“Having spent much of my productive life at the state and federal levels observing, studying, regulating and then leading a rail management team, I am appalled with what increasingly appears to be a unilateral violation of the public trust by Amtrak's current leadership to dismantle our interconnected, intercity passenger network, beginning with the hollowing out of its long-distance passenger network.
-Joseph Boardman, former Chief Executive Officer, in Railway Age, May 10, 2018
“There's something about a train that's magic...” In the 1980s Amtrak launched what may have been its most successful marketing campaign ever. In the face of shutdown budgets from the Ronald Reagan Administration, Amtrak, which had taken over most American intercity passenger trains in 1971, ran a series of television advertisements for its of long-distance western trains, featuring the throaty and sensuous voice of Colleen Dewhurst promising mystery and adventure: "And where the Rockies are most forbiddingThe legendary folksinger Richie Havens ends the commercials with a plaintive “All Aboard Amtrak.”
Passengers flocked to the trains, whose 1950s-era equipment had recently been replaced by double-deck Superliner cars. And every time Reagan or his successors promised to cut Amtrak out of the budget, these same passengers deluged their representatives in Congress with letters and calls, and the national system survived. Today the “national” in the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak's official name, is under assault by, of all people, its Chief Executive Officer. And his first target for elimination is the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.
In its first 46 years of operation, Amtrak's management understood that while the busy Boston-New York-Washington Northeast Corridor was the core of its operation, it had an obligation to serve the rest of the country as well, with both short-distance intercity trains and the overnight long-hauls, such as the Empire Builder and Southwest Chief. Not only do the long-distance trains serve places with little or no alternative public transportation, they assure support from members of Congress who would hesitate to fund Northeastern service alone. But on January 1, 2018, when former Delta Airlines chief Richard Anderson became Amtrak's sole CEO, that whole understanding has vanished.
Anderson is no believer in the magic of train travel. After all, air travel once had its own aura of magic. But since the advent of airline deregulation and the rise of executives such as Anderson, flying has become more of an ordeal than a magical experience. And Anderson's first actions as Amtrak CEO were to impose the kind of passenger-unfriendly rules so familiar to fliers—confiscatory refund policies, the elimination of discount programs such as AAA and Veterans' Advantage, and a reduction in senior and child discounts.
It then announced it would eliminate (the press release said “retire”) the Pacific Parlour Car on the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight—a first-class lounge car that has boosted ridership on the route. There are no plans to replace it.
In late March Amtrak announced it would stop operating most special trains or charter operations, thus throwing away the goodwill of hundreds of organizations, along with the extra revenue such services provided.
And then Anderson began bad-mouthing the long-hauls. At the California Rail Summit April 19, Anderson, who appeared angry when asked about the services, said that the long-distance services cost $750 million a year to operate (a figure based on questionable accounting practices—something I'll cover in a later post), and then went on to complain that only four per cent of passengers travel from end to end. This seems to reflect Anderson's airline background—the idea of multiple stops is simply alien to him. Anderson was asked, “What about the 'National' in NRPC? Are you not supposed to operate a national system? He was, according to one observer, “fuming,” and abruptly said,“Anyone have a question about policy?” as though these questions weren't.
On the same day as the California Rail Summit, a news release announced that “Amtrak will offer contemporary and fresh dining choices for sleeping car customers, instead of traditional dining car service, embarking aboard its Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited trains beginning June 1. Translation: No more hot meals; cold boxed dinners for sleeping car passengers, whose meals are included in the ticket price; and no option but the lounge car menu for coach passengers, who until June 1, could pay for meals in the diner.
And then on May 8, railroad artist and railfan Andrew Fletcher released a bombshell—an e-mail he had received from Joe Boardman, Amtrak CEO from 2008 to 2016—which accused Amtrak management of attempting to eliminate the national Amtrak system beginning with the Southwest Chief. I was skeptical at first because the e-mail seemed hastily written and was replete with grammar and punctuation errors. It was not like the well-crafted Boardman messages I was used to reading when I worked for Amtrak. But Mr. Boardman confirmed the message, and later published a more polished version in Railway Age, That a former Amtrak CEO would publicly criticize his successor was unprecedented.
Amtrak, Boardman reminds us, “is not a privately held corporation whose fate is to be determined by a few individuals behind closed doors. It was created by the people and for the people and and is funded by taxpayers who help supplement Amtrak's farebox revenue. Amtrak provides a cherished public service, with opinion polls repeatedly validating support for its existence and even expansion.”
And in June, Boardman's prediction that “Amtrak management and its board of directors have drawn a line in the sand at the foot of Raton Pass, targeting the Southwest Chief as their first—but not last—long-distance train to target for cutting” came true.
The Chief is a special case. Much of its route through Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico is little-used or unused by Burlington Northern Santa Fe freights. But BNSF was willing to work with the states and Amtrak to maintain the line. And the states came up with the money, in the form of TIGER (Transportation Investment Gaining Economic Opportunity) Grants. In March of this year, New Mexico Senator Mark Udall announced that Colfax County, New Mexico had received a $16 million TIGER grant for improvements on a 200-mile stretch of track between Lamy, New Mexico and Trinidad, Colorado.
But there was a catch: Amtrak had to make a $3 million copayment in order for the county to receive the grant. And in May, Amtrak Chief Financial Officer William Feidt refused to make the payment unless "a comprehensive financial plan and accompanying commitments by relevant states and BNSF for the remainder of the infrastructure investments and additional maintenances (sic) costs for this route in New Mexico must be completed.” Amtrak has never imposed such conditions on track improvement projects on other segments of its route.
Senators and Representatives from the there states were incensed, to say the least, at Amtrak's decision to renege on its earlier commitment to maintain the line. They requested a meeting with Amtrak officials. But instead of negotiating with the people's representatives, they arrogantly refused to consider anything but cutting the route. They proposed replacing the train with bus service between Dodge City, Kansas or La Junta, Colorado on the one hand, and Albuquerque, New Mexico on the other. New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich said, I think this was one of the most unproductive meetings with an agency level official that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “To learn that not only are they planning to pull back their commitment to the TIGER grant, but that they're going to abandon the route I think is just outrageous.”
And if Anderson gets his way, he'll effectively kill the train. There's very little about a bus that's magic, after all.
Image: Westbound Southwest Chief emerging from Raton Tunnel, by "Hinge of Fate," Wikimedia Commons