In 2008, Congress required that railroads install positive train control, which would automatically cause trains to slow or stop to prevent derailments or collisions, on all lines that carry passengers or hazardous materials by December 2015. That deadline is two years passed, yet–as last week’s accident revealed–still has not been met by most railroads.
The Washington train wreck was a special case. The rail line, improvements, passenger train, and upgrades were owned or done by four different government agencies. It seems particularly galling that neither Sound Transit, which owns the tracks and is spending billions on rail construction, nor the Washington State Department of Transportation, which received close to a billion dollars from the federal government to upgrade this particular line, bothered to install a working version of positive train control before inaugurating service on this route.
In general, however, the railroads have two very good reasons for not enthusiastically installing positive train control as Congress has demanded. First, the cost is high: the Federal Railroad Administration estimates it will cost as much as $24 billion, which is probably more than the annual capital budgets of all the private railroads in the country. Continue reading
The wreck of the 501–the Amtrak train that crashed near Seattle on Monday–is raising lots of questions about Amtrak operations, but they aren’t always the right ones. Here are some questions that should be asked and some of the Antiplanner’s preliminary answers. Answers from Amtrak (the operator), FRA (the funder), Sound Transit (the track owner), or WSDOT (the train owner) may differ.
1. Congress required passenger railroads to install positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. Why did the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) give money to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for a new passenger rail line that would not open until after 2015 when the project didn’t guarantee funding for positive train control?
Answer: The Obama administration wanted to distribute high-speed rail funds to as many states as possible in order to build political backing for the program, so it couldn’t be bothered with positive train control. The tracks the train was on are owned by Sound Transit, which says it is installing PTC, but it won’t be finished until spring. Public releases of WSDOT’s application for funds for this train didn’t mention PTC. Continue reading
There are a lot of bad reasons for subsidizing Amtrak: it provides a vital service to small towns (how vital can it be when only a handful of people get on or off the train in any of those towns each day?); it saves energy (extending the tax credit to the Prius and other low-mpg vehicles would save more energy for less money); it relieves congestion (how congestion is there between Wolf Point and Glasgow, Montana?). But the worst reason was laid out a couple of days ago in a New York Times op-ed: Amtrak’s dining car will heal our political divisions.
On a 9,000-mile trip on six Amtrak trains, songwriter Gabriel Kahane learned that, when you eat in the dining car, you are often seated with other riders. Where most of our digital world “finds us sorting ourselves neatly into cultural and ideological silos,” the dining car “acts, by some numinous, unseen force, as a kind of industrial-strength social lubricant.”
In other words, he met people whose politics were very different from his–“abhorrent, dangerous, and destructive”–and discovered they were still human beings. “That ability to connect across an ideological divide seemed predicated on the fact that we were quite literally breaking bread together.” This made him “wonder if the train might be a salve for our national wound, bringing us into intimate conversation with unlikely interlocutors, and allowing us to see each other as human rather than as mere containers for ideology.” Continue reading
Amtrak faces many of the same problems as urban transit: low gas prices, crumbling infrastructure, late trains, and declining service (Amtrak provided about 0.4 percent fewer seat-miles in 2017 than in 2016). Yet even as transit ridership is dropping, Amtrak ridership grew by 1.5 percent in F.Y. 2017. Moreover, ridership is growing in all three of Amtrak’s divisions: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and long-distance trains.
Amtrak’s 2017 ridership growth was about twice the nation’s population growth, indicating per capita ridership is also growing. A lot of the new riders must have taken short trips, however, as passenger miles only grew by about a third of a percent.
Still, it is easy to overestimate the significance of Amtrak’s growth. Usage of many forms of transportation are growing. Domestic airline travel, for example, carries a hundred times as many passenger miles as Amtrak and is growing by 4 to 5 percent per year. Automobiles carry Americans 500 to 600 times as many passenger miles a Amtrak, and rural driving (the kind that competes with Amtrak) grew by 1.7 percent so far in 2017. Continue reading
After spending three days in uncomfortable Amtrak seats and eating mediocre Amtrak food during my travels from Washington DC to Los Angeles, I was ready to condemn the entire operation. But then the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Portland made up for it all.
I started out on the Cardinal, a three-day-a-week train that goes from New York to Chicago via Washington, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. This train uses Amfleet cars, which were originally designed for short-distance travel such as New York to Washington. They are noisy and bumpy–sometimes I felt like a jackhammer was operating next to my head–and the food service is inferior to most other long-distance trains.
The train is also slow, taking 24 hours to get from DC to Chicago compared with 18 on the Capital Limited. Other than the fact that it serves several cities not reached by other Amtrak trains, the train’s main redeeming feature is that it goes through the highly scenic New River Gorge–but in the westbound direction it does so at night. Unlike the Capital Limited, the Cardinal also has wifi. Continue reading
Last April, the Antiplanner took Amtrak from Portland to Washington DC via the Coast Starlight to Sacramento, the California Zephyr to Chicago, and the Capital Limited to DC. I repeated the trip this past weekend, only taking the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.
I came away from last April’s trip thinking that Amtrak’s personnel were excellent, the equipment was well cared for but not spectacular, and the food was a couple of notches below Denny’s. The Empire Builder trip produced inconsistent results: the personnel were good but there were problems and the equipment was a need of a rehab (and was poorly designed in the first place). The food, however, was better and perhaps was only a very small notch below Denny’s.
Before Amtrak, railcar suppliers had made a science of developing seats that were comfortable to long-distance travelers. In 1945, a company called Heywood-Wakefield, working with the Association of American Railroads, gave Harvard University anthropologist E.A. Hooton funding to develop a comfortable seat. Hooton measured 3,867 people and proposed ideal measurements for seats that would support a wide range of people. Continue reading
Amtrak has kicked off a “ready-to-build” campaign, making it clear that the money-losing company faces close to $30 billion in major infrastructure projects in the Northeast Corridor on top of the corridor’s $11 billion “basic infrastructure backlog,” meaning tracks, signals, and power facilities. In addition to the $20 billion Hudson River tunnels project, Amtrak wants to spend $5 billion on a new tunnel under Baltimore, $1.7 billion on a new Susquehanna River bridge, $1.5 billion on another new bridge in New Jersey, and unspecified billions more for building or rebuilding train stations in New York (which alone is costing more than $2 billion), Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.
In short, taxpayers are looking at a bill of well over $40 billion just to keep the supposedly profitable Northeast Corridor running. Amtrak must believe that “ready to build” sounds like a more positive message than “we need at least $40 billion just to keep the wheels turning.” No doubt Amtrak is relying on the image it has create that its Northeast Corridor trains make money, when in fact they merely cover operating costs, not the costs of maintenance or depreciation. Adding maintenance and depreciation not only eliminates profits, it brings subsidies to at least 10 cents per passenger mile–and that’s before counting the $40 billion or so needed to bring the corridor up to a state of good repair.
Amtrak divides its operations into three categories: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and overnight long-distance trains. In addition to claiming that the Northeast Corridor makes money, Amtrak strongly implies that subsidies to the day trains are entirely covered by the states, leaving only the long-distance trains requiring federal subsidies. In fact, before adding depreciation and maintenance, federal taxpayers fund more than 20 percent of the subsidies to the day trains, and after depreciation and maintenance, it is more than half. Continue reading
Amtrak’s co-CEO Wick Moorman has announced that the passenger railroad is thinking of offering a new service to compete with the airlines: economy seating that is crammed together as tightly as airline seats. This was immediately blasted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), saying, “Amtrak should not throw out one of the best things about Amtrak and train travel — that is, you at least get a seat you can sit in and be comfortable.”
In fact, this idea makes no sense not because heavily subsidized train travelers somehow deserve more comfortable seats but because it would cost Amtrak more in lost revenues than it will save. Airlines fill 85 percent of their seats and on lots of flights they fill 100 percent. Amtrak fills only 51 percent of its seats, so cramming more seats into a railcar will simply mean more empty seats.
According to USA Today, Amtrak seat pitches–the distance from the back of one row of seats to the back of the next–are 39 inches for day trains and 50 inches for overnight trains. Airline seat pitches are 30 to 33 inches while buses are 28 to 31 inches. That means Amtrak could squeeze in four rows of seats where it now has three on day trains and five rows where it now has three on overnight trains. Continue reading
While the Antiplanner was preparing to take Amtrak trains from Portland to Washington, DC, Amtrak was suffering from a spate of derailments, one near Chicago Union Station on March 26 and two in New York’s Penn Station on March 24 and April 3. Moreover, Amtrak now admits that it knew about the defective track that led to the Penn Station derailments, and didn’t fix it because it didn’t realize how serious the problem was.
Tracks are held in place by ties that were once all made of wood but that lately have been made of concrete. The Penn Station tracks still had wood ties, and an assessment before the accident found that some of the ties were partly rotted away. Replacing ties is difficult on heavily used rail lines, so Amtrak didn’t replace them right away, a mistake that led Amtrak’s CEO to make a public apology.
The accidents led New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to withhold state funds that New Jersey Transit pays to Amtrak to run its trains on Amtrak’s tracks. I suppose if I were paying money for a service, I would withhold funds if the service turned out to be unsafe. But Amtrak needs money to replace ties, so withholding funds might be the wrong solution in the long run.
After traveling three days and three nights in coach, I treated myself to a sleeping car on the last leg of my journey to Washington, DC. Most Amtrak sleeping cars have a shower and I appreciated using it after having slept in my clothes for three nights. The sleeping room was clean and everything was functional, but it was, of course, very small. I also noticed that all of the seats in the Sightseer Lounge car swiveled, so I guess the ones on the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr were just rusted in place after all.
Given that the East has a lot more people than the West, you’d think Amtrak would have more trains connecting the East Coast with the Midwest. In fact, there are the same number of trains from the nation’s heartland to the West Coast as there are to the East Coast, which is four–or or three-and-a-half since one on each side of the country goes just three days a week. The eastern trains are the Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to New York and Boston; the Capital Limited from Chicago to DC, the Crescent from New York to New Orleans, and and the three-day-a-week Cardinal from Chicago to both New York and Washington. The Cardinal must attract mainly local traffic as it takes nearly 24 hours to go to DC and 28 to New York compared with 17 to DC on the Capital Limited and 19 to New York on the Lakeshore.