How Washington Derailed Amtrak

A Washington mystery.

This image can only be used with the Simon Von Zuylen-Wood piece that originally ran in the 4/18/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Amtrak Regional Train 94 is transfers passengers to another train after a failing engines put the train to a hault, in Washington DC. The Obama Administration announced on March 13th that the struggling national rail network will receive $1.3 billion in federal funds over the next two years. The money, which is part of President Obama?s $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed by Congress last week, will be used to renovate trains and stations, improve safety, and increase passenger capacity. Over half the funds will go to projects in the Northeastern United States. Though Amtrak is a nationwide network, the largest concentration of trains and passengers is in the northeast along the Boston-New York-Washington, D.C. corridor.
© Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis
Simon Van Zuylen Wood
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Simon Van Zuylen-Wood
April 17, 2015, 1 a.m.

Thirty-nine minutes in­to his south­bound ride from Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware, to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Joseph H. Board­man, pres­id­ent and CEO of Amtrak, be­gins to cry. We’re in the din­ing car of a train called the Sil­ver Star, sur­roun­ded by people eat­ing ham­burgers. The Sil­ver Star runs from New York City to Miami in 31 hours, or five more hours than the route took in 1958, which is when our din­ing car was built. Board­man and I have been dis­cuss­ing the un­for­tu­nate fact that 45 years since its in­cep­tion, the com­pany he over­sees re­mains a poorly fun­ded, largely neg­lected ward of the state, un­able to fully con­trol its own fin­ances or make its own de­cisions. I ask him, “Is this a frus­trat­ing job?”

“I guess it could be, and there are times it is,” he says. “No ques­tion about that. But—” His voice be­gins to catch. “Sixty-six years old, I’ve spent my life do­ing this. I talked to my 80-year-old aunt this week­end, who said, ‘Joe, just keep work­ing.’ Be­cause I think about re­tire­ment.” Board­man is a Re­pub­lic­an who formerly ran the Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion and was New York state’s trans­port­a­tion com­mis­sion­er; he has a bushy white mus­tache and an aw-shucks smile. “We’ve done good things,” he con­tin­ues. “We haven’t done everything right, and I don’t make all of the right de­cisions, and, yes, I get frus­trated. But you have to stay up.” A tear crawls down his left cheek.

It’s easy to love trains—the mod­el kind, the European kind, the kind whose lo­co­mot­ives bil­low with steam in black-and-white pho­tos of the old Amer­ic­an West. It’s harder to love Amtrak, the kind we ac­tu­ally ride. Along with PBS and the United States Postal Ser­vice, Amtrak is per­petu­al fod­der for liber­tari­an think-tankers and Re­pub­lic­an of­fice-seekers on the prowl for gov­ern­ment prof­ligacy. Ron­ald Re­agan and George W. Bush re­peatedly tried to elim­in­ate its sub­sidy, while Mitt Rom­ney prom­ised to do the same. Demo­crats, for their part, aren’t in­ter­ested in slay­ing Amtrak, but mostly you get the sense they just feel bad for it. “If you ever go to Ja­pan,” former Amtrak board mem­ber and rail die-hard Mike Duka­kis told me, “ride the trains and weep.”

(RE­LATED: 16 Vin­tage Pho­tos of Amtrak’s Early Years)

It’s true: Com­pared with the high-speed trains of West­ern Europe and East Asia, Amer­ic­an pas­sen­ger rail is no­tori­ously creaky, tardy, and slow. The Acela, cur­rently the only “high-speed” train in Amer­ica, runs at an av­er­age pace of 68 miles per hour between Wash­ing­ton and Bo­ston; a high-speed train from Mad­rid to Bar­celona av­er­ages 154 miles per hour. Amtrak’s most punc­tu­al trains ar­rive on sched­ule 75 per­cent of the time; judged by Amtrak’s lax stand­ards, Ja­pan’s bul­let trains are late ba­sic­ally 0 per­cent of the time.

And those stats don’t fig­ure to im­prove any­time soon. While Amtrak isn’t cur­rently in danger of be­ing killed, it also isn’t likely to do more than barely sur­vive. Last month, the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 bil­lion per year. Mean­while, the Chinese gov­ern­ment—fair com­par­is­on or not—will be spend­ing $128 bil­lion this year on rail. (Thanks to the House bill, though, Amtrak pas­sen­gers can look for­ward to a new pro­vi­sion al­low­ing cats and dogs on cer­tain trains.)

A few dec­ades ago, news of an­oth­er mid­dling Amtrak ap­pro­pri­ation wouldn’t have war­ran­ted a second glance; pas­sen­ger rail was un­pop­u­lar and widely thought to be ob­sol­ete. But re­cently, Amtrak’s pop­ular­ity has ac­tu­ally spiked. Rider­ship has in­creased by roughly 50 per­cent in the past 15 years, and rider­ship in the North­east Cor­ridor stood at an all-time high in 2014. Amtrak also now ac­counts for 77 per­cent of all rail and air travel between Wash­ing­ton and New York, up from just 37 per­cent when it launched the Acela in 2000.

And yet, des­pite this out­pour­ing of pop­u­lar de­mand, des­pite the clear en­vir­on­ment­al be­ne­fits of rail travel, des­pite the fact that trains can help re­lieve urb­an con­ges­tion, des­pite the pro­fessed en­thu­si­asm of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion (and es­pe­cially rail fan-in-chief, Joe Biden) for high-speed trains—des­pite all of this, Amtrak, which runs a de­fi­cit and there­fore de­pends on money from Wash­ing­ton, re­mains on a seem­ingly per­man­ent path to me­diocrity.

What gives, ex­actly? Why can’t Amtrak cre­ate any mo­mentum for it­self in the polit­ic­al world? Why is the United States ap­par­ently con­demned to have second-rate trains?

Part of the an­swer, of course, is geo­graphy: Dens­ity lends it­self to trains, and Amer­ica is far less dense than, say, Spain or France. But this ex­plan­a­tion isn’t wholly sat­is­fy­ing be­cause, even in the densest parts of the United States, in­ter­city rail is slow or in­ef­fi­cient.

(RE­LATED: For­get Bul­let Trains, Amtrak Needs A New Bridge)

In an ef­fort to solve the riddle of Amer­ic­an pas­sen­ger rail’s stub­born feeble­ness, I spent a couple months seek­ing out train ob­sess­ives around the coun­try. Dur­ing these con­ver­sa­tions, I heard no short­age of ideas for fix­ing Amtrak. But per­haps the place to start is in Wash­ing­ton, where Amtrak clearly feels mis­treated by its bosses in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. “I think they lost their way a long time ago,” Board­man says of Con­gress. “I don’t un­der­stand how they don’t un­der­stand. It’s an ab­so­lutely ne­ces­sary ser­vice, and it should be much bet­ter than it is.” Later dur­ing our trip, as he shows off a brand-new lug­gage com­part­ment aboard the Sil­ver Star, he elab­or­ates. “Maybe it’s about the kid who gets bul­lied,” he says. “Once they start bul­ly­ing you, they can’t stop.”

IN 1970, the Nix­on ad­min­is­tra­tion did a massive fa­vor for freight-rail com­pan­ies by re­liev­ing them of their long-stand­ing man­date to of­fer pas­sen­ger ser­vice, which had be­come un­prof­it­able and un­pop­u­lar since the ad­vent of com­mer­cial avi­ation and in­ter­state high­ways. Amtrak (briefly, un­for­tu­nately “RailPax”) was the na­tion­al­ized rail ser­vice Pres­id­ent Nix­on cre­ated to in­her­it those routes. Des­pite the long odds of it ever man­aging to land in the black, it was des­ig­nated a “for-profit” cor­por­a­tion.

An­thony Haswell, a train de­votee who was in­stru­ment­al in Amtrak’s cre­ation—in 1967, he had foun­ded a polit­ic­al lobby called the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Rail Pas­sen­gers, or “NARP”—sus­pects the for-profit des­ig­na­tion was just a ploy to doom Amtrak down the road. “There was no ques­tion that it would prob­ably not pay for it­self,” Haswell told me. “But the Nix­on ad­min­is­tra­tion and oth­er con­ser­vat­ives thought that once it was demon­strated that it wouldn’t pay for it­self, it would be ab­ol­ished.”

Amtrak did keep los­ing money, but Con­gress kept pay­ing for it. (Haswell, dis­gus­ted with all the los­ing of money, even­tu­ally be­came a vo­cal crit­ic of Amtrak.) The ten­sion between Amtrak’s for-profit man­date and money-los­ing real­ity has al­ways dogged it. In 1997, Con­gress man­dated that Amtrak be­come self-suf­fi­cient by 2002 or get li­quid­ated. It didn’t and it wasn’t. That same year, a gov­ern­ment-com­mis­sioned group called the Amtrak Re­form Coun­cil floated the idea of con­tract­ing out the op­er­a­tion of the North­east Cor­ridor—the one part of Amtrak that ac­tu­ally makes a profit—to private bid­ders. This didn’t hap­pen, either. Three years later, the board of dir­ect­ors—who are ap­poin­ted by the White House and con­firmed by the Sen­ate—fired then”“Amtrak pres­id­ent Dav­id Gunn, an icon­o­clast­ic pub­lic-trans­it guru who had openly ad­mit­ted the com­pany would nev­er be prof­it­able. (“The only good thing about the board they put in,” Gunn says today, “is that they were so in­com­pet­ent, they couldn’t even kill the place.”)

(RE­LATED: The Great Frack­ing Slow­down and Its Af­ter­math)

The re­cur­ring am­bi­val­ence in Wash­ing­ton about Amtrak’s right to ex­ist has mostly pre­cluded the gov­ern­ment from draft­ing a plan to dra­mat­ic­ally im­prove train travel. For a brief mo­ment in 2009, however, that seemed to change. Pres­id­ent Obama, who would prom­ise to link 80 per­cent of the coun­try to high-speed trains, used his stim­u­lus le­gis­la­tion to award more than $8 bil­lion to the cause, nearly $7 bil­lion of which would go to Cali­for­nia, Flor­ida, Wis­con­sin, and Ohio for what were billed as bul­let-train pro­pos­als. (Con­gress tacked on $2.1 bil­lion more in sub­sequent years for high-speed rail.)

But by early 2011, it was all fall­ing apart. Two new tea-party-backed gov­ernors in Wis­con­sin and Flor­ida, Scott Walk­er and Rick Scott, promptly gave back the money. Ohio’s new Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, John Kasich, did the same. (In fair­ness, the pro­posed Ohio train, which was pro­jec­ted to travel between 40 and 50 mph, wasn’t by any sane defin­i­tion “high-speed.”)

Gran­ted, all that re­jec­ted cash has been di­ver­ted in­to oth­er per­fectly worthy pro­jects that will prob­ably make cer­tain trains go mar­gin­ally faster. For in­stance, a $450 mil­lion in­jec­tion should help the Acela boost its top speed from 135 mph to 160 mph on one 24-mile stretch between Trenton and New York City. Dozens of oth­er in­cre­ment­al pro­jects across the coun­try, fea­tur­ing terms like “ob­sol­ete sig­nal­ing sys­tems” and “haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­als ship­ments,” re­ceived cash as well.

The train tracks at Uni­on Sta­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (Ricky Cari­oti/The Wash­ing­ton Post)Still, none of this rep­res­en­ted the dra­mat­ic step in­to a new era of train travel that Obama had ini­tially prom­ised. The only sur­viv­ing pro­ject that rep­res­ents a ma­jor leap for­ward is the am­bi­tious 220 mph Los Angeles”“to”“San Fran­cisco train—and that pro­ject now faces count­less chal­lenges. Cost es­tim­ates have bal­looned, con­struc­tion isn’t slated to fin­ish for an­oth­er 15 years, and prom­in­ent Demo­crats, in­clud­ing the state’s lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, have turned against it. Be­fore a sched­uled phone call with Jeff Mor­ales, CEO of the Cali­for­nia High-Speed Rail Au­thor­ity (a pub­lic en­tity, but one that is sep­ar­ate from Amtrak), a pub­lic-re­la­tions per­son sent me a link to a num­ber of fact-sheets. One of them claimed the pro­ject would be fun­ded with tens of bil­lions of fed­er­al dol­lars. I asked Mor­ales how that could be, con­sid­er­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion gran­ted it just $3.3 bil­lion. “At the time, there were some as­sump­tions in place,” he said, cla­ri­fy­ing that the pro­ject would in fact be paid for by rev­en­ue from state bonds and Cali­for­nia’s new cap-and-trade law. “We prob­ably ought to up­date that.”

(RE­LATED: We Tested Amtrak’s Wi-Fi, and It’s Worse Than You Thought)

WHO’S TO BLAME for this sad state of af­fairs? It de­pends whom you ask. To con­ser­vat­ives, Amer­ica has a second-rate train sys­tem be­cause the gov­ern­ment is run­ning it. Re­pub­lic­an Rep. John Mica of Flor­ida, a long­time Amtrak skep­tic, told me it was both a “So­viet-style” and “third-world” pas­sen­ger ser­vice. If by “So­viet-style,” he meant that labor costs are out of whack, it’s true that a 2009 re­port by the Amtrak Of­fice of In­spect­or Gen­er­al found the com­pany’s in­fra­struc­ture work­ers to be 2.3 times more ex­pens­ive an­nu­ally than their European coun­ter­parts. And if by “third-world,” he meant that Amtrak is of­ten bum­bling and in­com­pet­ent, it’s true that Acela’s cars were ori­gin­ally built four inches too wide, pre­vent­ing them from hand­ling curves with any deft­ness. (The prob­lem was even­tu­ally solved.)

To lib­er­als, however, the prob­lem is that the gov­ern­ment hasn’t in­ves­ted nearly enough. After all, coun­tries that boast more ad­vanced sys­tems sup­port their trains with pub­lic sub­sidies that Amtrak could only dream of. (Bri­tain’s private rail net­work, for in­stance, re­ceived roughly $8 bil­lion from the gov­ern­ment last year.)

In Novem­ber 2011, Robert Dove, a man­aging dir­ect­or at the Carlyle Group, the D.C.-based as­set-man­age­ment firm, de­livered a present­a­tion to the an­nu­al meet­ing of the U.S. High Speed Rail As­so­ci­ation (USH­SR), a lob­by­ing-cum-cheer­lead­ing group formed shortly after Obama’s elec­tion. Dove began his slide show with the usu­al em­bar­rass­ing stats about Amer­ica’s high-speed-rail in­eptitude (290 mil­lion an­nu­al high-speed-rail pas­sen­gers in Ja­pan; 3 mil­lion in Amer­ica). He went on to es­tim­ate that for the North­east Cor­ridor alone to fa­cil­it­ate le­git­im­ate bul­let-train travel, up to $117 bil­lion in im­prove­ments were ne­ces­sary. (Amtrak it­self, in a 2012 plan that will prob­ably nev­er come to fruition—New York to Bo­ston in 94 minutes!—put the num­ber at $151 bil­lion.) “You will not find the private sec­tor will­ing to come in at the con­struc­tion stage or the de­vel­op­ment stage,” he warned. For that, the gov­ern­ment would have to pick up the tab. Only at that point would you “find people like me very, very will­ing to come in and buy it.” In oth­er words, to get to the con­ser­vat­ive dream of a privat­ized Amtrak, you would first have to pur­sue the lib­er­al path of spend­ing a massive amount of pub­lic money.

Dove’s plan might be more real­ist­ic if we con­ceived of Amtrak as a piece of in­fra­struc­ture—like a bridge or a tun­nel—rather than as a for-profit cor­por­a­tion that can’t quite turn a profit. “This is a pub­lic ser­vice,” ar­gues Andy Kunz, pres­id­ent of USH­SR. “Our high­ways don’t make a profit. Our air­ports don’t make a profit. It’s all paid for by the gov­ern­ment.” (To­geth­er, the High­way Trust Fund and the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ceive about 45 times what Amtrak does, through sub­sidies and gas taxes.)

(RE­LATED: The Long-Run­ning Battle Over Long-Dis­tance Trains)

That line of think­ing isn’t per­suas­ive to every­one, evid­ently. In 2008, the last time a ma­jor Amtrak reau­thor­iz­a­tion was passed, Con­gress in­tro­duced a game-chan­ging new rail policy: The law stip­u­lated that, on all routes ex­cept for long-dis­tance and North­east Cor­ridor trains, the states had to pay for trains’ op­er­at­ing costs, while the feds would still handle the bulk of any needed in­vest­ments. In the­ory, this was a good idea. Not only did it get more po­ten­tial fun­ders and polit­ic­al part­ners in­volved, but it was prob­ably more fair. “Oth­er­wise,” as Rail­way Age con­trib­ut­ing ed­it­or and Amtrak maven Frank Wil­ner puts it, “the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is rob­bing St. Peters­burg to pay St. Paul, ex­tract­ing a hand­ling fee as the money flows through Wash­ing­ton.”

New York’s Penn Sta­tion. (Robert Nick­els­berg/Getty Im­ages)

The state-fed­er­al col­lab­or­a­tion has worked out nicely in places like Vir­gin­ia, where Amtrak ser­vice has im­proved and rider­ship has shot up. But in oth­er states, it has led to ser­vices be­ing im­periled. Sev­er­al weeks ago, In­di­ana nar­rowly avoided the sus­pen­sion of an In­di­ana­pol­is-to-Chica­go train, while state le­gis­latures in Illinois and Ok­lahoma may force Amtrak to shut­ter cer­tain trains. The new fed­er­al-state part­ner­ship is, on one hand, “a real area of growth,” says Sean Jeans-Gail, vice pres­id­ent of NARP. “But it’s also a threat to a lot of lines, be­cause now you have 23 battle­grounds.”

Like­wise, the most re­cent House reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill, which has not been marked up yet by the Sen­ate, con­tains a hand­ful of subtle meas­ures that take aim at Amtrak’s less pop­u­lar of­fer­ings. One man­dates that all North­east Cor­ridor profits be funneled back in­to the North­east Cor­ridor, rather than money-los­ing routes. An­oth­er man­dates that food ser­vice—a fre­quent con­gres­sion­al punch­ing bag—run a profit with­in five years. Since it’s ba­sic­ally im­possible to make a profit on food ser­vice on long-dis­tance trains—and im­possible to run long-dis­tance trains while starving pas­sen­gers—some see this as a pois­on pill in­ten­ded to shut­ter those trains. “If it really leads to food ser­vice com­ing off of long-dis­tance trains,” says one rail labor-uni­on of­fi­cial, “that could start a death spir­al.”

(RE­LATED: A Big Fight Over a Small Slice of the Trans­port­a­tion Pie)

A death spir­al may be the worst-case scen­ario; but the best-case scen­ario for Amtrak these days isn’t any­thing to get ex­cited about, either. “We’re def­in­itely go­ing to be in a hold­ing pat­tern when it comes to Wash­ing­ton,” says Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion trans­port­a­tion schol­ar Robert Puentes. “You see this throughout all the in­fra­struc­ture and trans­port­a­tion fund­ing. “… We’re not see­ing any­thing but the status quo. Prob­ably the best we can hope for is the status quo.”

PER­HAPS THE BIGGEST philo­soph­ic­al ques­tion fa­cing Amtrak is where it should and shouldn’t ex­ist. Nearly every­one agrees that Amtrak makes sense in the North­east Cor­ridor, where high de­mand helps ex­plain the steep tick­et prices we all kvetch about. In­deed, sober-minded de­crees from the likes of Wonkblog and The Eco­nom­ist fre­quently sug­gest re­tool­ing Wash­ing­ton-to-Bo­ston ser­vice while am­pu­tat­ing un­prof­it­able, molasses-slow long-dis­tance trains. But where does that leave the more rur­al parts of the coun­try—places like the Gulf Coast?

For dec­ades, Amtrak ran a long-dis­tance train from Los Angeles to Jack­son­ville called the Sun­set Lim­ited. In Au­gust 2005, Hur­ricane Kat­rina washed out the tracks from New Or­leans to Flor­ida. The ser­vice was nev­er re­stored, and the Gulf Coast has been without rail travel for nearly a dec­ade now.

In March, I spent a day in Mis­sis­sippi with Dr. Paul Nel­son, a 48-year-old Biloxi phys­i­cian and avowed rail nerd who seems to have be­friended the en­tire Gulf Coast polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment in his ef­fort to bring back Amtrak. Nel­son (who asked that I identi­fy him as “Dr. Paul Nel­son, con­cerned Mis­sis­sip­pi­an”) isn’t re­motely con­cerned with the sort of fisc­al tab­u­la­tions that con­sume Wash­ing­ton. He read­ily con­cedes that Amtrak could nev­er turn a profit in the South—but he is after a dif­fer­ent cost-be­ne­fit equa­tion.

(Or­jan F. Ellingvag/Cor­bis)

“If we’re not linked to­geth­er, we’re not go­ing to be com­pet­it­ive in 15, 20 years,” he says, sip­ping a cof­fee in the pas­sen­ger seat of my rent­al car. “It’s the same prob­lem wheth­er we’re out West or in Texas. You have two dif­fer­ent types of towns. You have haves and have-nots. And there are good people who live down here. But if you don’t have the tax struc­ture and eco­nom­ic basis to sup­port the com­munity, the com­munity dies.”

We start our jour­ney at 9 a.m. with a tour of a “have”—Hat­ties­burg, pop­u­la­tion 47,000, an hour north of the coast. While the beach com­munit­ies were still re­cov­er­ing from Kat­rina, Hat­ties­burg man­aged to build out its his­tor­ic train sta­tion in­to an all-pur­pose trans­it hub. (Amtrak’s Cres­cent line—which travels between New Or­leans and New York—passes through the sta­tion twice a day.) Since the renov­a­tion was com­pleted in 2007, ac­cord­ing to Hat­ties­burg May­or Johnny DuPree, the city has seen an es­tim­ated $70 mil­lion in new com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment. Mean­while, rider­ship at the sta­tion has in­creased by more than 60 per­cent, to 11,500 total pas­sen­gers in 2014.

It’s per­haps not sur­pris­ing that DuPree, a Demo­crat in charge of the fourth-largest city in Mis­sis­sippi, is a pro-train guy. But Hat­ties­burg’s sta­tion was ac­tu­ally modeled on the work of John Robert Smith, who, in ad­di­tion to be­ing a former Amtrak chair­man, was the Re­pub­lic­an may­or of Me­ridi­an, Mis­sis­sippi, in the 1990s and 2000s. In that job, he cre­ated the state’s first mul­timod­al trans­port­a­tion hub, a mecca of sorts for trans­it junkies in the South. Smith, in turn, drew in­spir­a­tion from former Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion Sec­ret­ary Gil Car­mi­chael, a Re­pub­lic­an and fel­low Me­ridi­an nat­ive who is best known for a moon-shot pro­pos­al that would have blanketed the United States with 20,000 miles of train tracks. (“I don’t think there’s any ma­jor flaws in what I’m say­ing,” Car­mi­chael told me by phone after leav­ing church one Sunday. “I just wish Con­gress would get the hell to work.”)

Arch-con­ser­vat­ive Mis­sis­sippi, in oth­er words, is ac­tu­ally home to some of the most vo­cal Amtrak sup­port­ers in the coun­try. (Former Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­or Trent Lott, an­oth­er rail fan who now lob­bies for freight com­pan­ies, was per­suaded to fight against cuts to the Cres­cent when Smith called him up and told him, “The Yan­kees are after our trains again.”) Whatever con­cerns they have about un­prof­it­ab­il­ity are trumped by the be­ne­fits prom­ised by con­nectiv­ity. “I didn’t know it was called ‘smart growth’ when I was may­or,” Smith says. “What we were do­ing was called ‘eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment.’ It was in­vest­ing in what you already have, which I think is a very con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciple.”

After our vis­it to Hat­ties­burg, Nel­son and I drove to the com­mer­cial hub of Gulf­port, which, along with neigh­bor­ing Biloxi, lost train ser­vice in 2005. Nel­son had ar­ranged for a down­town lunch meet­ing, dur­ing which I’d be sit­ting next to the Re­pub­lic­an former may­or of the city, Brent Warr. Warr, who left of­fice in 2009 after plead­ing guilty to steal­ing Kat­rina dis­aster-re­lief funds, wound up ar­tic­u­lat­ing a case for rail in­vest­ment that would make Eliza­beth War­ren blush. “There’s not any pub­lic fa­cil­ity that the city provides that makes money,” he said, an­noyed at Wash­ing­ton’s in­sist­ence that pas­sen­ger rail be prof­it­able. People “don’t pay for a com­munity cen­ter or a swim­ming pool!” When I told him he soun­ded like a Demo­crat, he said, “Go close them and see who they com­plain to.”

Pas­sen­gers on the plat­form. (AP Photo/Pat Se­mansky)

What all this bi­par­tis­an Gulf Coast sup­port for train travel hasn’t done, however, is ac­tu­ally re­store train ser­vice along the Gulf Coast. And the reas­on for this gets at a much broad­er conun­drum fa­cing Amtrak. The Sun­set Lim­ited, when it ran, was about as use­less a train as you could ima­gine. It ran only three times a week and boas­ted an on-time per­form­ance rate of about 4.5 per­cent. In 2004, the last year the train offered full ser­vice to the South, a total of 905 people got on and off the train in Gulf­port. In a city of 70,000, in oth­er words, few­er than three people were us­ing that train every day.

With such dis­mal rider­ship, it’s go­ing to be a chal­lenge to con­vince Con­gress—or any­one—to ap­pro­pri­ate money for a bet­ter, cost­li­er train along the Gulf. That said, the Sun­set Lim­ited was so bad, it can’t pos­sibly have provided an ac­cur­ate snap­shot of de­mand for rail travel. “You’re ask­ing me a ques­tion: ‘How can you show de­mand?‘“Š” says Dan Dealy, a Mo­bile, Alabama”“based con­sult­ant work­ing with the South­ern Rail Com­mis­sion, an ad­vocacy group, to re­store ser­vice. “Hon­estly, this is al­most a ‘Build it and they will come.‘“Š”

The Gulf situ­ation is a mini­ature ver­sion of the chick­en-and-egg ques­tion that be­dev­ils Amtrak as a whole: Is it a waste of money be­cause there isn’t suf­fi­cient de­mand for trains? Or is there in­suf­fi­cient de­mand for trains be­cause we haven’t spent the money to cre­ate a great rail sys­tem? Out­side of the North­east Cor­ridor, the tracks Amtrak uses are al­most all owned by freight rail­roads. CSX, Uni­on Pa­cific, and a hand­ful of oth­er be­hemoths nat­ur­ally hog them, which con­trib­utes to Amtrak’s chron­ic tardi­ness, which in turn dis­suades pas­sen­gers from tak­ing Amtrak. As a res­ult, Con­gress cites Amtrak’s low-rider­ship num­bers as a reas­on not to grant it lar­ger sub­sidies, which of course are ex­actly what Amtrak would need in or­der to pur­chase its own train tracks. Com­ment­ing on the vi­cious cycle, John Robert Smith says: “You can’t dis­in­vest in something and then beat it to death be­cause it doesn’t per­form.”

WITH WASH­ING­TON LARGELY ab­dic­at­ing on high-speed rail, much of the en­ergy is now in the private sec­tor. One private pro­ject would run from Dal­las to Hou­s­ton in 90 minutes and is slated for com­ple­tion in 2021. An­oth­er, which is set to run from Miami to Or­lando in three hours, could be com­pleted as soon as 2017. “The plan­ets are lin­ing up,” says Kunz, of USH­SR, ex­plain­ing the sud­den burst of rail en­thu­si­asm. “Ba­sic­ally, you’ve got con­ges­tion that has reached epic levels across Amer­ica, and there’s really not any­thing be­ing done about it.”

Build­ing an in­ter­city-pas­sen­ger op­er­a­tion without gov­ern­ment help is no easy task, but both these pro­jects claim they can do it. All Aboard Flor­ida—run by Flor­ida East Coast In­dus­tries (FECI), a prom­in­ent loc­al real-es­tate and trans­port­a­tion com­pany—comes to the ven­ture with a dis­tinct ad­vant­age: FECI owns both the train tracks, which are cur­rently used for freight, and land around the pro­posed ter­min­als. While it won’t be able to run its cars at bul­let-train speeds, it will be emu­lat­ing one as­pect of the Ja­pan­ese mod­el by sup­ple­ment­ing pas­sen­ger rev­en­ues through real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment.

The Texas pro­ject is more of a gamble. CEO Richard Law­less, who fell in love with high-speed rail as an un­der­sec­ret­ary of De­fense for Asia-Pa­cific af­fairs in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, says he is not plan­ning on fund­ing his pro­ject through real es­tate. Nor will he in­her­it any ex­ist­ing tracks. Rather, he’s bet­ting that Amtrak is so in­com­pet­ent, it has ar­ti­fi­cially de­pressed what should be an enorm­ous de­mand for pas­sen­ger-rail ser­vice, es­pe­cially in highly clogged, rap­idly grow­ing urb­an areas like Dal­las and Hou­s­ton. “Amer­ic­ans really don’t un­der­stand the qual­ity of ser­vice that high-speed rail, as used in­ter­na­tion­ally, provides,” Law­less told me. “They may have a vis­ion of the cur­rent Amtrak sys­tem. I’m not dis­par­aging Amtrak—they have to op­er­ate with what they have.”

When I ask Joseph Board­man about the private trains in Texas and Flor­ida, and the pub­lic (but non-Amtrak) pro­ject in Cali­for­nia, his mood sours. He thinks the Flor­ida pro­ject, for one, has goosed its rider­ship pro­jec­tions: “I don’t think this is a trans­port­a­tion pro­ject. I think it’s a real-es­tate pro­ject.” On Texas, he pro­fesses ig­nor­ance: “I really don’t know—this is the one that runs between Dal­las and Hou­s­ton?” When I bring up the stim­u­lus money, which helped pay for Cali­for­nia High-Speed Rail, he tells me he “would have liked to put my hands on that money for the North­east Cor­ridor.”

The private ven­tures and the Cali­for­nia pro­ject do raise the ques­tion of wheth­er the fu­ture of Amer­ic­an train travel lies in­side Amtrak or out­side it. On the one hand, Amtrak is the only in­sti­tu­tion that is plaus­ibly equipped to carry out the money-los­ing ex­per­i­ment that a world-class na­tion­al train net­work would be. On the oth­er hand, hav­ing starved Amtrak for this long, Wash­ing­ton isn’t likely to wake up one morn­ing and de­cide to sud­denly shower the agency with cash. “You’ve nev­er had a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that had a lo­gic­al plan for Amtrak or for pas­sen­ger rail,” says Dav­id Gunn. “Amtrak was nev­er set up to suc­ceed.”

LAST YEAR, AMTRAK LAUNCHED an odd ini­ti­at­ive called the Amtrak Writer’s Res­id­ency. The idea was to send 24 writers wherever they wanted, on a long-dis­tance train, where they would ba­sic­ally stare out the win­dow and type on their com­puters. The pro­gram was bashed by con­ser­vat­ives and lightly mocked on the In­ter­net; yet an as­ton­ish­ing 16,000 people wound up ap­ply­ing. Among the even­tu­al win­ners were sev­er­al high-pro­file me­dia fig­ures, in­clud­ing the writer Jen­nifer Fin­ney Boylan and the pub­lic-ra­dio host Marco Wer­man.

In mid-March, I met up in D.C. with Jeff Stan­ley, a 47-year-old Amtrak res­id­ent writer who would be tak­ing the Cap­it­ol Lim­ited to Chica­go, be­fore head­ing to San Fran­cisco on the Cali­for­nia Zephyr. Stan­ley, who wore an Ed Hardy”“style West­ern shirt, is a play­wright, per­former, and ad­junct pro­fess­or both at New York Uni­versity and Drexel Uni­versity. A fan of all things oc­cult, he staged his latest pro­duc­tion in the base­ment of a South Phil­adelphia syn­agogue, where he used a Ouija board and a mar­tini shaker, among oth­er in­stru­ments, in an at­tempt to con­nect with the dead.

“Now, sup­posedly, the old sta­tion at Harp­ers Ferry is haunted,” Stan­ley tells me, as we ap­proach West Vir­gin­ia, sit­ting in his sleep­er car. He goes on for a while about a ghost called “Scream­ing Jenny,” be­fore con­clud­ing: “But, any­ways, I like Harp­ers Ferry. The train goes right through it. It’s really ro­mantic.”

Stan­ley proved a spir­ited com­pan­ion, and the Amtrak Writer’s Res­id­ency is, in its own way, an ad­mir­able idea. But I couldn’t help think­ing that, for an agency fight­ing a per­petu­ally los­ing war to per­suade Wash­ing­ton of its worth, the pro­gram sends ex­actly the wrong mes­sage. Train travel, after all, shouldn’t be quaint and ro­mantic; it shouldn’t cater to artists who are pur­posely try­ing to go places slowly. It should be fast and high-tech and, well, use­ful.

An Amer­ic­an flag is re­flec­ted in the win­dow of train 1, March 17, 2005 in San Ant­o­nio, Texas. (Jac­ob Sil­ber­berg/Getty Im­ages)For now, that vis­ion is go­ing nowhere in Wash­ing­ton; but on the Cap­it­ol Lim­ited, the polit­ic­al prob­lems sur­round­ing the fu­ture of rail travel seem very far away. After we pass Harp­ers Ferry and down a couple of drinks from the “bar,” Stan­ley and I head to the din­ing car for our 7 p.m. din­ner re­ser­va­tions, where we eat pass­able steaks with Si­mon Tarr, an ex­per­i­ment­al film­maker at the Uni­versity of South Car­o­lina who him­self al­most ap­plied for the fel­low­ship. (Amtrak makes you sit with strangers.)

“There’s something about the men­tal state that you get dipped in­to, with the sound and the move­ment, that you don’t get the same way on a plane, that you don’t get the same way not mov­ing,” Tarr says. “I don’t know mech­an­ic­ally why it is, but it makes me ru­min­ate more than I or­din­ar­ily would.”

Stan­ley knows ex­actly what he means. “See, I equate it with be­ing in the womb,” he says. “The rock­ing back and forth makes me think you’re in a cradle. Not really a womb. A cradle.”

“Earli­er, when the train was stopped all that time, I mean, nor­mally, I’d be freak­ing out,” Stan­ley con­tin­ues. “But now,” he says, all blissed out, “I have nowhere to be.” 

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