Amtrak’s Southwest Chief crossing Raton Pass. (Photo by Jerry Huddleston/Wikimedia Commons)

A few years ago, I found myself in the dining car of Amtrak’s Empire Builder in the part of Montana that gives it the name “Big Sky Country.” My fellow travelers were an elderly couple heading to North Dakota. As we ate our dinner and watched the scrublands pass by, I asked why they decided to take the train. It turned out that they regularly used it to travel to auto auctions in Montana, as they didn’t like making the all-day drive. From our conversation I got the impression that without the money from this marginal business, they’d struggle to make ends meet. Given the risk of long-distance driving for the elderly and the lack of flights, this was the best way to make the trip. 

Passengers board the Southwest Chief in Raton, NM (Chris Light/Wikimedia Commons)

Many people in rural America depend on Amtrak as their only viable connection to the outside. Driving isn’t an option for some, and Greyhound doesn’t stop in Havre, Montana, or Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a non-profit that lobbies for improved rail service, a full 18% of Amtrak passengers travel to a station with no air service. For many of those passengers, Amtrak is a necessity. But some fear it will soon struggle to meet even that need. 

“You greatly limit communities served by 7-day a week service when you go to three,” John Robert Smith, Chairman of Transportation for America, remarked. He would know: as the former Mayor of Meridian, MS, a small city surrounded by six rural counties, he was responsible for the creation of the south’s first multimodal transportation center, which brought $200 million of investment to the community.

He’s referencing a recent proposal by Amtrak to reduce service on long-distance trains to 3 times per week on most routes. While Amtrak has justified the measure as a temporary response to coronavirus, other stakeholders are skeptical. According to Jim Mathews, President and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, “The way it’s being set up, it’s being set up to fail where it may not be temporary.”

The impact could be significant for rural America, where towns grew up around the railroad.  Neil Segotta, the Mayor of Raton, NM, a city which recently invested $3 million in a downtown multimodal center, said “the train has been here almost as long as the City of Raton has been here.” Passenger trains have played an important role in many rural communities, but since their heyday in the first half of the twentieth century, they’ve gone through many changes.

In the 1960s, passenger trains were struggling. Competition from automobiles meant that these services increasingly operated at a loss, leaving the railroads that operated them in an increasingly precarious financial situation. In order to improve the financial standing of these companies, the government relieved them of their regulatory obligation to provide these services, and took over their operation itself. In the words of Mathews, it was a “bailout for railroads”.

Traveling through Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder (Photo by Jefferson Sinclair)

The network Amtrak took over was a skeleton of its former self, with many rural routes being eliminated. Over time, the shape of the network fluctuated, with places like Parkersburg, WV and Mountain Home, ID gaining and then losing Amtrak service. Part of the reason for the turnover was Amtrak’s mandate as a for-profit corporation. Unlike other subsidized modes of transportation like highways and airlines, the newly formed rail company was meant to break even, leading it to cut routes it viewed as detrimental to the bottom line. 

Of course, it seems this mandate was less about the railroad’s financial potential and more about political cover for its expected collapse. Despite a corporate objective predicated on its imminent demise, Amtrak went on to stabilize the national passenger network. While route mileage only shrank from 23,000 at its creation to 21,400 in 2019, passenger numbers increased from 16.6 million in 1972, its first full year of operation, to 32.5 million in 2019. 

This has had an impact on rural America. According to Mathews, “if you take all the federal income tax the people in Cut Bank, MT pay, the share [they] pay for Amtrak is about $12,000. For that $12,000, the town derives $327,000 of benefit.” A $49.5 million grant in Normal, IL resulted in $220 million of investment while the train serving parts of rural Virginia has seen a 13% ridership increase between 2013 and 2019. Amtrak has even established an initiative to highlight the benefits of investing in rural stations. Like many of these places, Raton has focused redevelopment efforts around its depot, which is often used by Scouts traveling to the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch. In the words of Mayor Segotta, “[Raton is] representing the economy of Colfax County.” 

The trains also provide an alternative for rural communities. Bus service has been declining for decades, while air travel also faces challenges. For many rural Americans without cars, these methods are the only way to reach services available in larger communities. 

Many in Raton, for example, take the train to medical appointments. Even those who can drive may find doing so inconvenient or dangerous, and according to Smith, many simply prefer the train: “I can work my entire trip if I want to.” Currently, ridership is down the least on long-distance routes, which, according to Mathews, not only implies that many passengers consider their use of these trains “essential”, but it also “ratified [the] idea that growth in rural community is important for future of Amtrak.”  

But even before Covid slashed ridership, rural rail faced challenges. Despite being legally entitled to right-of-way over freight trains, Amtrak is often delayed by the freight railroads, over whose tracks they often operate. But with two-thirds of rail freight originating in rural America, freight rail is also important to rural economies. Given this, many passenger rail supporters advocate for cooperation. Smith notes that infrastructure built to help passenger trains also helps freight. Even Mathews, who described Amtrak’s creation as a “bailout” for freight railroads, argues that compromise is needed: “Is it time to revisit that grand bargain and make it more attractive for the freight railroads? Yeah, I think so…money is a better incentive than a lawsuit.” 

Amtrak passes a freight train in Arizona. (Clay Gilliland/Wikimedia Commons)

That money can be in short supply though, especially for rural trains. In a white paper, Amtrak notes that in 2018, its long-distance network contributed the lowest ridership and revenue and the highest cost. And while advocates may push back against the idea that Amtrak must make a profit, losses on some routes, like ill-fated West Virginian, have forced their closure.

The balance between service quality and financial prudence has often defined Amtrak, but some feel it has shifted towards the latter recently. According to Segotta, “Amtrak’s attitude has changed over the years. They’re not so friendly to the Southwest Chief,” which runs between Chicago and LA via Raton. But others are more optimistic: Mathews cited Amtrak management’s openness to growth, as well as their successful cooperation with organizations like the Southern Rail Commission, which seeks to restore passenger service along the Gulf Coast.  

Covid-19 epidemic, however, has increased the urgency of this discussion: Amtrak is planning to take most long-distance service to 3 times per week in order to cut costs in the face of ridership losses. Whether this will succeed is unclear: a GAO report found that similar reductions resulted in greater losses. In response, a spokesperson for Amtrak said that the “unprecedented” drop in demand means the situation today is “different,” adding “you can also be certain we are working on plans that will optimize connections, even between routes that will be operated thrice-weekly.” 

Amtrak has also developed metrics around the restoration of service. Smith disagrees with this, “If you get sucked into measuring how to bring back the long-distance trains, you’ve given up on maintaining them.” Mathews also expressed doubt, noting that in the absence of certainty around the trains’ return will suppress demand. In addition, he was concerned about freight railroads demanding a “ransom” to restore previously existing service, a precedent set by the 2005 discontinuance of the Sunset Limited between Orlando and New Orleans. When asked about this, Amtrak replied it is “working with our host railroads as we develop our plans.”

The potential impact on rural communities could be severe. Transportation for America is still running the numbers, but Smith said “it’s looking pretty bad.” In a place like Raton, 3-day a week service would mean that Scout troops couldn’t connect with the buses that take them to Philmont Scout Ranch, and wouldn’t spend time in the newly revitalized downtown. “if Amtrak left Philadelphia…people could still get around. That’s not true in over 250 communities across America” Mathews said.

Multimodal Center in Meridian, MS. (source:  Amtrak)

The cuts have already generated political pushback. In multiple letters to Amtrak, a bipartisan group of Senators has argued that “putting the brunt of budget shortfalls on rural America and its workers is unacceptable, no matter the circumstances.” Rural communities have helped create bipartisan support for Amtrak and allowed the organization to grow.  

“It’s not a winning strategy [for Amtrak] to go to communities and say you’re not good enough for service. You’re going to lose the support of the Congress,” Mathews said. “If it takes $500 million to keep everything operating and keep the workforce employed, Congress is going to give them extra money.” 

Smith related an anecdote in which Amtrak, faced with funding cuts proposed by Congress, hung up a banner in its headquarters that read, “It’s Meridian, Stupid.” It was a reminder to their employees of the importance of rural areas in the political battle over Amtrak’s future. 

Advocates are optimistic that these cuts are not inevitable. Many, like Mathews, view Amtrak as an essential service. “[The] idea that Amtrak has to be profitable is a fallacy…there are things we want to pay for as a country so we can have a country.” 

Smith frames the question in similar terms, comparing it to the interstate highway system, which receives a significantly higher subsidy. “Rural America has the right to be connected. We built highways through Montana, not because of the press of humanity, but because Montana deserved to be connected to this great economic development opportunity.” In the words of Segotta, “these are forms of investment we rationalize because of their regional impact…. [Amtrak] is not that different from an airport or a highway…We judge they’re worth the investment.” 

It is still unclear what a post-Covid Amtrak will look like. But Amtrak has overcome many challenges in its 50-year history, and, notwithstanding the most recent crisis, has experienced considerable growth. Segotta, Mathews, and Smith all highlighted the work that local and regional entities like the Southwest Chief Coalition and the Southern Rail Commission are doing to support passenger rail. They hope that in the future, Amtrak will do more than just survive, and will become a driver of growth in rural America. As Smith notes, “let’s sustain the service and employee base so when we come back, we come back strong”. 

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