Running a Railroad

Its schedules are undependable, prices high and on-board service of middling quality. Yet demand for Amtrak's inter-city service grows.
February 1, 2007
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Every morning at 6 o'clock, one lonely train passes through Lynchburg, Virginia, on its way north. The train is often late, so passengers have to wait on the platform or in the tiny station for, sometimes, an hour or more. The ride is not cheap: $144 round trip to Washington, D.C.; $332 for New York. Once on board, the service is hardly white glove.

And yet, landing a seat on The Crescent, which originates in New Orleans and ends up in the Big Apple, can be difficult for Lynchburg passengers. Amtrak gives preference to long-distance travelers because they pay the highest fares. It would be easy to right this problem by scheduling more trains and having both local and express routes, but Amtrak can't afford to do that.

This is the plight, paradox and opportunity of Amtrak. Despite inconsistencies, there is demand for inter-city train service - as an alternative to congested freeways and air routes, as a security backup and as an economic development tool.

Cities and states understand this. Everywhere I travel - from the Southeast to the Midwest to the West Coast - I encounter groups working vigorously to create better train service to and through their cities. The problem is Washington, where there has been difficulty translating demand from cities and states into political action, even though there is more bipartisan support for better train service than usually presumed. So as the new Democratically controlled Congress starts to tackle issues such as Amtrak's budget and organization, cities and states can help create better train service. Here's an action list:

· Establish or enlarge groups that work across city and state lines to improve train service. A primary focus should be lobbying Congress for improvements.

· Lobby Amtrak (and its federal masters) to maximize service and number of passengers, not revenue. Amtrak is currently imitating the airlines by practicing "yield management": restrictive ticketing policies that charge whatever the market can bear. That's why it costs more now to ride on the heavily traveled Northeast lines than on less-frequented ones in the Midwest. But if Amtrak's prices were lower and service more dependable, its ridership would boom and costs per passenger would drop. For this to happen though, Amtrak's legal status or mission may have to be formally changed. Amtrak is nominally a private company and is supposed to work toward making a profit. This is a mistake. Imagine if the Federal Highway Department's top priority was trying to make money off its roads.

· Lobby Congress to provide Amtrak with much bigger and more secure multi-year funding. Because of its political enemies, Amtrak has been reduced to what is essentially an emergency funding bill every year. A railroad can't plan with this level of uncertainty. Longer term, states should work to have Congress secure Amtrak some permanent stream of money - perhaps a percentage of the nation's gas-tax revenues.

· Lobby Congress to provide states with matching funds for what they spend on inter-city rail, as is now done with highways and inner-city transit. California spends $73 million per year on inter-city train service. It would probably spend even more if it knew that the federal government would match its contributions.

These action items are just a start. The core of future rail service in this country is essentially grouped within the country's top "mega regions," such as the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast. The nation's true cross-country routes, such as Chicago to San Francisco, should be kept. But the highest priority should be better train service within mega regions.

Doing this means tackling organizational problems. Right now, a bewildering array of public and private companies, as well as both federal and state governments, manage inter-city passenger train service. For example, the reason trains are so frequently late between Richmond and Washington is that the for-profit company CSX owns most of the tracks and puts priorities on moving its freight.

Armed with more money and legal authority, an empowered Amtrak could sort out the tangle of lines and authorities and get the trains moving. It's high time this happened. This country's federal government was created in large part to facilitate interstate commerce, so it is quite appropriate that it be involved with building better train service across state lines.