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A Railroader’s Plan for Amtrak (Mine: Privatization with a difference)
Trains Magazine (free registration required) ^ | August 16, 2002 | Bill Stephens

Posted on 08/16/2002 6:18:19 PM PDT by CedarDave

A railroader’s plan for Amtrak
Susquehanna’s Walter Rich thinks Class 1s should get back in the passenger business — but not in the traditional way

by Bill Stephens

Walter Rich — the man who transformed sleepy short line New York, Susquehanna & Western into a key transcontinental link for double-stack traffic — has crafted what seems to be a sensible plan for saving Amtrak.

At first blush, the plan seems to be a non-starter. That’s because Rich envisions having the Class 1 freight railroads resume operating passenger trains for the first time since they fled the money-losing passenger business three decades ago.

Class 1s have scoffed at recent suggestions they pick up passenger operations again. “That’s true,” notes Rich. “But that’s because they’re looking at the traditional model.”

The twist in Rich’s plan – and really what sets it apart – is that the freight railroads would form a joint company to operate a national passenger network.

The company, modeled after Trailer Train, would receive incentives that would make the Class 1s want to participate.

Tax credits would replace subsidies and appropriations

The two major incentives, Rich says, would be federal tax credits to offset losses associated with passenger trains, and provisions insulating freight railroads from liability involving passenger train accidents.

“You have a body of people out there, the leaders of the Class 1 railroads, that know how to run railroads – the finest railroads in the world,” Rich says. There’s no reason they couldn’t do the same thing for passenger trains, he reasons.

In this, Rich’s plan echoes United Transportation Union President Byron A. Boyd Jr.’s call for a summit of rail industry leaders to solve the passenger rail problem. Rich credits Boyd with getting him thinking about how Class 1s could be a part of a solution to Amtrak’s woes.

Figuring out how to pay for it was Rich’s contribution.

“These guys are in business to make money,” Rich says of Class 1 leaders. “At the end of the day, they want to make money for their stockholders. Obviously, if you put together an incentive, they’d be happy to do it.”

Rich notes that Trailer Train has proven to be successful. “It’s a great model of how railroads can get together to run something – and run it well,” he says.

Add to that model the incentive of federal tax credits – which would fully compensate railroads for passenger train losses – and you have a formula that could prove attractive to Class 1s, says Rich, who heads the Cooperstown, N.Y.-based Delaware-Otsego Corp.

Freight railroads have been quick to point out that Amtrak doesn’t pay its way for the use of their tracks. The Association of American Railroads claims that the freight railroads subsidize passenger service because they can charge Amtrak only incremental track use costs, not the full costs, which include capital improvements and the full market value of a slot on the main line.

Rich says the tax incentives could be structured to account for the full operating and capital costs of providing passenger service. That, in itself, would be an incentive, he says.

“Clearly, providing a quality passenger service isn’t going to make money,” Rich says. “After 9/11, there’s demand for it.”

What railroads would need to fill the demand, he says, is a guarantee that they’d get paid for providing passenger service. The system can’t rely on annual appropriations from Congress, he says. Just look at how Amtrak has fared under that system, simply lurching from crisis to crisis.

By using tax credits, the passenger railroad operating company would be reimbursed automatically, and then the freight railroads would be reimbursed based on their level of passenger train operations.

The tax credit idea, Rich says, also would help remedy some of the harm done to railroads by federal subsidies of highway and aviation systems.

The cost: about the same as now

Housing a national passenger train system under the private umbrella of the railroads has other advantages, Rich points out.

Amtrak is a political creature. It depends on Congress for appropriations, its board is dominated by political appointees and its route structure is dictated, to a certain extent, by political considerations. This is not a recipe for good railroading.

Rich envisions a board of directors that includes the CEO’s of the participating railroads, plus a federal transportation official. “It would be run by railroaders, with political input but not political decisions,” says Rich, who notes that he’s a fan of how new Amtrak President David Gunn is sorting out the railroad’s organizational flaws.

Another advantage, from the railroads’ perspective, would be the removal of the privatization schemes floated by the Bush administration and Amtrak Reform Council. Those plans call for private companies to bid on Amtrak routes.

The Class 1s don’t like this because they don’t want to have to deal with several operating companies, or have to grant them access to their tracks. The AAR noted that it was “deeply concerned” – that’s PR-speak for “hopping mad” – about the proposal to franchise Amtrak’s operating authority.

By operating passenger trains themselves, the Class 1s would avoid this problem, Rich notes. Plus, they’d eliminate the perceived threat of competition posed by Amtrak Mail and Express.

How much would it cost Uncle Sam, in terms of lost tax revenue, to support the private passenger company? About the same as it costs now to run the railroad, or about $1 billion annually, Rich estimates.

The costs would be higher because railroads would be fully reimbursed. But the Class 1s would likely do a better job of running the passenger company, and would make it more efficient, which would save money. “So at the end of the day, you’re probably back to a billion or so that Amtrak needs to run,” Rich says.

The Amtrak map would be the starting point for the new Class 1-owned company, Rich says, although it might get nibbled around the edges.

Rich says the plan wouldn’t address things such as ownership of the Northeast Corridor.

“You have to be careful not to get hung up in the details, or you’ll never get anyplace,” he says.

Rich, who has discussed his plan privately with a handful of railroad officials, as well as the UTU’s Boyd, says it has been well-received. “People are intrigued with it,” he says. “I haven’t had anyone say it was stupid.”

When Boyd called for a passenger rail summit last year, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, and the Federal Railroad Administration all expressed support for the concept. Only Norfolk Southern had no response.

Canadian National Chief Operating Officer E. Hunter Harrison has said that his railway would be interested in operating passenger trains provided it made business sense. It’s uncertain whether other Class 1 railroads feel the same way.

One thing’s for sure, though: Railroads can get together to respond to the privatization issue themselves, or stand idly by with the potential for unknown private operators to gain access to their tracks.

Rich’s plan appears to be a practical alternative the railroads could live with – as long as they can overcome three decades’ worth of operating department resistance to running passenger trains.

Each Friday, TRAINS news wire editor Bill Stephens takes an in-depth look at today’s railroad industry.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Editorial; Government; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: amtrak; passengertravel; privatization; railroads; transportationlist
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An innovative and interesting approach to this problem. Passenger train travel is strongly supported in this country, as it is in other nations. Right now it is a poor stepchild to the other transportation modes, and may get even less support as the airlines go hand-in-hand to Washington for yet more cash bailouts. This week U.S Air, next week United. The one big problem that any scheme will have is the unions and their feather-bedding practices (not that the railroads can't improve the way they schedule their employee calls). Maybe an independent entity as envisioned can avoid some of these labor pitfalls by starting over fresh. (Of course, I have known to dream a lot, also!!)
1 posted on 08/16/2002 6:18:19 PM PDT by CedarDave
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To: Willie Green; Publicus
2 posted on 08/16/2002 6:21:32 PM PDT by CedarDave
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To: Incorrigible; Free the USA; goldenstategirl; Semper911
3 posted on 08/16/2002 6:35:13 PM PDT by CedarDave
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To: CedarDave
Doesn't it come down to the freight carriers paying less tax to match their losses with passenger service? IOW it is a hidden taxpayer subsidy to provide a service below cost. The hidden part makes it worse than what we have now.
4 posted on 08/16/2002 6:38:50 PM PDT by gcruse
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To: CedarDave
An innovative and interesting approach to this problem. Passenger train travel is strongly supported in this country, as it is in other nations. Right now it is a poor stepchild to the other transportation modes, and may get even less support as the airlines go hand-in-hand to Washington for yet more cash bailouts.

The common misconception, which you have apparently bought, is that rail doesn't get federal subsidies but air and highways do. Bull $hit. Air and highways are funded, almost exclusively, by "user fees", gasoline taxes and "airport" taxes. Rail, in the form of Amtrak gets more direct subsidy from the federal government when you consider the only basis that makes sense - passenger miles.

Airlines, after 9/11 got $5 billion plus loan guarantees of another $10 billion - a total of $15 billion. I've seen data that showed that if airlines got the same subsidy as Amtrak, they would have gotten $45 billion, not $15.

Amtrak's problem is the same problem that major airlines have - like US Airways, United, etc.. That proplem is unions and featherbedding. Why are airlines like Southwest and JetBlue making money? No union.

Unions have destroyed every industry that we once had in this country - steel, textiles, railroads, airlines, you name it. And now they infest the government and you can see what they're doing to that.

5 posted on 08/16/2002 6:45:27 PM PDT by jackbill
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To: CedarDave; Willie Green
You have a body of people out there, the leaders of the Class 1 railroads, that know how to run railroads – the finest railroads in the world

Ha!  After the merger of two western railroads, boxcars were missing for weeks.

There's a reason this country has become so dependant on trucking and it's not because we have the best run railroads!

6 posted on 08/16/2002 6:48:45 PM PDT by Incorrigible
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To: gcruse
Only to the extent that any type of tax credit to any entity (business or the individual come 1040 time) is a taxpayer subsidy. I don't think things could be worse than they are now, given condition the passenger service is today. And there is a demand for the service. A recent Washington Post poll showed strong support for the service. However, yearly fights over congressional appropriation and generous labor severance packages almost guarantees that the service will continue to be a "hand to mouth" operation. If we are going to keep passenger service, lets try something else other than just throwing money at it, or selling it off piecemeal to operators who will fail given the opposition of the mainline freight railroads.
7 posted on 08/16/2002 6:57:15 PM PDT by CedarDave
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To: CedarDave
This is an exciting idea -- with the added advantage that we know it works: the system propsed is similar in some ways to ConRail (AMTRAK's successful big brother) and the example of TrailerTrain. By "funding" a national passenger rail network through targeted tax credits, the federal government would insure that the needed upgrades and improvements to the roadbeds and signals would get done -- by the Class Is themselves, and using their own money. The government could then zero out AMTRAK's budget and tranfer its plant and rolling stock to the new privately-held consortium, which would use existing trainsets to actually provide the passenger service until the next generation of passenger rail equipment could be brought on line.

Talk of railroads "paying their own way" is specious; no mode of public-accommodation transport pays its own way. Just this week, for example, American Airlines and United both announced big staff/service cuts, and USAir went belly up -- and this AFTER a zillion-dollar donation from Uncle Sam to cover losses resulting from 911. The truth is that air and road transportation could not exist if they had to operate by "paying its own way"; if the taxpayers didn't cover the costs of airport construction and maintenance, air traffic control, and navaids, (not to mention the military R&D that developed the basic technology of large aircraft) there would be no commercial air travel in the United States. As for buses and trucks, forget it; the largesse of Dwight Eisenhower and his enormous coast-to-coast road network make their operations possible. In both cases, the transportation infrastructure is built and maintained at taxpayer expense.

By contrast, the railroads build and maintain their own infrastructure, and turn a handsome profit as well.

The federal government has no more business running a railroad than they do operating a trucking company. What they do have the responsibility for is providing the basic infrastructure for a modern national rail system. Uncle Sam should get out of the railroad business and go back to what he does best: helping the private railroads do their own business.


8 posted on 08/16/2002 7:00:53 PM PDT by B-Chan
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To: *Transportation_List
9 posted on 08/16/2002 7:01:45 PM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP
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To: B-Chan
When I was in Europe last year I took a high speed train from Brussels to Paris. I was impressed. The train was full, very smooth and quiet and very fast (I think the speed was something like 170 mph). I was able to get to the station about 15 minutes early, go to my platform and the train was loaded in minutes. With the short amount of time in the station, the fact that the terminals are located in the city and the speed of the train it was more than competitive with an airline.

My question is: why don't we have a system likr that here?

10 posted on 08/16/2002 7:16:37 PM PDT by CharacterCounts
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To: CharacterCounts
My guess: because the trucking and airline industries don't want any more competetion.

I visit Europe regularly (and plan on buying a second home there in the near future). One reason I plan on retiring there is the ease and comfort of travel via their highly developed integrated rail system. Using the ordinary express trains, for example, it becomes possible to live up to 100 miles away from one's place of business in Paris and still have commute times comparable to those found in US cities. For example, I could live in country comfort in the Ile-de-France and easily commute into Paris by RER and Metro -- REGIONAL transit systems. (By using bullet trains such as the EuroStar or TGV, one can live even farther out; London is three hours from Gare du Nord by EuroStar. One could live in Paris, telecommute to the London office on Mondays, Wednedsays and Fridays, and commute in to London for face time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.)

There is no more civilized or comfortable way to travel than by rail. While I'd never advocate the death of the private autombile, I find that commuting by rail is in many ways superior to driving in to work. The trick is to make us cost-conscious American people see how much of the costs of operating an automobile are hidden costs -- and thus pointing out the intrinsic economy of rail transportation.

11 posted on 08/16/2002 7:33:42 PM PDT by B-Chan
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To: CedarDave; Publius
Rail Pundit Ping!
12 posted on 08/16/2002 7:35:55 PM PDT by Libertina
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To: jackbill
airplanes? how?
wichita used to build 400,000 planes/yr
trial lawyers; product liability suits;...
now they build 4,000/year...
price of old planes is "sky high"
13 posted on 08/16/2002 7:37:20 PM PDT by hoot2
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To: CedarDave
An intriguing idea. A major challenge would be for the Class I Passenger Venture to account accurately and fairly for all its expenses in the determination of the resulting tax break.

Providentially, a cadre of innovative and proactive accountants have just now become available, from the energy services industry.


14 posted on 08/16/2002 7:51:56 PM PDT by Erasmus
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To: B-Chan; CharacterCounts
I have also traveled extensively in Europe with the Eurail pass. I don't think I ever had a really bad experience using the trains over there. But...aren't their rail systems even more heavily subsidized than Amtrak? The French(SNCF), German(DB), and Netherlands systems are all government owned, aren't they? Have they been privatized as in the U.K.?

Another advantage they have is a much smaller "footprint" that a national rail system, for example, in France, has to "cover" compared to the continental United States.

I haven't heard of any schemes to "create" a Unified European Rail Company (Heaven forbid!). If such a beast came into being then it would start having the same problems as Amtrak -- namely, the sheer enormous area Amtrak has to cover.

15 posted on 08/16/2002 8:23:45 PM PDT by SR71A
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To: B-Chan
Using the ordinary express trains, for example, it becomes possible to live up to 100 miles away from one's place of business in Paris and still have commute times comparable to those found in US cities.

When I was in Stuttgart, we had a vendor of some new software, headquarted near Paris. Every month or so, their chief technical guy would come over and we would discuss improvements and bug fixes with him. (Fortunately, most of the discussions were in English!)

This guy would get on the InterCity Express outside of Paris in the evening, work on the train, get some sleep, and get to our Stuttgart-area offices late the next morning.

If'n'when I get back there, I intend to do some significant intercity travel by rail (my previous times were all by air and by car).


There seem to be some significant differences in the historical development of passenger rail travel on each side of the Pond. You could catalog the cultural and political differences and perhaps get an idea of the reason for them. Geography would also play a part.

Anyone have an essay on this handy? I don't have time just now to write one (that would make any real contribution <)B^).

16 posted on 08/16/2002 8:29:46 PM PDT by Erasmus
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To: CharacterCounts
My question is: why don't we have a system like that here?

Probably the major reason is track mileage. That's where capital and maintenance costs really add up. The distances in Europe are short hauls compared to what railroads have to cover in the U.S. . . . typically 200-400 km. Here, we're talking thousands of miles of track - even Boston to NYC is about 450 miles of track, and NYC to DC is about the same, IIRC. And that's the NE corridor, which is easy money revenue for passenger service, compared to the long hauls in the rest of the country.

I used to work for a major U.S. RR, and the main line of one of its competitors runs two blocks from our house. I chat with the maintenance crew chiefs while I'm walking the dog, for old times' sake. Just the maintenance on the grade crossing around the corner is staggering. They just regraded, reballasted, poured a new base, and replaced all the ties 40 feet on either side three weeks ago. The signals are tested twice a week with a two man crew. Multiply that by all the gated crossings between Atlanta and Chattanooga . . . on the entire system . . . on the other dozen or so major systems in the U.S. . . . and you're talking about REAL money. (The Paris Brussels high speed line has NO grade crossings at all.)

17 posted on 08/16/2002 8:33:41 PM PDT by AnAmericanMother
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To: AnAmericanMother
Good point (about the relative distances).

I would love to see it done, however, even if only for very short hauls. I live about an hour and a half by car from a fairly large city, but the roads are narrow, the parking and traffic are horrible once you get there, and I would never dream of commuting to work there. The distance is only about 75 miles, and a nice speedy train could make it in no time at all. It would be faster than a car over these indirect, truck-clogged roads.

Traveling by train (which I do all the time in Europe) is wonderful, restful, scenic, and all the other things the ads tell you. However, because it was a government controlled industry, European train travel had also gotten pretty crummy. Many European states are now in the process of privatizing, so there's been a new emphasis on service and efficiency, although unfortunately they have such hostile unions that it's very hard to make any changes.

We should observe and learn...
18 posted on 08/16/2002 8:47:53 PM PDT by livius
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To: livius
I haven't travelled on European trains since the 1970s, when I had a Eurailpass and went everywhere by train. It was fast, convenient, and pretty cheap. But just about everything about their system is different from ours.

Another thing that occurs to me is that almost all the downtown rail terminals have been wrecked out, and there's no place for new ones because the sites have been built over. Atlanta's Union Station is long gone, wrecked out, the only bit left is a piece of sculpture that they stuck on the wall in the subway station . . . the only surviving station is Brookwood, a little siding well north of downtown, they have to back the two passenger trains a day in from the main line. Richmond's old main passenger station is a museum, if you take Amtrak to Richmond you wind up at a little suburban siding station WAY out of town. And so it goes.

Atlanta parking is not too bad if you know where to look. I do not use the bus lines or the subway because they don't go where I need to go. I would have to walk for blocks or use three transfers. Neither is acceptable, especially if your job (like mine) requires you to carry "stuff" around with you like (paper) files or a laptop.

19 posted on 08/16/2002 9:04:52 PM PDT by AnAmericanMother
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To: jackbill
Air and highways are funded, almost exclusively, by "user fees", gasoline taxes and "airport" taxes.

Absolutely, totally, dead wrong.

The "user fees" you refer to only fund 42% of highway maintenance and construction costs. The other 58% comes from the "general fund", i.e. income taxes and other taxes.

This is true both at the federal and state levels. Only the percentages differ.

Your statement above is one of the most pernicious and dangerous myths of the transportation game. It prevents people from addressing the real facts of the matter.

20 posted on 08/16/2002 9:08:31 PM PDT by Publius
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