Amtrak’s Problems Actually Extend Much Further Than Recent String of Accidents

Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen. Amtrak is experiencing quite a bit of turbulence.

Has Amtrak's CEO gone off the rails with his vision for the railroad service?
Has Amtrak’s CEO gone off the rails with his vision for the railroad service? Alex Wong/Getty Images

The past few days have been rough for Amtrak. On Thursday morning, a train traveling from North Carolina to New York crashed into a car illegally parked on rail tracks, and another train traveling through Chicago’s Edgewood neighborhood hit the bumper of a vehicle, destroying and crumpling the back end. While no injuries were reported, passengers onboard both trains experienced significant delays. Last week, a man in Norfolk, Virginia was killed when a train collided with a dump truck.

These recent accidents have left Amtrak passengers and workers alike concerned about their safety. On Wednesday, a passenger allegedly put a crew member in a choke hold after the worker refused to let the passenger leave the train while it was moving.  

Making matters even worse, the incidents come at a time when Amtrak workers are protesting the company’s threats to axe over 1,700 food service jobs. Workers say the move would further compromise safety.

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In an interview with LaborPress, Jack Dinsdale, vice president of the International Association of Machinists’ Transportation Communications Union, noted that food-service employees are also trained in first-aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and evacuation procedures. “Our people are the ones who help in derailments,” John Feltz, head of the Transport Workers Union’s (TWU) rail division, told the outlet. “A lot of people forget that we’re the front-line people on the train,” Amy Griffin, president of TWU Local 1460, added.

Amtrak maintains that the decision to eliminate food service positions would increase efficiency and cut costs. Amtrak reps say they plan to end dining service-cars that cook hot meals and to start serving airplane-style packaged food.

Critics say the move is part of a larger pattern of Amtrak policies to make the national train service more similar to airplane travel—with none of the benefits.

Aside from the transition to airplane-style packaged food, other changes to turn Amtrak into an airline-style service include smaller, less comfortable seats, stricter ticketing rules and fees for baggage. By making train policies and amenities more comparable to those offered in-flight, Amtrak would eliminate many of the advantages of traveling by train. While these changes could cut costs, they could also motivate more travelers to pick faster-moving, potentially safer airplanes over trains.

Last year, the former CEO of Delta and Northwest Airlines, Richard Anderson, took the reins as president & CEO of Amtrak. Despite 25 years of experience in the aviation industry, Anderson had no previous railroad experience before his appointment to Amtrak—something detractors of his ideas have been quick to point out.

Feltz told LaborPress that Anderson is “seeking to dismantle our national railroad system;” TWU International President John Samuelson agreed, calling Amtrak’s privatization plans “part of an ugly national trend—disinvestment in public services.” And this isn’t the first time Anderson has faced backlash for what many deem to be controversial strategies. Earlier this year, Anderson’s predecessor, former Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman railed against Anderson for referring to long-distance trains as “epic, experiential trains” and for stating that Amtrak’s long-term mission is to transition most long-distance trains to corridors in order to “service short-haul markets.”

“While the Rail Passengers Association might buy the idea of ‘experiential’ trains, it flies in the face of the communities and the people who depend on trains for connectivity to the nation and mobility—that is their mission,” Boardman wrote in a text message to Trains News Wire. “I do not believe it should be the (stated) mission of Amtrak to operate ‘experiential’ long distance trains. I’m sorry, but this plan and/or thinking is not a winning strategy for Amtrak. In fact, it is a prescription for a loss of congressional support and therefore additional isolation and loss of mobility for many across the rural areas of our nation.”

In the past, Boardman has come out against Anderson’s positions, calling them “beyond common sense,” “the opposite of transparent and arrogant.”

In February, President Donald Trump released a proposed national budget that would have slashed Amtrak’s budget in half. While the proposed budget acknowledged improved ridership and revenues in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), it claimed that Amtrak’s long-distance train routes had low ridership and yearly operating losses of $500 million. The budget proposed cutting Amtrak subsidies in half and shifting the financial burden of operating long-distance trains on to states.

However, in March, Congress voted to increase federal funding for Amtrak from $1.4 billion to nearly $2 billion. In stark contrast to Trump’s proposed budget, Congress’ bill allotted $1.3 billion to long-distance train routes and $650 million to the NEC.

In response, Anderson released the following statement: “Amtrak applauds Congress for providing increased funding for intercity passenger rail, including grants to Amtrak, in the Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Amtrak thanks Congress for recognizing the importance of intercity passenger rail and the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The increased NEC capital funding will allow us to address many important needs along the corridor, and we look forward to working closely with the Department of Transportation on investing these funds to advance the most critical projects.”

Although most of the increased funds were allocated to long-distance train routes, Anderson’s thank you included no specific mention of them, explicitly naming only the increased funding to the NEC.

Why does Amtrak favor the NEC? In a very real sense, Amtrak is more invested in the NEC than any other lines: Amtrak owns and operates 363 miles of the NEC’s 457-mile track. In contrast, nationally, 97 percent of Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by other companies.

The fact that most of Amtrak runs on old tracks that the company doesn’t own is one reason why America lags behind much of Asia and Europe when it comes to high-speed trains. While it can be faster and cheaper to travel by train in other countries, Amtrak’s newest, fastest trains can’t go beyond 150 MPH . In contrast, French TGV trains have been regularly running at 220 MPH for over a decade.

Anderson and his supporters maintain that transitioning from long-distance train routes to short-haul corridor lines with multiple daily trains and stops will provide more frequent and reliable service to more destinations, increase ridership and eventually lower costs to both Amtrak and its passengers.

Critics—from Boardman to rail enthusiasts—charge that Anderson’s proposed policy overhaul could potentially increase safety risks and eliminate much of the joy of traditional train travel. “We are seeing the worst of airline customer service issues being introduced to the railroad experience,” Charlie Leocha, president of nonprofit Travelers United, told USA Today. “The Amtrak Board of Directors and Congress have the final say on these changes, unlike the airlines where changes are made by executives with the needs of investors put squarely in front of the needs of consumers.”

Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen, because Amtrak is currently experiencing quite a bit of turbulence.  

Amtrak’s Problems Actually Extend Much Further Than Recent String of Accidents