As we all know, Amtrak’s ridership has been booming all over the United States. Corridor trains are selling out more often, while long distance trains are a hit among college students with school coming back into session soon. With the recent surge in fuel prices, people are looking at new ways to beat the pump and Amtrak has been hugely popular as a clean and friendly way of getting around.

In recent weeks, there has been several articles about Amtrak now hitting its upper capacity limits, including in the Wall Street Journal. This is a big problem for several reasons:

1. Turning somebody away because there is not enough room should not be an option. The exceptions are our own Amtrak Cascades and the Northeast Corridor’s (NEC) Acela train, which can not add cars as easily as say the Amfleet (as pictured above), Horizon, or Superliner cars.

2. To have the Government take Amtrak as a serious mode of transportation, Amtrak needs as much exposure as possible.

3. Higher ridership figures will benefit studies of and proposals for High Speed Rail, such as the California High Speed Rail Project (which is a good thing, we need HSR).

4. Overcrowding leads to delayed trains because baggage is lost, people have fallen asleep past their station, etc.

What’s most bothersome is that there shouldn’t be any capacity issue. Amtrak has 70+/- serviceable Amfleet passenger cars stored in the Delaware and Bear shops in the Northeast Corridor. Along with these cars are an additional 20+/- serviceable GE P40 locomotives. Amtrak should be talking to Congress on getting these cars and locomotives either rebuilt/refurbished as soon as possible to reduce the overcrowding on trains.

The Amfleet cars are good for at least 80 passengers per car and most corridor trains run between 3-5 cars. This would be an additional capacity of upwards of 400 passengers per train. At 5 car trains each, Amtrak has enough cars for an additional 14 train sets. Realistically, it would be more like 11 or 12, keeping a car or two at each of the terminal locations as a spare. If Amtrak does have more than the 70 cars however, 14 train sets is easily possible. 14 train sets times 400 passengers each train = 5600 potential passengers for these train sets a day, or 2,044,000 passengers a year – And this is only assuming the train is one way at maximum capacity. Make it a round trip and it doubles. Also, trains can be utilized on a corridor several times over.

Amtrak as it stands now is doing excellently in terms of ridership, but it could be doing even better. If Amtrak was granted the money to rebuild these cars and locomotives, Amtrak could start adding service to these strained corridors in less than 6 months time. This would also give Amtrak a cushion with these spare train sets for new service, including the once talked about Seattle – Pasco via Stampede Pass route. Another example use of these extra cars is to replace a broken-down dedicated train set. The Acela and Cascades service have been both pulled for serious mechanical issues. When this happened, Amtrak had to cut services of other trains to provide coverage. This should absolutely never happen.

Amtrak’s corridor trains, excluding the NEC, operate on freight railroad tracks, which is the other major hindrance to Amtrak. Signal issues, or freight trains that are moving slowly or stalled, or just freight congestion period can easily slow a passenger train down by hours. Long-distance trains suffer from this even more.

In order for Amtrak to establish high speed rail, the State and neighboring freight carriers would need to come to a better agreement on how trackage rights work. All of the freight railroads claim that new rail construction is required and would be used for passenger movements only. The maximum speed would be 90-110mph. At a maximum speed of 110mph, it is fast enough to cut travel times by upwards of an hour and a half depending on curves in the corridor. Our Amtrak Cascades corridor could achieve speeds up to 110mph South of Olympia, which would reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland from 3hr 30 minutes to 2hr 23 minutes (assuming use of the Talgo Tilting equipment).

And finally, the most important thing to any passenger operations is the maintenance of the track. The video below shows the Amtrak Cascades at speed going over a very rough grade crossing. This is one of many issues with aging infrastructure that face these passenger trains all around America.

Amtrak Cascades going over rough crossing in Kalama, WA

4 Replies to “Challenges for Amtrak”

  1. The challenge is not to Amtrak- it is to us.

    For almost forty years Amtrak, saddled with the pension obligations and arguably some of the least productive employees from the railroads who got out of the passenger business, has kept the trains running.

    There can hardly be a leaner meaner corporation out there. Two or three times they’ve upgraded the entire fleet of motive power. They’ve gone through an entire tech revolution of ticketing and marketing, and, like some lady dancer, they do it in high heels and backwards, translating the demands of their Congressional sponsors into service provided on leased rails of unfriendly freight railroads. Most of their CEOs have been railroaders to the core, extremely experienced and formerly chiefs of other roads, taking on a job with little glory and less pay because they love the railroad and the challenge.

    What Amtrak needs is capital and political support. And what you, dear reader, can do about it is to learn more about railroads and passenger trains- bearing in mind, always, that what you’re learning is just one of the blind men describing the elephant.

    Because, just as sure as the Lord made little green apples, a rising demand for Amtrak will bring hare-brained schemes from one side and a perfect storm of jeering from the peanut gallery.

    Connecting the dots ain’t that hard- wires from solar and wind power generators to passenger rail = less global warming. The devil is in the details.

  2. The blame for Amtrak’s issues rests squarely on the shoulders of the Bush Administration. Every year Amtrak asks for funds to accelerate the repairs to the mothballed fleet, and every year Congress puts it in the transit bill, and every year Bush vetoes it. Ditto infrastructure improvements.

    Sorry, don’t like the bumpy crossing at Kalama? Frustrated with the overall repair situation of the tracks along the PDX-SEA route?

    BNSF made $350 million in profits last quarter. They made $1.8 BILLION last year. Perhaps they ought to start taking care of their own house, before paying out that $137 million dividend to shareholders.

    Or at least if they are going to go around looking for governmental handouts, the least they could do is actually give passenger trains the operational priority that is legally mandated.

  3. The blame for Amtrak’s problems does not totally reside with the Bush Adminstration. It resides with the Clinton, Bush, Sr, Reagan, Carter, and Nixon Administration. In the case of the Ford Administration, they had a competent CEO that had done a good job running passenger trains for the B&O and later Illinois Central. Fighting Reagan’s attempt to kill what was left of Amtrak after Carter’s cuts(including the North Coast Hiawatha which served the populated portion of Montana, the Floridian, and some other services) was another competent CEO who ran the Southern Railroad after 1971, and opted out of Amtrak for about 10 years. Cutting services only lead to the increase in the losses, and the decline to focus on the corridors, at the expense of the National Network. Amtrak is a corporation, that is in it’s name, but it also includes National. National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Not Northeast Corridor and a few select corridors here and there Railroad Passenger Corporation.

    We need a national policy to try to connect every community a rail line goes through with the network if possible. If gas prices continue this path they are on, and occasionally spiking above $4 per gallon, it might be worth considering restoring service on branch lines, even if it is a Mixed Train. Those were the last privately operated, non-Amtrak services in the country. They lasted into the 1980s in Georgia because the State of Georgia, when they charted the Georgia Railroad, gave them a break from state taxes if they continued to provide some kind of passenger service. Unfortunately they did not specify that it had to be comfortable, or on-time.

    The long distance trains have a place, and they should be improved. On board services as well as the on-time performance. When Amtrak has to turn away coach passengers because there is no space available, that is a bad thing. I find it hard to believe former Republican Congressmember and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough has come out in support of Amtrak, and he just blurted it out on his most recent show(before MSNBC pre-empted it for the Olympics). All his district had was the Sunset Limited, and they do not even have that anymore.

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