Amtrak at a crossroads - could better service kill long haul trains?

I entered my Amtrak bedroom for the trip from Seattle to Chicago and saw the bench seat for two that would turn into a bed. Across from it was the captain’s chair beside the large window and facing the other way. Those were expected. What was unexpected was that the captain’s chair was broken, it leaned forward such that it would send an occupant sliding onto the floor. A minor inconvenience in an otherwise great trip. I could sit in many other places, such as the lounge car, dining car and my comfortable bench seat. I would need the captain’s chair only to hold my backpack, which it still could do. What I now realize, however, is that my broken captain’s chair presaged the doom of long distance train service in America.

Lounge cars on long haul trains provide panoramic windows, an alternative place to sit, visiting with other passengers and a snack bar

Lounge cars on long haul trains provide panoramic windows, an alternative place to sit, visiting with other passengers and a snack bar

Any complex system, whether a transportation system or whatever, results from choices made to optimize its ability to perform designated tasks. You can optimize for one thing, but sometimes at the expense of another feature.

Our Amtrak system has two somewhat conflicting systems choices.  We want efficient service between major metropolitan centers, such as we have along parts of the East coast, and we want the long haul trains that go thousands of miles, back and forth across the country. These two goals are not the same thing.

We often hear laments and “shame, shames” that the US does not have lots of high speed trains linking cities. But most people probably don’t realize that part of the reason is that we do have long haul services.

Why are these two features in conflict? In a world of unlimited resources, they may not be. But in a world where tough choices are being forced on the rail transport system, we might have to choose which we want to emphasize and support. 

Lets consider Pittsburgh and Cleveland. They are about 130 miles apart. Driving takes only about 2 hours, though with traffic getting in and out of city centers the drive could be closer to 3 hours. An Amtrak train right now takes about 3 hours, city center to center. If we could bump up train speeds it would be possible to imagine that a train could make that trip reliably in 2 hours. That might be very competitive. Indeed, for some people even the existing 3 hours could be acceptable for an intercity rail link option. 

But, and it’s a big but, there is only one train a day. And the one from Pittsburgh to Cleveland leaves at midnight and arrives Cleveland at 3am. That’s because it is part of a once-a-day long haul overnight train from DC to Chicago.

I’ve been on that train and loved it. Leaving DC at 4pm and arriving in Chicago at 9am was a relaxing way to travel, getting a good nights sleep while being taken to where I wanted to go anyway. But if we wanted a convenient train alternative for the people of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, then this schedule is wholly inadequate. It isn't just that there is only one train, bad as that is, it’s at a time when no one wants to ride it. High speed trains don’t fix this. Breaking away from from the long haul train schedule is simply required. 

So unless as a Nation we choose to provide Amtrak with capital and a budget for both, only one of the city to city or the long haul services will be available for much of the country. Choose you must.  

Amtrak has said it would like to build and emphasize the city to city routes which would pull in many more customers. It could build, add to and upgrade routes between cities and begin to give us a modern rail transportation system that serves routes where customers are already wanting to get on board. You may hear talk about how we can’t do this (everything is too far away, the land in-between is already developed). Significant as these issues are, it just is not true that we can’t do this. Amtrak already has a plan to expand city to city coverage in its system. Good for Amtrak, we like fast modern city to city routes!  As we look across the Atlantic and Pacific, we wonder why we can’t have what they already have.

Amtrak can’t however focus its resources on city to city by terminating the long haul services without Congress giving it’s okay, something that Congress has refused to do. Good for Congress, we like those long haul routes! 

Lounge car on Emprire Builder in Montana

Lounge car on Emprire Builder in Montana

So back to my broken captain’s chair. When I asked the attendant about it he shrugged with some sympathy but indicated there was nothing he could do on the train while in transit. Fair enough.

He suggested that many passengers had put their hard luggage under the seat to prop it up. I didn’t have hard luggage, soft backpack only. But his suggestion made me realize that this was a common enough problem that passengers had already adopted known strategies to deal with it. In other words, this seat is still broken even now and it isn’t going to get fixed.

Indeed, most of the cars that house the dining and sleeping facilities in the long haul trains are nearing the end of their service lives. Broken items needing but not getting repairs will become prevalent and more severe. Eventually they will need to be retired. The superliner cars also provide ample sized seating for long haul trains, making sleeping in coach and business a real option. All these cars need to be replaced too, and soon. Apparently, that is going to cost around $3 billion.

And so choices will have to be made as to what to buy. New sleeper cars? More of the ample leg room coach cars? More dining cars? Or, new cars better suited to intercity travel at distances only a few hours apart? Those aren’t the same thing. Whether Congress likes it or not, the choice to discontinue long haul service may be made for them.

Coach seats on Regional train on the northeast corridor, this one between NYC and DC

Coach seats on Regional train on the northeast corridor, this one between NYC and DC

Of course, the problem is that we force Amtrak to justify its existence as a profit making enterprise. Somewhat perversely, we expect the more environmentally sound transport system to pay for itself. We don’t ask that our city streets turn a profit, nor our sidewalks, highways, subways, public busses and airports. We may collect user fees or charge modest fees for parking private cars on public land, but we don’t think these infrastructures only should exist if they are profitable. But we do for Amtrak. It is supposed to minimize its Federal operating subsidy and gets flack when it doesn’t. And therefore we don’t provide it the public sourced capital that other transportation systems get.

The Federal Highway Adminstration last year requested $48 billion, just for that year, in order to maintain and preserve our Nation’s highways. That doesn’t count State funds used for this purpose. The FAA gets around $16 billion for maintaining our air system. Overall annual DOT budgets run a little north of $75 billion. Amtrak gets about $2 billion.

The problem isn’t that we must choose between city to city and long haul, it’s that we pretend we don’t have the money to avoid a choice, while still heavily subsidizing other means of public transport.  

Small station at San Luis Obispo, California serves both long haul and city to city routes

Small station at San Luis Obispo, California serves both long haul and city to city routes

It need not be this way, intercity and long haul can coexist and overlap. In fact when they do they are both better for it. The city to city routes can offer the long distance traveler another option for making a short leg on a longer trip, making the whole trip easier and more flexible. The long distance trains can add to the city to city systems yet another train and also feed into the city to city system more customers from farther afield.

In fact, a long distance trip can be accomplished using a comprehensive system of city to city routes, and in some ways this can be a better trip. My long distance trip up the Pacific coast this winter was more like a series of city to city segments since I mostly stopped at interim stations for a few days (or more) here and there. I could have just as easily boarded an ongoing and overlapping city to city train, rather than the long haul train passing through, had they been available. And in fact for one leg, Portland to Seattle, I did just that.

In a couple of weeks I plan to take another long distance train trip, this time a big loop. The northerly outbound half will use a series of city to city trains, separated by several layover days each city. (NYC to Montreal, to Toronto, to Chicago.) Whereas the southerly inbound return will use a single Amtrak long haul train. (Amtrak’s Cardinal, through Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, very pretty mountainous route.) The distances covered going and coming will be about the same. And the string of city to city trains will cost significantly less than the long haul train, due to not needing or even having a sleeper roomette. [Total train costs, including one sleeper on the return with meals, $500 US. Total distance covered, close to 3,000 miles. Time in my car, taxi, uber, airport or plane, zero.] 

Bedroom made up with bench seat

Bedroom made up with bench seat

The northeast corridor has both sorts of trains running alongside each other. California and Washington State do as well. Other States also provide some subsidies for local runs, though increasingly they are being scaled back. But without a change in our national priorities sending more of our overall transportation dollars to trains rather than planes or cars, for much of the country long haul precludes a viable and robust city to city system.

For now at least.

In the meantime, I plan to ride the long haul trains while I still can, broken captain’s chair or no. And I hope to see you in the dining car.




©️ 2019 D Abbott