad system.

At the time Amtrak was created in 1971, rail passenger service—intercity, long-distance, and commuter—had been declining in the United States since the end of World War II. The reasons are both simple and complicated, and widely debated: the rise of the automobile, the growth of airlines, and a punitive tax structure that penalized the railroads for providing what would now be considered a public service, are generally accepted as major contributing factors. The precipitating events, however, were the removal, in Oct., 1967, of first-class mail from the railroads by the U.S. Postal Service (this “business”—though one would be forgiven for seeing it as a “subsidy”—went to the airlines and trucking companies instead), and the catastrophic series of financial crises faced by the Northeastern railroads all through the 1960s. The states made moves toward creating public authorities to operate and fund commuter services; the federal government was urged to do the same for intercity rail transportation. Thus, Amtrak was formed as a means of instituting a national system.

However, Amtrak was created and sold on the basis of a lie, writes Washington Post reporter and Trains columnist Don Phillips. Two lies, actually: One, that the system was intended to last, and, two, that it would make money in relatively short order. According to Phillips, neither the Nixon administration, which adopted the plan—a plan originally conceived and pushed by fledgling passenger-rail-advocacy organizations—nor the freight railroads, who bought into it, ever expected Amtrak to last more than a few years. (A number of historians have suggested that the railroads would never have agreed if they really thought it would survive.) Few experts with any understanding of transportation economics believed that a passenger rail system could exist without subsidies, let alone turn a profit. Phillips expected that, sooner or later, the government would have to face the issue: “Our leaders would be forced by circumstance to make three decisions,” he wrote in Trains. “Do we want Amtrak? If so, what is its function? How do we pay for it?”

It isn’t politic to acknowledge that a major government program, which has received billions of dollars over its three decades of life, is based on a lie. Phillips, who was a young reporter when Amtrak was created, interviewed most of the principal players from the administration and the freight railroads—many explicitly characterized these premises as lies. When he tried to use the word “lie” to describe this history in a story last year, however, a Washington Post editor nixed it. If neither the institutional media nor the political establishment can admit even that much, how will it be possible to have a rational discussion about a national passenger rail system?

In 1998, puzzled and exasperated, Phillips described Amtrak’s first 25 years in Trains: “Year after year, Amtrak lived a ‘perils-of-Pauline’ existence, being saved at the last minute only because some powerful congressman’s train was about to be cut. . . . Amtrak’s only stated purpose remains what it was on May, 1, 1971: to ‘save’ the passenger train.”

Jane Holtz Kay, writing in Asphalt Nation, her 1997 survey on the rise of the automobile, was even more blunt about the act creating Amtrak: “It was little short of a hatchet job. Equipped with wretched cars from a ravaged system and severed from the profitable freight lines, Amtrak got short shrift. . . . The act virtually dictated a permanent state of crisis.”

Kay wasn’t exaggerating: While there have been a few intermittent periods of calm, when the railroad expanded service and managed to avoid the knives of bipartisan budget-cutters, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (that’s the official name; “Amtrak” is a trademark) has spent most of the last 31 years operating the semblance of a national system in manner akin to crisis management.

Just in the last decade, Amtrak has undergone internal structural reorganization: The long distance and regional train management was broken into separate units, and then combined again. A traffic study in the mid-1990s led to experimentation with train frequencies and scheduling that was subsequently abandoned. Some long-distance routes were discontinued, and others added. Whatever the effect on the bottom line—and this is yet another matter of debate—it could not have contributed to the company’s sense of institutional stability.

Waitin’ for a train: the new Rensselaer station. Photo by Joe Putrock

In 1997, the original 25-year Amtrak authorization legislation expired. In a bizarre bit of ideological sleight-of-hand, the Republican-controlled Congress folded the reauthorization bill into the Taxpayer Relief Act. The money, $2.3 billion for capital projects and $5 billion for operations through 2002, was structured as a tax rebate—evidently, a subsidy smells sweeter when freshened with fragrance of “tax relief.” There were strings attached, however: Amtrak would have to be free of all federal subsidy by 2002.

As Jeff Nelligan, then-spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Trains in 1998: “If [Amtrak] can’t make it with these two traunches of money [the $2.3 billion and $5 billion noted above], they don’t deserve to make it.”

Over the next few years, a succession of Amtrak regimes instituted aggressive plans to earn revenue. Long-distance trains took on larger and larger amounts of mail and express business, sometimes with the effect of slowing travel times. (For example, the Three Rivers, a daily long-distance train between Chicago and New York by way of Pittsburgh, was often seen to haul as many as 30 cars of mail and express.) The freight railroads were not pleased with this aggressive competition; Union Pacific took Amtrak to court, and lost. Despite increased revenue from this freight business, and the successful introduction of the high-speed Acela service on the Northeast Corridor, it was clear by at least early 2001 that Amtrak was not going to be able to go on without some government support.

Even so, it was a surprise when, three months ago, newly installed Amtrak president David Gunn said he would be forced to shut the system down nationwide and put the railroad into bankruptcy if the federal government didn’t come up with at least $200 million immediately. (It turns out that the previous regime had accounting practices as curious as any in the private sector; Gunn’s new accountants discovered a mysterious, previously unreported $200 million shortfall from fiscal year 2001.)

Amtrak’s money problems usually get more press than their train wrecks, and this was big news. The politicians listened carefully, and were properly terrified. Many of the small towns served by long-distance trains have developed effective lobbying strategies, and enlisted the active support of Republicans like Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas). In the regions that do have significant Amtrak service, primarily the Northeast, the urban areas of the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and California, a shutdown of the system would have been disastrous, and political support for an immediate bailout was bipartisan and active.

The Northeast Corridor, the Amtrak-owned route between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.—which carries twice the passengers between New York and Washington as the two leading airline shuttles combined—would have been idled, creating a transportation nightmare with all manner of unpleasant side effects: Along with the thousands of intercity passengers who would have been redirected to cars and planes, making Interstate 95 and the region’s metropolitan airports busier than either could safely handle, the numerous commuter lines that share these tracks would have been disrupted. Similar agonizing headaches would have been created in California, where a complex, interconnected system of commuter trains, intercity Amtrak service and bus routes is among the world’s fastest-growing in terms of ridership.

In 1965, when the private railroads’ financial woes and equipment breakdowns threatened the commuter-rail services that shuttled suburbanites into New York City, the New Yorker ran a memorable cartoon showing businessmen with briefcases schlepping along the tracks, lamenting: “I just never imagined they wouldn’t finally come up with some form of government aid.” Gunn detailed the particulars of a system shutdown to the Washington Post on June 22. In the event of an Amtrak bankruptcy and cessation of service, the result would be as seriocomic as the well-dressed trackwalkers in James Stevenson’s cartoon. It would cost $50 million to shut down Amtrak. A skeleton crew of employees would have to be kept on in order to guard the mothballed equipment. The caternary (the overhead electrical wires that power the trains on the Northeast Corridor) would have to continue to be hooked up to the grid so they couldn’t be stolen for scrap value. Inspectors would walk the ghost tracks, just like the characters in the New Yorker cartoon.

After a minor game of what was characterized by the Washington Post as “political chicken,” the Bush administration—which, as with Social Security, would like to see Amtrak at least partially privatized—came to terms with the Congress. The U.S. Department of Transportation approved a $100 million loan. Congress helpfully kicked in with an unrestricted $205 million, which will allow the railroad to operate until the end of this month. In other words, all these problems will be coming to a head again, very soon. The scramble will be on to keep Amtrak, like Cinderella’s carriage, from turning into a pumpkin on Oct. 1.

While the politicians negotiate the railroad’s fate, Amtrak’s Gunn must deal with immediate and significant operational problems. According to Gunn, Amtrak has 105 passenger cars currently out of service. Repair on this equipment has been deferred as a cost-saving measure, but a series of recent accidents has made it necessary to recall laid-off workers at Amtrak’s facilility in Beech Grove, Ind., and start this work immediately. As Gunn explained to writer Wes Vernon in an interview posted on the Internet: “We don’t know what our appropriations will be next year, but it doesn’t matter. Because if they’re not going to give us more money to run Amtrak, we’ll just go out of business with our shops up and running.” Gunn is hoping—betting—that Congress and the Bush administration will fully fund Amtrak.

For 2003, Amtrak is focused on getting the $1.2 billion needed to continue the trains it currently operates. The numerous state-based rail advocacy organizations are doing their best to support Amtrak’s efforts, contacting state and federal legislators, and organizing e-mail and snail-mail letter campaigns.

“We fully believe there is a need for long-distance service, and a national system,” says Bruce B. Becker, president of the Empire State Passengers Association (ESPA). “We support the need for the $1.2 billion (in funding),” says Becker. “That’s where we’ll see if Congress has the stomach to continue the national system.” ESPA, founded in 1980, is a statewide organization advocating the improvement and expansion of rail passenger service in New York. They have an ambitious wish list of projects: a high-speed corridor between Buffalo and Albany, restored rail service for the Southern Tier, coordinated train-bus connections for areas not accessible by rail, additional station stops along existing Amtrak routes—but right now, Becker adds, “We’re trying to hold what we have.”

ESPA also is actively supporting immediate projects such as the track upgrades and equipment renovations to permit high-speed service between Capital Region stations and New York City. The state’s $185 million high-speed program to rebuild seven turbo-powered trains capable of going 125 miles per hour is progressing on schedule at SuperSteel in Schenectady. According to the state Department of Transportation, the first rebuilt turbo train passed its initial tests in runs at the end of last month; more tests will continue through the fall.

Some of the improvements necessary for high-speed service to be fully implemented, such as adding a second track between Albany and Schenectady, are on hold. (“The double-track project between Albany and Schenectady is our number-one priority,” Becker notes.)

Negotiations with the track owner, freight railroad CSX, are pending. CSX takes the position that it should not have to pay additional taxes on new track used only for passenger service; a bill granting freight lines relief from this potential tax liability is, at press time, awaiting Gov. Pataki’s signature.

“Our organization does take the stand that the state can be more of a partner in rail service,” says Becker, pointing out that “the state does partially subsidize the Adirondack.” This daily train between New York City, Albany and Montreal, however, is the only Amtrak service directly supported by New York state. This is in direct contrast to California, which actively supports a network of trains and buses. “They’re a leader in long-term funding,” Becker says.

Richard Silver, president of the Rail Passenger Association of California, heartily agrees. “California has the best operation of any state,” he says. “Gov. Gray Davis has actively pursued expansion of the service, and has spent more money on it than any previous administration.”

California has a corporate partnership with Amtrak—Amtrak California—and subsidizes three major corridors. Each basic rail line has a web of coordinated connections with bus routes, knitting together a comprehensive system of public transportation spanning most of the state. It’s worth noting that this progressive transportation policy has been effected by California voters, as Silver explains: “Previous rail projects have been put through by initiative and referendum.”

Despite the heavy involvement of state funding in California’s intercity rail system, Silver is still a staunch believer in a national system: “We’re hopeful that [Amtrak] is going to get fully funded.” Asked if he believes the federal government will come through with the money, Silver laughs and says, “I’m skeptically optimistic. We keep hearing so many promises.

“Nearly everybody supports [Amtrak],” he adds. “There are a few enemies, but the real problem is that rail is not anybody’s first priority—it’s usually second or third.”

The success of California’s subsidized system helps contradict the usual arguments against government support of intercity rail. These arguments, which usually take the simplistic tack that subsidies are always wrong, are consistently proffered by the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation to justify killing Amtrak. (Sample from a recent Cato Institute press release: “Amtrak . . . should be declared bankrupt, put into receivership, and sold off to private owners.”) These groups tend to gloss over the enormous subsidies given other forms of transportation, especially automobile. Jane Holtz Kay sums up this disparity succinctly: “In 1983 only half of Amtrak’s funding had come from the fare box. A decade later, subsidies had dropped. Passengers now paid for 80 percent of their train tickets, while drivers paid less than half of their costs.”

Where have all the people gone: trackside at Rensselaer.   Photo by Joe Putrock

The folks at CDTA should be able to rest easy—the glamorous new station in Rensselaer will not sit empty forever. It’s odd, though, that such a grand structure has been built strictly for Amtrak service. While this station will host more intercity trains than any other upstate New York Amtrak stop, with daily service to Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Boston and New York City, this is a far cry from what used to roll through Albany’s Union Station. Even 40 years ago, when service was in decline, there were many more trains serving these same destinations. This is a flexibility Amtrak just hasn’t been able to provide its customers. In 1962, the New York Central still offered direct connections from Albany to St. Louis, Detroit, and dozens of other cities. Going to St. Louis or Detroit now requires a change of trains—and a time- consuming layover—in Chicago. Hundreds of former connections are now completely unserved by rail. There was commuter service to Saratoga Springs operated by the Delaware and Hudson Railway, as well as D&H regional service to Binghamton and the North Country. There was an overnight train to Montreal. The new station may have the capacity to handle many more customers, but for now, it won’t have the traffic to attract them.

If history is any indication, the most likely outcome for Amtrak in this contentious election year, with talk of war and spiraling deficits dominating the headlines, is a short-term bailout. There will likely be no additional money for stabilizing or expanding the system, and Amtrak will continue to struggle along to the next crisis. There will be just enough money to keep the trains rolling.

Ironically, this is not what the American people want. According to July polls taken separately by CNN/USA Today/Gallup and the Washington Post, Americans all across the country favor, by more than 70 percent, continued federal subsidies for Amtrak. They favor an integrated national passenger rail system. The question is, will they ever get it?

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