Amtrak’s Boardman Speaks to Congress, and Offers a Few Pearls.

 Joe Boardman, Amtrak’s president, appeared before a Congressional committee today and some interesting nuggets can be found in his prepared remarks.

On the subject of long distance trains, Boardman used the California Zephyr as a specific example. He chose the Zephyr because its route is the longest of all Amtrak trains, traversing 2438 miles between Chicago and the Bay Area in just over 50 hours. One Zephyr departs for Chicago every morning from Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco; another leaves from Chicago every afternoon and heads west.

To operate the Zephyr as a daily train, Amtrak needs six complete trains (called “consists” in railroad lingo, and pronounced CON-sist). Each includes two locomotives, a baggage car, a dorm car for the crew, three coaches, three sleepers, a diner and a lounge car … all that equipment, times six!

I found many of the facts Boardman presented about the Zephyr to be particularly interesting … and relevant to the idea that passenger rail is, in fact, essential public transportation.

For instance, while each individual Zephyr consist can accommodate a total of 365 passengers at any one time, in fact an average of 512 passengers rode the Zephyr on each trip last year. That’s because only 15 percent of the Zephyr’s passengers are on board for the entire length of the route.  And that’s important for a couple of reasons.

First, it means additional revenue, because Amtrak can sell many of the coach seats and bedroom accommodations more than once.

And second, it’s particularly significant because the Congressional ideologues, who are opposed as a matter of political philosophy to Amtrak’s paltry annual subsidy, love to complain that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize wealthy vacationers traveling in fancy bedrooms between the West Coast and Chicago.

Well, first of all, those bedroom accommodations ain’t cheap, so us sleeping car passengers are already paying our way and then some!

But more to the point, Boardman is telling us that 85 percent of Zephyr passengers are traveling from one mid-point to another. Put another way, for several hundred people on every one of these trains, the California Zephyr is public transportation! 

And that, you see, is what the NationalAssociation of Railroad Passengers has been trying to tell Congress for years: Stop complaining that Amtrak gets a small subsidy. Amtrak is public transportation, and all public transportation is subsidized, from the airlines to municipal transit systems to highways and right on down to bike paths.

And that’s the way it ought to work in a modern, civilized society.