Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

On the list of World's Most Thankless Jobs -- perhaps falling between Gordon Ramsay's sous-chef and the president's press secretary -- would be "CEO of Amtrak." Year after year, he must go before Congress and be grilled, chastened and beaten up by the very people who set the conditions that make his job more difficult than it needs to be.

Legislators demand accountability yet require that Amtrak keep profit-draining stations open in their districts. They know, or should know, that the railroad has a backlog of $52 billion in repairs and upgrades, yet they refuse to provide adequate maintenance funding. They compare it to airlines, which, unlike Amtrak, don't fully shoulder the underlying operational costs (airports, air traffic control systems) that enable them to function profitably.

The result? A past president of Amtrak noted his funding was less than that earmarked for roadkill removal and road salt.

I wrote last week about my experiences as a passenger on the Crescent line, traveling from New York to New Orleans. I had been invited by CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, and he had also arranged for experts with an interest in Amtrak to board at one station for an interview and then disembark.

I spoke with them, as well, and their collective insights provided context for what could be characterized as the 21st Century Limited -- limited support leading to limited ambitions, resulting in limited opportunities.

"You might as well ask for the interstate highway network to make money," Jim Mathews said of congressional expectations that Amtrak will be run like a profitable private business. Mathews is CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), which has morphed from a rail buff club to a "policy partner" with Amtrak and government officials to build coalitions that support the railroad.

"Amtrak exists as a public convenience," he said, comparing it to the post office, which is required to provide services that FedEx and UPS aren't. And he pointed out that "there is not one form of transportation -- not barges, not airlines -- that doesn't receive some form of government subsidies."

One partial victory he and others I spoke with noted is the possible restoration of the eastern leg of the Sunset Limited, which, until Hurricane Katrina, ran from Los Angeles to Orlando. Since 2005, when the storm devastated tracks and stations along the Gulf Coast, the eastbound route has ended in New Orleans.

Congress appropriated $500,000 to fund the Southern Rail Commission, mandated to explore restoring the service. The line is operationally sound, said the organization's secretary-treasurer, Knox Ross, but there are still roadblocks.

Amtrak has two Achilles' heels, and this situation stresses both. First, the company does not own any of the track it runs on and must negotiate with private freight companies to lease rails. CSX owns the track along the Gulf, and Ross said that while he is respectful of its private property rights, its leasing demands and what the commission believes are reasonable fees are "so far apart."

"The host has one set of facts," he said. "We have another we think is more accurate."

The other structural disadvantage Amtrak faces is the mercurial nature of government funding. Although the coastal line would serve President Trump's political base and has the support of Republican governors and senators in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the 13% decrease in funding for the DOT in the president's budget proposal specifically targets Amtrak's long-haul services.

The reliance on private freight tracks raises another issue that underscores the disconnect between congressional demands and the reality of passenger rail travel today. Amtrak's origins can be traced to the desire on the part of private rail companies to focus on profitable freight service and forgo common carrier responsibility for passengers.

The government agreed to take over passenger service, but with the proviso that passenger trains would have right-of-way priority. But as was confirmed several times on my ride aboard the Crescent, the freight lines ignore that mandate. We pulled onto sidings frequently to let freight trains pass (and arrived at New Orleans two hours late).

NARP's Mathews said the question of priority is currently being decided by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a ruling is expected any day.

On the question of the return on investment that Amtrak provides, Mathews answered by pointing out the window. "Who does Amtrak make money for? It has created economic growth in small towns and communities that are struggling."

Indeed, from the Chat and Choo restaurant I saw facing the tracks in Villa Rica, Ga., to the handsome intermodal station in Meridian, Miss., we rolled past several examples of commerce that would wither without Amtrak.

In addition, there are critical service needs; many riders I met were disabled, without viable transportation alternatives.

As Japan celebrates the 50th anniversary of the bullet train, it's time to look at America's rail transport issues realistically. There's a proven positive correlation between frequency of service and ridership on long-haul lines. If Congress approves the proposed cuts in service, Amtrak could well spiral downward, heading toward the status of roadkill, an issue whose simplicity seems to be understood even by legislators who lack the capacity, or will, to address rail passenger policy seriously.

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