Always a good read, Fred Frailey talks about Amtrak and their political masters - John Mica in particular in his latest blog post.
Fred Frailey's Trains blog: "The Tragedy of John Mica"
"There are a lot of things wrong with Amtrak, some of them of its own doing. It’s almost impossible to get anything done, so hidebound (and scared) are its managers. The reorganization that (Amtrak) President Joe Boardman wants is almost two years in the making and still not finished. Onboard employees are unsupervised and bad habits are proliferating, particularly on the long distance trains. And...food service on Amtrak trains loses too much money."
"Amtrak needs critics...What it needs are critics, particularly in Congress, who want to make it better and are willing to pick nits or even pick fights with Amtrak to make it better"
The most notable critic of late is Congressman John Mica, but he just wastes everyone's time grandstanding. Fred concludes:
"Like I said at the start, the man is not stupid. He just wants us to think he is."
So, there's the problem statement. What's the solution? Fred says:
"It (Section 210 into the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act in 2008 ) instructed Amtrak to examine each of its 15 long distance routes and come up with ways to shrink the deficits. Many good ideas came forth, but very few were adopted; like I said, it's very hard to accomplish anything at Amtrak today. If anything begs for an Inspector General's report, it is Amtrak's refusal to take Section 210 seriously."
(A typical Amtrak update report is here)
Railfans tend to fall into two categories when it comes to Amtrak. Some think Amtrak should just be killed. They are a proven failure and in the way of profitable freight trains and innovative market financed High Speed Rail. The other group think Amtrak is highly functional organization whose only problem inconsistent and chronically short funding.
Both groups have a bit of truth in their reasoning, but are missing the whole picture. Amtrak, is not a highly functional organization. A good chunk of the blame goes to their political masters who routinely whip-saw them and cut them off at the knees with funding. However, Amtrak has been a great "enabler" of this behavior and in my opinion, have lost sight of what they are really supposed to be doing. They are largely dysfunctional and because they have a "good excuse" just perpetuate the status quo. This has gone on so long they don't even realize it. It's just "how things are".
The "let the market build high speed rail crowd" has a point. As long as Amtrak owns the passenger rail franchise in the US we don't get solutions driven by market forces. We get what ever Amtrak thinks up on their own plus whatever Congress dictates. Exhibit A is Acela. It's a success just about every way you'd care to measure it, yet the trainsets are too heavy, overpowered, overpriced, too wide to take full advantage of their tilt mechanism, and rely on Amtrak's clunky, home-grown, backward-focused, ACSES signal system. But, don't be fooled! Removing Amtrak would not have allowed a better version of HSR to occur in the Northeast Corridor. There would have been zilch. Nearly every attempt at privatized, profitable rail service in the world engages in a clever game of "hide the subsidy". The rail operator may turn a profit because the the government owner of the track leases it out at below full cost.
Passenger rail is a useful tool in providing overall mobility in the US. But, like it or not, the path forward is straight through Amtrak. If we want better trains, we need a better Amtrak. As advocates, we need to demand accountability from Congress AND Amtrak. ...and we need to start right now.