Former Amtrak president says Biden knows value of national network

Downs, who led passenger railroad 1993-97, sees need to reverse cuts to triweekly operation as urgent
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Former Amtrak president Tom Downs
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph Biden’s impact on Amtrak’s funding or management policies won’t be known until he articulates specific priorities in the weeks or months ahead.

But former Amtrak president Tom Downs, who met with Biden when he was a U.S. Senator for Delaware commuting between Washington and his home in Wilmington, Del., doubts that “Amtrak Joe” will endorse the current decision to reduce frequencies on long-distance routes to less than daily departures.     

“People assume that the only thing that Joe Biden cares about is the Northeast Corridor,” Downs, Amtrak's president from 1993 to 1997, tells Trains News Wire, recounting a 1994 Metroliner ride he shared with the then-junior Senator from Delaware.

“‘Listen, Tommy. I can count!” Downs recalls, quoting Biden. “‘I need 51 Senators who support funding for Amtrak. And they come from around the rest of the country. If they don’t have a dog in the fight, Amtrak can’t survive,’ he told me.” They spent about an hour on the train that evening discussing Amtrak’s funding needs at a time when it was under intense budget pressure to cut costs. But the two also met when Biden visited the heavy maintenance facilities at Wilmington and Bear, Del.

“‘I know Amtrak stops at 542 communities and all of those folks are important to Amtrak,’” Downs says Biden would tell the workers. “But he was also acutely aware of the Northeast Corridor’s capital deficit, which at the time was something like $18 billion. Now it’s what — $34 billion?”

Asked by Trains News Wire whether being labeled as “Amtrak Joe” might prompt Biden to bend over backwards to not meddle with current policies, Downs said, “His fingerprints were all over the 2009 stimulus package and a lot of that went to intercity capital. He also went whistle-stopping on the intercity part of the network in Ohio and Pennsylvania, so it’s not anything he seems reluctant to embrace.”

Downs thinks it may be some time before Biden gets around to addressing Amtrak, so he cautions, “My immediate concern is [management’s] dismemberment process of pulling apart the long-distance trains. You start with [downgrading] the dining car, reducing service to three days per week where you kill the network effect, and then for reasons I can’t begin to understand there are no online schedules available for all the trains — this is an intentional attempt to kill the long-distance train service.”

President-elect Joe Biden has a long history with Amtrak.
Doug Ridell

Downs believes the impact of the current cuts will be rapid and dramatic.

“Ridership will drop off drastically; If they don’t get back to daily service soon, there won’t be any service to save,” he asserts. “Management must understand that the trains are an odd mix of essential service linking rural and urban communities and a land-cruise business; if you cut both of those, I don’t know how you ever get them back.

“Once you lay off conductors and engineers and the folks who know how to provide food service on a moving train, it’s impossible to restore them without an incredible amount of effort and resources.”

Downs also says that “people who believe that Amtrak can survive only as the Northeast Corridor are smoking a controlled substance,” since paying the capital costs of improving corridor infrastructure will require cooperation from all of the nation’s lawmakers.

“They can’t keep up with the aging infrastructure, because railroading is a capital consumption machine; every day you run a train on it, you’re eating up the plant,” Downs says. “We saw what happened with the Class I [railroads]; they simply fell apart.

“It’s why,” he concludes, “I have such a sense of urgency about this dismemberment. Piecemeal is an attractive strategy for people who want to kill off the long-distance service, and ultimately, have the folks in the Northeast Corridor commit suicide.”

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