Amtrak San Joaquin…without Amtrak?

ABC 30 ran an interesting news article last week: Manager of Valley’s San Joaquin trains may ditch Amtrak as operator

The executive director of San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA), Stacey Mortensen, told the House Transportation committee that Amtrak charges three times as much per passenger to run the San Joaquin trains, compared to the Altamont Corridor Express or ACE.

Mortensen is the leader of both the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which manages the operators of both routes.

“Amtrak, exceeds its own budget projections year after year with little or any explanation. Their only remedy has been to seek additional funding from our state,” said Mortenson.

If the agency’s issues with Amtrak can’t be resolved, Mortensen feels the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority may be forced into looking for another provider to operate passenger trains on the San Joaquin route.

ABC 30

It’s an interesting threat, and it highlights Amtrak’s mixed role in passenger rail. In simplest terms, Amtrak is a for-profit corporation that runs a network of long distance trains around the country. They rely on state and federal subsidies to pay for the routes. Because of where the money comes from, Congress has a lot to say in regards to their operations. This in turn has resulted in a number of edicts intended to “save taxpayers money.”

One way Amtrak has cut costs? By only paying for long-distance routes – like Los Angeles to Seattle. Short routes, like the San Joaquin, are fully paid for by the state. That’s why California, Virginia, and Michigan have multiple Amtrak lines, while Florida and Texas don’t. Simply put, the first three states are willing to pay, while the latter two aren’t.

You might have recently read that Amtrak is close to being profitable.

Amtrak officials said the company also inched closer to breaking even in the last fiscal year, reporting new financial milestones. Amtrak’s total operating revenue rose to $3.3 billion, up by 3.6 percent from the previous year, the company said.

Washington Post

One way to do that, as Mortensen pointed out, is to charge states more. They recognize those subsidies as revenue.

What exactly does Amtrak provide California? They provide the on-board staff, station staff, website, and customer support. They also provide name recognition, especially for tourists who know about Amtrak but not ACE, for example.

California actually owns most of the trains used in California, although Amtrak does provide a loaner when needed (note the branding in the header photo). The tracks are owned by freight companies.

In order to fire Amtrak, the SJJPA would only need to find another company to staff the trains and set up the ticketing infrastructure. For the ACE train service, they use a company called Herzog Transit Services. That same company also operates Caltrain, Tri-rail (Miami), Metrorail (Austin), Atlantic City Line (New Jersey), and a few more.

They’re not the only player in the game. Amtrak used to run a number of commuter rail systems, including the MBTA, but were fired for the same issue stated here: they charge too much. MBTA hired Keolis, other systems went with Bombardier. The Atlantic City line used to be run by Amtrak.

How do these companies charge less money? Well for one, Amtrak needs to move revenue around to show Congress what they want to see – although that’s not too different from a private company trying to impress Wall Street.

More significantly, Amtrak has more labor, and stricter rules.

The San Joaquin line takes about 6.5 hours from end to end, but Amtrak labor contracts dictate a crew change after 6 hours. That’s an extremely expensive rule, which has led to the SJJPA trying things like the morning express.

Some of the added labor provides for greater customer support. IE, you get free checked bag service, an agent at the station, and a cafe car. The other Herzog lines are all commuter rail services which offer the bare minimum. You get a seat on the train and nothing else.

The question is, are these services worth paying for?

It’s interesting to imagine the San Joaquin operating more like a commuter railroad. They took one step in that direction last year, when all fares were frozen to charge by distance, rather than by demand. And of course, the long term goal has always been more service, until the train runs hourly.

Another interesting possibility would be to bring the San Joaquin, ACE, Caltrain, and the Capitol Corridor into one “Calrail” umbrella. That solves the current issue where every line has their own unique branding and fare structure, and lessens the bite of losing the Amtrak brand.

Throw in the initial High Speed Rail segment, and you have yourself a decent looking system.

Here’s what it looks like in the short term, integrated ACE and San Joaquin. This can be done WITH Amtrak, similar to how customers on the Hartford Line in Connecticut can board either an Amtrak train or a CTRail train (operated by Herzog!) with the same ticket.

In the long term, a fully integrated rail system could look something like this:

No changes are expected in the near future, but the SJJPA has made it clear that if Amtrak doesn’t find a way to cut costs, the region can have successful rail service without them.

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