Amtrak's long-distance train routes could get the ax

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Long-distance Amtrak service, including the historic New York-to-Chicago train that serves this area, would be eliminated in President Trump's proposed budget.

The proposal, which Congress has not taken up yet, would do away with money for all 15 long-distance passenger rail routes.

Service in the heavily used Northeast Corridor, which links Virginia and the District of Columbia with New York City and Boston, would remain intact under the Trump budget. So would Amtrak trains that state governments pay for, including three daily trains in each direction that pass through here on their way across upstate New York and frequent service between Albany and New York City.

But 23 states now are served only with long-distance trains would have no passenger rail under the Trump administration proposal. It would become impossible to travel via train to the West Coast, the South or the nation's midsection, eradicating the concept of a national rail system.

"We’re very disappointed in the president's proposal, which would eliminate service to over 220 cities and communities across the country," said Bruce Becker, a Buffalo-area resident who is vice president of operations of the National Association of Rail Passengers.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. and long an advocate for better rail service, called the budget proposal wrong headed.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for this president to run on improving infrastructure only to take an ax to it as president," she said in a prepared statement. "Investing in rail has a ripple effect across our entire economy with every dollar spent generating roughly $4 in return. We cannot allow the rest of the world to continue speeding past the United States on infrastructure investment."

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. and more a Trump ally, did not mention Amtrak's long-distance service in a statement given to the Democrat and Chronicle but did call money for the railroad's Northeast Corridor service important.

"I have been and will remain supportive of funding which helps support jobs for those in our region, who I care about deeply," he said. Reed last year praised an Amtrak decision to acquire new rail cars that would be manufactured in Hornell, N.Y., in his district.

The Lake Shore Limited, which passes through Cleveland; Toledo; and South Bend, Ind., on its way to Chicago and connects to Boston on the east, carried 382,000 passengers in the 2016 federal fiscal year that ended in September. Ridership was up 8% over the previous year, according to statistics from Becker's nonprofit organization.

Of the 15 long-distance trains, the Lake Shore's ridership was fourth highest. Only two trains linking Chicago with the West Coast and service up the coast from Los Angeles to Seattle carried more passengers last year.

About 4.6 million people rode the 15 long-distance trains last year.

The long-haul trains, many of which pass through mountains, forests and deserts, attract their share of sightseers. But they are much more than that, especially in spread-out parts of the country where other transportation options are few, Becker said.

Passengers disembark March 25, 2017, in Emeryville,
Passengers disembark March 25, 2017, in Emeryville, Calif., from Amtrak's California Zephyr at the end of its daily 2,438-mile trip to Emeryville/San Francisco from Chicago , which took roughly 52 hours. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)
"The makeup of the ridership is very diverse. Many folks depend upon it for jobs, for school, for health care," he said. "It’s certainly not just people riding the train because they like to look out the window. It serves a vital national purpose."

An unspecified amount would be cut from Amtrak's budget as part of a reduction of $2.4 billion, or 13%, in discretionary transportation spending, according to a budget summary from the White House.

"The budget terminates federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses. This would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services," the document states.

Amtrak covered 94% of its operating costs through ticket and other revenue last year, the railroad said recently. Its operating loss of $227 million, the lowest annual loss since 1973, was covered as usual with federal tax money. The federal government also supplies the train equipment.

Much or all of that loss is attributable to the long-distance trains.

Passenger rail systems in most other countries are subsidized through taxes, but some American conservatives have complained for years about Amtrak's government support.

The Trump budget reflects that desire to let the free market rule in the transportation segment. It also would eliminate money for small-city air service and for new light-rail mass-transit systems in a half dozen cities.

Under the budget proposal, Amtrak would focus on operating the Northeast Corridor service, which carried 11.9 million passengers in fiscal 2016 and which more than covers its own operating expenses.

The railroad also would continue to provide indirect financial support to state-supported train service. New York and 17 other states cover operating costs for 29 Amtrak routes of 750 miles or less. They carried 14.7 million riders last year.

“The budget terminates federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses.”
'America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,' Office of Management and Budget
New York had 10% of that ridership. The state pays for Empire Service trains that operate between Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, and also run from Albany through the Hudson Valley to Manhattan. One of the Empire Service trains, the Maple Leaf, goes to Niagara Falls and on to Toronto.

The state also supports the Adirondack Service that extends from New York City to Albany and Montreal, and shares with Vermont and Massachusetts expenses for the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter services.

Becker, who formerly was president of the Empire State Passenger Association, said the state spends about $40 million a year on those services.

The New York Central Railroad launched the original Lake Shore Limited service in 1893, linking what then were America's two largest cities. With dining, lounge, observation and sleeper cars, it was considered the height of luxury.

That train operated through 1956.

Amtrak revived the name in 1975 though the train now is somewhat more spartan than its 19th-century namesake. The Lake Shore, like many of the long-distance trains, also has had a reputation for being chronically late.

Interference from freight trains, with which the Lake Shore and many other Amtrak trains share tracks, gets much of the blame.

Whether the House and Senate go along with the administration's proposal to shut down long-distance trains remains to be seen. Slaughter said she was "leading an effort in Congress to reverse this devastating proposal."

"Even the White House staff has said they recognize that Congress is likely to modify the final budget," Becker said. "We are hopeful that funding will continue. It's ironic that many of the places where service would be lost are exactly the communities where President Trump purports to have his greatest support."

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment
TRENDING VIDEOS