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Carl Fowler, Vice-President/General Manager of Rail Travel Center, has worked full-time promoting travel on Amtrak
and other railways since November 1982. Mr. Fowler served for over a decade on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and was a member of Amtrak's Travel Agency Computer Advisory Committee.
He has addressed the National Press Club on Amtrak and train travel and has ridden over 350,000 miles by train.
Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta proposes a zero budget for Amtrak for FY 2006. Under Mineta's "Amtrak Reform Plan" the carrier will be forced into bankruptcy, and would discontinue "running trains nobody rides between cities nobody wants to travel between". Mineta claims a better Amtrak will emerge, focused entirely on short-distance corridors. He hints that the Bush administration might provide 50/50 Federal matching dollars to help the states with capital costs, but there will be no Federal money for actual operations. This plan ensures there will be no interstate train service in the United States.
The Mineta plan will be a debacle for many reasons. Its greatest weakness is that it is based on the false assumption that Amtrak should function as a series of isolated corridors. Essential to this view is Mineta's belief that Amtrak's long-distance trains are unused. The facts eloquently prove this to be false. These trains produced the majority of Amtrak's 2004 passenger miles, 2.7 billion, compared to the Northeast Corridor's 1.7 billion. (A passenger-mile is one passenger traveling one mile.) More importantly, these trains provided essential connecting traffic to the very short-haul routes that Mineta favors. Typically 30-40% of the riders on Chicago's corridor trains connect from the long-distance routes.
Amtrak carried an all-time record ridership of 25,000,000 in FY 2004. The long-distance trains did particularly well. The New York-Florida route served 738,200 passengers; the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder 437,200; the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight 415,600; the Chicago-San Francisco California Zephyr 335,800 and even the much maligned Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle carried 234,000. Typically only 10-20% of passengers are on-board for a train's full run. Most ride between the countless intermediate cities and towns, or connect to other towns Mineta sees as "nowhere" at Amtrak's hubs. Amtrak's trains provide the only public transportation at hundreds of communities.
Amtrak's Sunset Limited, shown here near Picacho Peak west of Tucson, provides crucial public transport interconnecting
dozens of intermediate cities and towns across the southwestern and southern United States.
Like other long-distance trains, this vital service would disappear under the shutdown being pushed by President Bush and Secretary Mineta.
The Mineta plan fails all tests. The multi-state compacts required to subsidize actual operations will prove unimaginably difficult to reach. In order to continue the vital Boston to Washington Northeast Corridor, eight states and the District of Columbia would have to agree on a subsidy formula. Mineta cynically says if a state refuses to pay, trains should pass through with the doors locked. If Pennsylvania, with only 50 miles (10%) of the NEC refused to pay, would the trains skip Philadelphia?
How will costs be allocated – by mileage, population, past patronage, or a coin toss? And we know the states are already broke!
Costs will explode when the states have to pay all expenses not only for operation, but also for reservations, ticketing, and equipment maintenance. Under the most optimistic possible outcome, trains would run in no more than 8-12 states, with all surviving routes completely isolated from each other. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the political process knows that such a "network" would never win a vote in Congress. This is, of course, exactly what Mineta really intends.
Nor will "land-cruise" trains rise from the ashes to provide a token long-distance service. The economics of such trains are already very tight. The wonderful private Montana Daylight died this year because of exploding costs. Once Amtrak's regular services are gone, the freight railroads will require immensely increased insurance and track-access charges, as they will no longer need to routinely maintain 79 mph passenger trackage. This will put "commercial" cruise train services out of the question.
Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson has eloquently framed the reality of the Amtrak debate by stating that Amtrak will either provide a nationwide service or it will cease to exist. We have a Federal government because there are issues like Amtrak which transcend state lines. Amtrak is remarkably well-used. Patronage is growing despite virtually no Federal capital support, and the case for properly funding Amtrak is overwhelming. The carrier is pleading for less than 2 billion dollars per year, in contrast with highway spending of over $145 billion (40% of which is not recovered from gas taxes). The Mineta plan must fail, or it will truly be "All Aboard for the train to nowhere"!
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