What would happen... if Amtrak failed?

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Tlcooper93

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This may be sacrilegious for this forum, or maybe this is already talked about in another topic. Feel free to delete nonetheless.


I've been wondering lately:
What would happen if Amtrak failed? This is virtually impossible in the current state, but I've been considering.
Would passenger rail improve through new companies providing intercity service? Would private rail companies provide a better product than Amtrak?
Would existing companies/agencies expand to provide intercity service, such as MTA, SEPTA, Metronorth, Metra, MBTA, etc...
Would a phoenix rise from the ashes and build Amtrak back better?
Would freight railroads provide service again?

OR

Would rail travel cease to exist altogether save for a select few companies (Brightline, etc..).
Would other forms of traffic spike?
Would transportation patterns actually remain rather unchanged (especially car traffic), and all of our whining about the good of trains be proved wrong.

I do think it's fascinating to think about.

Essentially, what would your predictions be for passenger rail and transportation overall in America should Amtrak cease to exist.
 
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cirdan

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I think examples such as Mexico show that things would only go further downhill . Bus companies would try to pick up the fallout on the LD system . Some might do a good job but others would engage in a race to the bottom.

The NEC is of course indispensable and I am sure some way would be found of that continuing to operate outside of the Amtrak basket . I expect an agency would be created especially for this purpose and that it wouldn’t be privatized .

I don’t think people like bright line would be interested in picking up Amtrak routes by the dozen but maybe there would be a market for private players or mixed private and public players to pick up corridor routes outside of the NEC and run them on behalf of the states , in return for subsidy . In states such as NC and CA the state already owns much of the equipment and has put money into stations and tracks and could maybe form an arm’s length operating company so things can keep going much as they are, or continue with the gradual improvements that have already been initiated . Maybe in states that have a positive attitude towards passenger rail things might even get better more quickly because they are cutting out the middle man and Amtrak has sadly not always shone through its ability to jump on opportunities .

I fear that a coast to coast LD system, once lost, will not return . This is why it is so important so defend this here and now .
 

Exvalley

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The Northeast Corridor would likely survive in some form.

Some routes that states have a vested interest in keeping would survive. For example, I can see California keeping the Pacific Surfliner.

One challenge for state supported routes is that they would no longer enjoy the economy of scale that Amtrak enjoys. So you may see some state supported routes fold for that reason alone.

You would also have a VERY small number of privately operated routes.
 

jiml

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The freight lines would seize the opportunity to terminate the agreements that force them to allow Amtrak on their tracks so LD would probably disappear and those freight companies may not be interested in sharing their tracks with any private passenger companies.
That would be the scariest and most likely outcome.
 

Rasputin

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the northeast corridor would be re-constituted in some fashion and some other metropolitan area corridors might still exist but it would not be pretty and I don't think there would be any miracle solution. We basically have to look at what happened in Mexico and in those parts of the U.S. and Canada which lost passenger rail service. Once it is gone, it is not likely to come back.
 
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jiml

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For a template look to the north. A corridor more robust in some states than others. A single long-distance "experiential" train from coast to coast. A handful of "essential" routes forced on freight railroads by government agencies.

Then, as mentioned above, I'd predict that state-supported route clusters in California and the Midwest would probably survive in some form. The Cascades could go either way, but Oregon/Washington/BC would probably work together to preserve some service.
 

Mailliw

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VIA would be able to replace their entire sleeping car fleet at bargain prices if they so chose. The private car market would collapse since freight railroads are unlikely to want any thing to do with (or it they do it'll be priced for eccentric billionaires).
 

Rasputin

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I don't think there would be any government agency to run any transcontinental service. We might see a train such as the American Orient Express or Rocky Mountaineer operate an expensive tourist-oriented train a few times a month but it would not provide transportation for people in communities along the route.
 

crescent-zephyr

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State supported corridors would likely be bid out to other operators.

Northeast Corridor would likely be broken up and managed by separate commuter rail lines that could partner together to run through trains if they wanted to. (NJ transit, SEPTA, Marc, etc.)

Long distance would most likely go away. The bus lines would see a small bump in passenger loads.
 

me_little_me

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the northeast corridor would be re-constituted in some fashion and some other metropolitan area corridors might still exist but it would not be pretty and I don't think there would be any miracle solution. We basically have to look at what happened in Mexico and in those parts of the U.S. and Canada which lost passenger rail service. Once it is gone, it is not likely to come back.
One doesn't have to look that far. Think of all the trains Amtrak took over from the railroads and how many have permanently disappeared.
 

Devil's Advocate

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Would passenger rail improve through new companies providing intercity service?
Would private rail companies provide a better product than Amtrak?
Would freight railroads provide service again?
Since Amtrak holds no right of refusal over roughly 95% of the network what do you think has held everyone back for the last half-century? If private operators could offer a better service for less money where are they and why have they failed to eat Amtrak's lunch for decades now?
 

Tlcooper93

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Since Amtrak holds no right of refusal over roughly 95% of the network what do you think has held everyone back for the last half-century? If private operators could offer a better service for less money where are they and why have they failed to eat Amtrak's lunch for decades now?
These were not my opinions, but rather pointed questions that I thought represented the spectrum of what may happen.

In terms of what I think, I agree with pretty much everything already stated. NEC would still exist in some form along with a few other corridors that states may fight to keep. LD network would cease to exist; best case scenario would be a coast to coast experiential train (honestly don't hate that idea, assuming current LD network could be kept).

I think the value of a discussion like this is to really figure out just how essential or non-essential Amtrak is, therefore help us (or at least me) better understand being a rail advocate.

Playing devil's advocate can also help too (no pun intended to our forum friend).
 

cirdan

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I think many places served by Amtrak, even out on the LD lines, derive notable benefit from being served.

New Orleans extended their streetcar to serve the passenger terminal that gets, uh, between two and three arriving trains a day.

Lots of people I've met on LD trains were tourists and intended to get off and explore places along the route, places they probably wouldn't be going to if there wasn't Amtrak. Those people will be spending money in those communities.

And then there are a lot of people who don't ride Amtrak very often but like to know it's there when they need it.

I have no doubt that a lot of people would lose out if Amtrak, or any large part thereof, were to vanish. Which is why Amtrak does get a lot of support politically. No congressman wants their local train to shut down on their watch. That's not good for votes.
 

crescent-zephyr

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I think the value of a discussion like this is to really figure out just how essential or non-essential Amtrak is, therefore help us (or at least me) better understand being a rail advocate.
Depends on what your definition of essential is?

Long distance passenger trains are not at all essential. But neither are sports stadiums and arenas and look at how much our tax dollars go to them.
 

Qapla

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Long distance passenger trains are not at all essential. But neither are ...

... Interstate highways since local roads can take you to all the same places - again, look at how much tax dollars are spent to make these traffic congestion parking lots bigger and bigger so the traffic can flow slower and slower ...

There is a road going out of Ocala, Fl that used to be a small two-lane road back before that road became a "major interchange" for Ocala. A person we know said that, back when it was two-lane it used to take them 45 minutes to get from the I-75 crossing to their home - now that the road is a divided 6-lane "improved" road it takes them over an hour to get home "on a good day" and even longer when traffic is heavy.
 
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me_little_me

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The difference between highways and Amtrak is that highways are at a stage that making existing ones wider just encourages more use of them than they are built for - kind of like adding more storage in your house.

On the other hand, Amtrak has the opposite problem. As they shrink, people make less use of them because they no longer go where the people want, the onboard service deteriorates, and the schedules for the few trains there are, do not meet the needs of the people.
 

toddinde

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If Amtrak failed, most rail passenger service would end, and quickly. There might be a few corridors that might keep going. The NEC, California, Pacific Northwest, maybe some in the Midwest like the Hiawatha. All long distance trains would be gone. There would be no national system. There would be no centralized reservation system. There would be no mechanism to add service and no right of access to the freight rail network. We would probably look a lot like Canada with only the corridors and no Canadian or Ocean. Or like Mexico with almost no trains. Those that imagine wonderful private operators just chomping at the bit to pick up the pieces are living in a fantasy world.
 

crescent-zephyr

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There *MIGHT* be the possibility of an operator running a long distance train sponsored by multiple states. Coast Starlight would be a good example - California, Oregon, and Washington all support rail service.
 

neroden

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Mexico. First, everything would disappear, and then after a decade or two, frustrated politicians would start new intercity services. Possibly not in the most obvious locations first (Mexico is doing... the Yucatan first?). I am fairly sure a New York to Chicago train would be restored, but I'd hate to suffer through the multi-year gap.
 

jis

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Mexico. First, everything would disappear, and then after a decade or two, frustrated politicians would start new intercity services. Possibly not in the most obvious locations first (Mexico is doing... the Yucatan first?). I am fairly sure a New York to Chicago train would be restored, but I'd hate to suffer through the multi-year gap.
About the New York - Chicago train on the Water Level Route, that already happened once, upon the creation of Amtrak. Of course, now the train that was chosen by the Committee is no more, and the train that was discontinued back then now lives on. Time can have strange effects on the best laid out plans, and even the not so well laid out, I might add.
 

allanorn

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NEC becomes privatized; hope CSX doesn't buy it up? Maybe the Conrail Shared Operations takes it over until there's an agreement on how to keep it running - though I wouldn't want to be the entity saddled with repairing and updating infrastructure along the NEC. NEC begins a more rapid decline in any case, unless the owner has massive funds to pump into upgrades.

Amtrak routes entirely within one state (like California, Illinois, New York, and the Pennsylvanian services) are released to the individual states. Some survive, some don't.

Interstate rail agreements become extremely dicey unless there's a framework covering interstate passenger rail. I would imagine the current Michigan services to/from Chicago would terminate because Indiana won't want to play nice, but maybe they just get truncated to within Michigan. Hiawatha services are a coin toss entirely on Wisconsin's turf. Pacific Cascades services probably continue as Washington and Oregon generally agree to most things with a net environmental benefit, but maybe the trains to Vancouver BC get truncated to Bellingham.

Everything else that isn't commuter rail or on state-owned tracks die off, unless for some reason the US Federal Government decides to mandate that the railroads resume passenger service. If the railroads have to resume service, especially LD service, expect service to be so poor that people want Amtrak to be revived.

Private operators may be able to continue but it becomes highly dependent on a state's political climate and the Class Is. Brightline East (Florida) probably continues to exist in some form for a while, but Brightline West (Las Vegas-southern California HSR) is probably dead. I think TTC (Texas HSR) is cancelled or otherwise stopped before any rail is laid down - even if this scenario doesn't play out.
 
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MARC Rider

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NEC becomes privatized;
Why should the NEC become privatized? What private capital is going to want to spend the zillions of dollars needed to fix the 100+ year old infrastructure and pay the high maintenance and operating costs? Also, remember that publicly owned commuter service operates on nearly all of the NEC, and turning over a valuable public asset to the private corporate overlords is not something that would go down well politically in a rather left-liberal part of the country. At the most, the public owners of the NEC, whoever they are, might contract with a private operator like some of the commuter agencies do, but what private operator is waiting to take over operating the service? Not Brightline. They're basically a real estate company, and I don't think they're prepared to start buying overpriced brownfield northeast metropolitan real estate wholesale. I guess one of the foreign national railroads like SNCF or DB or JR might have the expertise to run the thing, but imagine the politics over that!

And, remember, the NEC is the one place in the country where passenger rail is a significant part of the transportation system. The last thing that the civic or business leaders in this part of the country would want would be for the NEC to stop operating. Also, both Washington and Wall Street movers and shakers ride the service and thousands of their employees use it to commute to work (*) or travel for business, so whoever ends up running the NEC is going to be on the hot seat to make sure it runs well. That kind of leaves out any of the Class 1 railroads, who apparently can't even run their freight operations properly.

(*) And don't think that "COVID changed everything" and nobody is going to be commuting or traveling for business anymore. Once the pandemic dies down, most people will be going back to the office. I can't blame them, Zoom meetings are horrible. No, once this is over, people will be commuting again, and in the NEC, they will want to have decent train service, whoever operates it.
 
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