Keeping Them Honest: NARP Answers Mica’s Claims

Written By Colin Leach

Florida Congressman John Mica has a well-established reputation as a vociferous critic of Amtrak, taking the railroad to task for what he frequently claims are “Soviet-style operations”. Yet rather than basing his critiques on a sober analysis of Amtrak’s management choices within their operating environment, Mica embraces rhetoric that neither accurately describes Amtrak’s present operations nor understands some of the most basic aspects of the passenger rail industry.

At the House Subcommittee on Railroads and Pipelines hearing on July 9th, Mica made several claims that at best were dubious, and at worst were patently false. It will be hard to top Mayor John Robert Smith’s calm but insistent defense of Amtrak’s benefits in the face of Rep. Mica’s antagonism, but NARP wanted to set the record straight on a few important points:

1. In an exchange with Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari, Mica asked whether or not the Deputy Secretary was prepared to “open Amtrak’s monopoly” to private enterprise.

Amtrak does not possess a monopoly over passenger rail service. Were this the case, then it would be impossible for All Aboard Florida (an enterprise which Mica has endorsed!) to offer proposed intercity passenger service alongside Amtrak between Miami and Orlando. Commuter rail contracts all over the country have been seized by foreign interests like Veolia, and even by Class 1 Freight railroads such as BNSF and Union Pacific. Simply stated, Amtrak’s “monopoly” represents nothing more than the reality that significant barriers to entry exist for any potential passenger rail operator, particularly in terms of capital costs. Yet for those who are willing, as All Aboard Florida demonstrates, the market can be accessed by both Amtrak and private companies alike. Any notion of an Amtrak “monopoly” rests on a very liberal use of the term.

2. Mica claims that Amtrak’s long-distance operations suffer because of the railroad’s supposed inability to manage its own schedule in coordination with the freight railroads. “The long-distance services are a joke. … I would get the private sector to compete for them, and I would look at redoing the schedules. They don’t have to fly like planes every day. Airlines adjust their schedule. Amtrak can’t.”

Here, the Congressman again misunderstands the problem and unfairly blames Amtrak for something it cannot effectively control. There are many issues that inhibit Amtrak from running its trains as reliably as it could over host freight railroads’ tracks—obstacles that any passenger train operator, public or private, would have to face. These include the fact that so much of the railroad network is single-track (leaving dispatchers with little flexibility to be able to move trains around each other), and that most freight trains are long, heavy and slow whereas passenger trains are relatively short, light and fast. Nevertheless, some host railroads dispatch their trains in such a way that causes unnecessary delay to Amtrak trains, and these delays can be ameliorated through more effective enforcement of Amtrak’s statutory right to dispatching priority.

As Frank Wilner explained in a recent Railway Age editorial , Amtrak’s statutory right to dispatching priority has no real enforcement mechanism apart from deductions in user fee payments Amtrak makes to the host railroads. Additionally, the legal definition of “priority” has not been ironed out. The 2008 passenger rail authorization law attempted to solve this problem by giving Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) the authority to create metrics and standards for on time performance. If these standards were violated, the Surface Transportation Board could then fine the freight railroads. However, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government acted improperly in delegating that authority to Amtrak, invalidating the existing metrics.

If the Congressman is so concerned about Amtrak’s seeming inability to operate its long-distance services on time, he should advocate for Congress to create new case-by-case metrics. He should also consider that the utility and attractiveness of long-distance trains to travelers are inhibited by the lack of frequent serviceand capacity constraints. Among the consequences of this is that certain stations in the middle of routes have to live with only having trains stop in the wee hours of the morning. Given railroading’s high fixed costs—meaning that each additional passenger means additional revenue but only adds minimally to the cost of providing service—the way to improve long-distance trains’ performance is to expand service by adding frequencies and adding cars to existing trains, not shrinking it.

3. In his remarkably heated exchange with Reconnecting America’s CEO John Robert Smith on Amtrak subsidies, Mica implicitly contended that there is absolutely no government subsidy for Virgin Trains, the Richard Branson-owned service between London and Edinburgh. When Smith countered that Mica was forgetting about subsidized capital costs, Mica verbally bludgeoned him in the hearing, raising the tone of his voice to a decidedly outdoor level: “That’s not true! Don’t tell me that! I’ve been over there; I’ve seen it; I’ve met with the people.”

Smith was, of course, entirely correct. Virgin Trains, like all other operators of passenger rail in Britain, use tracks that are owned and maintained by Network Rail, which itself is de facto owned by the British Ministry of Transport, and all costs of which are underwritten by the government. According to The Guardian newspaper, Network Rail received £3.9 billion ($5.83 billion) from the British government for the most recent fiscal year. Additionally, The Guardian, citing a Manchester University study, reports that Virgin Trains received a total direct subsidy of £2.79 billion ($4.17 billion) from 1997 to 2012.

4. Taken together, Mica’s statements suggest an intractable opposition to intercity passenger rail that makes no room for the realities faced by Amtrak and other operators.

Rendering of a SunRail train.
Rendering of a SunRail train.

But, as a matter of fact, the Congressman has been a strong supporter of rail in his own district. In addition to heartily endorsing All Aboard Florida, Mica has also been a chief proponent of the SunRailcommuter rail system in the greater Orlando area, saying that “it just makes sense.”

If you were to apply the simplistic metrics that Mica favorsfor Amtrak—total passengers divided by total budget—SunRail does not fare well; with $1.2 billion (slightly more than Amtrak’s annual budget) going to construct a system that is expected to carry almost 1.1 million trips a year (4,300 tripsper business day times 250 business days per year), compared to Amtrak’s 31.2 million passengers in fiscal year 2012.

However, the city of Orlandodoes not subscribe to Mica’s math; its leaders, charged with the stewardship of the local economy and infrastructure, can’t afford to. They see the growth that connecting people with job markets will lead to; the real estate development that the stations will spur; the improved quality of life that rail transit fosters; and the construction jobs that will be created building all of this. Even in austere times, cities must invest in infrastructure to keep their economies growing.

Finally, a question for the Congressman: If government investment in passenger rail investment makes sense in your district, why does it not make sense in the rest of the country?

Written by Colin P. Leach with assistance from James A. Zumwalt and Malcolm Kenton.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.