The Wall Street Journal

Inside Amtrak's Dying Long-Distance Trains

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Amtrak's proposals for altering or eliminating some of its long-distance train routes, in favor of more frequent service where the population is growing, is facing opposition among those who fear rural America would suffer. WSJ's Jason Bellini reports.

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(inquisitive music)
- [Journalist Voiceover] Long-distance passenger routes
in the U.S. may be riding on borrowed time.
Amtrak wants congress to untie its hands
and allow it to cut its longer, unprofitable routes,
essentially halting service to rural communities.
The company's management sees opportunity for profits
and longterm growth in shorter distance travel.
- Shorter haul, inner-city service between big city pairs.
It's the way of the future.
- [Journalist Voiceover] In the next year, U.S. lawmakers
need to reauthorize Amtrak's funding.
Members of congress are coming under pressure
to preserve cross-country rail services.
- I'm afraid we're position rural America to fail.
- We're beginning our journey from New York to New Orleans.
We're riding Acela train down to Washington first.
- [Journalist Voiceover] Acela's part
of the northeast corridor.
It runs frequently and usually on time
connecting business travelers between
Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
It's profitable and Amtrak sees it
as a model for future growth.
According to a government commission,
keeping the northeast corridor in a good state of repair
will cost $42 billion.
And Amtrak wants congress to also invest
in new service between cities that by train
would be fewer than four hours apart.
- Dallas and Houston, for instance.
- [Journalist Voiceover] We spoke with Amtrak's executive
in charge of strategy.
- Amtrak's view is we've got a big opportunity
in these shorter distance corridors.
The less that say, 300-mile distance corridors
where we see a lot of our population growth occurring.
- But is there an appetite in congress
to be spending more money on Amtrak?
- Congress does recognize that trains can play a bigger role
and to get there, we have to invest in our assets.
- You're talking even larger investments?
- I am.
Over time we're gonna need to invest more than we have.
(train whistle blows)
- [Journalist Voiceover] The question now is
whether it's executives plan to also ask for money
to maintain long-distance trains.
In Washington, we board The Crescent Line to New Orleans.
- Pretty narrow hallway here.
I guess this is home.
It's a little smaller than I was expecting.
Oh, this is a folding sink?
Look at that.
Is this the toilet?
- [Journalist Voiceover] As we ride south through Virginia,
our dinner reservation is called.
- What temperature would you like?
- Medium, please. - Medium?
- [Journalist Voiceover] Meals are included
in the ticket price.
- Better than what you get on an airplane.
- [Journalist Voiceover] Our junior roomette, one way,
costs around $500, $250 a person.
Coach seats start at around $100.
Most Crescent passengers spend the 26-hour
D.C. to New Orleans journey in this section.
Around 2:30 a.m., we stop in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Last year, this city had the fifth-largest
increase in population in the country.
- We have one train a day that shows up
on a 2,000-mile journey.
Maybe it shows up in the middle of the night,
maybe it shows up on time, maybe it doesn't.
- [Journalist Voiceover] Amtrak says chronic, long delays
aren't its fault.
Outside the northeast corridor,
its trains ride on rails owned by freight companies.
It's battling some of these companies in the courts
for priority right-of-way.
It's freight fight not withstanding,
the company's leadership says it's current
long-distance services don't serve enough of a purpose
to justify the financial losses.
- It' 8:30 a.m., we just arrived in Atlanta,
well, a station that's on the outskirts of Atlanta.
This sleeper train is the only passenger train
that services this city.
There's a 100-year-old woman who just got onboard the train.
- I've always wanted to ride a train.
- [Journalist Always wanted to ride a train?
- [Journalist Voiceover] Annie Grissom is celebrating
her centennial year by taking a day trip
to Montgomery, Alabama.
- What are you gonna do when you get there?
- I'm gonna eat.
- (chuckling) Your just going for lunch?
- Yeah.
- Do you fly on planes?
- Uh-uh.
They're too high.
- (chuckling) It's too high.
- [Journalist Voiceover] Other passengers say that for them,
this is no joy ride.
- I'm too old to drive.
- What about the bus?
- It's seats are too close, it's too congested.
- You're seeing a microcosm of the type of people
that depend on long-distance trains.
Their quality of life would diminish
without this option.
- [Journalist Voiceover] John Roberts is a
former chairman of Amtrak's board.
He's now the head of Transportation for America,
an advocacy group for transportation infrastructure.
- You see a lady that's 100 years old,
you think she'd be making that trip by car or flying?
- She's going from Atlanta to Birmingham.
Let's say you had more trains going
between Atlanta and Birmingham.
She'd have more options.
- More trains before Atlanta and Birmingham is a good idea.
- She doesn't need the Crescent if you had that.
- There are people sitting here going to Slidell, Louisiana.
So a train just to Birmingham doesn't
get them to Slidell, Louisiana.
- It sounds to me like you're saying
the current leadership of Amtrak
doesn't consider rural America to be a priority.
- I think that would be fair to say
that they don't understand the needs of rural America.
- [Journalist Voiceover] In response, an Amtrak official
says the company believes in rural markets
and wants to be relevant in every one of them.
Roberts helped mobilize congressional opposition last year
to Amtrak's proposal for part of its Southwest Chief line
to replace train service with buses.
Company executives said the measure was necessary
in order to avoid costly infrastructure
upgrades and repairs.
But senators from western states said, not so fast.
- Would you ever consider the northeast corridor
being shifted to buses?
- [Journalist Voiceover] Amtrak backtracked,
promising to keep the Southwest Chief
running through the end of this year.
- The effectively said, no, we are not going to replace
trains with buses.
- They did and we respect that.
I think that we didn't fully have a conversation
about the future of the network.
- [Journalist Voiceover] In Meridian, Mississippi,
about three hours north of New Orleans,
Roberts invited us to get off at his stop.
When he was mayor of this city in the 90s,
he said he led the effort to get this station built.
- It tells our guests and our citizens who come home,
you've come to a special place.
- [Journalist Voiceover] He wanted us to see
Meridian's revitalization.
- See, the question isn't whether
the Crescent or any other train is profitable,
the question is, does it bring value
to the cities that it serves along that line
and is that value significantly more
than the very modest amount that it takes
to operate that train.
- [Journalist Voiceover] In the mid-2000s,
Meridian restored its grand opera house.
Roberts, again, credits the train.
- What does that have to do with this opera house?
- [Roberts] This opera house existed because
of the rail connection we had between
Atlanta and New Orleans.
- Amtrak's not talking about abandoning the south.
To the contrary, it would like to have
more than one train a day stopping in cities like Atlanta.
- Atlanta is sort of the poster child
of what I'm talking about here.
When you think about all of the corridors,
Atlanta-Macon, Atlanta-Charlotte,
Atlanta-Chattanooga-Knoxville, Atlanta-Birmingham,
none of which are served effectively by Amtrak.
- [Journalist Voiceover] Company officials aren't saying yet
whether they want their future network
to include smaller cities like Meridian,
but if Amtrak gets its way, cross-country routes,
some more than a century old, may be split up.
- I can't guarantee results.
What I can guarantee is that at Amtrak,
we're doing all we can to make these things happen.

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