Amtrak's $630m Trump budget cut could derail service in 220 US cities

Long-distance services could be devastated by budget cuts, and the blow will be especially painful in rural areas that bought the president’s infrastructure pitch

The routes have names that evoke glorious Americana and the frontier spirit: the Empire Builder, the Silver Meteor, the Sunset Limited, the Texas Eagle, the Coast Starlight and the California Zephyr.

But a president who ran on a nostalgic promise to “make America great again” appears to have little interest in reviving once mighty railroads that stood as symbols of American capitalist ambition in the era of the robber barons.

While he has touted a $1tn investment plan for America’s infrastructure – which so far shows few signs of materialising – the president’s proposed budget included $630m in cuts for Amtrak that would devastate long-distance services.

An advocacy group, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (Narp), warned the budget “wipes out funding for long-distance train service in over 220 cities and towns and in 23 states that will lose train service completely”. Almost all those states are in the middle of the country and voted for Trump. Most of the stations said to be at risk are in rural areas.

Narp launched a “Rally for Trains” campaign that saw events last month across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Miami, Florida, via Wausau, Wisconsin.

One rally was in Alpine, a west Texas town of about 6,000 people in Brewster County – an area bigger than Connecticut that gave 53% of its votes to Trump in the 2016 presidential election. A Trump-Pence Make America Great Again poster is fixed to a balcony above a store opposite the station along one of Alpine’s main drags, which could pass for a western film set but for a Thai food truck.

Inside the smart waiting room – which has a mural of a ticket office window in lieu of an actual ticket office – Gwynne Jamieson wielded a placard that read: “Trump promised more infrastructure, we get less? Save Alpine’s Amtrak!”

A sprightly 71-year-old with a background in marketing, Jamieson fell in love with trains on long trips through her native Canada. She moved to Alpine three and a half years ago, from Massachusetts. Now she leads the local effort to save the station, arranging rallies and letter-writing campaigns. “Passenger service to me is everything,” she said.

Chris Sweeney and Gwynne Jamieson.
Chris Sweeney and Gwynne Jamieson. Photograph: Tom Dart

Owing its existence to the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1882, Alpine is a gateway to Big Bend national park and the hipster haven of Marfa.

The next nearest Amtrak station, Sanderson, is 85 miles away. The loss of a service used by about 5,000 people a year, Jamieson said, would be a grievous blow for local people and tourists. A woman sitting on a bench was waiting to pick up passengers arriving from Los Angeles for the Marfa film festival.

Here, bus service to major cities is infrequent and indirect and the nearest commercial airports are three or four hours away. So the train is a valuable option, even if it does take 14 hours and 25 minutes to traverse the 596 miles from Alpine to Houston – five or six hours slower than in a car.

“That’s a long drive. Amtrak was just the perfect thing for me; you could sleep, you could read,” said Chris Sweeney, 61, who spent two years commuting from Houston to Alpine by train. “Riding trains, there’s something kind of romantic about it. You get to see stuff you wouldn’t see if you were flying or driving.”

Running three days a week, the Sunset Limited takes 48 hours to complete its 1,995-mile route between Los Angeles and New Orleans. It extended all the way to Orlando until damage from Hurricane Katrina curtailed the route to Florida, which was never restored. Along this path, Amtrak is an inconvenience to the lucrative and frequent freight services that barrel, horns booming, through Alpine every few minutes. Meanwhile, underlining the contrast in prospects between rural and urban areas, plans are advancing for a privately funded $15bn bullet train between Dallas and Houston.

California is constructing a high-speed link to whisk travellers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in three hours or less. And Elon Musk is fantasising about 29-minute trips from New York to Washington.

With wrangling over the transportation budget ongoing in Washington, campaigners received hopeful news this month when the House appropriations committee released a 2018 funding bill that included $1.4bn for Amtrak – coincidentally, the same amount Trump requested for initial construction of his border wall.

But even if the Sunset Limited and other routes survive Trump’s axe this time, supporters fear an annual battle to keep unprofitable long-distance train travel alive while lawmakers provide the bare minimum in financial support, causing a slow roll into the sidings: a lack of investment that leads to reduced reliability and declining passenger numbers.

Bruce Ashton of Narp said Alpine was a symbol of “a whole lot of the small communities that will be affected by the Trump cut”.

“Cities in Kansas, cities in Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Colorado. All of these little, small towns, Alpine is representative of what they stand to lose.”


Tom Dart in Apline, Texas

The GuardianTramp

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