Amtrak is hinting that long-haul train service will remain, but will be scaled back from current levels. I’d call that wildly optimistic thinking.
Speaking to Skift’s Brian Sumers, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson explained:
There will always be a place for the experiential long-haul train, because Congress has told us clearly that that’s an important part of our mission. What we do is follow the law at Amtrak. The laws are clear that the national network is an important offering.
Probably today, we operate 15 of them, including Empire Builder across the northern western half of the U.S., the Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, the Southwest Chief, and the Coast Starlight. In an ideal state, we probably would operate somewhere between five to 10 and instead focus our efforts and resources on short-haul intercity transportation, because that’s where the demand indicators are for Amtrak.
His first point is most important. Amtrak, officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, has a mission that far exceeds profit. Congress has deemed long-haul rail service as a public necessity and continues to allocate money for it, even though it loses money.
In that sense, Amtrak is just like the U.S. Post Office. Many see the USPS as bloated and inefficient. It is. But there’s a constitutional authority for it (Article I, Section 8) and Congress has deemed it a public necessity. Congress sees Amtrak in the same way. It’s not just about profits.
Thus, Anderson is wise to say there will likely always be some form of longhaul train service in the United States. Where I think he is over-optimistic is to think that he can cut the number of longhaul routes by 2/3…or even 1/3.
Which Amtrak Longhaul Routes Would Be Cut?
Which Members of Congress will support eliminating long-haul rail service from their districts? I’d say the answer is none of them. Ok, the Empire Builder is losing money. You eliminate that and Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota lose their only longhaul route. Trying cutting the Sunset Limited and many southern and western states lose their longhaul rail service. Suddenly, Amtrak becomes “vital” to the district.
Even if there is general agreement that some longhaul routes should be cut, I do not expect Congress to be able to decide which ones. Thus, until they all go (which won’t happen), they all stay.
I’ve traveled onboard the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder, checking off a longstanding item on my bucket list. I greatly enjoyed the experience and offer a full review below. But it was far more a novelty than a practicality. With airfare cheap, gasoline inexpensive, and Amtrak losing so much money, I just don’t see how long-haul train service can be deemed a public necessity. But I’d certainly miss it if it was cut. That’s the Amtrak dilemma for Anderson, Congress, and taxpayers…