Mobility in Crisis, Part III: Can Amtrak Midwest Ride Out the Pandemic?

The pandemic has halted progress for public transit systems nationwide, but Amtrak’s Director of Government Affairs for the Midwest discusses why the region was struggling with passenger rail long before COVID-19 and how we might move forward. Cover graphic made from a General Motors Electro-Motive Division advertisement illustrated by Bern Hill, edited by Stefan Binion for Midstory.

Read Part I, “Public Health, Transit and Investment,” here.
Read Part II, “Could Disaster Transform Toledo’s Bus System?”, here.

The pandemic brought an abrupt end to what had been Amtrak’s hottest hot streak ever; in the 2019 fiscal year (October 2018 through September 2019), America’s quasi-public passenger rail provider saw record ridership—and the start of fiscal 2020 was looking even better. By late February, strong ticket sales had slashed Amtrak’s year-to-date operating loss by 91% over fiscal 2019’s record, bringing Amtrak revenue to 99.7% of operating expenses, or just 0.3% from breaking even. 

The pandemic’s short-term impacts share similar contours across all transportation modes—in short, travel has plummeted to historic lows. With ridership down a staggering 95%, even sweeping service reductions have done little to mitigate the unfolding financial crisis. Even with $1 billion in emergency federal aid, Amtrak expects a sizable operating loss for fiscal 2020; without additional relief funds, they expect service will be cut further in 2021—and in some cases, suspended outright. This has some rail passengers and advocates understandably worried.

Discussions about intercity passenger rail can feel rather remote in Ohio. Northwest Ohio’s stake is greater than most Ohio communities: Toledo, the state’s fifth most-populous metropolitan area, boasts the state’s busiest Amtrak station—though the competition isn’t particularly fierce. Amtrak doesn’t serve Columbus or Dayton, Cincinnati’s lone route runs just three days a week and Cleveland’s four trains all board between 1:59AM and 5:50AM. In most of the state, Amtrak isn’t a serious mobility option. So in a moment where airlines and local transit agencies alike need assistance, it’s fair to ask: why should Toledoans and Ohioans care about Amtrak? After all, intercity rail service in Ohio is limited to say the least.

To see what Amtrak means (or could mean) for Ohio, it helps to know a bit about railroads—and Derrick James knows a thing or two. After an internship with Amtrak, he was recruited by one of the largest freight railroads in North America; he left that job to join the Chicago Transit Authority, operator of the nation’s second-busiest rail transit system. And today, James is Amtrak’s Director of Government Affairs for the Midwest region. 

“When I first got this job,’” James recalled, “I made a foray out to Ohio to an advocacy organization; I was the new government affairs guy, and they beat me up. They said, ‘Ohioans don’t know what an Amtrak train looks like—cause they’ve only seen them in the dark.’”

To understand Ohio’s Amtrak service, you have to follow the money—or, rather, the lack thereof. 

Under Amtrak’s most recent, congressionally mandated funding scheme, states bear responsibility for running trains on short-distance corridor services. And while “the federal government is providing hundreds of millions of dollars every year in […]capital grants to pay for the infrastructure work that’s needed to start new train services,” James noted, “states would have to provide any operating subsidy necessary for […] any services less than 750 miles.” 

That distinction—750 miles or less—becomes particularly thorny because of the nature of rail travel itself: “routes of 100 to 400, 500 miles,” James explained, are where “passenger train is uniquely positioned to compete with the car and the plane.” It’s a range where driving becomes a hassle and the inconveniences of commercial aviation erode a plane’s speed advantage. But under the existing funding rubric, Amtrak can’t use federal dollars to operate these routes where passenger rail could work best. 

Without state support, Ohio is left with segments of long-distance routes between Chicago and the East Coast. Ohio has service at all because these routes just so happen to pass through the state, and Columbus doesn’t pay a dime for the trains to run. This also explains why, in 2019, passengers boarded or exited a train in Ohio 132,095 times, while almost twice that number passed through the state without stopping. 

If voters only know minimal, inconvenient train service, why would they want to pay for more trains?  

It’s a vicious cycle: better service requires more money, and it’s hard to get more money when service is bad.

“It is much easier to convince someone that you need more of something if you have it, rather than if you are trying to convince them of something that they don’t have,” James said. “Or another way I like to put it: people who don’t ride trains don’t realize how many people ride trains.”

And that goes for citizens and city and state decision-makers alike. 

“Since, historically, passenger rail service in Ohio has been so poor, the policymakers and the people really don’t have a vision for how good it could be,” he said.

Locomotives sit on a siding outside Amtrak maintenance facilities in Beech Grove, Indiana. Graphic made with Google Maps satellite composite imagery by Stefan Binion for Midstory.

While service is thin in Ohio, elsewhere it’s been successful. In Illinois, Amtrak enjoys broad support. And to understand why, just look to the state’s capitol: “the Springfield, IL train station is busier than the Springfield, IL airport,” James said. 

 “[I]n a lot of states with big urban areas, you’ve got a political divide that falls along geography: urban Democrats versus rural Republicans, and how do you bridge that?” 

While such questions are often rhetorical, they don’t have to be, and to passenger rail advocates, expanded service offers a uniting way forward: “we’ve bridged that in Illinois through Amtrak,” because among leaders and the broader public, passenger service is “perceived as being of benefit to the rural areas as well as the urban areas,” James noted. 

“So all these rural places that are represented by Republicans in the state legislature? They ride trains, so they know trains are great. Every year, we get like a $47 million appropriation from the State of Illinois—and it’s not controversial. I don’t have to spend any time in Springfield. The governor’s office just introduces the transportation budget, it has all this money in it for Amtrak, and it just passes,” he said.

In short: good service advocates for itself. 

You don’t even have to go as far as Illinois to find good passenger rail service; look no further than Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 2019, Ann Arbor—a city with less than half of Toledo’s population—had more passenger rail traffic than the entire state of Ohio. Michigan’s state-supported passenger routes connect Ann Arbor and communities across Southern Michigan with Detroit and Chicago, two of the major economic hubs of the Midwest. 

Ann Arbor demonstrates that while it helps to have a large population, the key to passenger rail success is proximity to other places, and this has always been Toledo’s strength. The Midwest’s passenger rail renaissance hasn’t happened, however, because it’s expensive. In 2010, Ohio refused a $400 million grant to create a route across the state. While the federal government would pay to start service, running the trains was Ohio’s responsibility, to the tune of $20 million per year. In a state with no shortage of problems to fix—and where Amtrak’s trains are late more often than not—Ohio voters weren’t excited about taking on new expenses for Amtrak service. 

“One of the reasons why we’ve been so successful in Illinois is because we always have had good Amtrak service in Illinois,” James said. “It was easy to build political support to get more Amtrak service because people already had it.” 

It works in Illinois because it’s always worked in Illinois; same thing in Michigan. 

“The problem in Ohio is: how do we do that in a state where all the trains—two,1 the two trains—pass in the middle of the night?”

After extensive discussions with local leaders across the country, Amtrak is proposing a new funding plan they believe will make it easier to start service in states that have historically had little or none. Toledo’s location makes it an ideal candidate for passenger rail—and with greater public support and possible funding changes, it could be a real possibility.

Ultimately, however, the success or failure of American passenger rail still depends on local and state leaders in communities across the country. “How a state government orders its priorities,” James emphasized, is “in many ways a reflection of what the public wants. So if the Ohio public wants more dollars invested in rail and public transportation, the Ohio public needs to let their leadership know, both on the executive branch side and in the legislature.”

“It’s not necessarily their role to be innovative and out in front… if they don’t feel that the public supports it. So It’s really up to the grassroots; it’s up to the public to let their feelings be known,” he said.

Crises create opportunities to take stock of what we value, what we support and where we could do better. Toledo is a place where passenger rail could work, and with our transportation systems in disarray, maybe it’s a good time to consider some changes.

1 There is technically a third Amtrak route in Ohio: the Cardinal service crosses from Kentucky to stop in Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, though only three days a week. By ridership, too, the Cardinal underperforms the two lines along the Lake Erie coast. In 2019, Cincinnati had fewer arrivals and departures than Sandusky, a statistical area with roughly 1/30th the Cincinnati MSA’s population.


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