How Long Can Amtrak Keep It Up?
To its great credit, Amtrak is still managing to provide an essential transportation alternative to some 30 million passengers a year. And that’s in spite of having to cope with a daunting number of obstacles.
Infrastructure. Billions of dollars are needed for repairs and deferred maintenance all along the Northeast Corridor, and for new tunnels under the Hudson River.
Equipment. There isn’t enough and what they’re using is old and should be replaced. All of it. But there’s no money thanks to …
Congress. The politicians continue to micro-manage Amtrak. All this meddling increases the operating costs, of course, but Congress continues to underfund Amtrak anyway.
Management. Current CEO, Joe Boardman, is watching while his underlings try to achieve profitability by cutting costs—including most of the little amenities that helped make sleeping car passengers feel welcome and appreciated.
Oversight. The Board of Directors is comprised of political appointees and it’s rare that any of them has any real railroad experience. Occasionally they are asked to perform political dirty work, however. For example, Bush appointees fired former CEO David Gunn, the most competent president Amtrak has ever had.
Freight railroads. In theory, they’re supposed to give priority to Amtrak trains running on their tracks. In practice, they often don’t, so Amtrak is often late. Sometimes very late. Toaster ovens from China arrive on time, however.
With all this going on, it’s no surprise that standards throughout the Amtrak system appear to be slipping little by little. There are fewer choices on the dining car menus and the same meals are served on every Amtrak train day after day. There is no real on-board supervision, so every car attendant does things his or her way. And more and more of the on-board crews, even veteran employees, seem to be losing some of their enthusiasm for the job.
Still, in spite of all these issues, Amtrak long-distance trains are continuing to provide essential public transportation for millions of people all across Middle America and they are another option for additional millions like me, who prefer to travel by train.
The question is, given all those obstacles, how long can they keep it up?