NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I like trains. Many of my blog readers don’t. (Or at least don’t like the price of running them.) No problem. Just a difference of opinion.
But I’m frustrated with tremendous levels of financial waste with Amtrak, our national taxpayer funded passenger railroad.
Amtrak is really three railroad systems in one.
• The Northeast Corridor, between Boston and Washington, is generally profitable and well-used. If Amtrak were to go away tomorrow, this line would be privatized and would continue to run. It is Amtrak’s crown jewel and is generally on-time.
• Elsewhere in the country Amtrak partners with states and runs mid-distance trains. State funded trains are a mixed-bag. In many cases the states provide the trains and make up the losses. Amtrak is a contractor. North Carolina pays for trains between Raleigh and Charlotte. Missouri pays for trains between Kansas City and St. Louis. Eventually Wisconsin will pay for trains between Milwaukee and Madison. These trains are not as well-run and are dependent on state budgets. In most cases these trains share tracks with freight railroads, are dependent on state funding, and don’t have as-good an on-time record.
• Amtrak’s long distance trains are financial basket-cases. They require multiple crews of engineers, conductors, and porters to make their 1, 2 or 3 night trips between distant cities. One-such train, the daily Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, operates at an annual loss of $44-million. But Amtrak knows if they eliminate these trains, many states will be left with no rail service. Would they still get those state's congressmen to vote for Amtrak funding?
There are three areas of financial waste that Amtrak needs to make better choices: re-reroutes of some trains, equipment purchases, and labor.
Re-Routes of some trains: Amtrak is facing two very expensive decisions on re-routes. The Southwest Chief crosses the Rockies at Raton, New Mexico. This used to be a major transcontinental pass through the mountains. The rails are owned by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, and their freight trains are permanently re-routed over another line that was recently double-tracked to increase train capacity. Amtrak will have to pay the entire costs of maintaining the line through Raton Pass, or re-route its train. So far Amtrak has fought re-routing. There’s speculation that New Mexico’s congressional delegation is applying political pressure. They hope their state will start new commuter rail service from Albuquerque, and are hoping that Amtrak and its federal dollars will shoulder the costs of maintaining the rails.
Amtrak faces a similar decision with the Chicago-to-Seattle Empire Builder. Two bridges need to be replaced in Montana at a cost of $70-million. The freight railroad wants to abandon the line and re-route its trains. Amtrak is debating whether it will cover the total cost of bridge replacement in the name of serving three small Montana towns, many of which account for only a few dozen passengers a month.
These are staggering costs on money-losing routes. Amtrak needs to bite the bullet and re-route their trains. Opponents of the railroad will argue that the entire long-distance train network should be shut down.
Equipment purchases: Amtrak’s work-a-day passenger cars are called Amfleet coaches. Many were built in the late 70s and are nearing the end of their useful life. Amfleet coaches are no longer being manufactured. The railroad must decide if it will dust off the old Amfleet blueprints and have more of the same cars designed, or whether they will build new. Building new would be an expensive and damaging mistake. The history of railroad rolling stock for generations is that there’s an expensive debugging process for new, unproven equipment. Amtrak knows this… its Metroliner and Acela trainsets, both new designs for the railroad, had expensive problems that needed to be corrected after delivery. Amtrak’s current Viewliner sleeping cars, also new designs, have flaws that include rattling beds and frozen pluming.
Someone must insist that Amtrak use proven designs for its new coaches. Sadly, there’s talk that Amtrak is quietly designing new bi-level cars that would be built from scratch.
Labor costs: You would be shocked at what an Amtrak conductor makes. Some, based on seniority and overtime, earn more then $90,000 a year. I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about very high individual salaries, they’re covered under collective bargaining agreements. But there are work rule changes that can be made. An 8-car Boston to Washington train runs with three conductors. It could run with two. Amtrak could also negotiate a better agreement making it easier to add extra cars to crowded trains without having to call-up more crew members. Right now Amtrak turns away customers on busy travel weekends because it can’t staff the extra coaches it might add.
Amtrak’s food service employees, all union members, are among the best-paid cooks and waiters in the country. New York State wanted to privatize its New York to Albany snack cars, and awarded a contract to Subway (the fast-food chain) to provide the service. That experiment lasted exactly a week before it was discontinued – because of union pressure. Some of the non-union workers say they were threatened by train crews. Passengers were leafleted as they boarded trains in New York City.
In addition to their very high salaries, many Amtrak food employees were implicated in a cash-skimming scheme because of poor financial controls. Several of the best-paid food service workers in America are also thieves. Dining car and snack car services can be privatized; these are not operating employees who have a direct responsibility for passenger safety.
I’m a train fan and an Amtrak rider. I don’t want them to waste money because I want more and better service. Others simply want the government to get out of the train business. This kind of waste gives Amtrak opponents a lot of ammunition.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau