Amtrak Plan to Expand Ridership Could Sidetrack Storied Trains

Seeking to attract millions more passengers, Amtrak is preparing a large-scale overhaul of its national network aimed at boosting passenger service in the South and West—but at the expense of long-haul routes beloved by train buffs and their allies in Congress.

The goal is to revamp the way Amtrak runs trains along the aging network of national routes it already maintains, with more frequent service between pairs of cities in the fastest-growing parts of the country, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., or Cleveland and Cincinnati. Running more trains over shorter distances would allow Amtrak to better serve those commercial corridors where rail can compete with flying and driving, railroad officials said.

But that new service could come at the cost of curtailing some long-distance routes, where storied trains like the Empire Builder and the Southwest Chief have small but fervent bases of support and lineage stretching back to the golden age of railroads.

And any change in Amtrak’s management of the national network will require approval from Congress, which has aggressively defended the long-distance routes in the past, even as it presses Amtrak to prioritize improving its financial performance.

The debate over Amtrak’s national service will be renewed in earnest next month, when the railroad releases a five-year asset-management plan that will preview the choices it will face in replacing the aging fleet of long-distance trains. Amtrak says it will need $2.2 billion to $2.7 billion between now and 2030, as part of a total $3.8 billion it expects to spend on replacing the long-distance fleet, including locomotives Amtrak has already ordered.

Railroad officials are using that looming procurement to present Congress with a tough decision it will have to make when it takes up Amtrak’s reauthorization and capital funding later this year.

Rather than simply replacing the sleeping and dining cars used on cross-country routes, Congress and the railroad could decide to purchase railcars better suited to carrying more passengers along shorter corridors, Amtrak and government officials said.

Amtrak Chief Executive Richard Anderson, a former Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO, has hinted at his desire to grow ridership along densely populated corridors where Amtrak currently runs infrequent service, and has already tangled with supporters of long-distance trains in the process.

“The demand is clearly there for additional short-corridor service throughout the U.S., which includes both additional frequencies for existing routes and establishing new routes between city pairs,” Mr. Anderson said in written testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month.

“The present network simply does not fit the future,” Mr. Anderson said.

Most of Amtrak’s train sets in service along long-distance routes are nearing the end of their useful life, railroad officials say.

That will mean deciding whether to replace all of the sleepers, diners and baggage cars now in use on trains like the City of New Orleans or the Sunset Limited, or purchasing some equipment that could be more readily used for intercity service like that on the Northeast Corridor.

The long-distance trains run 15 routes that can stretch well over 1,000 miles, usually once a day, with passengers who tend to be older and more likely to be vacationing than those on the packed Acela and regional trains of the Northeast Corridor.

The timetables on these long routes mean inefficiencies for shorter distances. For instance, the long-distance Capitol Limited rolls through Cleveland once daily in each direction on its run between Chicago and Washington, D.C. But because the timetable is based on people riding from end to end, the departure times in Cleveland are 1:45 a.m. and 2:53 a.m.

More flexible train sets—trains made up of passenger coaches designed to hold more riders—could be used to run more-frequent daily service between pairs of cities in the fastest-growing parts of the country, Amtrak planners say, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., or Memphis and New Orleans.

That could allow Amtrak’s annual ridership to expand by millions over the coming decades, the officials said. It would also let Amtrak pursue the strategy that has been effective at increasing revenue and lowering operating subsidies in sections of the Northeast Corridor: focusing on dense corridors of 300 to 400 miles in which rail has proven competitive with both flying and driving.

“We are undertaking a major rethinking of the national network and how we offer service on the national network,” an Amtrak spokeswoman said. “That study and planning isn’t done yet, and we aren’t prepared to announce any plans or recommendations yet—those will come in our reauthorization proposal.”

Amtrak’s plan could mean ending once-a-day through-train service connecting distant cities such as Chicago and New Orleans, and instead offering multiple trains a day on different sections of that route—meaning greater travel frequencies connecting population centers along the way, like Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss. Some long-distance routes would likely be preserved based on consumer demand.

But such a reimagining of the railroad’s national network won’t come without a fight. That is because the long-distance routes, while serving just 15% of Amtrak’s 31.7 million annual riders, have strong defenders. And running more frequent service would also set up a clash with the freight railroads that own the tracks Amtrak uses for almost all of its service outside the Northeast Corridor. The freight lines and Amtrak are already locked in a long-running dispute over on-time performance and when freight trains must allow passenger service to take precedence on the railroad.

Amtrak could face opposition from local and federal elected officials from the states traversed by the long-distance trains, labor unions already incensed by Amtrak’s reductions of dining service on some long-distance routes, and those who feel that preserving the routes is central to Amtrak’s mission to serve the entire country.

And running more frequent service could also set up a clash with the freight railroads that own the tracks Amtrak uses for almost all of its service outside the Northeast Corridor. Freight delays lead to passenger-train delays, denting Amtrak’s on-time performance and triggering disputes over when freight trains must give priority to passenger trains.

A plan that cuts back service on the long-distance routes, especially one eliminating stops in small rural communities, won’t be politically viable, said Jim Matthews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.

The railroad, which was chartered by Congress in 1971 to preserve passenger rail service as private carriers dropped out of the business, is charged with operating a national service, Mr. Matthews noted, and representatives and senators from states served by the long-haul trains have proven fierce opponents of efforts to cut back service.

While his group supports new, frequent corridors of intercity service, it won’t do so at the price of the long-distance routes, Mr. Matthews said.

Congress has backed Mr. Matthews’s position in the past, including in the bipartisan spending bill passed this month, which included language urging Amtrak to preserve existing long-distance routes, which serve nearly 5 million riders a year.

Amtrak has already seen the blowback that can come from trying to pare long-distance service.

Mr. Anderson, Amtrak’s CEO, last fall postponed a plan to replace trains with a bus on sections of the Southwest Chief, a route that crawls from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles, after protests from representatives from the affected states who would have lost access to the train.

The Senate, in response, approved an amendment offering $50 million for track upgrades and blocking the bus proposal through 2019, by a vote of 95 to 4.