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.