Save Cornwells Heights
May 26, 2006
A SaveCornwellsHeights.com Special Edition, by Rick Booth
May 26, 2006
For nine months now, I (Rick Booth) have been deeply involved in trying to a) save the Cornwells Heights station, b) roll back Amtrak’s 77% 2005 commuter fare increase, and c) help save Amtrak from premature destruction, so that I can d) keep saving the Cornwells Heights station. In the process, I have acquired many correspondents up and down the Corridor, including anonymous voices trying to tell me how best to help Amtrak and the inter-city passenger rail industry survive. In February, I offered President Bush my services to fill one of the three perpetually-empty seats on the Amtrak Board of Directors. A Northeast Corridor “rider representative” is desperately needed in Washington to break the bureaucratic fog clouding perceptions and judgments on passenger rail issues both at Amtrak and in Congress. In my cover letter to President Bush, I included this warning about imminent Corridor power failure:
The full letter text, dated February 7th, is available at http://www.savecornwellsheights.com/Bush.pdf.
My full application, posted February 9th, is available at http://www.savecornwellsheights.com/press.htm
Yesterday, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) stated, “If there was ever proof that Amtrak is being terribly mismanaged with unqualified people at the helm, this power outage at the height of the morning rush hour is it."
This is actually a very true statement, but it must be understood that “the helm” of Amtrak includes an under-informed, meddling, micro-managing Congress and an American press and public habituated to the annual blood sport of deciding whether to kill the railroad this year or keep it going on bread and water until next year’s date with death. Amtrak has not had an actual President since David Gunn was fired last November. The man calling the shots now is a Dallas lawyer named David Laney, the Chairman of the Amtrak Board, a Bush appointee best known in Texas (where he still practices law) for wrangling a $700 million annual gravy train of money from Washington to fund Texas roads.
You simply cannot feed a railroad bread and water for 30+ years and not expect the system to break. Sure, Amtrak has had some bad inefficiencies in the past, but in any given year, a simple Congressional “earmark” to fund a modern Corridor power system could have targeted exactly the equipment which failed yesterday. It is not news that our great-grandfathers built the equipment that powers the Corridor today! The cost of yesterday’s lost productivity throughout eight states and the District of Columbia may well have exceeded the cost of a Corridor power upgrade. Congress and public antipathy share in the blame.
And electric power trouble is just the tip of the iceberg. Go behind the scenes and under the tracks, and there’s plenty more infrastructure ready to give way. I hear about that, too. And I’ve seen it. (Pictures at http://www.understandingamtrak.com/30th%20Street%20Pictures%201.pdf and http://www.understandingamtrak.com/30th%20Street%20Pictures%202.pdf.) And I’ve definitely seen more than I wish I had to see about how chronic financial desperation has warped and deformed Amtrak’s management structure like a steely-ribboned Quasimodo.
I hear desperate cries for help from railroad people. Please consider asking President Bush to let me help.
Last year, Amtrak announced fare increases totaling 77% on Philadelphia-to-New York City job commuters, raising the price of a monthly ticket to $1008. The cost of the increase alone was, for typical commuters, roughly the same as if their boss had chewed them out, demoted them, and given them a $9,373 annual pay cut. The PR spin from Amtrak was that the increase was necessary to cover rising diesel fuel costs. Apparently nobody told the PR department that all the commuter trains are electric.
So what should it really cost to ride the 91 miles from Philadelphia to New York City on a typical commuting train like the 180 at 7:20 a.m.? Herewith are five possible answers Amtrak past and/or present has tried:
That’s what Amtrak charges at the full fare of $74 right now.
That’s what Amtrak charges commuters now, assuming 18 round trips per month, with $1008 tickets.
That’s what Amtrak was charging commuters at the beginning of 2005, with tickets at $569.
That’s what Amtrak charged for most tickets issued under its group fare policy quite recently, at $4.20.
That’s about the per-person mileage charge a private 70-person rail car would incur under Amtrak’s roughly $1.50/mile charge to pull an entire private rail car around the country, attached to an Amtrak train! (Incidentally, U.S. freight rail averages 2.3 cents per mile to drag an entire ton around.)
The 2-cents-a-mile figure admittedly ignores the costs of the rail car capital (probably about 1 cent per mile) and maintenance (probably about another 2 cents a mile). The real marginal mileage cost is probably in the ballpark of the 5 cents a mile the group discount riders got.
The old 17 cents a mile was most likely a very reasonable and socially effective charge for carrying daily commuters – enough below the cost of driving to get cars off the road, but high enough to cover marginal costs of carriage. But what we have now is a cash-starved railroad hammering riders for dollars at the behest of Congress and an administration that gave more money to support Iraqi rail last year than it proposed to spend on Amtrak.
There aren’t many Jersey cows left in New Jersey. The mooing you hear while riding across it is just us.
On Thursday, June 1st, I and several former Amtrak commuters priced off the trains will ride commuter train 180 from the Cornwells Heights station in Bensalem, PA, at 7:39, to New York City, arriving about 8:43 at Manhattan’s Penn Station, a trip of 64 scheduled minutes. We will ride using $4.20 Philadelphia-to-NYC tickets purchased by me on March 24th using Amtrak’s group fare discount system. Others at the station will board with “normal” commuter passes, costing $882/month for an effective $24.50 per trip.
Congress abetted Amtrak last year in killing off the commuters by stipulating that Amtrak would lose funding if its lowest fare on a route was less than half its highest fare on any tickets sold after March 1st. This was meant to apply to commuters only, insuring their economic destruction by force of law. Yet Amtrak blithely continued to sell tickets like the $4.20 rides to NYC well after March 1st as demonstrated by the tickets used on this protest ride.
So what now? Throw Amtrak trains off the rails? Fix the law? Put morals and sense and social conscience back in the railroad, perhaps? Recognize that robber-baronry went out of style a century ago?
For more information on this and other commuter protest events scheduled throughout the summer, contact Rick Booth by cell, anytime, at 215-837-6557, or e-mail to email@example.com. See also the protest’s home website, http://www.savecornwellsheights.com, for glimmers of mischief to come. ;-)
– Rick Booth, firstname.lastname@example.org