Underreported: Amtrak Under the Obama Administration

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Barack Obama will arrive in DC for the inauguration by train, and Joe Biden is also known as “Amtrak Joe” thanks to his years of daily commutes to Washington via Amtrak. Is this a sign that the next four years will be more rail-friendly than in previous administrations? We look into what Amtrak can expect from the Obama White House, and the role trains can play in improving America’s transportation system. Thomas Downs is a transportation expert and former president of Amtrak (1993-1998).


Thomas Downs

Comments [37]

Doris from Teaneck, New Jersey

Mr. Lopate mentioned Texas as being in need of service. Indeed, if there were more than a one-a-day run each direction of Amtrak's Texas Eagle, and if CSX didn't sidetrack it for hours, making the schedule touch and go, Texans could actually commute between Dallas and Austin, and more of them might take it up to Saint Louis and Chicago, too. If the leg between Galveston and Plainview were restored, Texans could get around handily by rail. The tracks are there and active with freight. Amtrak puts folks embarking from Houston on a bus. The railroad museum in Galveston was a melancholy place even before Ike devastated it. There is was, articulate witness to what used to be: white sculptures of late 1800's passengers -- men, women, children -- throughout the cavernous waiting room.

Jan. 08 2009 07:14 PM
John from Oakland, NJ

Leonard, We need more programs on the need for better rail and mass transit. We have squandered subsidies on airlines and highway--the most inefficient and polluting forms of transportation. When I travel in Europe I am almost brought to tears--they have built an intelligent and integrated transporation network. It's so efficient and comfortable--it encourages ridership. Trains connect directly to airports. City surface transport is integrated with the trains. Then I look at NYC and remember the grand train station that was demolished and sunk underground under an ugly building; another grand train station was almost demolished. The subway system, the lifeline in NYC, was neglected for decades until some of our politicians finally woke up and realized its value and need for increased support. So much more needs to be done to realize the benefits of rail and mass transit.

Jan. 08 2009 06:55 PM
hjs from 11211

i saw that after i posted. sorry to step on your toes

Jan. 08 2009 03:28 PM
markBrown from and

#25: Take a look at my comment #17.

My post there also references the GM streetcar conspiracy.

But it also covers My discussion in Great detail

PS: if you go there today based on today's segment, would you be kind enough to leave a comment?

I'd like to welcome each of you and thank you too for reading and making suggestions and improvement.

Jan. 08 2009 02:03 PM
Ciesse from Manhattan

(I appreciate Mr. Downs' helpless chuckling throughout -- indeed the most good-natured way of responding to what he has accurately attested to as the truly, almost unbearably ridiculous lag of American rail in the world.)

Jan. 08 2009 02:01 PM
MJ Wilson from Westchester, NY

I am from a three generation railroad family. In the pre-Amtrak days, my aunt used to be a telephone switchboard operator (remember them?) in Aurora, Illinois for the Chicago Burlington Quincy Railroad. She retired sometime in the mid '70s. I recall her telling me as a kid (I don't know what year this would have been) about the railroad executive phone calls she used to eavesdrop when they where talking about and planning the death of the passenger service on their rail lines. They determined they wanted to get out of the passenger rail service because they believed commercial freight was much more lucrative, easier to manage deal with. Over time, they succeeded.

Jan. 08 2009 01:59 PM
blair from new york

I love Amtrak. However, why have they allowed multi-million dollar private bus enterprises to take over the busy NY to DC routes. Such a shame.

Jan. 08 2009 01:59 PM
markBrown from and


The KEY takeaways of this segment (in my humble opinion)


1) We absolutely need to take ownership of the amtrack TRACKAGE back.

2) We need to emphasize and publicize the abilities of the RAIL lines in the country

3) that this NEEDS to be a BIGGER and LONGER segment in the future, and DISCUSS REAL improvements, (like my suggestion to build NEW extensions of HEAVY rail over the Eisenhower highway system....)

And get INPUT and DISCUSSION about THIS becoming the C E N T E R P I E C E

of the NEW OBAMA construction plan...

THIS would provide JOBS, JOB TRAINING, energy saving, as well as a NEW green INFRASTRUCTURE for the nation...

And if we require all new commercial construction to have RAIL interconnections,

it will REALLY make the country GREEN!!!

Sorry Leonard didnt take calls, or read the comments.


I invite ALL the listeners to read the links to my blog, and comment on them.

Mr. Lopate gets a copy of the new posts, and I will make sure they get prominent location!

Jan. 08 2009 01:59 PM
hjs from 11211

americans are selfish!
they don't want to share, wait or be around other types of people.
i see little hope

Jan. 08 2009 01:58 PM
Steve from Hoboken, NJ

why aren't there seat belts on amtrak trains?

Jan. 08 2009 01:56 PM
Ciesse from Manhattan

GREAT topic, great guest. Railway stations serve both local and metro areas. Airports usually require long drives. Better intercity rail and more use thereof can also encourage more use of public transportation.

Jan. 08 2009 01:56 PM
smithered from Raritan Valley NE Corridor Hell

NJ Law requires that Passenger trains have precedent over freight trains. Yet nearly each day hours worth of NJ Transit and Amtrak delays are blamed on freight movement. Do you know why the law isn't being enforced? No sane person would live in NJ and commute on the NJ Corridor for more than a few years before moving away. Conversely, fixing this delay -- and that awful transfer to NYC in Newark -- would bump up property values in NJ w a natural and immediate effect.

Jan. 08 2009 01:55 PM
hjs from 11211

it was so they could sell buses to the cities

Jan. 08 2009 01:54 PM
James O'Barr from Cold Spring, NY

I am trying to make a trip from New York to Dayton, Ohio, and then on to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Kalamazoo is less than 200 miles from Dayton, but I can't find a flight that takes less than 3 hours, and that has at least one change of planes. Is that not incredibly stupid, wasteful, and inefficient? Like our health care system, our transportation system is a mess, and needs to be reinvented. Go rail!!!!

Jan. 08 2009 01:54 PM
Russ Carmel from nyc

Do any formulations exist that might address the cost per passenger [or ton of freight] between air/auto or truck/rail?

Would this clarify the absurdity of not improving our rail system?

Jan. 08 2009 01:53 PM
Paulo from Paterson, NJ

It's amazing that a country that was once way ahead of all others in railroad infrastructure and technology has all but abandoned the rail system. Foreigners used to marvel at our railroads. Americans were believed to lay track between any two points.

Jan. 08 2009 01:53 PM
markBrown from and

I invite EVERYONE reading this segment (and the actual guest also!!!) to become readers of
my blog which frequently discusses

re-building the country


How about this as an energy saving law for the country:

a) All decorative lighting fixtures (christmas, christmas trees, halloween lights) must be energy efficient (LED) and all existing displays must be replaced within (public,commercial=five years; home/personal=ten years)
...edit 9-22-08 added: Existing stocks of (unsold) non LED lighting MUST be sold by Year end 2010, and may not be sold (or even given away/donated) starting 1/1/2011. Sale (or use) of non LED lighting items will be subject to surcharges payable to (??non-profit educational institution explaining energy use?) starting in 2011.

look HERE for original...

Jan. 08 2009 01:53 PM
Judith Targove from Highland Park, NJ

It's time to follow the lead of the rest of the world and look upon mass transit as an arm of public policy, which means subsidies; because we all know that public transport can not support itself. Nevertheless, it's a must if we are serious about "greening" our country.

Jan. 08 2009 01:52 PM
tom from nyc

The people -- passengers -- may be ahead of the politicians: When I returned from Western NY this November I felt areal change in the air. There was a feeling of people glad to be on Amtrk---despite possible delays -- I felt a spirit of the old days in the crowd getting on the train in Buffalo. It might be the economy bringing us back to earth, back to reality

Jan. 08 2009 01:52 PM

How much would high gas prices again change the attitude. I know that last year that was the factor for me to take Amtrak to DC. When I factored in the tolls on I-95 it wasn't that much more to ride amtrak. Plus I could read and work on my laptop ;-D

Jan. 08 2009 01:52 PM
markBrown from and

# 13_ Anne: GM did worse then buying rail traffic and tearing out the tracks to destroy this... This was
what GM did between the 30's and 50's
See THIS post I discussed it in LAST MONTH

IT refers to the Great american streetcar fiasco that GM engineered and was found guilty of (here:

Jan. 08 2009 01:50 PM
Lance from Manhattan

I frequently travel to Philadelphia.
Why take Amtrak at $60+ when I can get a bus that gets there almost as fast, spares me the long queues for buying tickets or boarding, and provides free WiFi access en route for $12?

Jan. 08 2009 01:47 PM
markBrown from and

PS: to the Producers:

I constantly write about this (transportation/energy) at this blog...

Perhaps you or Mr. Lopate might read it some time.

I also predict (eventually, the dow will bottom out at a low of about 6570 in 2011.

the purpose of my blog is to help reduce the problems we will experience in the current second depression we have started to experience

Jan. 08 2009 01:46 PM
Dan Zurich from Paramus NJ

Dear Mr. Lopate,

Please don't let Mr. Downs off the hook.

He should know what the ridership number are.

And, he should know what the operating cost of Amtrak is.

How some simple math regarding cost per mile, cost per rider, etc. vs car and air.

Can we justify this system based on, well, France does it?


Jan. 08 2009 01:46 PM
Anne from Manhattan

I read in "Fast Food Nation" that back in the 50's, GM bought light rail in many cities and then tore it out - so they could benefit from more car sales. Can you confirm if this is true? Does this also mean that auto companies can be partly to blame for the lack of good trains in the US?

Jan. 08 2009 01:45 PM
markBrown from and

#7 alex: read my proposal.

IT covers both HEAVY rail, as well as light rail, as well as long term passenger service.

And I EXPRESSLY suggest using the highway system, with the great innovation that the MTA/NY city subway did to connect the subway to Kennedy airport (along the Van Wyck expressway...(see THIS discusssion here on robert moses- (may he rot and be uncomfortable in his grave-spit-spit)

Jan. 08 2009 01:44 PM
Caitlin from Sunset Park

I remember seeing a CXS commercial that claimed they can move a ton of freight some insane number of miles (500, maybe?) on a single gallon of diesel. Are freight trains really THAT efficient?

Jan. 08 2009 01:43 PM
Jeannette Brown from Hillsborough NJ

I think you should overhaul the long distance trackage as well. Right not Amtrak does not own the long distance track. If they had their own track the system would be great.

Jan. 08 2009 01:43 PM
Jeannette Brown from Hillsborough NJ

I think you should overhaul the long distance trackage as well. Right not Amtrak does not own the long distance track. If they had their own track the system would be great.

Jan. 08 2009 01:43 PM
markBrown from and

The heavy rail (2 tracks) and the light rail (passenger/local commuting 3 tracks) would be on the center, and would all eventually interconnect

see my blog:

all in one: energy saving, getting rid of truck exhausts and making the entire country more energy efficient.

Also: I propose ALL new commercial buildings (office parks) would be required to interconnect to existing or NEW railroad construction...

and then they would help the new national system.

WE MUST build NEW rail, and make sure that the NEW rail lines are NOT exclusively owned by the existing freight companies.

Jan. 08 2009 01:41 PM
Alex W-B from Manhattan

There's so much talk about building highways and bridges, but honestly I hope the stimulus package goes to building new rail lines and developing mass transit systems. We should repair the ailing bridges and highways, but we don't need any new ones. We need more subway and rail lines.

Jan. 08 2009 01:39 PM
Born in Dc from NYC

My kids got use to rail transport in the UK and now opt for it here. Amtrak is an easy way to travel but far too expensive for families since early 90s. Bring back the incentives and even more people will travel. Why not provide reservations like the Eu for a small extra fee??? It makes all the difference for families of any type.

Jan. 08 2009 01:39 PM
markBrown from and

Interestingly enough I mentioned this IN MY blog OVER 6 months ago...

Train service would become ubiquitous.

A new declaration would be made to EXPAND the \
'eisenhower highway' system to

Include a HEAVY and a SEPARATE light rail on EVERY highway.

Imagine the NJ turnpike at 9PM on a sunday.

No more 500 trucks in the truck lanes , but they would all be on a train going down the center of the highway till their destination.

More at my blog here:

in summary:

new construction=jobs
new construction=save energy
new construction=better commuting
new construction=better environment

mark brown in nj

Jan. 08 2009 01:37 PM
Jeannette Brown from Hillsborough NJ

Hi. I should also have a nickname of Amtraksister. I travel nationwide by amtrak all the time. I wanted Amtrak to have a frequent travel program long before they started it. I am a member of the Railroad Passenger Association so I lobby for Amtrak, not just the local trains but the long distant trains.
Amtrak is not perfect but that's because they don't have the money to be perfect.
I gave up flying long before 911 but I travel long distances on Amtrak about four or five times a year because I go to a chemistry meeting twice an year.

Jan. 08 2009 01:37 PM
Ray Normandeau from

Yeah, why is train so much more expensive then bus.

Are the bus companies getting Federal subsidies?

Wife and I traveled to Philadelphia recently by MegaBus. The two of us round trip NYC-Philly was $28.50 TOTAL. Four one-way @ $7.00 + service charge of 50¢

Jan. 08 2009 01:34 PM
Barbara from NJ

My son had to get home from Hartford today and had the choice between the bus and the train. The bus cost $27 and the train cost $50. He took the train b/c the trip into Newark was about an hour shorter.

But shouldn't we (the nation), as part of our reducing dependence on oil, subsidize Amtrak as a means to have the rails used more.

Jan. 08 2009 12:51 PM
downtown from downtown

I hope so. I took my first cross-country (NYC-OAK) rail trip this past May. It was a great adventure. Some drawbacks b/c Amtrak does not own the rails...we arrived in Chicago 4hrs late and I missed the time I was going to spend in the Windy City.
I was in a seat for the NYC-CHI route...not ideal, but okay for the the overnight trip.
For the longer journey I had a sleeper compartment, meant for two, but thank goodness I was travelling alone...those "rooms" are cramped!
Too bad the rail fare was SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE than air fare for the same trip. Why?
Travelling by train was so much more enjoyable and relaxing.

Jan. 08 2009 10:51 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.