Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Op-Ed: California Should Dump Amtrak

It’s crunch time for the states that have Amtrak trains that travel less than 750 miles (unless they are on the northeast corridor), since the states will now be responsible for all expenses related to those trains. For many years states have funded trains under the 403b provision of Amtrak law including California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, and North Carolina but now will be required to fund the entire amount even on trains that are currently not funded by the state. However, the state of California is in the unique position to run their trains themselves and probably save some money along the way.

Currently the state of California funds the Capital Corridor between San Jose and Sacramento that sees 15 round trips per day; the San Joaquin’s that provide six round trips a day with four from Oakland and two from Sacramento with service to Bakersfield; and the Pacific Surfliner Corridor that travels from San Diego to San Luis Obispo with many trains per day. In addition California provides an extensive collection of connecting bus services leaving very few places in the state that are not accessible by the network. 

Photo by JoeinSouthernCalifornia

All of this success can be contributed directly to the hard work of various branches of the state of California and the many advocates of rail passenger service that have worked very hard for the progress the state has seen. In fact the state of California is one of the few states that have dedicated funds for rail passenger service that were approved by the voters (although there were various attempts by former Governor Schwarzenegger to raid the funds).

In fact Amtrak itself has had very little to do with the success of rail passenger service in the State of California and in many cases has been a roadblock to progress in the state. Way back in 1986 former California State Senator Jim Mills, who as mayor of San Diego was instrumental in creating the first new modern light rail system in the United States, wrote a damming store in San Diego magazine showing how Amtrak had repeatedly created road blocks to improving the line between San Diego and Los Angeles. (Mills, 1986) 

Another factor in why California should go it alone is the high cost of dealing with Amtrak. Over the last few years Amtrak has lost most of their contracts to provide commuter rail service because of how expensive they are. In addition there have always been questions about Amtrak’s accounting and what the true costs are to provide the service and how much money is actually syphoned into the northeast corridor. Once again the state of California is in a perfect position to find another operator with the extensive network the state currently has.

With any action there is going to be unintended consequences of actions taken, so in the case of California going on its own, what will be the consequences?

First of all the agency that will run the service will have to negotiate new agreements with the railroads. This will probably be fine with the BNSF who has been very cooperative in rail passenger service in California but the Union Pacific would probably be harder. However, considering the amount of trains that are already running on UP tracks and that the state already has an agreement with the UP that provides them better compensation than running a standard Amtrak train, there is no reason why the agreements should not be able to be made.

Second, Amtrak owns most of the equipment used on the Surfliner service from San Diego to San Luis Obispo along with most of the locomotives so the state will have to either purchase the equipment from Amtrak or be able to secure enough equipment to use before taking over the service. The unknown is what would be Amtrak’s reaction to losing its source of money coming in from California and what tactics they may use in response. The state will also have to work to secure rail yards to use although the possibility exist to create joint maintenance facilities with the commuter railroads that cover both sides of the state.
This will not mean that Amtrak will no longer operate in the State of California as it still will provide service on its long distance trains which provide service to many destinations. However, local service within California would now be directly operated by the state of California.

California is probably the only state that currently funds Amtrak 403b that is in a position to take over those trains and run them instead. The State of California and various advocacy groups are largely responsible for the success of rail passenger service in California. If it had been up to Amtrak the San Diegans would still be running 3 trains a day between Los Angeles and San Diego and the highly successful San Joaquin and Capital Corridors would only be a dream. It is time for California to take the next step and take complete control of their trains.


Amtrak California. (n.d.). Amtrak California. Retrieved May 28, 2013, from http://www.amtrakcalifornia.com/
Mills, S. S. (1986, December). Amtrak: The Public Be Damned. san diego magazine, 10, 2-10.
Vantuono, W. (2005, October). The best in the West: Gene Skoropowkis's trains. Railway Age Magazine, 206, 10.

APA formatting by BibMe.org.


  1. John,

    I definitely agree with you. I like that you take the position that the state could do a better job of running these little spurs of track. The rail lines are a huge resource to the state (not to mention much nicer than spending hours on the most uninteresting stretch of interstate on the West Coast).

    One question about the §403b, though, about how much does California pay now to Amtrak for the maintenance and operations of these small track lines? Do you think that the network would see further expansion as part of a state rail initiative?

  2. The latest numbers I saw were from 2003-2004 and at that time California was paying something like $79 million to Amtrak to run its trains. It is interesting to note until Amtrak changed their accounting methods in the early 90's, the California trains revenue was covering their above the rail cost (the cost to actually operate the trains themselves). After the change the cost have gone up substantially and that is one point of conflict is that Amtrak will not actually reveal what they are actually charging the states for.

    Also during the period on the late 80's and early 90's under Amtrak President Claytor, the Coast Starlight was showing that it was covering more than its above the rail cost and so were many of the long distance trains. Yet after Claytor retired and subsequent presidents have come along the numbers have greatly changed.

    To answer your final question Glen, I am not sure if we will see many changes to the system right now. There is so much focus on the high speed rail plan, it seems that little attention is being left to the standard system that has been serving the state so well. There is some improvements being made as part of the high speed project that will help the conventional trains such as new crossovers for trains on double track near Sacramento but nothing when it comes to service expansion.


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