Farewell to Amtrak's Pioneer
Jim Hamre, our print newsletter editor has been instrumental in trying to keep this train running, and has taken days off to testify as WashARP's representative at several meetings held so far. Unfortunately, on March 20, 1997, Amtrak declared the Pioneer extinct. However, Amtrak has indicated of still perusing the mail and express contracts for a future reinstatement of this train. Though the reinstated train will probably travel just between Portland and Chicago only, WashARP will be still be on Amtrak's heels to reinstate this train.
Amtrak CEO/President, Tom Downs cannot forget Amtrak's Pioneer, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore) calls him on a weekly basis to remind him to keep pursuing mail/express contracts, so this train can be reinstated.
The Final Consist of Train #26 leaving the morning of 5/10:
Some photos of Amtrak's Last Eastbound Pioneer at Seattle's King St. Station.
Farewell to Amtrak's Pioneer. Goodbye to an old freind.
Desperate Amtrak aims to move mail, freight
Its passenger trains would pull freight cars. Freight trains also might be allowed on its D.C.-N.Y. corridor.
By Don Phillips
WASHINGTON -- As passenger train deficits burgeoned in the 1960s, railroads began attaching freight cars to some trains in an effort to hold down losses. Now, history may be repeating itself.
Facing a deteriorating financial situation, Amtrak is beginning to haul more mail and express freight behind its coaches, sleepers and diners. And soon, the company -- which took over passenger operations from the private railroads in 1971 -- may get into the high-value freight business nationwide.
Amtrak will not operate typical trains of boxcars and tank cars, but passengers soon may see lengthy strings of mail and express cars behind long-distance passenger trains, including ``roadrailers'' -- truck trailers that can travel by rail with special steel wheels.
And sources said that after years of discouraging freight railroads from operating over the high-speed Washington-New York corridor, Amtrak is near another revenue-raising deal that would allow Norfolk Southern to operate high-speed freight trains into the New York area from the South.
The Amtrak plan is driven by desperation. In a series of Capitol Hill hearings beginning today, the General Accounting Office will report that federal subsidies are declining faster than Amtrak can cut costs, and revenue is actually falling in constant-dollar terms.
Moreover, Amtrak's interest expenses have tripled over the last few years -- from $20.6 million in fiscal 1993 to $60.2 million in fiscal 1996 -- as it buys new equipment and borrows money to operate. The GAO noted that Amtrak is expected to begin borrowing this month to cover 1997 operating costs, the earliest date ever that it has turned to its lenders.
Congress has failed to pass promised legislation to allow Amtrak to cut labor and other costs further, and is considering whether to give Amtrak a half-cent per gallon of the federal gasoline tax for capital expenditures.
However, when three long-distance trains were slated to be eliminated last year, Congress ordered them continued until May 10. The GAO said the $22.5 million provided by Congress for that purpose was $13.6 million short of the need, further exacerbating the company's deficit.
Affected states have until Saturday to inform Amtrak whether they will subsidize the trains -- the St. Louis-San Antonio portion of the Texas Eagle, the Denver-Seattle Pioneer and the Salt Lake City-Los Angeles Desert Wind. If there's no state participation, ``these trains go away on the 10th of May,'' said Amtrak president Thomas Downs.
Downs said Congress' insistence that Amtrak receive no federal operating funds after 2002 makes it vital to increase revenue with freight. ``It can have a good business income for us,'' he said.
Already, freight has evolved as an important revenue source. Downs noted that 42 percent of all the revenue of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief comes from mail. And in an experiment, Amtrak has been hauling carloads of cranberry juice from California to Massachusetts during the months when the eastern cranberry bogs are not producing.
Expansion of the concept, however, has run into differing reactions from railroads, ranging from Norfolk Southern's active encouragement to Union Pacific's stiff opposition.
Norfolk Southern, now hammering out an agreement with CSX Corp. to divide Conrail's lines, needs the Northeast Corridor to move high-speed freight to New York, as well as to move some conventional freight from Philadelphia and Baltimore to the South., connection.
Amtrak began discouraging freight movement over the corridor after an engineer ran Conrail locomotives into the path of Amtrak's Colonial on Jan. 4, 1987, killing 16 people and injuring many more. Downs said freight trains would be allowed to run only overnight, when Amtrak runs few trains.
Union Pacific is so opposed to one of Amtrak's plans that top officials have lobbied against it on Capitol Hill. To save the Pioneer, Amtrak has developed a plan to run it from Chicago over Union Pacific's fast main line across Nebraska -- which now has no passenger trains but is the busiest freight corridor in the world.
Union Pacific spokesmen complain that Amtrak, funded by subsidies, would take space on the busy main line and delay its freight in a ploy to take business away from Union Pacific.
Downs said UP misunderstands Amtrak's plans. He said Amtrak is seeking only high-value, time-sensitive freight that is not now moving by rail.
And he said he would never haul large amounts of freight without the agreement of the freight railroad, including an agreement on dividing the revenue.--- END ARTICLE ---
UNION PACIFIC RESISTS PARTNERSHIP PLAN WITH AMTRAK
By Rick Ruggles, World Herald Staff Writer
Taxpayer-supported Amtrak has proposed to use Union Pacific's main line through Nebraska and the Midwest so that Amtrak trains can travel faster to and from Chicago. The plan has left Union Pacific cold.
Union Pacific executives maintain that Amtrak, a passenger service, wants to use Union Pacific's main line to deliver freight shipments in an effort to make money and survive. Amtrak already is heavily subsidized, Union Pacific says, and it would be unfair for Amtrak to compete in the freight market against Union Pacific while using Union Pacific's busiest track.
Amtrak says it wants Union Pacific to view it as a partner.
Amtrak and the freight trains are inextricably linked anyway, Amtrak says, because it was the creation of Amtrak in the early 1970s that enabled Union Pacific and other rail companies to get out of the passenger business, which had ceased to be profitable for them.
Amtrak, which will receive a $222 million federal operating subsidy this fiscal year, is reorganizing in hopes of becoming less dependent on federal money.
Last fall it announced that it would discontinue a number of its routes. Those routes included the Pioneer, which runs from Denver to Seattle, and the Desert Wind, which runs from Salt Lake City to Las Angeles.
Omaha and Nebraska were to feel little effect from the reorganization, other than losing their direct service to Las Vegas.
Some states, however, were to be more profoundly affected. Congress gave Amtrak about $22.5 million to keep routes such as the Pioneer and Desert Wind until spring.
Meanwhile, Amtrak has sought financial arrangements with certain states to keep jeopardized service going.
In late January, Amtrak sent word to Union Pacific that it planned to change considerably the way it traveled through Nebraska. It is expected to continue to run the California Zephyr through Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.
But Amtrak informed Union Pacific that it also intended to operate a route on Union Pacific lines north of the California Zephyr. The proposed route would run from Cheyenne, Wyo., through North Platte, Grand Island and Omaha on the way to Chicago.
Iowa cities on the proposed route include Ames, Beverly and Clinton. The Zephyr goes through Creston, Osceola and Ottumwa, Iowa -- well south of the proposed route.
Ed Trandahl, a Union Pacific spokesman, said his company has resisted Amtrak's proposal to run over what he called Union Pacific's most intensely used stretch. About 120 trains a day run between Gibbon, Neb., and North Platte, he said.
"That track is very, very busy, and it's a battle right now to keep all that traffic moving every day," Trandahl said. "That's the hottest part of railroad in the U.S. and possibly the world, and Amtrak wants to run over that."
If Union Pacific and Amtrak fail to reach an agreement on use of the track and Amtrak decides to press the matter, Trandahl said, Amtrak could ask the Federal Surface Transportation Board to rule on the matter.
A letter from Amtrak to Union Pacific indicated that many of the stops on the way would be for five minutes or less. Union Pacific says that hardly allows time for passenger pickup and drop-off and suggests that Amtrak would run freight over the route.
"Amtrak was created to carry passengers," Trandahl said. "That was their primary charge...to take over passenger rail service.
"Amtrak has upped the ante on this freight stuff."
He said he had heard that Amtrak had purchased 500 boxcars to beef up its ability to ship freight.
Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based spokesman for Amtrak, said his company planned to carry passengers, mail and small parcels over the proposed route. While Amtrak does not care to compete with Union Pacific for bulk freight, Magliari said, it does want to increase the amount of mail and small parcels it carries. Those parcels include preprinted material for newspapers and packages carried by express services. Magliari said the proposed route is just one of several scenarios being considered by Amtrak. He declined to reveal specifics of the proposal.
Amtrak officials say the freight carriers are making a mistake by ignoring the potential of a partnership with Amtrak. Magliari said the trucking industry earns $205 billion a year carrying freight, compared with the freight railways' $32 billion. Amtrak, he said, makes $60 million a year carrying mail and small express shipments.
If the freight railways and Amtrak would work together, they could compete better with the trucking industry, Magliari said. He denied that Amtrak had purchased 500 boxcars but said the company is considering expanding its capacity to carry mail and parcels.
Trandahl said that accommodating Amtrak's wishes and putting it on Union Pacific's main line would require "millions and millions" of dollars in modifications to Union Pacific tracks. For instance, he said, a separate track probably would have to be built so that Amtrak could get through or around the congested Bailey Yard in North Platte.
Trandahl said Union Pacific would insist that Amtrak pay for all modifications required if Amtrak were to use 's main line.
He said Amtrak operates on more than 10,000 miles of Union Pacific track. When Amtrak started operating about 26 years ago, Union Pacific and other railways that had become strictly freight haulers cut generous deals with Amtrak for the use of their track, he said.
Consequently, he said, Union Pacific now is giving Amtrak what amounts to a big subsidy.
Amtrak paid Union Pacific $9.9 million for use of its tracks in 1995, Trandahl said. If Amtrak had been charged rates that Union Pacific normally charges its customers, Trandahl said, Amtrak would have paid $56.2 million more.
"This is not a partnership," Trandahl said. "It's totally unfair."-- end article --
On the Future of Amtrak's Pioneer Passenger Train, By Lloyd H. Flem, WashARP Executive Director
WashARP remains fully committed to political support for Amtrak in the essential quest to secure a permanent, predictable source of (especially, capital) funding--the half cent. We also strongly support "states' choice/flexibility" in the use of federal transportation monies. Under ISTEA the states can use some of there highway money for virtually any form of transportation except intercity rail passenger service. However, we do not applaud the apparent absence of reasonable efforts to provide the Pioneer with enough equipment to meet existing demand, to be innovative in seeking potential revenue enhancements and to financially partner with the involved states.
If when these things are tried, and if the Pioneer is still a financial drain on the corporation relative to the service provided to the states and cities it serves, then and only then, the Pioneer's demise would be found acceptable to WashARP as an unfortunate but necessary means to preserve more cost effective parts of the system.
The Pioneer Public Meeting in Pendleton, OR on February 22, 1997.
Notes Courtesy of Jim Hamre
Steve Corey-Oregon Transportation Commission Grace Crunican-ODOT Director (did not stay for entire meeting)
Bob Jenson-Oregon House
Tom Downs-Amtrak (did not stay for entire meeting)
Ron Wyden-U. S. Senate
Gordon Smith-U. S. Senate
Billie Jean Morris-Hermiston Chamber of Commerce
Lynn Lundquist-Oregon House
David Nelson-Oregon Senate
Larry Griffith-Baker City Chamber of Commerce and former mayor
The meeting started about 10:15 a.m. in the city council chambers, fifteen minutes late due to Sen. Widens late plane. Over 100 people were in attendance. Other Amtrak employees present (but not acknowledged) included Ron Scolaro, Gary Erford and Jim Griter). ODOT's Bob Krebs was also present. WashARP members Jim Hamre and Loren Herrigstad were present.
The senators opened the meeting with their comments. Wyden again emphasized the importance of the Pioneer to eastern Oregon: economic development, tourism, transportation.
Downs then made his remarks. He talked about the mandate to be free of federal operating grants by 2002 and the fact the Congress and the president are cutting the operating grant faster than anticipated and not providing the capital investment that had been promised. Amtrak is facing an $80 mill. cash deficit this year and will have to borrow money. He said Amtrak and Texas are close to making a deal to continue the Eagle through Sept. 30. Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming all claim financial difficulties when asked about helping fund the Pioneer.
Amtrak needs a financial commitment to continue the train through September 30 by March 15. This is so continuity of operation beyond the current termination date of May 10 can be achieved. Without a financial commitment the Pioneer is gone May 10. During Amtrak's first round of service cuts Downs was surprised to find support for Amtrak service was much stronger in rural areas than in urban areas. He talked about the "Vermont Experience." Express and mail is an important revenue source.
Amtrak is working with the freight railroads on this. He feels Amtrak can double or triple its post office business. Mail and express contracts can't be completed till fall, thus the outside funding commitment needed through Sept. 30. The railroads are not happy about Amtrak looking to increase mail and express. Amtrak may have to get a ruling from the Surface Transportation Board.
The audience then had questions/comments for Downs. One person said more business amenities (phones and computer plugins) are needed on the Pioneer to encourage business people to ride to Portland.
Downs then departed half way through the meeting so he could be back in D. C. that evening. Those in attendance were not very happy that he didn't stay for the entire meeting after coming all the way across the country.
Then the rest of the panelists spoke. Billie Jean Morris led a task force to Vermont to learn how the state of Vermont (at Carl Fowler's behest) worked with Amtrak, cities, chambers, the ski industry, etc. to get the Vermonter running. She also noted Ontario has started a fund raising drive to rehab its station.
Bateman talked of the booming freight railroad business and how this is causing major congestion problems on much of the Pioneer's route between Portland and Denver. UP is investing $100 mill. In infrastructure improvements through the Blue Mountains. UPS is a major UP shipper and the railroad has concerns over Amtrak taking some of its business. The new Amtrak/UP operating contract is due to be completed by April 30. (Last year, due to the pending UP/SP merger, each railroad extended its contract with Amtrak for one year.)
Lundquist stated finding state funds for interim operation will be difficult. Referendum 47 limits state spending. There could be some potential in the new biennium (starts July 1) but even the Portland-Eugene Northwest Rail Corridor funding could be in danger.
Nelson asked the tourism department about funding and it has no money. The economic development department may have some dollars available but would want a partnership with ODOT.
Griffith noted Baker City will dedicate its renovated train station on March 17. The citizens hope to use it beyond May 10. The Oregon Trail interpretive center drew 200,000 visitors last year.
Corey noted he is a native born Pendletonian. He says the state should be a partner with Amtrak on the Pioneer.
More comments were then taken from the audience. Loren Herrigstad commented that some of the stations along the route need improvement or returned to use as stations (for example, Pendleton, where the station is a museum). He talked up the volunteer efforts that resulted in the construction of the Olympia-Lacey station and the station representative program there.
Doug Crites of Western Star Tours, Portland, said the Pioneer is the second most used train by his company (the Cascadia is first). His tour passengers don't want to ride a bus from Portland to eastern Oregon. He then proceeded to issue a blistering attack on Amtrak's proposals to ax the Pioneer and the other trains.Jim Hamre's comments include the following points:
Smith: He and Wyden will do what they can in Congress. The March 15 deadline will be tough to meet. They will put pressure on Amtrak.
Wyden: He mentioned the possibility of what was earlier rumored: a Chicago-Portland mail and express train, all on UP with limited coach service. He called this minimal service not acceptable. We have to stay with this and continue to build grass roots support.
To: Mayor Larry Griffith, Baker City
Included with this package are the notes I took during the meeting and the Washington Association of Rail Passengers' position paper on Amtrak's proposed elimination of the Pioneer. Also attached are federal FY 1995 station boarding for the Northwest which include the Pioneer's stations between Hood River and Greeley, CO.
In addition to the comments I made at the meeting (which are summarized in my notes below) here are some other thoughts:
We have heard that Union Pacific is preparing to tear up much of the infrastructure needed for passenger train service which would make it more difficult and costly to restore service in the future if it is lost.
Partnerships between Amtrak, the states and the local governments and citizens are important. The Dalles built their transportation center. Your city has just provided Amtrak with a new station.
It would be difficult to get all the states through which the Pioneer operates to invest money in running the train but every option does need to be explored.
You must continually challenge and question Amtrak's numbers. Other states that provide support to intrastate Amtrak services have found this to be true. For example, if it is only heavily booked four months of the year, why was the Pioneer often running with two sleeping cars in February and March? Also, they are using some of the same arguments used by the freight railroads in the 1960s when they wanted to dump their passenger train service. However, many of these arguments were based on lies, half truths and deliberate efforts to sabotage ridership.
Even though a majority of Congress favors a national rail passenger system (some very strongly), they have nickel and dimed Amtrak throughout its existence while having no problem continuing to heavily fund the highway and air modes.
All we have ever asked is for a fair balance to our transportation system.
I am available to try and help in any way I can. The Pioneer has been a personal crusade for me since the first time it was cut to triweekly operation in the late 1980s.
Notes courtesy Jim Hamre.
The meeting was hosted by the mayor of Hermiston.
Also present were mayors (or representatives) and chambers of commerce from (at least) the following eastern Oregon cities: Irrigon, Pendleton, Echo, La Grande, Stanfield, The Dalles, Baker City, Heppner and Hermiston.
Rail advocates present were Warren Yee and Jim Hamre of Washington State and Tim Wilson of Oregon. The total attendance was about 70 people.
The Hermiston mayor opened the meeting at 3:03 p.m. by introducing Senator Ron Wyden (D) and presenting him with a watermelon (the Hermiston area is a major growing area for watermelons).
Sen. Wyden stated we must get to the bottom line and come up with a solution for continuing operation of the Pioneer. He is "not going to rest" until there is decent transportation for eastern Oregon, and this includes rail passenger service. Everyone involved in the solution must be at the table. He pointed out that he is on the Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over transportation. He set up this meeting to seek input from everyone involved.
Then the mayors were invited to speak. The mayor of Pendleton said the city council has passed a resolution in support of the Pioneer.
The mayor of La Grande said you can't understate the importance of the Pioneer to their his community, particularly with treacherous road conditions in the winter.
The mayor of Baker City said the Pioneer plays a key role in their community and stressed the need for a partnership to retain the train.
The representative from The Dalles (chamber of commerce) said the Pioneer was part of the plan to help with traffic congestion in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area as tourism continues to build. They built and paid for a transportation and visitor center adjacent to the tracks for Amtrak's and the intercity bus lines' use. The Dalles will be the site of the first Oregon Veterans home and part of the reason they were selected was the availability of Amtrak service.
Lee Bullock then gave a presentation for Amtrak which focused exclusively on the reasons why the Pioneer (and the other trains) have to be eliminated. This is part of their "(Budget) Gap Closing Plan." He explained how their modest route eliminations (most of which were bought back by the states) and frequency reductions in FY 95 didn't work as they and Mercer Consultants thought they would. (Didn't the rail advocates tell them that?) He explained that Amtrak Intercity has to close an $87 million budget gap and the elimination of all or parts of four trains would close $44 million of that.
Elimination criteria used included highest fully allocated costs; highest operating ratio (Pioneer is 3.04, which means Amtrak spends $3.04 to earn $1 in revenue); out of pocket cash benefits; routes with weak vacation markets (Oregon trail, Utah skiing, Yellowstone Park, Columbia River Gorge, Portland, Denver and the Puget Sound region are weak vacation markets???); and little mail and express opportunities. (There were some others but they went by too fast to get recorded). Bullock summed up his presentation by saying they needed to put the system on better footing or there won't be any long distance trains.
Sen. Wyden questioned why eastern Oregon doesn't get the marketing and promotion that other areas of the country get (for example, Washington, DC). He talked again about the need for partnering and the need to improve Amtrak's budget.
Tim Gillispie gave a pitch for a ?? of federal gas tax for Amtrak and noted the 1997 budgets of the president, the house and the senate all contained $50 million less for operations than Amtrak requested.
Jason Tell said both the governor and ODOT are concerned about loss of the Pioneer. They support adequate funding for Amtrak and are working to find a solution to this "dilemma." Rail passenger service is an important component in Oregon's balanced transportation plan.
Bob Krebs handed out a paper with Pioneer background information and what it would cost the state of Oregon to operate a Boise-Portland train. The cost would be $10.6 million a year for daily service and $5 million a year for triweekly service. (Note: Without the benefit of through train service to points east of Boise, the subsidy per Oregon Passenger would be between $200-500 per ride).
Other members of the audience were then allowed to comment.
Everyone spoke in favor of retaining the Pioneer. Petitions with over 3000 signatures were presented by Sen. Wyden. One gentlemen complained that Amtrak had to pay the railroads too much money to operate on their tracks. A person from Baker City stated the city had just provided Amtrak with a new station.
I provided the following comments:
Ridership is booming, thanks in part us rail advocates finally haranguing Amtrak long enough to get them to add more equipment to the train last fall.
Urged the senator to look closely at Amtrak's numbers on the Pioneer as we are suspicious of them.
Suggested that a federal tax credit could be given the railroads based on the number of miles of track Amtrak operates over as partial compensation for operating Amtrak's trains. (I believe this suggestion was first made by a NARP director at the Portland, ME board meeting.)
Amtrak has no Superliner equipment shortage as they claim. They are accumulating a pool of cars and engines to rent for excursion trains. However, Amtrak's mandate is to run regularly scheduled intercity rail passenger service, not excursions. (NARP's newsletter says 58 superliners and 9 Amtrak engines).
People in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Washington also need to be involved in saving the Pioneer.
Amtrak hasn't even scratched the surface on revenue opportunities like mail and express. In the end, most of Amtrak's problems are a result of the federal government's lack of providing the same commitment to Amtrak as it provides to the highways and airlines. This has been true throughout Amtrak's entire 25 year history.
Sen. Wyden wrapped up the meeting by establishing a working group, headed by Baker City Mayor Larry Griffith, to continue to develop a plan to save the Pioneer and gear up for a Sept. 10 Senate Commerce committee hearing on Amtrak's proposed cuts. He said, "There is no substitute for folks having their say."