Much has been written in recent months about the nation’s primary passenger rail service, Amtrak, and the need to preserve it for the traveling public.
Preserving national service in its present form means that Amtrak will continue to lose astonishingly large sums of money — $1.8 billion this year alone. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, it costs Amtrak $186.35 per thousand passenger miles to operate, far more than any other mode of transportation in the nation. This comes at a time when more of our national resources are needed for homeland security and military defense abroad.
Put simply, the American public may soon demand that Amtrak, as well as any federally subsidized service, begin the move towards self-sustainability. I’d like to argue that self-sustainability is not only possible, but also likely, if Amtrak’s leadership would only be willing to take a few pages from the nation’s inter-city bus industry. As America’s oldest form of mass transportation, rail service could also benefit from a new form of connectivity with the bus industry.
Privatization is not lethal
First, let me offer some perspective. When it comes to mass transportation, most Americans probably don’t realize that the bus industry is, by far, the largest form of mass transportation in the United States. Buses transport 774 million people annually in North America — that is 224 million more than the number that travels on all of the airlines combined. Buses also carry more passengers in the United States in a two-week period than Amtrak moves in a year.
So, there may be something Amtrak can learn from the bus industry, which is not directly subsidized with one dollar of federal funding (though development of the national highway system certainly has allowed buses to transport millions of Americans throughout our country.)
It is not likely that American’s love affair with train travel will wane, and I’m not suggesting rail service be supplanted by bus service. Nor does train travel have to be in conflict or in competition with bus travel.
A few years ago I contacted the chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, the body that was established and directed by Congress to explore ways to make Amtrak profitable. In a letter to the Council, I indicated that Peter Pan Bus Lines would be interested in serving as an operator of Amtrak rail routes should the panel recommend, and Congress adopt, some form of privatization of the rail system’s routes.
The idea to privatize certain routes was immediately rejected by those most closely affiliated with Amtrak. However, the experience we have gained over the past 70 years in safely, efficiently and profitability transporting millions of travelers could be valuable in developing a new and improved Amtrak. I’m sure other bus operators would have something valuable to offer as well.
Linking intercity bus and rail
Finally, there is no reason Peter Pan and other carriers shouldn’t be meeting with Amtrak right now to explore ways for bus and train travel to work in harmony. In Boston’s South Station, for instance, Peter Pan and Amtrak ticket counters are a few feet away from each other. Perhaps, one day, both ticket agents will sell a “shared” ticket with the bearer traveling part of the trip on Amtrak and another part on a Peter Pan or Greyhound bus.
In Springfield, where Peter Pan’s corporate headquarters are located, a new Union Station could open in a few years. It is my hope that intercity bus and Amtrak rail service will be seen as a continuum of travel, operating side by side in a new Union Station, and not as competing entities.
Picknelly is president of Peter Pan Bus Lines in Springfield, Mass.