On January 17, Amtrak President Thomas Downs presented a series of documents to Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, offering so-called options for maintaining the Texas Eagle route after May 10, 1997. Unfortunately, these documents are useful only in providing yet another example of the factual inaccuracies, erroneous conclusions, and general misinformation which has come to characterize the present Amtrak corporate management.
In these documents, Amtrak maintains its demand that any continuation of the Texas Eagle will require state support from Texas and Arkansas. Amtrak excuses Illinois from this requirement because Illinois funds other services on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. Missouri is excused because, according to Amtrak, that state is in a position to fund only the St. Louis-Kansas City intrastate service. Texas and Arkansas stand to lose the most if the Eagle is discontinued, and it is therefore these two states toward which Amtrak has directed its extortion attempts. Neither Mr. Downs, nor Amtrak Intercity President Mark Cane offer any explanation as to why Arkansas and Texas should provide state funding for a long- distance, interstate train, when state support of this nature is not provided to any other long- distance train in the system. Numerous other long-haul routes lose far more money (according to Amtrak's own convoluted and highly suspect cost allocation process) but these routes are inexplicably seen by Amtrak as having growth potential, while the Texas Eagle is seen as little more than a parasite to the system. The fact that two state capitals, Little Rock and Austin, would lose all passenger train service is immaterial. The loss of the huge Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex from the Amtrak national system is of no concern. Amtrak management is likewise unimpressed by the fact that Texas has become the number two tourism destination in the nation (second only to Florida, a state where Amtrak in November 1996 added a fourth daily train from the northeast.)
Neither Arkansas nor Texas appear willing to provide state funding for a continuation of Amtrak's comedy of errors, although numerous suggestions have been made concerning operational changes to the Texas Eagle which would substantially improve the route's economic performance. The states have also indicated a willingness to consider appropriate areas of local involvement, such as train station rehabilitation/upkeep and promotional efforts to improve ridership. (For much of the year the train's capacity, arbitrarily limited by Amtrak, is unable to accommodate additional riders due to sold-out conditions.) Unless EVERY state on EVERY route is required to contribute funding for routes serving those states, the demands made upon Arkansas and Texas are discriminatory, inappropriate, and amount to little more than an amateur blackmail attempt.
Perhaps even more significant than the philosophical difference over state funding, the Amtrak memorandum from Mark Cane contains numerous factual errors which tend to distort various Texas Eagle route modifications. The most blatant misstatements involve a proposal to operate the Texas Eagle from Memphis to Texas, with service between Chicago and Memphis handled by an existing Amtrak train, the City of New Orleans. For almost six weeks during the massive Mississippi River flooding of 1993, the Texas Eagle operated north of Little Rock to Bald Knob, Arkansas, where a detour was made over 90 miles of Union Pacific mainline trackage to Memphis. At Memphis, the train operated over Illinois Central trackage to Chicago, following the route of the City of New Orleans. Despite the heavy freight traffic congestion occasioned by the flooding, the Texas Eagle's Little Rock-Chicago travel time via Memphis was often equal (or less) than the Little Rock-St. Louis-Chicago schedule. Because of the obvious success of this detour movement, the Memphis option has been viewed as a possible opportunity to reduce expenses while maintaining reliable Chicago- Little Rock-Texas service.
Amtrak claims that "...the absence of a direct connection at Memphis makes it impossible to consistently, safely and cost effectively route the Texas Eagle through Memphis...." In fact, however, the same connection exists in Memphis as was present in 1993. The movement from Illinois Central to Union Pacific tracks requires nothing more than a simple back-up move of approximately 1,000 feet. To place this switching move in perspective, this IDENTICAL switching move is currently performed at Fort Worth, Texas, each time the Eagle arrives and departs. The movement at Fort Worth is accomplished over a rail crossing which is significantly more congested than the crossing at Memphis.
Amtrak also states that the "...Memphis-Little Rock line has seen no regularly scheduled rail passenger service in many years." Actually, 58 miles of this route (Little Rock to Bald Knob) have been used by the Texas Eagle on each trip since Amtrak service was inaugurated in 1974. Amtrak's assessment continues with statements that "...the track is known to have serious subgrade problems which would need to be corrected to accommodate Amtrak. This line is not presently engineered for passenger train speeds." Referring to the current Union Pacific employee timetable governing train movements over the Memphis subdivision, freight trains are authorized to operate at 60 miles per hour. This is the same maximum speed allowed freight trains on other portions of Union Pacific trackage currently used by the Texas Eagle. If indeed the Memphis line is in as poor condition as alleged by Amtrak, the various cities along the route would be well advised to request track inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration, for the purpose of determining whether the numerous hazardous material chemical trains on this route should operate at reduced speeds. The Memphis subdivision trackage is welded rail, with centralized traffic control (CTC) train dispatching. Because of the geography of the territory traversed, much of the line is a straight tangent, and there are very few curves except in the vicinity of the White River bridge near Augusta, where 40 mph speed restrictions apply. Federal Railroad Administration track classifications provide that passenger trains may safely operate at 79 mph on trackage which allows 60 mph freight train speeds. Amtrak's argument against using this line is without merit. The primary modification needed would be minor adjustments to highway grade crossing signals, allowing earlier activation to warn motorists of faster moving trains.
If the errors (or deliberate misstatements) concerning the Memphis option are not sufficient to cast doubt on Amtrak's credibility with regard to the Texas Eagle, the corporation's proposed state-supported train scenario should leave no doubt that the present management has no understanding of the services which they are expected to provide. In this document, Amtrak claims that a two car, coach-only train operating between Chicago and Fort Worth is the most economical train service which can be provided. In other words, the entire station costs, crew costs, and other operating costs which are independent of train size, are borne by a two car coach train which could accommodate a maximum of 150 passengers per trip. Amtrak further states that "...our analysis concluded that losses increase with the addition of passenger cars, or operating the service daily." In other words, when an additional car is added to this two car train, the incremental expenses incurred by adding the car outweigh the incremental revenue produced by the car. Remember that the basic costs of the train, those costs not affected by train length, are the same whether the train is two cars or twenty cars; only the revenue producing capability of the train is changed. This argument by Amtrak directly illustrates the fallacy of the corporation's cost accounting system, whereby a myriad of corporate overhead costs are arbitrarily assigned to long-distance routes based, not on actual expense figures, but upon a car-mile average.
The proposal for a coach-only train is itself nothing less than amazing, considering the very strong sleeping car ridership which prevails on the Eagle. Sleeping car accommodations on the Eagle must be reserved weeks or months in advance, and each sleeping car ticket provides at least three to five times the revenue of a comparable coach ticket. Although Eagle supporters have for 18 months asked for more equipment to handle the business, it was not until the Christmas season of 1996 that Amtrak belatedly added one car -- a sleeping car -- to help alleviate sold-out conditions.
The entire cost allocation mechanism of Amtrak has been the source of controversy for years, with much evidence suggesting that Northeast Corridor trains are given favorable treatment by reallocating many corridor costs to the national system. Amtrak claims that a four-car train operating tri-weekly between Chicago and Fort Worth (1023 miles) would cost $15.9 million, and that the same train operating tri-weekly between Memphis and Fort Worth (550 miles) would cost $14.3 million. It seems remarkable that there is only an 11% fluctuation in the alleged cost of these two trains, despite the fact that there is a 46% difference in the end point distances of the two routes. Exactly what drives the expense side of Amtrak's formula, if not time and distance, the two variables affecting all forms of transportation? Shouldn't the bulk of the expense now prorated to long-haul trains be more properly reassigned to corridor services which actually generate the expense?
Finally, Amtrak's proposal to Senator Hutchison is also noteworthy in that it makes no mention of any efforts to improve the Eagle's economic performance. There is obviously no interest on the part of Amtrak in operating a successful Texas Eagle. If this train thrives, it will be because of a congressional mandate instructing Amtrak to provide the service. If the train does not survive, other routes will be targeted for discontinuance as the loss of connecting services cause the remnants of the national system to self-destruct.
Prepared for Arkansas Rail by Bill Pollard.
Posted: Sunday, January 26, 1997.
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