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July 21, 2018

Editor's Page

A train wreck called Amtrak

Mark R. Howard | 6/28/2017

President Trump wants to kill all the Amtrak trains in Florida, and I say let him.

I say this as someone who loves trains. As the son of a man who spent his entire career working for a railroad company. As someone who, as a kid, rode trains before the federal government took over passenger rail, and as someone who has continued to ride them. A few years ago, when my son was in college in New York, he and I rode in a sleeping car from Winter Park to Penn Station, a 23-hour trip that was a wonderful thing to do once, on a lark, but one that neither of us would do again, on a lark or otherwise.

Amtrak, the federally created railroad company for passenger rail service, operates three trains in Florida. Two are New York-Miami routes — The Silver Meteor (Jacksonville-Orlando-Miami) and the Silver Star (Jacksonville-Tampa-Miami). The third is the auto train, which runs from Sanford to Lorton, Va. (near Washington, D.C.).

Last year, there were about 950,000 “boardings and alightings” at the 18 Amtrak stations in Florida served by those routes. The Sanford auto train station was the most-used station in Florida, with about 238,000 comings and goings. The next busiest were Orlando, with about 138,000, and Tampa, with around 109,000. Ridership at Jacksonville (70,516) outpaces that at Miami (65,975).

Seems like a fair number of people, but the numbers have been declining — Amtrak’s Florida ridership fell more than 5% from 2014 to 2015 and by 7.5% from 2015 to 2016. Some other inconvenient truths: The trains are on time less than half the time. The seats are spacious, and not uncomfortable, but the cars are old, tired. They feel dirty even when they’re not. The roomette my son and I had was essentially unchanged from the ones in 1965. Amtrak employees, meanwhile, leave the impression of an army of the defeated. They are poorly trained in customer service. They’re not impolite or incompetent, but they don’t have a lot of reasons to be proud of the Amtrak product, and they show it.

Meanwhile, Amtrak hardly markets itself, particularly for trips within the state. Anecdotally, I regularly encounter businesspeople in Tampa, including some who work within a few blocks of the Amtrak station downtown, who have no idea they can travel between Tampa and West Palm, Fort Lauderdale and Miami on Amtrak. The fare’s less than $40 one way, and if the train runs on time, you can get to West Palm just about as quickly as you can drive.

But the train, unfortunately, usually runs late, often by hours, and there’s no wi-fi, so you can’t work on the trip. The ride quality between Tampa and points south is likewise fine for freight, less so for people.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget eliminates funding for just about all Amtrak’s long-distance routes, including those in Florida.

Given Amtrak’s finances, it’s not an unreasonable proposal. Amtrak’s overall financial performance has improved a bit in recent years — its 2016 operating loss of some $227 million was the lowest since 1973. But it still requires more than $1 billion each year from the taxpayers — not counting the money that some states choose to throw into the subsidy pot.

Not all of Amtrak’s operations roll in red ink. It makes plenty of money on its high-speed Northeast routes — as much as $500 million. The long-haul routes of more than 750 miles, including the Florida routes, are all money pits, however. The Wall Street Journal calculates that two routes — the San Francisco-Chicago California Zephyr and Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder, account for more than $100 million in losses by themselves.

Dropping the long routes so that Amtrak could improve service in places where people actually ride the trains would make plenty of business sense, but don’t hold your breath. Some 23 states — most with just a handful of stations — would lose service. Senators from those states, mostly red, aren’t likely to vote in favor of restructuring Amtrak in a way that takes away federal dollars from their states and benefits commuters in northeastern states, mostly blue. The political incentives line up behind maintaining the third-rate status quo.

And the truth is, even if Congress provided enough funding to upgrade Amtrak’s stations, rolling stock and customer service, the trains still wouldn’t be on time. The rails on which Amtrak trains travel are owned by freight railroad companies like CSX that want nothing to do with passenger rail and are disinclined to engineer their (profit-making) freight traffic around Amtrak’s schedules. So when freight trains need to move, Amtrak trains and their passengers wait. The Silver Meteor’s on-time performance in the last 12 months was 49.4%.

If Amtrak wanted to do something interesting, it might create networks of faster, better quality regional trains and bully the freight rail operators into better cooperation. Forget about trying to transport riders between Florida and Washington and New York, for example, and structure a system in Florida that connected the state’s major metros. Ironically, if you want to take Amtrak from Tampa to Orlando, Amtrak puts you on a bus.

Like a sense of the possibilities? The Brightline privately financed and operated passenger rail starts service between Miami and West Palm later this summer, and the company is working on the next leg of the train, from West Palm to Orlando. Unlike Amtrak, its operators understand what it takes to make rail work — and unlike the government, they understand that a thing worth doing is worth doing well.

Tags: Editor's column, Government/Politics & Law, Transportation

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