Trains For America

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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

3 Responses

  1. Jerry H. Sullivan, P.E. (retired) says:

    We have a situation here in Florida, where we are basically being held hostage for service to the west, unless the states come up with money to subsidize the former Sunset Limited service. It is doubtful if the Sunset LImited, as such, will ever return, but a daily, connecting, full service, i.e. coach, sleepers, diner train either bi-level or uni-level would be fine if it is a non-overnight connection in NewOrleans.
    Having said that, I do not want one penney of my state budget dollars going to subsidize ANY interstate service. That is a Federal responsbility, otherwise why else would the government subsidize highways and by extension truckers, Greyhound, and private cars, and the airlines.

  2. MadPark says:

    Excellent points – I find it astonishing that Amtrak continues to defy and deny its original intent to pay for and operate a comprehensive interstate national passenger railway. It is unconscionable that the Northeast Corridor trains get no support from the states through which they travel while here in Washington state we bought 3 of the 5 Talgo trainsets used here plus OR and WA pump millions to operating the trains as well. Same in CA and other states, which is fine if the states chose to do so, but the same rules should apply to all for short distance glorified commuter-type day trains. A comprehensive, extensive long distance system is and should be the responsibility of Amtrak or another more capable and less politician beholden, reformed national operating company.

  3. The former SRRTC group is having a meeting in Birmingham on
    April 23 at which the preliminary report of the fate of the Sunset
    Limited is to be revealed. We, along the eastern route of the Sunset
    wait with baited breath and figure that we will be forgotten again.

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