Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Amtrak, a federal responsibility

Evan Stair has one of his typically well-considered (and sometimes troubling) commentaries.


With all the new federal capital investment in Amtrak comes this story from Billings, MT. The Pioneer was a Long Distance train that operated from Chicago to Portland, OR. It was discontinued in the dark days of 1997. The train operated as a part of the monster combined California Zephyr, Desert Wind, Pioneer if I remember correctly. When I rode it in 1991 it split in Salt Lake City, but a few weeks later it split in Denver.

Tempering excitement is in order. The Pioneer route ended 12 years ago. It is no more a legacy Amtrak route than the Lone Star that operated between Chicago and Houston. Unlike the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans, the route has been removed from Amtrak’s timetables. Amtrak’s inability to introduce Long Distance service during the past two decades is actually “policy” until any of us hear differently. The decade long expansion trend
is through supplemental state funding.

The Pioneer route will be studied. This is a federal requirement. Had more support come from Middle America, other studies would have been required, such as reintroducing the Lone Star between Chicago and Houston. However, remember these are just studies. Amtrak is not obligated to “move dirt.” Unfortunately, Middle America wants Congress out of their business and pocketbooks. Despite the fact that Amtrak is in reality an interstate passenger rail carrier, Congress still desires to shirk their interstate commerce responsibility on the states.

What would a reintroduced Pioneer resemble? If recent history is considered, it could be roughly a 775 mile route, and that just between Salt Lake City and Portland (about 15 hours). If Amtrak goes through Cheyenne, WY the route is about 1,300 miles (about 26 hours). The burning question following the study will be, “Who will pay for operation when Congress pressures states to fund Amtrak operations?”

Will the Congressmen and Senators who pushed the study increase Amtrak’s annual operating budget to cover Pioneer operating losses? If so, will this set an operational funding warming trend? I personally desire this and an associated flood of future requests. Amtrak’s system is less-than-skeletal and it is therefore drastically inefficient. Certain efficiencies can be
gained only through business expansion. The nation might find that it gets more bang for the buck with Amtrak expansion. The question for any route study, “Is the proportional benefit to increased operational funding greater than the increased operational loss?” This can only be measured by looking at Amtrak’s national system as a whole and tweaking it for
efficiency (less loss), and not profit. In an era of super computers, unlike 1970-1971 an Amtrak system efficiency study is possible.

Capital funding is easy when examining the provisions of recently approved federal legislation. However, After Amtrak repairs its rolling stock, which would have to include diners and sleeping cars for a long distance Pioneer, will any Northwest state legislature approve funding for a train that operates in their territory at Dark:30? I can already hear the debate in the various state legislatures who might get the 3:00am train.

This has always been the supplemental state funding challenge. It is why the Lone Star has not returned in full and why the Heartland Flyer remains stub ended in Oklahoma City. I speculate that until federal policy for Amtrak operational funding changes, you will not see many state funded routes introduced over the 500 mile – 10 hour transit time.

Evan Stair
Vice President – Oklahoma
Northern Flyer Alliance


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

No groundswell to restore Amtrak Pioneer?

A guy named Brent Hunsaker on Channel 4 opines about Amtrak and the proposed restoration of service between Denver and Portland. The business geniuses that run Channel 4 nowhere (that I can see) tell us what city is served by their particular brand of misinformation. It must be a secret.

Once you get a piece of half baked statistical nonsense in the air, there’s no stopping it. I have a pretty good idea I know Mr. Hunsaker’s political and economic allegiances without asking, but let’s be generous. He perfectly reflects airlines, truckers, and the Tea Party crowd.

Republican Senator Mike Carpo of Idaho is apparently pushing for this because the train would make stops along the way in his home state.  Senator Carpo says Amtrak “has started a search for a consultant.”

Amtrak shut down the pioneer line in 1997.  Why?  — Because in 1996, it lost the railroad $20-million.

So they’re going to bring it back because… Why?  — So it can lose more money?

Are the people of Salt Lake or Seattle clamoring for it?  I am aware of no grassroots efforts.  (There are a couple blogs out there.)

So, can we expect that enough people will ride it so a $20-million dollar loss (in ’96 dollars) can be turned into a profit?  How about just break even?  Several airlines including Southwest fly the route.  I would be willing to bet my grandma’s nest egg that Amtrak would not be able to steal enough of their business to turn that loss into a profit.

I did a little checking and Boise is very well served by air carriers. Yes, Southwest goes to Boise, but not Cheyenne or the other smaller towns. served by Amtrak. Urban elitists do not understand that, out here in middle America, people do not ride Amtrak trains from end to end. Amtrak is a transportation service for rural areas.

The $20 million thing is  figured used against every long distance train. I have never been able to figure out how it is calculated, but it is unquestionably true that Amtrak requires a subsidy. Hunsaker’s crowd would have you believe that highways don’t cost anything and trucks don’t tear them to pieces.

It is kind of funny that every industrialized nation on earth has a decent network of passenger trains, except the one that is run by big money special interests.

Let’s see: Cheyenne, Green River, Pocatello, Shoshone, La Grande, Pendleton, and The Dalles. All small to medium towns and each needing transportation service. Why should it depend on whether they can make enough noise to penatrate the lofty glass castles of urban snobs?

And it’s not as if airlines have been wonderfully well-managed (except Southwest) and dutifully serving the public interest. So back off on Amtrak.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

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April 2009