Amtrak polishes its pitch for rail
Support for train travel up for debate in Salem
Amtrak Vice President Gil Mallery believes in the 'shiny new train' philosophy.
The surest way to get passengers excited about rail service is to give them a shiny new train to ride, he said as he led the way to a stylish Amtrak Cascades train waiting on the platform at Portland's Union Station.
Mallery, who lives in West Linn and commutes to offices in Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C., oversees planning and business development for Amtrak. His job includes working to expand the railroad's state partnerships.
He was in Oregon recently to talk with state legislators about including $5 million a year in the next biennium's budget to keep the Oregon segment of the Cascades Ñwith its bistro car and Internet access Ñ in operation.
The money pays Amtrak to operate two round trips a day between Eugene and Portland. It also supports supplemental Thruway bus service. The buses expand the Portland-Eugene service and link Amtrak with other Oregon cities Ñ including Astoria, Coos Bay, Bend and Ontario.
Mallery clearly feels proprietary about the Cascades, a service he helped launch when he was rail branch manager for the Washington Department of Transportation and, later, Pacific Northwest high-speed rail coordinator for Oregon and Washington.
Annual ridership on the Cascades has climbed from 94,000 in 1993, the first year the trains went into service, to 584,000 last year. And the number of daily round trips has gone from one to three.
In the case of the Cascades, Mallery's 'shiny new train' is the Spanish-built Talgo train sets, whose contemporary design has won national accolades. He delights in showing off the train, pointing out the bistro car, with its menu of regional foods and local beers and wines, and the business car, with its laptop computer ports.
'We try to make it special,' he said.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski supports the $5 million annual appropriation that would keep the Cascades running in the Willamette Valley. But the Legislature's Joint Committee on Ways and Means has proposed that the subsidy be cut from the state's hard-hit budget.
The rail money is the subject of budget negotiations; it eventually will go before the House and Senate for a vote. Kulongoski spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said the governor remains firm in his support for the full amount.
'The issues are so overwhelming,' Claudia Howells, head of the Oregon Department of Transportation's rail division, said. 'Two trains, $5 million a year. It's almost a distraction. On the one hand, cutting another $10 million out of the biennial budget isn't going to make a difference one way or another.'
Last year, about 95,000 passengers rode the Cascades trains between Portland and Eugene. Another 25,000 rode state-funded Thruway buses over the same route Ñ 'although most would prefer to ride the train,' Howells said. 'We added buses in the corridor to mimic a real schedule.'
She expects Cascades passenger numbers to grow when a new Amtrak station opens in Oregon City late this year.
'As we add service, the ridership just keeps going up,' said Robert Krebs, passenger rail coordinator for the state transportation agency. But if the state cuts off the funding, he said, the move would cost an estimated 100 private-sector jobs, 'big chunks of the intercity bus system would go away' and cities that are building Amtrak-based tourism would feel the loss.
'The train system is economic development, although some people see it as social welfare,' Krebs said.
Mallery warned, 'If you don't figure out how to keep existing service running, if you cut back, it's hard to regain momentum. É The last thing we should be doing in a recession is cutting back on public services.
'You have to have transportation options to have a viable economy,' he said.
The last time Oregon cut funding for passenger service to the Willamette Valley, it took 15 years to get it restored, Howells said. It took five years of effort to establish the first Cascades train service, another five years to add the second train, which was partially funded by Amtrak.
Also, the state promised to pay for $15 million in capital improvements to the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks that Amtrak uses.
The state still owes the money to the railroad, although it's helped to fund other improvements on the Union Pacific mainline, which have cut train delays.
'At the time we made the commitment, we were really confident that federal money would come through, and it didn't,' Howells said. 'I know full well if we take even one train off, UP is going to want capital money up front.'
Oregon has great plans for the Cascades service: boosting the service to six round trips a day, investing $100 million in new train equipment, and spending another $100 million for capital improvements so Union Pacific's line can more efficiently accommodate both rail and passenger service.
'That's a system that would pay for the operating cost,' Howells said. 'But we have to get to that level of frequency before we can have a self-sustaining system.'
Other states face the same funding dilemma as Oregon, said Mallery, who went to work for Amtrak in 1995 as president of Amtrak West.
When David Gunn, the passenger railroad's new president and chief executive officer, trimmed management soon after coming on board a year ago, he did away with the Amtrak West regional division and promoted Mallery.
'There needs to be, in my opinion, a partnership between the federal government and the states that provides a long-term continuous source of capital that allows states to make investment' in rail, Mallery said. 'After 30 years of Amtrak's existence, there still is not a dedicated source of funding for passenger rail in this country.'
Mallery has noted that this country ranks between Estonia and Tunisia in the amount it spends on operating and capital support for its national railway system. 'People ask us: Why doesn't America have the same kind of rail services you see in Europe?' he says.
His answer: 'You get what you pay for.'
France and Germany spend more than $4 billion a year on their national rail system, he said, while Amtrak has asked Congress for $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2004. The U.S. sum includes $1 billion for capital investment Ñ repair of rolling stock and of neglected infrastructure Ñ plus $768 million for operating support.
A proposal from the Bush administration, however, suggests a regionalized plan that would move Amtrak to a partly privatized system.
'State agencies would determine the level of passenger services needed, the price for such service, and they would contract with third-party operators to provide long distance and corridor trains,' said Michael Jackson, U.S. deputy transportation secretary.
More Portland service?
The Cascades is considered a corridor train. Portland also is served by two Amtrak long-distance trains, the Los Angeles-to-Seattle Coast Starlight, and the Portland-Seattle-to-Chicago Empire Builder.
In Washington, the state Legislature has approved a total of $32.8 million for projects to upgrade passenger service. The state's Amtrak Cascades plan calls for 13 round-trip trains a day between Portland and Seattle by 2018, serving 2.2 million passengers a year.
Mallery says those are realistic expectations. The goal, he says, is to get the trains running frequently enough that travelers don't have to plan their trip around the schedule, knowing that if they miss one train, there will be another in less than an hour.
Washington's plan also calls for upgrades to the infrastructure that would drop the time between Portland and Seattle to two hours. The trip currently takes about three hours.