I have the unpleasant task of informing all of you that I need to relinquish my work as coordinator of the Pioneer restoration effort. In the past couple of years I have focused on the need for independent research that might demonstrate the feasibility of restoring the Pioneer as part of an intermodal corridor transportation system. Those efforts have come to naught: no one has offered to fund the research, and my coordinator’s role has outlived its utility.
The willingness of researchers at Mississippi State University to conduct an independent feasibility study provided encouragement, but that effort did not include a full funding package: matching funds were not to be had. In the end, I had to confront the unwillingness of prospective backers to seize upon an opportunity that might have led, ultimately, to the return of passenger rail to a vast and awe-inspiring swath of the continent.
Congresspeople who have considered the Pioneer’s prospects in response to requests from constituents or communities along the route thus have only one “authoritative” body of information to fall back on – the 2009 Amtrak study that found the service restoration a very dicey proposition. All of you, like me, found that study very much flawed, a mere recounting of the deficiencies that, necessarily or not, plagued the Pioneer in its first incarnation, which ended in the service termination of 1997.
An independent feasibility study would almost certainly have led to a less pessimistic, more forward-looking, assessment. But this is not the place to re-analyze the Pioneer’s potential, or the defects in Amtrak’s dismissive report.
We can take some consolation from the emphasis that the National Association of Railroad Passengers, in its recommendations for the pending Amtrak reauthorization, continues to place on expansion of the national network. The NARP list of prime candidates for expansion includes the Pioneer. The recommendations state that the reauthorization should “require Amtrak to plan expansions that would improve the public utility of all national network routes”; other candidates include the North Coast Hiawatha and Chicago-Florida routes. Hear, hear!
We have also learned at least one lesson: that the decisions Congresspeople make about issues like expanded passenger rail service may be based less on constituent pressure and municipal resolutions – what town wouldn’t like to have a train? – than on credible research that indicates the worthiness of any given expansion. For this reason the emphasis must remain on research that focuses on original, outside-the-box approaches to making trains more nearly profitable.
I hope that NARP’s recommendations will see fruition in the reauthorization that Congress will eventually enact, but efforts towards that end shouldn’t happen within the narrower context of the Pioneer restoration. The focus of the debate, that is, is shifting – as it should. We know more about these things than we did five years ago, and we should put our lessons to use in pushing for a good reauthorization that will facilitate network expansion from sea to shining sea.
It’s been a pleasure working with all of you. Thanks for your support.
– C.B. Hall