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  • (inquisitive music)

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Long-distance passenger routes

  • in the U.S. may be riding on borrowed time.

  • Amtrak wants congress to untie its hands

  • and allow it to cut its longer, unprofitable routes,

  • essentially halting service to rural communities.

  • The company's management sees opportunity for profits

  • and longterm growth in shorter distance travel.

  • - Shorter haul, inner-city service between big city pairs.

  • It's the way of the future.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] In the next year, U.S. lawmakers

  • need to reauthorize Amtrak's funding.

  • Members of congress are coming under pressure

  • to preserve cross-country rail services.

  • - I'm afraid we're position rural America to fail.

  • - We're beginning our journey from New York to New Orleans.

  • We're riding Acela train down to Washington first.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Acela's part

  • of the northeast corridor.

  • It runs frequently and usually on time

  • connecting business travelers between

  • Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

  • It's profitable and Amtrak sees it

  • as a model for future growth.

  • According to a government commission,

  • keeping the northeast corridor in a good state of repair

  • will cost $42 billion.

  • And Amtrak wants congress to also invest

  • in new service between cities that by train

  • would be fewer than four hours apart.

  • - Dallas and Houston, for instance.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] We spoke with Amtrak's executive

  • in charge of strategy.

  • - Amtrak's view is we've got a big opportunity

  • in these shorter distance corridors.

  • The less that say, 300-mile distance corridors

  • where we see a lot of our population growth occurring.

  • - But is there an appetite in congress

  • to be spending more money on Amtrak?

  • - Congress does recognize that trains can play a bigger role

  • and to get there, we have to invest in our assets.

  • - You're talking even larger investments?

  • - I am.

  • Over time we're gonna need to invest more than we have.

  • (train whistle blows)

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] The question now is

  • whether it's executives plan to also ask for money

  • to maintain long-distance trains.

  • In Washington, we board The Crescent Line to New Orleans.

  • - Pretty narrow hallway here.

  • I guess this is home.

  • It's a little smaller than I was expecting.

  • Oh, this is a folding sink?

  • Look at that.

  • Is this the toilet?

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] As we ride south through Virginia,

  • our dinner reservation is called.

  • - What temperature would you like?

  • - Medium, please. - Medium?

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Meals are included

  • in the ticket price.

  • - Better than what you get on an airplane.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Our junior roomette, one way,

  • costs around $500, $250 a person.

  • Coach seats start at around $100.

  • Most Crescent passengers spend the 26-hour

  • D.C. to New Orleans journey in this section.

  • Around 2:30 a.m., we stop in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Last year, this city had the fifth-largest

  • increase in population in the country.

  • - We have one train a day that shows up

  • on a 2,000-mile journey.

  • Maybe it shows up in the middle of the night,

  • maybe it shows up on time, maybe it doesn't.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Amtrak says chronic, long delays

  • aren't its fault.

  • Outside the northeast corridor,

  • its trains ride on rails owned by freight companies.

  • It's battling some of these companies in the courts

  • for priority right-of-way.

  • It's freight fight not withstanding,

  • the company's leadership says it's current

  • long-distance services don't serve enough of a purpose

  • to justify the financial losses.

  • - It' 8:30 a.m., we just arrived in Atlanta,

  • well, a station that's on the outskirts of Atlanta.

  • This sleeper train is the only passenger train

  • that services this city.

  • There's a 100-year-old woman who just got onboard the train.

  • - I've always wanted to ride a train.

  • - [Journalist Always wanted to ride a train?

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Annie Grissom is celebrating

  • her centennial year by taking a day trip

  • to Montgomery, Alabama.

  • - What are you gonna do when you get there?

  • - I'm gonna eat.

  • - (chuckling) Your just going for lunch?

  • - Yeah.

  • - Do you fly on planes?

  • - Uh-uh.

  • They're too high.

  • - (chuckling) It's too high.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Other passengers say that for them,

  • this is no joy ride.

  • - I'm too old to drive.

  • - What about the bus?

  • - It's seats are too close, it's too congested.

  • - You're seeing a microcosm of the type of people

  • that depend on long-distance trains.

  • Their quality of life would diminish

  • without this option.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] John Roberts is a

  • former chairman of Amtrak's board.

  • He's now the head of Transportation for America,

  • an advocacy group for transportation infrastructure.

  • - You see a lady that's 100 years old,

  • you think she'd be making that trip by car or flying?

  • - She's going from Atlanta to Birmingham.

  • Let's say you had more trains going

  • between Atlanta and Birmingham.

  • She'd have more options.

  • - More trains before Atlanta and Birmingham is a good idea.

  • - She doesn't need the Crescent if you had that.

  • - There are people sitting here going to Slidell, Louisiana.

  • So a train just to Birmingham doesn't

  • get them to Slidell, Louisiana.

  • - It sounds to me like you're saying

  • the current leadership of Amtrak

  • doesn't consider rural America to be a priority.

  • - I think that would be fair to say

  • that they don't understand the needs of rural America.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] In response, an Amtrak official

  • says the company believes in rural markets

  • and wants to be relevant in every one of them.

  • Roberts helped mobilize congressional opposition last year

  • to Amtrak's proposal for part of its Southwest Chief line

  • to replace train service with buses.

  • Company executives said the measure was necessary

  • in order to avoid costly infrastructure

  • upgrades and repairs.

  • But senators from western states said, not so fast.

  • - Would you ever consider the northeast corridor

  • being shifted to buses?

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Amtrak backtracked,

  • promising to keep the Southwest Chief

  • running through the end of this year.

  • - The effectively said, no, we are not going to replace

  • trains with buses.

  • - They did and we respect that.

  • I think that we didn't fully have a conversation

  • about the future of the network.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] In Meridian, Mississippi,

  • about three hours north of New Orleans,

  • Roberts invited us to get off at his stop.

  • When he was mayor of this city in the 90s,

  • he said he led the effort to get this station built.

  • - It tells our guests and our citizens who come home,

  • you've come to a special place.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] He wanted us to see

  • Meridian's revitalization.

  • - See, the question isn't whether

  • the Crescent or any other train is profitable,

  • the question is, does it bring value

  • to the cities that it serves along that line

  • and is that value significantly more

  • than the very modest amount that it takes

  • to operate that train.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] In the mid-2000s,

  • Meridian restored its grand opera house.

  • Roberts, again, credits the train.

  • - What does that have to do with this opera house?

  • - [Roberts] This opera house existed because

  • of the rail connection we had between

  • Atlanta and New Orleans.

  • - Amtrak's not talking about abandoning the south.

  • To the contrary, it would like to have

  • more than one train a day stopping in cities like Atlanta.

  • - Atlanta is sort of the poster child

  • of what I'm talking about here.

  • When you think about all of the corridors,

  • Atlanta-Macon, Atlanta-Charlotte,

  • Atlanta-Chattanooga-Knoxville, Atlanta-Birmingham,

  • none of which are served effectively by Amtrak.

  • - [Journalist Voiceover] Company officials aren't saying yet

  • whether they want their future network

  • to include smaller cities like Meridian,

  • but if Amtrak gets its way, cross-country routes,

  • some more than a century old, may be split up.

  • - I can't guarantee results.

  • What I can guarantee is that at Amtrak,

  • we're doing all we can to make these things happen.

(inquisitive music)

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Inside Amtrak’s Dying Long-Distance Trains | WSJ

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/29
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