Small Towns Fight for Passenger Rail

Amtrak’s one-track mind focuses on urban corridors. But smaller communities armed with facts, successful examples and dogged persistence are making the case for passenger rail.

“This is a train town – or it was,” says Laurie Ezzell Brown. She edits and publishes the Record, of Canadian, Texas. But she could be from any of thousands of towns that dot the maps of rural America.

The trains still roar by, through Canadian as through Scottsbluff, Nebraska, or Lima, Ohio – but they’re freight trains, hustling coal from Montana or plastic toys from China to far-off power plants or big-box stores. And a steady stream of freight trains, however impressive their might and speed, does not make you a train town. The 4,000-horsepower locomotives and the 100-car trains they’re pulling almost ask the question out loud: Where are the passenger trains?

What makes that question more poignant is the steady attrition of bus and airline services in many of those same towns. Greyhound’s primary business line – the intercity buses that fueled the imagination of everyone from John Steinbeck to blues great Robert Johnson – has weathered service cut after service cut. U.S. locations served by Greyhound dropped from 5,851 to 2,300 since 1977, according to Loring Lawrence, editor of Bus Industry magazine.

Likewise air service reaches far fewer rural communities today than it did in 1978, when federal deregulation freed airlines to drop unprofitable routes. The Essential Air Services program currently serves 122 rural airports in the Lower 48, and dozens more in Alaska, at an annual cost of over $200 million. (In 22 cases those airports serve communities with Amtrak stops, but at a greater subsidy – and greater cost in carbon emissions – per passenger.)

In innumerable communities, the car is the only real recourse.

Go Northwest
Leavenworth, Washington, celebrates the arrival of the Empire Builder for its first stop at the city’s new station in 2009.
Rare is the small-town mayor who would not love to have Amtrak call. The national provider’s system, however, expands slowly, for several reasons. A small town soliciting Amtrak’s interest needs a powerful megaphone. In passenger rail, high-speed service in corridors with plenty of population is the top item on the agenda. The little dots on the map command far less attention. It took the advocacy group Train Riders Northeast 12 years of careful, adept activism to get the National Railroad Passenger Corporation – Amtrak – to serve nine mostly small towns north of Boston with its Downeaster trains. In Leavenworth, Washington, local leaders needed seven years to get Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which has passed through the community for decades, to stop at the small mountain town. That stop was launched in 2009, and by 2012, boardings and alightings at the simple station totalled an impressive 12,751 for the year.

Aside from Amtrak’s focus on cities, the system’s lack of equipment can pose another hurdle. The frequent answer to activists seeking expanded service is “we don’t have the cars.” While insistent states – Maine and Illinois, for example – have managed to squeeze Amtrak for more rolling stock for the state-sponsored trains like the Downeasters, that process certainly has its limits. Amtrak has sought to purchase new cars for its premier, Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor service, but equipment orders for long-distance trains have in recent years been limited to replacement of existing cars.

Photo by SP8254
An Amtrak Cascades train sits beside a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train in Vancouver, Washington. U.S. freight lines must allow Amtrak on the rails, but the cost of that access can discourage Amtrak from adding lines and service.

Another problem is the impact of freight trains. While the statutes guarantee Amtrak access to the tracks – owned in almost all cases by freight railroads – those companies have learned to demand a lot of money for that access to ensure that freight movement is in no way harmed. To the freight railroads, a passenger train just gets in the way. In the Southwest, the Union Pacific Railroad put a $750 million price tag on infrastructure improvements when Amtrak raised the possibility of upgrading its New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited from thrice-weekly to daily operation. The sticker shock backed Amtrak off.

The final obstacle to overcome is politics. All trains in the Amtrak system lose money, if one includes capital costs in the reckoning. That means that they don’t run without government assistance. True, all forms of transportation receive some form of government help, but it’s a heavy lift for a little town in South Dakota – a state that hasn’t seen a passenger train in close to 50 years – to demand a federal appropriation of millions for a new Amtrak route.

So it is hard to stop a train, even if you’re a town lucky enough to be along an existing Amtrak lines. For example, in Rockwood, Pennsylvania, which the Capitol Limited zooms past on its way between Chicago and Washington, the process of soliciting a stop has taken 23 years – so far.

In 2008 local boosters got Congress to order Amtrak to study stopping in the town of 900, a tourist destination because of two nearby ski areas and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, which parallels the tracks. The study found that the stop would actually provide more new revenue than new expense. Amtrak then required that the initiative’s backers fund a second study to work out details. That analysis indicated that the stop’s infrastructure would cost $3.6 million, which Amtrak will not pay. Amtrak will add a stop only if the community served foots the bill. As of this writing, Rockwood has not come up with the money.

Local Hank Parke reports that the community is still working on the project. At a recent brainstorming session, train advocates “tried to get creative about funding sources,” he said. “Maybe we can scale down the project a bit. We’re a persistent bunch.”

What’s encouraging about Rockwood’s situation is not simply the persistence that advocates like Parke demonstrate, but the fact that the stop would actually benefit Amtrak. The five minutes it takes to stop and restart a train cost a lot of money in fuel and labor, but it doesn’t take that many new riders to compensate for the added expense. The community only has to provide the station. That can pose challenges ranging from land acquisition to access requirements for persons with disabilities, try generating the same civic enthusiasm for a new Greyhound station.

Greyhounds have less carbon emissions than Amtrak’s current trains, but the environmental argument will not suffice to lure the granddaddy of bus companies back once its corporate leadership has decided that your town is dragging down the bottom line. A bit like the airlines, Greyhound is shifting its emphasis to express and “BoltBus” services that simply skip the small towns in favor of rider-rich metropolises. For such towns, the environmental advantages thus shift by default to trains, which are far more efficient than cars or airplanes. Indeed, the U.S. freight rail system is a model of efficient transportation perhaps unmatched on the planet – so why not passenger trains, too?

Amtrak promotional material for its Sunset Limited route, which runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The line stopped running farther east because of Hurricane Katrina and never resumed the service.

Even rural communities that have passenger rail can have a hard time retaining the service. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, track damage forced Amtrak to truncate its Los Angeles-Orlando Sunset Limited, shifting its eastern terminus to New Orleans. CSX Transportation, which owns the track in question, had the line as good as new in a few months, but Amtrak has never returned and continues to describe the train as “suspended” east of the Big Easy. That leaves a number of small towns in Florida’s northern panhandle hanging. Amtrak’s ongoing stock explanation has shifted responsibility for resuming the service to federal and state decision-makers and has cited the need for millions of dollars in restart expenses. A 2006 letter from Amtrak board’s then-chairman to a Florida passenger rail advocates’ group stated, a bit more frankly, that “we believe that the actual relevancy of this particular service is an open question.” The letter cited poor on-time performance, the train’s slow speed, low ridership. Add it all up and you conclude that Amtrak doesn’t care too much about rural America.

Chipley, one of the affected Florida communities, furnishes a ready reminder of the fate of many small places. Established around the newly arrived railroad in the 1880s, the town set up its first post office in a boxcar and named itself after one of the railroad’s builders, a Col. W.D. Chipley. Today the tracks still bisect the town of 3,600, paralleling North Railroad Avenue and South Railroad Avenue. CSX freights still chug through, but the passenger train, Greyhound and any other bona fide intercity public transportation you might name, are all gone.

Photo by Ebyabe
The Chipley, Florida, station remains closed since Amtrak discontinued service. A letter from Amtrak questioned the “actual relevancy” of the service.

“There are plenty of older people who don’t drive, who don’t have cars,” reports Linda Cain, Chipley’s mayor. “We’re going to keep working with the local mayors, … just keep bugging them,” she said, referring to Amtrak and the other communities on the route. “I really got my doubts about it, but I sure would like to see it come back.”

Despite the gloom she projects, there are reasons for hope. Communities like Leavenworth, Washington, or the Downeaster towns north of Boston have won their battles for service and demonstrated they can provide a meaningful number of new riders. Amtrak’s ridership has increased steadily in recent years, outstripping growth in car and airline travel. Rockwood, Pennsylvania’s well-analyzed situation demonstrates that new stops on long-distance trains can make money. Communities tired of watching those silver Amtrak cars whizz by do have an alternative: find a suitable station property and start making noise.

Wayne Davis, a retired banker who led the grass-roots campaign to revive passenger rail service in Maine.

“Never give up,” advises Wayne Davis, chairman of Train Riders Northeast. At first, he says, the now-thriving Downeaster service “was just three people in Maine sitting around a dining room table saying ‘what if?’”

Asked what sustained her town’s energies in its struggle to get Amtrak service, Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce director Nancy Smith said: “The railroad is Leavenworth’s history. It is a big, huge piece of who we were, and we wanted it to be a big piece of who we are.”

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