Big change is coming to Amtrak… but will it mean more trains or less?

March 23, 2018

New Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson seems sincerely determined to improve our nation’s passenger railroad in a way that the past few generations of Amtrak leadership have not. From a combination of Anderson’s public remarks along with Amtrak’s latest five-year plan, we can be reasonably sure that we’ll be seeing serious changes to the way Amtrak operates its services. However, it might also mean changes to where Amtrak operates, which could be cause for concern.

Anderson made it clear immediately that the age and condition of Amtrak’s trains is a problem. He pointed out that the long-distance Superliner fleet needs to be completely rebuilt or replaced, which has been true for years now. He began an interior refurbishment of the single-level Amfleet cars, which will make them more pleasant to ride until they can also be replaced.

Amtrak’s latest five-year plan indicates that it is looking towards unified trainsets instead of individually coupled cars, which would be a significant step forward for American passenger trains. Unified trainsets are safer, more comfortable and more efficient to operate. Amtrak is also interested in trains that can seamlessly switch from overhead electric power to diesel, which would eliminate time-consuming engine swaps. It would also make it easier for Amtrak trains to take advantage of new electrified corridors, like CrossRail Chicago.

There are also signs that Amtrak has undertaken a ground-up evaluation of its national route network, with serious scrutiny towards the costs of long-distance, overnight trains. Although these trains serve a great variety of travel markets over the course of their multi-day journeys, they suffer from an accounting system that pegs them with high overhead costs. (See Amtrak's latest legislative report and grant request.) It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where these trains are cut back or eliminated in favor of shorter, denser routes.

It is understandably hard to justify expenses like maintaining a station in a rural community that is only served by one train a day in each direction. But rather than eliminate that train and station, why not increase service to two or three trains each day? More frequent service increases ridership and revenue, and spreads out those unavoidable overhead costs.

Given his background in the airline industry, we can assume that Anderson is looking to run Amtrak like a business, with a focus on revenue and returns, and an aversion to subsidies. But we also hope that he remembers that a robust, complete network is a critical part of any passenger transportation service. Not every part of that network will be as lucrative as other parts. This is certainly true for our nation’s highways and air travel network, which both depend on massive federal subsidies—plus a fair amount of state and local tax dollars, too.

With its fiftieth anniversary only a few years away, Amtrak can certainly benefit from some fresh thinking. Anderson and his new team must be bold and present a vision that results in more trains all around the nation, not just some new trains here and there at the expense of others.

Amtrak can't increase service without new trains. Tell your elected officials to fund a new fleet so Amtrak can grow!

Download “Long Distance Trains - A Foundation for National Mobility” - our ideas on how to improve the network.

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