Visitors to Milwaukee’s St. Paul Avenue Amtrak station on June 11 witnessed a event that featured Amtrak’s usual — and oddly endearing — combination of tangled history and loopy optimism in the face of impending doom. The event marked the 75th anniversary of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, the sole remaining long-distance passenger train serving Milwaukee. Certainly that’s reason enough for a party, even though the Empire Builder did not serve Milwaukee for most of its history. (When the government-supported Amtrak took over most of the nation’s long-distance passenger trains in 1971, it kept many of the great old train names, but juggled the routes to serve as many cities as possible with as few trains a possible.) “The Empire Builder is an essential public transportation connection across the upper United States,” said Amtrak President and CEO David L. Gunn. “We are the steward of three-quarters of a century of reliable passenger train service to an otherwise isolated area of the nation.” In 1929, when the Great Northern Railway inaugurated the first Empire Builder, it proudly declared the train would make the trip from Chicago to Seattle “in only 63 hours.” Today’s Empire Builder connects the same cities in just 47 hours, boasting an above average on-time performance. So far this year, more than 230,000 passengers have ridden the Empire Builder, an increase of 7.6 percent. Last fiscal year (Oct. 2002-Sept. 2003), the train carried 415,722, an increase of 12.9 percent. In a normal universe, these results would be reason to cheer — but Amtrak marks its anniversaries and accomplishments knowing that the axe could fall at any minute. Amtrak is required to work toward a self-sustaining system, but that’s just not going to happen. Operating a 22,000-mile national rail network is staggeringly expensive. In fact, the carrier finished the last fiscal year $1.27 billion in the red. Historically, rail passenger systems do not make money, just as the Interstate highway system does not make money and the air traffic control system does not make money. In 2003, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), the government spent $32 billion on highways (doubled in 20 years, accounting for inflation), $14 billion for aviation (more than doubled in 20 years), and barely $1 billion for Amtrak (cut more than a third in 20 years). As long as a self-sustaining rail passenger system is the requirement, no long-distance train can be considered safe from cutbacks, the Empire Builder included. In February, Amtrak’s auditor, KPMG, dryly reported, “The Company has a history of substantial operating losses and is highly dependent on Federal government subsidies to sustain its operations. There are currently no Federal government subsidies authorized or appropriated for any period subsequent to the fiscal year ending September 30, 2004. Without such subsidies, Amtrak will not be able to operate in its current form and significant operating changes, restructuring, or bankruptcy may occur.” In other words, if the feds don’t cough up some spare change real soon, our nation will lose nearly all long-distance rail passenger trains. If the worst does come to pass, Amtrak would continue to operate in a few places. For example, the railroad seems quite committed to continued operation of its electrified, high-speed Washington D.C.-New York City-Boston “Northeast Corridor.” State-supported services, including the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains, might also survive. But it would be terrible to lose the Empire Builder. A bus will get you to the Pacific Northwest a little cheaper, an airplane will get you there faster, but nothing shows you America quite like a long train trip. Freed of endless concrete, you roll through back yards and farmlands, factories and fields, plains and mountains. At the end of the line, you wind up in either downtown Seattle or Portland. Not a bad place to be in either case. Gertrude Stein could have been talking about Amtrak when she wrote in Wars I Have Seen (1945), “… more and more I like to take a train. I understand why the French prefer it to automobiling, it is so much more sociable and of course these days so much more of an adventure, and the irregularity of its regularity is fascinating.” NARP, the rail advocacy organization, notes that trains are safe, energy-efficient, pollute less that other forms of transportation, are reliable in bad weather, and can be easily expanded to meet increasing demand. Elected officials need to understand that great countries have great railroad networks. Carl Swanson is a Riverwest resident and former editor of Passenger Train Journal magazine. His recent book, Faces of Railroading, has just been published by Kalmbach Publishing Co.
• The name Amtrak is the blending of the words “American” and “Track.” • Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971, with 184 trains serving 314 destinations. • Amtrak had 25 employees when service began. Today, the company employs 22,000 people. • With a few exceptions, even-numbered trains travel north and east and odd-numbered trains travel south and west. • Amtrak serves 46 states. Not included are Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Wyoming. • Amtrak operates over more than 22,000 route miles. It owns 730 route miles, primarily between Boston and Washington, DC, and in Michigan. In other parts of the country, Amtrak trains use tracks owned by private freight railroads. • On weekdays, Amtrak operates up to 265 trains per day. • In fiscal year 2003, Amtrak served more than 24 million passengers, about 66,000 passengers each day, an all-time record. • At 2,768 miles, the Sunset Limited between Orlando and Los Angeles is the longest Amtrak intercity route. • At 86 miles, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha is Amtrak’s shortest intercity route. • Amtrak operates 2,141 railroad cars including 168 sleeper cars, 760 coach cars, 126 first class/business class cars, 66 dormitory/crew cars, 225 lounge/cafe/dinette cars, and 92 dining cars. Baggage cars make up the remainder of the fleet. Source: amtrak.com