Tony Trifiletti and Roger Clark of the passenger-rail advocacy group All Aboard Arizona brought their save-the-trains campaign to Kingman on Tuesday, Oct. 29.
But they didn’t bring enough information binders for the crowd.
“I was told to expect about 15 people, and we got twice that. I’m thrilled,” said Trifiletti, All Aboard Arizona’s executive director.
Judging by the response, many area residents and riders are on board with the group’s effort to not only preserve but expand Amtrak, the government-owned national inter-city rail system. Kingman is served by the Southwest Chief, Amtrak’s long-distance Chicago-to-Los Angeles train.
The threat is not immediate, and it’s not the first-time the Southwest Chief and other cross-country trains have been targeted. Several years ago Amtrak proposed making the Chief a combined bus-rail route, but withdrew the proposal when the riding public protested.
Amtrak is currently funded by a continuing budget resolution through Nov. 21, and rail proponents are fighting for a bigger share of the proposed $2 trillion federal transportation budget.
But the new president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, former Delta Airlines executive Richard Anderson, is focused on short-haul routes and the highly traveled northeast corridor at the expense of long-distance trains.
Trifiletti, All Aboard Arizona’s executive director, said Anderson has called long-distance rail travel “a relic of the past.”
Trifiletti disagrees. Without those trains, he said, significant portions of America would lose their lifelines.
“Vast sections of the American heartland aren’t going to be able to get around,” Trifiletti said, noting Amtrak provides the only public transportation option in some rural communities in an age of declining inter-city bus service.
Clark and Trifiletti said the current attack on Amtrak amounts to death by a thousand cuts. Trains are cut from the roster as older rolling stock is retired instead of being repaired.
While the northeast corridor has new trains, equipment on cross-country trains is aging, with some of the double-decker Superliner cars on the Southwest Chief dating back to the 1980s.
“The mechanics call them maintenance shops on wheels,” Trifiletti said. “Our goal is not only to keep the system running, but to get some extra money for new equipment.”
Part-time Kingman residents Ken Middleton and Cindie Beckerleg, among the crowd of about 30 to hear the presentation, were interested in one train in particular.
The couple take the Southwest Chief to Chicago and back several times a year while transiting between their homes in Kingman and upstate Wisconsin.
They’re among the 9,066 passengers to embark and disembark at the Amtrak station on Andy Devine Avenue in 2018, down from 10,794 in 2015.
“I can’t say enough about the country we pass through,” said Middleton.
Mohave County Treasurer Cindy Landa Cox also praised Amtrak’s food and service, describing a trip she took on the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area.
But she said many Americans question if long-distance rail is the best use of taxpayers’ dollars when roads, bridges and other infrastructure are also in disrepair.
“‘This is a luxury. This is not a need,’ they say,” Cox said, parroting critics and playing the “devil’s advocate.”
Trifiletti countered that Amtrak’s accounting methods make it difficult to determine the profitability of individual routes, but noted “Amtrak can’t cut its way to profitability.”
He said the agency needs to invest in better equipment and schedule more trains to increase revenue. He noted that Kingman averages nearly 10,000 passengers a year despite inconvenient times: the westbound Chief leaves town at 11:28 p.m., while the eastbound train pulls in at 1:20 a.m.
And even if the routes lose money, it’s a worthwhile investment, All Aboard Arizona’s Clark said, noting highways, airports and local public transit systems are all subsidized with tax dollars.
Trifiletti said Amtrak was formed in 1971 because the federal government wanted to preserve the national passenger rail system.
“Amtrak was never meant to make a profit. It provides a public service,” Trifiletti said. “It’s the national transit authority.”
Trifiletti and Clark are touring all of the cities with Amtrak stations in Arizona, drumming up support for long-distance travel.
Asked what Mohave County residents can do to aid in the effort, Clark said to write Amtrak’s president in support of long-distance trains, and copy your congressman and U.S. senators.
“We want to flood them with letters,” Clark said. “We need the grassroots support.”