Yes, Amtrak is Indeed Mismanaged

Railway Age has an article by William Vantuono that rants in length about the Northeast Corridor privatization proposal. Although there are many problems with the proposal that deserve to be discussed, the article mentions none of them, instead preferring to repeat old-time railroader platitudes and Amtrak apologetics. I wouldn’t ordinarily write about a single article, but it showcases an attitude that is common among people involved in the industry and is a serious barrier to reform. For example, take the following lines:

Why dismantle Amtrak? Why create something extremely complex out of something that, though certainly not ideal, is straightforward and has worked pretty well for 40 years?

From Mica: “Amtrak has repeatedly bungled development and operations in the Northeast Corridor (excuse me, but isn’t Amtrak’s market share between New York and Washington close to 70%, and between New York and Boston close to 50%?), and their (“its”) new long-term, expensive plan to try to improve the corridor is simply unacceptable (didn’t you ask them for a plan?).”

Vantuono is simply wrong. Amtrak does not have a 70% market share between New York and Washington, or a 50% market share between New York and Boston. Both figures refer to Amtrak’s share of the total air/rail market, and exclude bus and car traffic. Amtrak’s total market share is much lower: its high-speed rail vision plan hopes that by 2050 the incremental Master Plan could increase the NY/DC and NY/Boston market shares to 26% and 21% respectively, and the $117 billion vision under discussion could increase them to 39% and 53%. To put things in perspective, Korea’s existing high-speed service, which is not particularly fast, had a market share of two-thirds from Seoul to Daegu and Busan.

Not all of Amtrak’s underperformance in terms of speed or price or profit is due to its own mismanagement, but most is. FRA regulations force the trains to be substandard and slower than they could be given the infrastructure, but Amtrak never even asked for a waiver; in contrast, Caltrain, a small regional railroad asked for a waiver in preparation for its electrification plan, and got it.

But let’s move on to Vantuono’s next impish attack:

So, what exactly are our good Congressmen proposing?

First is “Northeast Corridor Competition.” “Unfortunately, Amtrak’s Acela currently averages only 83 mph between Washington and New York, and just 65 mph between New York and Boston (that’s mainly because the trains make stops at major cities, and most passengers don’t ride the entire route, but in any case, the issue is not speed, it’s trip time).The Mica/Shuster initiative will end the Amtrak monopoly (actually, most NEC trains are commuter trains operated by transit agencies). It separates the NEC from Amtrak, spinning it off as a separate business unit (this has been tried before); transfers the title for the NEC to USDOT, including all assets, property, and trains; USDOT enters into 99-year lease with a Northeast Corridor Executive Committee; Executive Committee manages NEC infrastructure and operations (this all sounds way too complicated).

Next, we “bring private sector expertise and financing to the table.” The legislation “requires a competitive bidding process for development of high-speed rail on the NEC; allows private sector to recommend best PPP framework; and establishes performance standards for competitive bidding process.” The end result? “Real high-speed rail on NEC—less than 2 hours between WDC and NYC (nice objective); double total intercity rail traffic on NEC (you’ll need to double the amount of main line tracks to do that, and where are you going to put them?)’; highest level of private sector participation and financing (not without big government dollars); lowest level of federal funding (sorry fellas, but someone is smoking something); full implementation in 10 years or less (you want it when?).

Practically none of the facts Vantuono tries to interject with is true. High-speed trains in most countries make stops in the major cities. Between Seoul and Busan, not only do all KTX trains stop in Daejeon and Daegu, but also they run to those cities on legacy track; the average speed from Seoul to Busan is 170 km/h, or 106 mph. And all Shinkansen trains stop in the major cities, and yet the Sanyo Shinkansen express trains average 224 km/h, or 139 mph.

The other too-clever-by-half fact, “you’ll need to double the amount of main line tracks,” is also false. Amtrak runs 1-2 Northeast Corridor trains per hour north of New York, and 2-3 south of New York. Doubling that requires no additional infrastructure, with the exception of the tunnels between New York and New Jersey, which run 25 tph on two tracks at the peak – and even there, no extra concrete is needed. The capacity of two mainline tracks, even at speeds higher than those of normal commuter trains, is more than 30 trains per hour; electronics before concrete, as the Germans say.

Finally, Vantuono’s complaint about the lack of “constructive discussion about how rail operations in the Northeast should be managed,” is that “we’re not dealing with railroaders.” In other words: anyone with expertise outside the slow, unsafe, badly regulated, and unprofitable American mainline system is to be ignored – to have their grammar mocked for saying “their” in reference to Amtrak and to have legislative plans for competitive bids dismissed as “it’s all too complicated.”

In the early 1980s, SEPTA tried to reform itself, under a management schooled in urban transit. It had grand plans for SEPTA Regional Rail: it built a tunnel connecting its two halves and through-ran trains, it wanted to run trains frequently, and before building the tunnel had considered severing one half from the FRA-regulated network and running it under rapid transit regulations. The result: the unions and the old-time railroaders rebelled, considering management to not be real railroaders. The reforms stalled with the exception of lower payscales for train operators, SEPTA Regional Rail remained more like American commuter rail than like an S-Bahn, and recently even the through-running regime was ended.

There’s a large segment of rail activists who are wedded to the old way of doing things: those are the people who defend FRA regulations, think regional rail should be treated separately from urban transit, can’t conceive of trains operating with no conductors, and want to build concrete before electronics and organization. As seen in the example of SEPTA, those people are the real obstacle to rail revival in the US, much more so than transient right-wing populist movements such as the Tea Party. Rick Scott and Scott Walker are unlikely to still be around in five years; Vantuono and the tens of thousands of railroad workers like him will be around and pass on their business culture to the next generation, and no concrete should be poured until the organization that created this culture is reformed.


  1. Yankee Doodle

    Mica and his cronies are the last people I want the NEC trusted to. Let those simpletons run a passenger route in Kansas and make that profitable. Then we’ll talk about the big leagues. Until then, spare us your bills that will never pass the sniff test nor survive a presidential veto.

      • Yankee Doodle

        I’m a NYer and never feel the need to hold back complaining about anything that isn’t good. But Acela service is the best way to travel in the northeast, I don’t give a damn what some hick from FLA thinks. It’s common sense, don’t fix something that isn’t broken.

        This is just more dumb legislation.

        • Alon Levy

          All you’re saying is that Bolt, Megabus, driving, and flying are worse. I agree; this still doesn’t make Amtrak a good way to travel. The express trains from Tel Aviv to Haifa, hauled by 140 km/h diesel locomotives, average 120 km/h, more than the NY-Boston Acela and not much less than the NY-DC Acela.

      • Yankee Doodle

        Alon: No, I am saying that Acela service is a very civilized way to travel. The speed constraints on Acela are a drag but with knowledge and capital improvements (especially in CT) they can only get better.

        • Alon Levy

          The knowledge is already there. It’s very simple: the superelevation and allowed cant deficiency in Connecticut west of New Haven are vintage 1930s. The tracks and the trains can take much more. At zero infrastructure, new rolling stock should take not much more than half as long to do New York-New Haven.

  2. Alon Levy

    Speaking of Amtrak mismanagement: I just boarded a train at Penn Station. The concourse had two access points to the platform, but only one is used at a time – and of course the many access points from the lower concourse (the LIRR’s turf) were out of the question. As a result, the scramble to get on the train lasted more than 10 minutes.

  3. Tom West

    OK, the headline Amtrak is mismanaged, but the article seems to be about refuting some specific claims made by William Vantuono. (I don’t disagree with your article, I just think it’s nothing to do with the headline)

    So a challenge: name three ways in which Amtrak’s mismanagement is painfully obvious to you, and what exactly is should be doing instead.

    • Danny

      1) Overstaffing trains
      2) Overpaying workers – including upper and middle management
      3) Refusal to confront the FRA
      4) Refusal or inability to cut irrelevant lines that drain resources
      5) Making people pay more for higher speed instead of better seats
      6) Poor capital investment decisions (the Acela trainsets are a prime example)
      7) Blame shifting of failures
      8) Poor capacity management at busy terminals
      9) “Concrete before electronics” – their >$100 billion plan for the NE Corridor is a near perfect example

      What should it do instead?
      1) Hire at competitive wages for all levels. Eliminate overstaffing on trains.
      2) Work toward an FRA waiver for the NE Corridor, shifting freight schedules if necessary
      3) Eliminate low ridership lines with low FRRs
      4) Run all trains at the highest speeds possible for the line
      5) Run higher capacity trains (7 car Acela trainsets with an entire cafe care is just moronic)
      6) Shift resources toward high benefit/cost investments rather than high cost, low-benefit-apart-from-political-publicity investments

      Another possibility would be 7) Cease to exist, contracting out their corridors to organizations with proven experience.

      • ant6n

        Also – focus on costumer experience:
        – make it easy to arrive 5 minutes before a train leave, keep platforms open; rather than tell people to come 30 minutes in advance and then fill the train single file
        – don’t have an airline-style ticketing system, but rather use greyhound-style tickets
        – integrate train tickets with local transit fares
        – offer free wifi
        – offer slightly better food in trains

        and on new york-montreal (very specific)
        – do pre-clearance in Montreal, cutting 2 hours of travel time, and making the train faster than the bus

        • Alon Levy

          New York-Montreal would also benefit from higher cant deficiency, since the line is curvy and has low (zero?) superelevation. The existing equipment should be good for 5″ of cant deficiency (the Amfleets do 5″ between New Haven and Boston, and the Genesis loco should be able to do the same as the EMD loco on the Cascades, which the FRA allows 6″), and a noncompliant diesel Talgo should be good for 9″. It boils down to Amtrak’s unwillingness to confront the FRA about its regulations.

          Also: everything ant6n and Danny said, except I don’t know whether Amtrak employees are overpaid (I don’t know either the salaries or the comparable salaries at well-run railroads), and since metropolitan transit fares are not integrated with one another either, the most important of the different fares for Amtrak to integrate with is parallel commuter lines.

      • ant6n

        ‘Integration’ with other tickets could be as simple as – if you buy a ticket from A to B, it counts as a local transit pass in A and B two hours around departure/arrival or so.

      • Tom West

        1) Overstaffed trains… how many staff do/should they have on a train?
        2) Overpayed staff… how much do they make, and how should they make?
        3) Not confronting FRA – agreed they should have pressed harder on that, but it’s impossible to know what contact was behind the scenes. If they did an informal approach, tehy might have told “never in a million years”, so it wasn’t worth the effort of doing things formally. You’re probably right, but we cannot ever be certain.
        4) Cutting money-draining lines… methinks politics. If they keep a line, suddenly certain senators will be Amtrak-friendly, and help pass bills with lots of nice funding. Don’t forget, all short loss-making lines must be state-subsidised.
        5) Last time I checked, Acela costs way more than non-Aclea for the same city pair. Yes, it’s “business class” – but it’s still extra fare for speed.
        6) Aclea was a horrible ghastly engineering compromise, so agree with you there.
        7, 8) Agree with capacity issues, and the “concrete first” approach. (Although it’s a lot easier to get people to give you money to pour concrete than to re-organise your staff…)

        • Alon Levy

          They should have an engineer and a conductor per intercity train. Just now when I asked, a conductor told me they have 3 conductors.

          I sincerely doubt the FRA told Amtrak to pound sand, since it was willing to accommodate Caltrain. (Speaking of FRA-Amtrak friction, the FRA’s study on the new Baltimore tunnels says they’ll cost $750 million; Amtrak’s master plan asks for either $1 or $1.5 billion, I forget which.) But even if I’m wrong and the FRA did rebuff Amtrak, the correct next move would be to go to the Obama administration, which the FRA has to answer to.

          It’s fine that Acela tickets cost more. What I’m complaining about is that for trips where Amtrak is much less frequent than commuter rail, for example Newark Airport to New Haven, if the Amtrak train that stops at the airport is late you should be able to board an NJT train and transfer to Amtrak at Penn Station (I had this exact problem 5 years ago).

          In addition to those points, I have 3 notes from the trip I’m currently taking:

          9. Amtrak’s punctuality is terrible. Of the last 6 trips I’ve taken, the train was late on 3, stopping for several minutes on canted track twice. On this trip, a southbound Regional was already 5-6 minutes late coming into Providence, a mere 40 or so minutes from its starting point. Later tha train crawled briefly near Westerly, on track it doesn’t share with any commuter service.

          10. The rear coach of the Regional consist carries no passengers and is sealed from the rest of the train – all while amtrak is crying car shortage.

          11. At some stations, not all doors open, adding to the dwell time. Worse, unlike at Metro-North, Amtrak’s announcements do not tell passengers where to head – they say “only 3 doors open,” not which doors open. The cost of high platforms is not that high and is much less than that of an extra minute or so of dwell time.

  4. ant6n

    SEPTA is a really interesting example. I’ve been looking into how and why S-Bahn systems work and can be so successful. It seems that SEPTA got a lot of the things that would make an S-Bahn system – but their ridership is abysmal. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on – I feel there must be more to it than ‘new management didn’t like transit operations’.

    • Alai

      I don’t know to what extent this is the cause, but when I visited Philadelphia I was a bit surprised by the number of large parking garages in the center of the city.

      For instance, apparently an enormous, government-funded parking garage was just completed a block south of the 30th St. Station. It was supposed to be followed by a pair of skyscrapers, but those have been put on ice.

      • Matt_B

        Part of that complex is the old post office which was rehabbed and now holds a large IRS facility. The previous IRS location was poorly served by transit, so its employees had no incentive to live near transit. Consequently, many employees still need their cars to get to work. Presumably this will improve as the workforce turns over.

      • Alai

        Right, but that’s still a hundred million of government money that could have been better spent, and which will encourage car commuting into Philadelphia for decades to come.

    • Alon Levy

      From what I’ve read, which is not a lot, SEPTA’s problems really did boil down to conflict between transit-oriented management and traditional railroading-oriented employees. Even the strike, which cut SEPTA Regional Rail ridership in half, came because of this general conflict – namely, management wanted to pay the employees the same rates as on urban rail systems, which are lower than on commuter rail.

      At least, the ways in which SEPTA’s service was inferior to an S-Bahn all seem related to this grand concept. Off-peak frequency remained laconic, though last time I checked before they eliminated the R# designations it was clockface hourly (it no longer is). Boarding at many outlying stations is still not level. There’s no fare integration with the subway.

      The only two intractable differences with an S-Bahn I can think of are that Philadelphia has a lot of edge city development, and that the physical infrastructure SEPTA inherited is such that many of the through-lines are C-shaped rather than linear and some cross themselves. The first problem is really a failure of commercial TOD in Lower Merion, but the second problem could only be fixed by integrating PATCO into the system, which is hard; it’s the same reason Ile-de-France is not connecting Montparnasse to the RER.

  5. simple

    I would just add that Amtrak like all large organizations is not monolithic. There are many within the organization who would agree with much if not all of the criticisms noted above and are trying to address them. But they need lots of help. A big problem with Mica’s approach is it allows no option for reforming Amtrak from within – and with its taunting tone forces Amtrak’s internal reformers to ally with the old guard (there’s no middle ground). For Mica it’s “nuke it or nothing” — and we will likely end up with nothing, and probably a worse nothing than we had before. Maybe it’s just as naive for me to think that Amtrak could be successfully reformed, but I don’t see Mica’s blustery and antagonistic approach as a very constructive one overall.

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