Publish Date: 
Tuesday, May 19, 2015 - 1:15pm

National Journal
Thirty-nine minutes into his southbound ride from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., Joseph H. Boardman, president and CEO of Amtrak, begins to cry. We're in the dining car of a train called the Silver Star, surrounded by people eating hamburgers. The Silver Star runs from New York City to Miami in 31 hours, or five more hours than the route took in 1958, which is when our dining car was built. Boardman and I have been discussing the unfortunate fact that 45 years since its inception, the company he oversees remains a poorly funded, largely neglected ward of the state, unable to fully control its own finances or make its own decisions. I ask him, "Is this a frustrating job?"

"I guess it could be, and there are times it is," he says. "No question about that. But—" His voice begins to catch. "Sixty-six years old, I've spent my life doing this. I talked to my 80-year-old aunt this weekend, who said, 'Joe, just keep working.' Because I think about retirement." Boardman is a Republican who formerly ran the Federal Railroad Administration and was New York state's transportation commissioner; he has a bushy white mustache and an aw-shucks smile. "We've done good things," he continues. "We haven't done everything right, and I don't make all of the right decisions, and, yes, I get frustrated. But you have to stay up." A tear crawls down his left cheek.

It's easy to love trains—the model kind, the European kind, the kind whose locomotives billow with steam in black-and-white photos of the old American West. It's harder to love Amtrak, the kind we actually ride. Along with PBS and the United States Postal Service, Amtrak is perpetual fodder for libertarian think-tankers and Republican office-seekers on the prowl for government profligacy. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush repeatedly tried to eliminate its subsidy, while Mitt Romney promised to do the same. Democrats, for their part, aren't interested in slaying Amtrak, but mostly you get the sense they just feel bad for it. "If you ever go to Japan," former Amtrak board member and rail die-hard Mike Dukakis told me, "ride the trains and weep."

It's true: Compared with the high-speed trains of Western Europe and East Asia, American passenger rail is notoriously creaky, tardy, and slow. The Acela, currently the only "high-speed" train in America, runs at an average pace of 68 miles per hour between Washington and Boston; a high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona averages 154 miles per hour. Amtrak's most punctual trains arrive on schedule 75 percent of the time; judged by Amtrak's lax standards, Japan's bullet trains are late basically 0 percent of the time.

And those stats don't figure to improve anytime soon. While Amtrak isn't currently in danger of being killed, it also isn't likely to do more than barely survive. Last month, the House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—fair comparison or not—will be spending $128 billion this year on rail. (Thanks to the House bill, though, Amtrak passengers can look forward to a new provision allowing cats and dogs on certain trains.)

A few decades ago, news of another middling Amtrak appropriation wouldn't have warranted a second glance; passenger rail was unpopular and widely thought to be obsolete. But recently, Amtrak's popularity has actually spiked. Ridership has increased by roughly 50 percent in the past 15 years, and ridership in the Northeast Corridor stood at an all-time high in 2014. Amtrak also now accounts for 77 percent of all rail and air travel between Washington and New York, up from just 37 percent when it launched the Acela in 2000.

And yet, despite this outpouring of popular demand, despite the clear environmental benefits of rail travel, despite the fact that trains can help relieve urban congestion, despite the professed enthusiasm of the Obama administration (and especially rail fan-in-chief, Joe Biden) for high-speed trains—despite all of this, Amtrak, which runs a deficit and therefore depends on money from Washington, remains on a seemingly permanent path to mediocrity.

What gives, exactly? Why can't Amtrak create any momentum for itself in the political world? Why is the United States apparently condemned to have second-rate trains?

Part of the answer, of course, is geography: Density lends itself to trains, and America is far less dense than, say, Spain or France. But this explanation isn't wholly satisfying because, even in the densest parts of the United States, intercity rail is slow or inefficient.

In an effort to solve the riddle of American passenger rail's stubborn feebleness, I spent a couple months seeking out train obsessives around the country. During these conversations, I heard no shortage of ideas for fixing Amtrak. But perhaps the place to start is in Washington, where Amtrak clearly feels mistreated by its bosses in the federal government. "I think they lost their way a long time ago," Boardman says of Congress. "I don't understand how they don't understand. It's an absolutely necessary service, and it should be much better than it is." Later during our trip, as he shows off a brand-new luggage compartment aboard the Silver Star, he elaborates. "Maybe it's about the kid who gets bullied," he says. "Once they start bullying you, they can't stop."

IN 1970, the Nixon administration did a massive favor for freight-rail companies by relieving them of their long-standing mandate to offer passenger service, which had become unprofitable and unpopular since the advent of commercial aviation and interstate highways. Amtrak (briefly, unfortunately "RailPax") was the nationalized rail service President Nixon created to inherit those routes. Despite the long odds of it ever managing to land in the black, it was designated a "for-profit" corporation.

Anthony Haswell, a train devotee who was instrumental in Amtrak's creation—in 1967, he had founded a political lobby called the National Association of Rail Passengers, or "NARP"—suspects the for-profit designation was just a ploy to doom Amtrak down the road. "There was no question that it would probably not pay for itself," Haswell told me. "But the Nixon administration and other conservatives thought that once it was demonstrated that it wouldn't pay for itself, it would be abolished."

Amtrak did keep losing money, but Congress kept paying for it. (Haswell, disgusted with all the losing of money, eventually became a vocal critic of Amtrak.) The tension between Amtrak's for-profit mandate and money-losing reality has always dogged it. In 1997, Congress mandated that Amtrak become self-sufficient by 2002 or get liquidated. It didn't and it wasn't. That same year, a government-commissioned group called the Amtrak Reform Council floated the idea of contracting out the operation of the Northeast Corridor—the one part of Amtrak that actually makes a profit—to private bidders. This didn't happen, either. Three years later, the board of directors—who are appointed by the White House and confirmed by the Senate—fired then–Amtrak president David Gunn, an iconoclastic public-transit guru who had openly admitted the company would never be profitable. ("The only good thing about the board they put in," Gunn says today, "is that they were so incompetent, they couldn't even kill the place.")

The recurring ambivalence in Washington about Amtrak's right to exist has mostly precluded the government from drafting a plan to dramatically improve train travel. For a brief moment in 2009, however, that seemed to change. President Obama, who would promise to link 80 percent of the country to high-speed trains, used his stimulus legislation to award more than $8 billion to the cause, nearly $7 billion of which would go to California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio for what were billed as bullet-train proposals. (Congress tacked on $2.1 billion more in subsequent years for high-speed rail.)

But by early 2011, it was all falling apart. Two new tea-party-backed governors in Wisconsin and Florida, Scott Walker and Rick Scott, promptly gave back the money. Ohio's new Republican governor, John Kasich, did the same. (In fairness, the proposed Ohio train, which was projected to travel between 40 and 50 mph, wasn't by any sane definition "high-speed.")

Granted, all that rejected cash has been diverted into other perfectly worthy projects that will probably make certain trains go marginally faster. For instance, a $450 million injection should help the Acela boost its top speed from 135 mph to 160 mph on one 24-mile stretch between Trenton and New York City. Dozens of other incremental projects across the country, featuring terms like "obsolete signaling systems" and "hazardous materials shipments," received cash as well.

The train tracks at Union Station in Washington, D.C. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)Still, none of this represented the dramatic step into a new era of train travel that Obama had initially promised. The only surviving project that represents a major leap forward is the ambitious 220 mph Los Angeles–to–San Francisco train—and that project now faces countless challenges. Cost estimates have ballooned, construction isn't slated to finish for another 15 years, and prominent Democrats, including the state's lieutenant governor, have turned against it. Before a scheduled phone call with Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (a public entity, but one that is separate from Amtrak), a public-relations person sent me a link to a number of fact-sheets. One of them claimed the project would be funded with tens of billions of federal dollars. I asked Morales how that could be, considering the Obama administration granted it just $3.3 billion. "At the time, there were some assumptions in place," he said, clarifying that the project would in fact be paid for by revenue from state bonds and California's new cap-and-trade law. "We probably ought to update that."

WHO'S TO BLAME for this sad state of affairs? It depends whom you ask. To conservatives, America has a second-rate train system because the government is running it. Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, a longtime Amtrak skeptic, told me it was both a "Soviet-style" and "third-world" passenger service. If by "Soviet-style," he meant that labor costs are out of whack, it's true that a 2009 report by the Amtrak Office of Inspector General found the company's infrastructure workers to be 2.3 times more expensive annually than their European counterparts. And if by "third-world," he meant that Amtrak is often bumbling and incompetent, it's true that Acela's cars were originally built four inches too wide, preventing them from handling curves with any deftness. (The problem was eventually solved.)

To liberals, however, the problem is that the government hasn't invested nearly enough. After all, countries that boast more advanced systems support their trains with public subsidies that Amtrak could only dream of. (Britain's private rail network, for instance, received roughly $8 billion from the government last year.)

In November 2011, Robert Dove, a managing director at the Carlyle Group, the D.C.-based asset-management firm, delivered a presentation to the annual meeting of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR), a lobbying-cum-cheerleading group formed shortly after Obama's election. Dove began his slide show with the usual embarrassing stats about America's high-speed-rail ineptitude (290 million annual high-speed-rail passengers in Japan; 3 million in America). He went on to estimate that for the Northeast Corridor alone to facilitate legitimate bullet-train travel, up to $117 billion in improvements were necessary. (Amtrak itself, in a 2012 plan that will probably never come to fruition—New York to Boston in 94 minutes!—put the number at $151 billion.) "You will not find the private sector willing to come in at the construction stage or the development stage," he warned. For that, the government would have to pick up the tab. Only at that point would you "find people like me very, very willing to come in and buy it." In other words, to get to the conservative dream of a privatized Amtrak, you would first have to pursue the liberal path of spending a massive amount of public money.

Dove's plan might be more realistic if we conceived of Amtrak as a piece of infrastructure—like a bridge or a tunnel—rather than as a for-profit corporation that can't quite turn a profit. "This is a public service," argues Andy Kunz, president of USHSR. "Our highways don't make a profit. Our airports don't make a profit. It's all paid for by the government." (Together, the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Aviation Administration receive about 45 times what Amtrak does, through subsidies and gas taxes.)

That line of thinking isn't persuasive to everyone, evidently. In 2008, the last time a major Amtrak reauthorization was passed, Congress introduced a game-changing new rail policy: The law stipulated that, on all routes except for long-distance and Northeast Corridor trains, the states had to pay for trains' operating costs, while the feds would still handle the bulk of any needed investments. In theory, this was a good idea. Not only did it get more potential funders and political partners involved, but it was probably more fair. "Otherwise," as Railway Age contributing editor and Amtrak maven Frank Wilner puts it, "the federal government is robbing St. Petersburg to pay St. Paul, extracting a handling fee as the money flows through Washington."

The state-federal collaboration has worked out nicely in places like Virginia, where Amtrak service has improved and ridership has shot up. But in other states, it has led to services being imperiled. Several weeks ago, Indiana narrowly avoided the suspension of an Indianapolis-to-Chicago train, while state legislatures in Illinois and Oklahoma may force Amtrak to shutter certain trains. The new federal-state partnership is, on one hand, "a real area of growth," says Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of NARP. "But it's also a threat to a lot of lines, because now you have 23 battlegrounds."

Likewise, the most recent House reauthorization bill, which has not been marked up yet by the Senate, contains a handful of subtle measures that take aim at Amtrak's less popular offerings. One mandates that all Northeast Corridor profits be funneled back into the Northeast Corridor, rather than money-losing routes. Another mandates that food service—a frequent congressional punching bag—run a profit within five years. Since it's basically impossible to make a profit on food service on long-distance trains—and impossible to run long-distance trains while starving passengers—some see this as a poison pill intended to shutter those trains. "If it really leads to food service coming off of long-distance trains," says one rail labor-union official, "that could start a death spiral."

A death spiral may be the worst-case scenario; but the best-case scenario for Amtrak these days isn't anything to get excited about, either. "We're definitely going to be in a holding pattern when it comes to Washington," says Brookings Institution transportation scholar Robert Puentes. "You see this throughout all the infrastructure and transportation funding. … We're not seeing anything but the status quo. Probably the best we can hope for is the status quo."

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST philosophical question facing Amtrak is where it should and shouldn't exist. Nearly everyone agrees that Amtrak makes sense in the Northeast Corridor, where high demand helps explain the steep ticket prices we all kvetch about. Indeed, sober-minded decrees from the likes of Wonkblog and The Economist frequently suggest retooling Washington-to-Boston service while amputating unprofitable, molasses-slow long-distance trains. But where does that leave the more rural parts of the country—places like the Gulf Coast?

For decades, Amtrak ran a long-distance train from Los Angeles to Jacksonville called the Sunset Limited. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed out the tracks from New Orleans to Florida. The service was never restored, and the Gulf Coast has been without rail travel for nearly a decade now.

In March, I spent a day in Mississippi with Dr. Paul Nelson, a 48-year-old Biloxi physician and avowed rail nerd who seems to have befriended the entire Gulf Coast political establishment in his effort to bring back Amtrak. Nelson (who asked that I identify him as "Dr. Paul Nelson, concerned Mississippian") isn't remotely concerned with the sort of fiscal tabulations that consume Washington. He readily concedes that Amtrak could never turn a profit in the South—but he is after a different cost-benefit equation.

"If we're not linked together, we're not going to be competitive in 15, 20 years," he says, sipping a coffee in the passenger seat of my rental car. "It's the same problem whether we're out West or in Texas. You have two different types of towns. You have haves and have-nots. And there are good people who live down here. But if you don't have the tax structure and economic basis to support the community, the community dies."

We start our journey at 9 a.m. with a tour of a "have"—Hattiesburg, population 47,000, an hour north of the coast. While the beach communities were still recovering from Katrina, Hattiesburg managed to build out its historic train station into an all-purpose transit hub. (Amtrak's Crescent line—which travels between New Orleans and New York—passes through the station twice a day.) Since the renovation was completed in 2007, according to Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, the city has seen an estimated $70 million in new commercial development. Meanwhile, ridership at the station has increased by more than 60 percent, to 11,500 total passengers in 2014.

It's perhaps not surprising that DuPree, a Democrat in charge of the fourth-largest city in Mississippi, is a pro-train guy. But Hattiesburg's station was actually modeled on the work of John Robert Smith, who, in addition to being a former Amtrak chairman, was the Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1990s and 2000s. In that job, he created the state's first multimodal transportation hub, a mecca of sorts for transit junkies in the South. Smith, in turn, drew inspiration from former Federal Railroad Administration Secretary Gil Carmichael, a Republican and fellow Meridian native who is best known for a moon-shot proposal that would have blanketed the United States with 20,000 miles of train tracks. ("I don't think there's any major flaws in what I'm saying," Carmichael told me by phone after leaving church one Sunday. "I just wish Congress would get the hell to work.")

Arch-conservative Mississippi, in other words, is actually home to some of the most vocal Amtrak supporters in the country. (Former Republican Senator Trent Lott, another rail fan who now lobbies for freight companies, was persuaded to fight against cuts to the Crescent when Smith called him up and told him, "The Yankees are after our trains again.") Whatever concerns they have about unprofitability are trumped by the benefits promised by connectivity. "I didn't know it was called 'smart growth' when I was mayor," Smith says. "What we were doing was called 'economic development.' It was investing in what you already have, which I think is a very conservative principle."

After our visit to Hattiesburg, Nelson and I drove to the commercial hub of Gulfport, which, along with neighboring Biloxi, lost train service in 2005. Nelson had arranged for a downtown lunch meeting, during which I'd be sitting next to the Republican former mayor of the city, Brent Warr. Warr, who left office in 2009 after pleading guilty to stealing Katrina disaster-relief funds, wound up articulating a case for rail investment that would make Elizabeth Warren blush. "There's not any public facility that the city provides that makes money," he said, annoyed at Washington's insistence that passenger rail be profitable. People "don't pay for a community center or a swimming pool!" When I told him he sounded like a Democrat, he said, "Go close them and see who they complain to."

What all this bipartisan Gulf Coast support for train travel hasn't done, however, is actually restore train service along the Gulf Coast. And the reason for this gets at a much broader conundrum facing Amtrak. The Sunset Limited, when it ran, was about as useless a train as you could imagine. It ran only three times a week and boasted an on-time performance rate of about 4.5 percent. In 2004, the last year the train offered full service to the South, a total of 905 people got on and off the train in Gulfport. In a city of 70,000, in other words, fewer than three people were using that train every day.

With such dismal ridership, it's going to be a challenge to convince Congress—or anyone—to appropriate money for a better, costlier train along the Gulf. That said, the Sunset Limited was so bad, it can't possibly have provided an accurate snapshot of demand for rail travel. "You're asking me a question: 'How can you show demand?' " says Dan Dealy, a Mobile, Alabama–based consultant working with the Southern Rail Commission, an advocacy group, to restore service. "Honestly, this is almost a 'Build it and they will come.' "

The Gulf situation is a miniature version of the chicken-and-egg question that bedevils Amtrak as a whole: Is it a waste of money because there isn't sufficient demand for trains? Or is there insufficient demand for trains because we haven't spent the money to create a great rail system? Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the tracks Amtrak uses are almost all owned by freight railroads. CSX, Union Pacific, and a handful of other behemoths naturally hog them, which contributes to Amtrak's chronic tardiness, which in turn dissuades passengers from taking Amtrak. As a result, Congress cites Amtrak's low-ridership numbers as a reason not to grant it larger subsidies, which of course are exactly what Amtrak would need in order to purchase its own train tracks. Commenting on the vicious cycle, John Robert Smith says: "You can't disinvest in something and then beat it to death because it doesn't perform."

WITH WASHINGTON LARGELY abdicating on high-speed rail, much of the energy is now in the private sector. One private project would run from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes and is slated for completion in 2021. Another, which is set to run from Miami to Orlando in three hours, could be completed as soon as 2017. "The planets are lining up," says Kunz, of USHSR, explaining the sudden burst of rail enthusiasm. "Basically, you've got congestion that has reached epic levels across America, and there's really not anything being done about it."

Building an intercity-passenger operation without government help is no easy task, but both these projects claim they can do it. All Aboard Florida—run by Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), a prominent local real-estate and transportation company—comes to the venture with a distinct advantage: FECI owns both the train tracks, which are currently used for freight, and land around the proposed terminals. While it won't be able to run its cars at bullet-train speeds, it will be emulating one aspect of the Japanese model by supplementing passenger revenues through real-estate development.

The Texas project is more of a gamble. CEO Richard Lawless, who fell in love with high-speed rail as an undersecretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific affairs in the George W. Bush administration, says he is not planning on funding his project through real estate. Nor will he inherit any existing tracks. Rather, he's betting that Amtrak is so incompetent, it has artificially depressed what should be an enormous demand for passenger-rail service, especially in highly clogged, rapidly growing urban areas like Dallas and Houston. "Americans really don't understand the quality of service that high-speed rail, as used internationally, provides," Lawless told me. "They may have a vision of the current Amtrak system. I'm not disparaging Amtrak—they have to operate with what they have."

When I ask Joseph Boardman about the private trains in Texas and Florida, and the public (but non-Amtrak) project in California, his mood sours. He thinks the Florida project, for one, has goosed its ridership projections: "I don't think this is a transportation project. I think it's a real-estate project." On Texas, he professes ignorance: "I really don't know—this is the one that runs between Dallas and Houston?" When I bring up the stimulus money, which helped pay for California High-Speed Rail, he tells me he "would have liked to put my hands on that money for the Northeast Corridor."

The private ventures and the California project do raise the question of whether the future of American train travel lies inside Amtrak or outside it. On the one hand, Amtrak is the only institution that is plausibly equipped to carry out the money-losing experiment that a world-class national train network would be. On the other hand, having starved Amtrak for this long, Washington isn't likely to wake up one morning and decide to suddenly shower the agency with cash. "You've never had a federal government that had a logical plan for Amtrak or for passenger rail," says David Gunn. "Amtrak was never set up to succeed."

LAST YEAR, AMTRAK LAUNCHED an odd initiative called the Amtrak Writer's Residency. The idea was to send 24 writers wherever they wanted, on a long-distance train, where they would basically stare out the window and type on their computers. The program was bashed by conservatives and lightly mocked on the Internet; yet an astonishing 16,000 people wound up applying. Among the eventual winners were several high-profile media figures, including the writer Jennifer Finney Boylan and the public-radio host Marco Werman.

In mid-March, I met up in D.C. with Jeff Stanley, a 47-year-old Amtrak resident writer who would be taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago, before heading to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. Stanley, who wore an Ed Hardy–style Western shirt, is a playwright, performer, and adjunct professor both at New York University and Drexel University. A fan of all things occult, he staged his latest production in the basement of a South Philadelphia synagogue, where he used a Ouija board and a martini shaker, among other instruments, in an attempt to connect with the dead.

"Now, supposedly, the old station at Harpers Ferry is haunted," Stanley tells me, as we approach West Virginia, sitting in his sleeper car. He goes on for a while about a ghost called "Screaming Jenny," before concluding: "But, anyways, I like Harpers Ferry. The train goes right through it. It's really romantic."

Stanley proved a spirited companion, and the Amtrak Writer's Residency is, in its own way, an admirable idea. But I couldn't help thinking that, for an agency fighting a perpetually losing war to persuade Washington of its worth, the program sends exactly the wrong message. Train travel, after all, shouldn't be quaint and romantic; it shouldn't cater to artists who are purposely trying to go places slowly. It should be fast and high-tech and, well, useful.

An American flag is reflected in the window of train 1, March 17, 2005 in San Antonio, Texas. (Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images)For now, that vision is going nowhere in Washington; but on the Capitol Limited, the political problems surrounding the future of rail travel seem very far away. After we pass Harpers Ferry and down a couple of drinks from the "bar," Stanley and I head to the dining car for our 7 p.m. dinner reservations, where we eat passable steaks with Simon Tarr, an experimental filmmaker at the University of South Carolina who himself almost applied for the fellowship. (Amtrak makes you sit with strangers.)

"There's something about the mental state that you get dipped into, with the sound and the movement, that you don't get the same way on a plane, that you don't get the same way not moving," Tarr says. "I don't know mechanically why it is, but it makes me ruminate more than I ordinarily would."

Stanley knows exactly what he means. "See, I equate it with being in the womb," he says. "The rocking back and forth makes me think you're in a cradle. Not really a womb. A cradle."

"Earlier, when the train was stopped all that time, I mean, normally, I'd be freaking out," Stanley continues. "But now," he says, all blissed out, "I have nowhere to be."