Happening Now

The Power of Patient Advocacy

September 3, 2019

The most effective tactics are often difficult to see.

by TJ Girsch, Vice Chair, Rail Passengers Association

In the transportation security field, there’s a term of art: “security theater.” The idea is that the things that you see (for example, at an airport security checkpoint) are largely there for show. The measures that are most effective in making travel secure are things the large majority of the traveling public never actually sees. The same can be said for passenger advocacy: the most effective advocacy work is slow and deliberate. It involves collaborative relationship-building with many players over a long period of time. This sort of ground game is neither splashy nor “sexy,” so despite its effectiveness, it doesn’t get a lot of press. Perhaps that explains why I see so many comments on social media asking why Rail Passengers Association “isn’t doing anything” about issues ranging from equipment to onboard dining service to the future of the long-distance network. Seemingly, because we’re not loudly calling for heads or breaking out the pitchforks and torches, people think we’re not doing anything at all.

For a long time, those complaints tended to center around the Southwest Chief. When Amtrak announced its intention to gut the middle of the Chief and replace it with an unworkable “bus bridge,” Rail Passengers immediately countered with open letters, fact sheets and direct criticism of both Amtrak and its CEO, Richard Anderson. The Association launched a major campaign to save the Chief which saw the DC staff working in concert with our member-advocates and regional ARPs to underscore to lawmakers the importance of preserving the route. We leveraged our hill contacts to get Congress to solicit on-the-record testimony that the Chief would continue to run over its entire route length. Congress passed a budget resolution that contains Chief-preserving language your Association helped get inserted. And ColoRail President / Rail Passengers council member Jim Souby testified before a Senate Committee on the importance of the Interstate Passenger Rail Network (including the Chief), as well as getting a mention of our objections to Amtrak’s misleading accounting practices in the Congressional record.

Your Association also continues to meet with Amtrak regarding its glaring equipment needs, especially long-distance equipment. When Amtrak announced a major purchase of new long-distance locomotives, we applauded that commitment to the long-distance network. And we’ve actively solicited the feedback of our member-volunteers regarding what they’d like to see in new or refurbished coach cars, food service cars and sleepers to share with Amtrak as refresh and replacement plans are developed.

Dining car downgrades on eastern trains (most recently the “Fresh and Contemporary” menu), and the Association’s alleged lack of action against them, are the current hot topic. Those complaints are also unwarranted. When Amtrak removed dining car service from the Silver Meteor and scaled it back on the Cardinal, Rail Passengers Association launched its “This Is Not A Dining Car” cooler bag campaign. Last fall, when Amtrak abruptly announced that it was replacing traditional dining car service on the Capitol and Lake Shore with cold boxed meals, The Association responded immediately with harsh criticism of both the change and the sudden timing of the announcement. When Amtrak announced this July that the downgrades would be expanded to all single-night long-distance trains, we criticized them again. And again. Though there’s a lot more work to do, we continue to meet regularly with Amtrak officials on improving the onboard dining experience, winning additional hot options and improved breakfast offerings. And as part of our reauthorization campaign, we’re working with Congress to eliminate the FAST Act’s odious mandate that Amtrak dramatically cut onboard food and beverage offerings by 2020. We’ve even launched an onboard food and beverage survey so that members and nonmembers alike can provide their feedback about what’s important to them, which we can pass along to Amtrak and our allies in Congress.

Calling for heads and taking a scorched earth approach may be cathartic, but it’s precisely the kind of “advocacy theater” that accomplishes little. Real policy wins are the result of the sustained, patient advocacy that you often just don’t see. They’re achieved by building collaborative, but not docile, relationships with state and local officials, members of Congress from both parties and both chambers, Amtrak, and like-minded regional organizations. And in those cases when we do choose to publicly call out complaints, we succeed by criticizing policies, not people. Perhaps we should be “tooting our own horn” more often, so that people are more aware of our efforts. But you can rest assured that those efforts are tireless and ongoing.

One more note: We can't fight for more trains, better train and better on-board service without your continued support. Please consider making a donation so we can continue advocating for all passengers.