Trains For America

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Amtrak August meltdown

In the hottest  days of summer, and the peak of vacation travel, expect Amtrak to fall apart. This will, I am sure, be an incomplete and cursory review of trouble spots, so please feel free to add any relevant information in the “comments” section.

The most notable snarl is in the northwest where all Talgo trainsets have been pulled from service. The extremely popular Spanish-built tilt trains have apparently developed cracks in an undercarriage. This reportedly effects only one set of equipment, but it’s no telling how long the trains will be out of service for inspections and possible repairs. The Seattle Times has an excellent report.

Now the dominoes begin to fall. Cars from California and regional trains in the northeast are rolling to Seattle as service is expected to resume next week. Many corridor trains in the NYC area will be standing room only for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the replacement equipment will not meet the faster Talso schedules. Customer dissatisfaction is already reported.

The Heartland Flyer, while not providing an essential transportation link between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, has been plagued with deteriorating track conditions and Amtrak locomotive failures. Bus replacements have damaged Amtrak’s already fading credibility.

The Texas Eagle rolled into my home town (Little Rock) about 15 hours late yesterday after a locomotive failure. The Chicago arrival was equally as late, just after sunrise today.

Did I mention that the Sunset is still “suspended” east of New Orleans?

Then there are the other “long distance” trains. The Coast Starlight and Sunset are subject to  inexplicable delays on account of dispatching, equipment, track deterioration, motor vehicle accidents, and plagues of locusts. The once stellar performance of the California Zephyr is a mere memory as the  “summer maintenance schedule” has lengthened an already unreliable schedule.

It is hard to read a pattern into the unfolding disaster, but there does seem to e one underlying theme. It is beyond dispute that every form of transportation suffers unavoidable delays and this has been a terrible year for airlines.It is also true that “host” freight railroads are working to improve their own right-of-way.

This is a “macro” view. Amtrak is bleeding the long distance trains to death. There is not enough equipment, and no new rolling stock on the way. There is a congressional mandate for no route expansion, so there will be no new equipment. Amtrak President Alex Kummant’s testimony to congress contained little information about long distance trains.

Politically, the Bush administration can not win an outright fight to destroy Amtrak’s cross-country operations, but they don’t need to do more than pursue a deliberate policy of “benign neglect.” The plan  is working perfectly.

Amtrak needs to figure out what it is. Our view is that the National Rail Passenger Corporation provides a mix of fast corridor service and necessary long distance trains. Amtrak is, therefore, both a transportation company and a social service provider.

Transportation is a benefit to families and businesses. It is no small thing to provide reliable service to places like Meridian and Dodge City. In an earlier thread, the Billings, Montana newspaper aptly showed the positive effect of good rail service in the frigid north.

As long as Amtrak trains are totally unreliable, travelers will seek other alternatives. That is exactly the goal of Kummant and the Bush administration.

Rail lines were built in the 19th Century with a public-private partnership and an understanding that those companies would haul goods and people. So long as these continue as mega-profitable corporations, a deal is still a deal.

This obviously leaves the door open to more public-private partnerships to increase railroad capacity for freight and passenger. It is a basic part of the national “grid.”

Amtrak needs a reliable source of funding and a multi-year budget so that some intelligent planning can begin.  As that plan comes together, Amtrak needs more locomotives and passenger cars. Finally, there must be more dots on the map, more destinations.

This is a relatively inexpensive part of a balanced and intelligent national transportation policy.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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