Commentary: Politicians must be on board before more long-distance trains roll

F.K. Plous, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Ouch! Amtrak has been running the Capitol Limited with only four cars.

That’s atrocious. When I took my family to Washington in 2001 the Capitol had a baggage car, two double-decked, 44-passenger Superliner sleeping cars, three 74-passenger Superliner overnight coaches, a dining car and a Sightseer lounge car with big upper-deck windows for viewing the Appalachians.

Amtrak blames COVID-19 for the downsizing of its 14 long-distance trains. As ridership plunged in 2021, unneeded rolling stock was parked on sidings. Cooks, servers and sleeping-car attendants were laid off, some never to return because they found other jobs.

But instead of using the business slump as a chance to catch up with deferred maintenance and return aging rolling stock to service, Amtrak laid off hundreds of skilled mechanics and technicians needed to repair its fleet. Some of those Superliners were 40 years old.

Surprise: When the pandemic ended and travel demand surged, Amtrak lacked the workforce to put the sidelined cars back into action. The Chicago-to-Seattle Empire Builder used to carry 12 cars during the summer vacation season. For the last three years it’s never had more than 10. The lost revenue has to be in the millions.

Why did Amtrak treat its long-distance trains so shabbily? Politics. And money.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor gets lavish financial aid because it connects eight densely populated states represented by 16 U.S. senators and 80 congressmen — the “Amtrak bloc.”

Amtrak’s short-distance corridor trains get funding from the legislatures of 17 states (including Illinois).

But the long-distance overnight trains, some plying 2,200 miles of track between Chicago and the West Coast, pass through so much deserted territory that there just aren’t enough interested congressmen to keep them funded. A fleet buildup requires capital, and at Amtrak capital funding requires politicians.

So let’s give it some — by assembling a coalition of U.S. legislators with a stake in the long-distance trains.


Eight of the 14 long-distance trains are based in Chicago, supporting hundreds of local jobs for onboard service personnel and local maintenance technicians. Four long-distance trains originate or terminate in California, where they account for 100 more jobs.

How about asking Illinois’ senior U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, to reach out to colleagues in the Golden State to form an “Amtrak long-distance-bloc”? With California’s huge 52-member House delegation added to the 17 members from Illinois, the bloc would number four senators and 69 congressmen.

But wait — there’s more: Three of the Chicago-based long-distance trains get turned around and serviced in New York. New York also serves as the base for two daily trains to Florida, one to Savannah and one to New Orleans. New York is not just a Northeast Corridor state. It also has a dog in the long-distance-train race.

And it has two U.S. senators and 26 congressmen. If they join with the Illinois and California delegations, Amtrak’s long-distance trains will have enough political godfathers to get the missing cars back in service (and enough new ones built to expand the network and grow the business).

But first somebody has to ask.



F.K. Plous is director of Communications at Corridor Rail Development in Chicago.


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