Airlines aren’t the only passenger transportation systems in trouble because of the pandemic. Earlier this month, Amtrak announced severe cuts to train service, including reducing daily long-distance service to three times a week.
Among the trains affected are the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight, which call at Seattle’s King Street Station. Amtrak operates a maintenance base here, too. The Builder, which traces its route to James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway, goes from Seattle (and Portland) to Chicago. The Starlight goes to Los Angeles.
With ridership down 95% since the COVID-19 outbreak, the national passenger system (which outside of the Northeast Corridor runs on the lines of freight railroads) is also preparing layoffs.
The announcement comes after Amtrak posted record ridership and growth in the Northeast Corridor for fiscal 2019. State-supported lines elsewhere, such as the Amtrak Cascades, either set records or performed very well. Even long-distance trains gained more ridership.
Amtrak has received $1.5 billion in federal relief but will need more than temporary funding alone to fulfill its potential.
It’s difficult to believe, but through the 1950s America enjoyed the world’s finest passenger-train network. The trains were operated by scores of private railroads. They ranged from ordinary no-name trains to famed luxury “varnish” such as the Santa Fe’s Super Chief, frequented by movie stars, and the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited.
Seattle was served by the Northern Pacific, Milwaukee Road and Union Pacific, in addition to the Great Northern. One could travel to nearly every sizable town or city by rail.
While highways and airports were heavily subsidized by the government, railroads were taxed at high rates and stringently regulated, a holdover of the Progressive Era when they were dominant and mighty. Not surprisingly, the railroads withered, and not only for passenger service. The industry didn’t recover until the 1980s Staggers Act lifted the old regulations.
But passenger trains were the most noticeable casualties, especially after construction of the Interstate Highway System and the advent of the jet airliner.
The situation spun in a lethal direction when the Postal Service canceled almost all railroad mail contracts in 1967-68. These “head-end” cars, including the iconic railway post offices where mail was sorted under way, provided the revenue that offset declining passenger revenues.
To save at least a skeletal intercity passenger system, Congress and the Nixon administration established Amtrak. The private railroads could unload their passenger trains on the new quasi-public corporation. It began operations on May 1, 1971.
Even so, the losses were brutal. The day before Amtrak, the nation hosted 440 passenger trains, even after all the “train off” cancellations of the previous decade. Amtrak retained only 184, most on the Northeast Corridor. Many cities and towns lost service.
Among the casualties were the former Northern Pacific’s crack North Coast Limited and Mainstreeter to Seattle, as well as the Great Northern’s Western Star. Amtrak took over the Milwaukee Road’s North Coast Hiawatha from Chicago to Seattle, but it was a casualty of budget cuts in 1979.
From its inception, Amtrak’s setup contained two blunders that would hold the carrier back. Blunders that leave America far behind other advanced nations — with the exception of Canada, whose Via Rail is even worse off.
First, outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak was a prisoner of the freight railroads. Before 1971, most passenger trains received the fastest-routing privileges on railroads. Woe to the Great Northern dispatcher who held up the premier Empire Builder for a lowly freight train. The freight took a siding while the Builder sped past on the main line.
After 1971, Amtrak received the same preferential status. But in recent years the government has failed to enforce the agreement, and on-time performance has suffered.
Second, Amtrak never received a reliable and adequate funding source from the federal government, as is the case with highways (even though they don’t pay for themselves). Instead, it was pushed to become self-sustaining and its annual subsidy became a battle each year in Congress.
Every form of public transportation is government subsidized. The difference with Amtrak is that the public was fed a myth that it’s the only one.
Many Republicans have pushed to privatize the passenger railroad, spinning off the Northeast Corridor and killing long-distance lines. President Donald Trump has proposed cutting Amtrak funding in half.
Still, the politics of intercity trains aren’t predictable. Some Republican members of Congress work to keep Amtrak’s subsidy going. The train is often the best transportation for towns in their rural districts.
Democrats are supportive of passenger trains, at least to the status-quo level. Most prominent is the party’s presumptive nominee, the train-riding “Amtrak Joe” Biden. However, President Jimmy Carter, with a Democratic-controlled Congress, eliminated six routes in 1979. President Bill Clinton tried to kill federal assistance but the Senate would have none of it.
In general, Congress rightly sees Amtrak as a public good.
Even so, Amtrak’s $2 billion subsidy for fiscal 2020 is 0.0436% of the federal budget or 0.15% of discretionary spending. The Pentagon received $738 billion.
As a consequence, Amtrak is in constant budget-cutting mode. This ensures a feedback loop of failure or disappointment. The spending is far below what’s needed to maintain a First World system of intercity passenger trains (and the economic stimulus of building high-speed rail is a subject that would require another column).
To be sure, we’ve seen some victories. Passenger trains remained popular until COVID-19 smacked all transportation. State-supported regional intercity systems have been highly successful. The Acela higher-speed trains in the Northeast Corridor shine, and new versions, capable of 165 miles per hour, are set to debut next year.
Modern intercity passenger trains are more important than ever because they haul people with far less climate-change-causing carbon emissions than jet airliners and automobiles.
So if you’re a train-half-full kind of person, this is a moment to push Congress to ensure Amtrak’s post-pandemic future. That especially means a secure funding source and requirement that freight railroads give passenger trains priority over freights.
Anything else is a hell of a way to run a railroad.