Happening Now

Behind the Scenes of the Wall Street Journal's Video on Amtrak

July 18, 2019

Rail Passengers is working to ensure that the voices of ALL passengers are heard

I know the focus this week has been the ham-fisted rollout of reduced dining options from Amtrak—and rest assured we will be issuing a firm response in the next few days—but I also wanted to point out a video posted by the Wall Street Journal. I think a lot of people probably stopped at the bad headline. And that’s a shame, because if you take time to watch the video there’s a lot of positive information that we managed to get into the video through our conversations with a pair of WSJ reporters.

The series was sparked by an extended conversation Sean and I had with the Journal’s Ted Mann earlier this year. The resulting story (Amtrak Has Lost Money for Decades. A Former Airline CEO Thinks He Can Fix It.) was pretty mixed. It *did* include many of our arguments and research items, including:

  • Even though end-to-end ridership on Amtrak routes over 750 miles is relatively low, they say the train represents the only practical long-distance travel option for some residents of small rural communities poorly served by airlines—and a huge part of those local economies.
  • The rail passengers group has estimated that the Southwest Chief, which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, creates $180 million in annual economic benefits, or roughly three times what Amtrak pays to run the train each year.

Even so, beyond that we were relatively disappointed in Ted’s piece. It failed to dig into whether shifting costs off of Amtrak’s balance sheet and onto states, commuter railroads, and local communities has any unintended downsides, or the difference between covering the cost of operations on the NEC and the cost of covering operations and capital depreciation on host railroad infrastructure for long-distance routes.

That’s why I was pleased to see our time with Mann actually pay off in another way, via a referral to his colleague Jason Bellini and this WSJ video:

I had a very good and detailed conversation with Bellini, and I don’t mind saying that I managed to turn him around almost a full 180 degrees. I didn’t do this through my masterful oratory, but by doing something I wish I could do to every single Amtrak critic I meet: I got him on a train.

I suggested that he travel on the Crescent to get a sense of the diversity of Amtrak passengers—diverse in every sense of the word, from age to race to financial background. I was able to introduce them to John Robert Smith, and told them to get off in Meridian with the former Mayor to see the economic-development benefits of rail, up close. And John Robert did his usual fantastic job of knocking down Gardner's arguments, and looking very sympathetic as he did so.

I promise we did not arrange to have that 100-year-old woman boarding the train at the 3:29 mark of the video… but it sure made the point, didn't it?

This video shows why people choose the train. It also shows the people for whom the train is the only option. Make sure to check out:

  • The woman who’s too old to drive at 3:55, and needs Amtrak to stay mobile;
  • The exchange at 4:29 where John Robert demolishes the fallacy that since no one rides the train end-to-end you can cut out the middle without any cost to passengers;
  • Getting off at Meridian at 5:47, and profiling the benefits to local communities of intercity rail service.

As we plan our line of attack in response to Amtrak’s most recent unforced error with F&B, I wanted to let you know that your Rail Passengers staff is working hard to tell the stories of these Americans. Even when it requires going deep into enemy territory.

Now, let’s get these people onboard.




President & CEO

Rail Passengers Association/NARP