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February 20, 2019

National Network Trains And Corridor Growth Can Co-exist

Many of you probably saw the story in today’s Wall Street Journal suggesting that Amtrak plans to propose a bold growth plan for service in the Southeast and West, but will gut the existing National Network to make it happen. We talked at length last week with the reporter working on that story, and for those of you who don’t subscribe, here’s how that turned out:

A plan that cuts back service on the long-distance routes, especially one eliminating stops in small rural communities, won’t be politically viable, said Jim Matthews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.

The railroad, which was chartered by Congress in 1971 to preserve passenger rail service as private carriers dropped out of the business, is charged with operating a national service, Mr. Matthews noted, and representatives and senators from states served by the long-haul trains have proven fierce opponents of efforts to cut back service.

While his group supports new, frequent corridors of intercity service, it won’t do so at the price of the long-distance routes, Mr. Matthews said.

Congress has backed Mr. Matthews’s position in the past, including in the bipartisan spending bill passed this month, which included language urging Amtrak to preserve existing long-distance routes, which serve nearly 5 million riders a year.

Amtrak has floated this trial balloon before. And our answer last year was the same as it is now: of course we support better, more frequent, daylight service into under-served or un-served communities. Enthusiastically. And we’ll fight tooth and nail to get it.

What we reject is the idea that we have to choose between having more and better trains in these fast-growing areas or having a National Network that connects the entire U.S. And we certainly reject the idea that small communities which today depend on Amtrak service as an economic engine should lose their service in exchange for Cincinnati getting to see trains in the daytime.

That’s because as a government-supported enterprise, Amtrak exists to serve not just growing communities, but as much of America as possible. And that includes places like Normal, Ill., Meridian, Miss., Minot, N.D., and Cut Bank, Mt. Let’s face it, if it were profitable to serve Cut Bank, BNSF would be falling all over itself to file with the Federal Railroad Administration to launch twice-daily service through the High Line. Obviously, that’s not happening, and that’s precisely why for decades American citizens – acting through their elected representatives – have continued to support having an Amtrak to operate that service.

Passenger trains make money by generating jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development. The communities served get the “profit” rather than Amtrak, and that’s okay. We taxpayers support Amtrak in part because we want these towns to thrive and their citizens to have access to jobs and mobility.

That’s the same message we shared with Amtrak last Spring when we first heard about the idea of boosting service on popular segments. Then as now, we welcomed the idea of new and better service, but sought assurances that this would not come at the expense of the communities and passengers who rely on the service today.

I wrote a letter to Amtrak Chair Anthony Coscia last April, and met again with him last May to share our concerns in person. Mr. Coscia was reassuring, and outlined a vision at that time which, frankly, all rail advocates could support. It would be a shame if Amtrak today is walking back that vision.

First, he told me last May that there is NO plan to dismantle the National Network. Mr. Coscia said that Amtrak recognizes that as a government-supported enterprise, it has a "mission" (his word) beyond the balance sheet, and that top management is "committed to the mission."

Mr. Coscia allowed that over the long horizon, perhaps decades, the overall shape of Amtrak's National Network is likely to change simply based on population shifts, demographic trends and economic growth. We can’t possibly disagree with this, especially as we already begin to see those changes emerge in ridership.

But as of our meeting last Spring, there had been no firm decisions made on what the final shape of "Amtrak 2.0" would look like. Mr. Coscia explained that Amtrak planners, led by CEO Richard Anderson and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner, were still working on a roadmap of how to get there, a roadmap with a horizon measured in decades rather than months.

Mr. Coscia described for me the way the concept was beginning to take shape as development focused on corridor services with strong growth potential in lightly served or un-served areas. He cited as examples the entire Southeast U.S., or corridors like Chicago-St. Louis, or Chicago-Minneapolis. He went on to describe the picture as "corridors hanging off the legacy National Network routes like a necklace."

The Network map as it exists today is hardly ideal, and is skeletal at best. "It was not drawn in a way to maximize service to those who need it or to provide value," he told me. "It was to benefit the railroads who were getting bailed out by the creation of Amtrak."

Mr. Coscia then turned to Amtrak’s responsibility as a recipient of federal funds to make sure that the plans for the future serve the maximum number of Americans possible, especially those who need mobility and have fewer options such as the elderly, the disabled and rural residents. He specifically mentioned the elderly, disabled and rural residents, folks for whom we at Rail Passengers spend a lot of time advocating.

Years down the road, there may come a time when the "legacy National Network routes no longer meet the mission," Mr. Coscia told me then, "but looking at the map today I can't identify any that don't."

As a rhetorical device when talking with elected and appointed officials about the value of long-distance trains, I often use “Grandma in Cut Bank.” I did so with Mr. Coscia, underscoring how "Grandma in Cut Bank deserves to have the train take her to Spokane for her medical treatments." Mr. Coscia’s response was that Amtrak’s corridor ideas are about the growth of Amtrak and a vision for the future, but that "doesn't mean that we have to take away that train from Chicago to Seattle if that's the train she needs."

The vision in today’s Wall Street Journal story doesn’t match that exchange. It has been nearly a year, and things can change. But recent actions by the U.S. Congress suggest that they would support a vision such as the one Mr. Coscia outlined for me last May. Congress appropriates taxpayer dollars every year to Amtrak because it’s a vital and cost-effective tool of economic development. And as most of you no doubt saw last week, not only is Congress repeating the message that a real National Network is important and needs to be supported, but it’s putting its money where its mouth is, appropriating near-record dollars for a second year to advance Amtrak service around the country.

Against that backdrop, it’s clear that Amtrak need not be timid in asking Congress to support growth and new services. There is political and fiscal appetite to do more, and that’s the plan Amtrak should submit. We do not need to choose, especially when the choice offered is a false one. That’s the message I’ve delivered consistently to Amtrak over the past year, and it’s one you can help amplify by getting in touch with your congressional representative or Senator. (Members can find their elected officials by following this link.)