Amtrak CEO tells Chicago audience long-distance trains vital but Union Station needs plans, funding to handle more trains and passengers

May 20, 2013

CHICAGO (May 15)—Amtrak President Joseph H. Boardman told a sold-out banquet room that Amtrak has the responsibility to serve hundreds of rural communities that have lost intercity bus and airline service and that Congress has the responsibility to provide the funds to keep the nation connected.

The Thursday luncheon at Petterino’s restaurant in the Loop hosted by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association was sponsored by global rail suppliers Siemens, Alstom, Nippon Sharyo and Sumitomo.

“Long-distance trains are really the responsibility of the United States of America,” Boardman told the 188 attendees. “The bus companies and the airlines have abandoned so much of this rural territory that only Amtrak is left to supply non-automotive transportation.”

Boardman was echoing a theme that rail advocates have spent years trying to make clear to congressional critics who charge that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are obsolete dinosaurs.

“Whenever some grand-standing congressman wants to make Amtrak look foolish or wasteful he says the same thing,” said Corridor Capital LLC Chairman James E. Coston: ‘Why are you running a train that takes two days to get from Chicago to Seattle when Southwest Airlines can fly you there for less money in four hours?’

“What Joe Boardman is trying to show is that only 19 per cent of the people on that train are traveling the full distance from Chicago to Seattle,” Coston said. “The train is primarily providing local and inter-regional transportation. It follows a 2,205-mile route, but the average passenger travels only a third of that distance.

“They’re going from Minneapolis to Fargo or Seattle to Spokane or Williston to Milwaukee,” Coston said. “The discount airlines don’t connect most of the stations on that route, and intercity bus service has pretty much disappeared, so Amtrak has become the only transportation option for millions of people in ‘flyover territory.’”

“It’s national mobility we’re talking about,” Boardman said. “Without national unity we cannot function as a nation.”

He dismissed notions that so-called “interstate compacts” could plan, fund or operate a successful network of intercity trains serving half-a-dozen or more states.

“I see no compact of states other than the U.S. government,” Boardman said.

And while many rail advocates continue to complain that Amtrak favors its busy Northeast Corridor over the long-distance trains that serve the nation’s less populous regions, Boardman said the two networks are not exactly discrete.

“We looked at the numbers and found that the long-distance trains interchange about 500,000 passengers a year with the NEC,” he said.

Boardman also said connections with local transit systems—especially those that recently opened light-rail lines–are important to building Amtrak traffic.

“In Salt Lake City our trains have had a 50-per-cent increase in boardings since Front Runner began serving the station,” he said.

Boardman downplayed notions that the freight railroads want to evict Amtrak’s long-distance trains from their increasingly busy tracks.

“The freight railroads are good partners,” he said. “They are not so much opposed to passenger trains as they are insistent that the federal government pay for any additional capacity they need to run more passenger trains.”

And that, Boardman said, is a job for Congress, not Amtrak.

“Amtrak is not a funding agency,” he said. “We don’t fund—we operate. But we can only operate what Congress or the states fund us to operate.”

Amtrak would like to be operating a more robust network, Boardman said:

“What I see is us running north/south and east/west every day across this nation and connecting in the major cities with our other trains as well as with buses, rapid-transit systems, commuter rail, light rail and taxis.”

But because Amtrak is not a policy-planning or a funding agency, he reiterated, only Congress or individual states can provide the funds and the programs to create a larger, busier passenger-train network.

Boardman said the same principle holds in the case of Chicago’s increasingly congested and aging Union Station, which Amtrak owns but lacks the funds required to provide needed enhancements in track and platform capacity.

“There are not sufficient plans for Chicago Union Station,” he said. “There are plans for the commercial space—yes. But there’s no plan for increasing the capacity of the train space like the plans we have for Washington Union Station and Penn/Moynihan Station in New York. It takes agreements and time and money.”

Boardman discounted the criticism that the Boston-New York-Washington Northeast Corridor absorbs so much of Amtrak’s capital funding that little is left for development of the rest of the system that carries about two thirds of the company’s passengers. He said Amtrak also is pinched for resources to maintain the NEC track in top condition.

“On the NEC the track is not as good as it was,” he said. “When I ride the Acela I don’t see a safety problem, but I do see a problem with ride quality. When you get up to go to the café car or the rest room you notice the train swaying.”

When an audience member asked Boardman whether he rides trains often enough to detect changes in service or ride quality, he replied that he rides Amtrak trains to all of his out-of-town engagements.

“I travel by train,” he said. “I don’t fly. I’m out there on the railroad traveling with my staff all the time—to the point where they’ve started to get tired of me.”

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