Revitalize Amtrak

Railroads are an inseparable part of the American identity. It could be said that train tracks “tamed” the American West when pioneers were racing across the plains, eager to link one coast to the other. Yet for a story one hundred fifty years in the making, rail travel has long since fought to retain an air of dignity as it endured periods of downsizing and detriment. Amtrak, the country’s only inter-regional rail service, was born five decades ago from a half-baked amalgamation of private companies, mere shells of their storied past. Although Amtrak has never turned a profit and is often derided for its tardy performance, the modern carrier still carries a torch of the American transportation vision: inter-connectedness, with a nod to comfort. Discerning business people can surely attest to the awe-inspiring experience that is a ride down the Northeast Corridor.

Reclined in a wide leather chair, one swizzes past the great eastern cities and then arrives like a king in Washington’s Beaux-Arts Union Station. Other routes such as the Sunset Limited slice through Arizona and New Mexico, offering an unbridled view of the West’s mountainous deserts–original architecture set in nature. Trains are supposed to be synonymous with “the journey,” a sentimental concept that ties travel to introspection and way-finding. In the age of the airplane and the automobile, train trips should maintain their character charm, not cede quality for revenues. Such a task does seem eminently possible. Amtrak’s new CEO, Richard Anderson, used to work at Delta Airlines where he played the part of a financial wizard who restructured the organization’s public image. He was brought into the rail sphere to accomplish one frighteningly simple task: right a sagging ship by helping Amtrak fall into the green (or at least break even). The approach ever since has remained a starkly business one, neglectful of Amtrak’s reason for existing and the tangibles that distinguish it from entire modes of transport. As a nationalized rail system, Amtrak holds a responsibility to service all corners where passenger stations are currently designated.

While the Boston-Washington corridor generates the vast majority of cash, state-supported middling routes (between mid-sized cities) and long haul routes (overnight trips) still play a vital role. In particularly rural areas, the latter lines act as economic stimulants, both for the employees who run them and the local towns that would otherwise be cut off without an adjacent track. Opponents who want Amtrak to cease operation of continental lines point to a lack of efficiency and slow speed limits, but they often forget that the company owns almost none of the hundreds of miles of track. Out in the heartland, passenger trains are at the mercy of large freight companies that enforce their own priority to pass through. Rather than trying to gut these lines or destroy them altogether, a profit-focused Amtrak should be committed to improving its trademark NEC as much as possible. To a degree, the company has independently sunken funds into infrastructure and rolling stock. By 2021, the high-speed Acela Express is expected to receive new cars modeled after lighter-weight European bullet trains. This purchase stems from an effort to catalyze the New York-Washington rail spur. Other improvements such as the replacement of wooden rail ties with concrete ones seek to enable smooth, unfettered ride times without equipment incompatibility.

These measures stand more than justified. The most organic way for Amtrak to remain viable is to compete with the airlines directly. Short leap “shuttle” services between the nation’s political and financial capitals represent a deep share of the urban market. Of course, the difference between healthy competition and laggard attempts to innovate must not rely on one system suddenly emulating the other. Under Anderson, proposals to truncate legroom from a standard thirty-nine inches to just thirty echoes the “save at any cost” playbook of his former industry. In June of 2017, New York lawmakers like Chuck Schumer urged Amtrak’s top brass to avoid making a decision that would accommodate more passengers while stifling the paying customer. Similar outrage was drawn when a plan to scrap home-cooked meals on dining cars emerged, substituting the fresher selections for pre-packaged frozen dinners. Cutting corners on a product does not possess the same sustainability as an investment in its growth and maintenance.

Considering the public nature of the National Passenger Rail Corporation (Amtrak), government must represent the greatest stakeholder here, not board members. Beyond its ability to supply scenic vistas, train travel heaps on the added value of lowering road congestion while consuming less energy than a comparable flight. Funding for Amtrak’s infrastructural needs not only augments the capacity to carry more souls but it also shores up region-wide accessibility issues. One such example, the Gateway Project, sought to allocate resources towards the construction of two new tunnels bridging all points west of the Hudson River to New York’s Penn Station. Later shot down by the executive branch, the plan could have eased the number of delays caused by a high volume of trains that approach the city every day from the New Jersey side. That problem, however, still continues. In Amtrak’s quest to reinvent itself, the haunting question is not whether to stem the fiscal bleeding but how exactly it should be undertaken after decades of constraints and losses.