Monday, August 04, 2008

This Week In Amtrak

The Amtrak California ZephyrImage via WikipediaThis Week at Amtrak; August 4, 2008

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail

Volume 5, Number 23

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute that focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, and New York. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) You just never know when an issue of TWA goes racing out over the Internet what’s going to come back in return.

Last week, in the last issue, we talked of The Trip From Hell in the past couple of weeks on the Empire Builder, allegedly Amtrak’s premier long distance train, operating between Portland, Oregon/Seattle, Washington and Chicago.

Several interesting responses came flying back over the URPA World Headquarters transom.

This first missive, ironically touched off by the same writing of The Trip From Hell as later reported in TWA, went to Conde Nast Traveler regarding what the writer considered as a "puff piece" on Amtrak in the August issue of that august travel publication.

[Begin quote]

Dear Conde Nast Traveler –

I was terribly disappointed to read what can only be described as a "puff piece" about train travel in general, and Amtrak in particular, in the August 2008 issue which arrived a few days ago.

Perhaps Jim Robbins lucked out on his trips – spring and fall are often better seasons than summer or winter to travel on Amtrak's long distance trains. Perhaps you don't regularly read "This Week at Amtrak," an independent newsletter about the state of the railroad. Perhaps you did not do enough research about how Amtrak has been misled, mishandled and manhandled especially over the last dozen or more years. Regardless, you did a terrible disservice to your readers in this article and the accompanying sidebars. This is not the Amtrak that most riders experience, especially on long distance trains. I attach another story of a very recent trip on the Empire Builder for your enlightenment [Editor’s
note: This is the same story which also appeared as The Trip From Hell in the last TWA.]. There are dozens more – from the abandoned trains (and their passengers) in Illinois in a snowstorm last winter to the cessation of all service on the Coast Starlight for several months because of a landslide in the mountains of Oregon.

The long distance trains as well as the "corridor" services must be retained, improved and augmented with a much greater number of connecting trains. The system should certainly have nearly as many route miles as the interstate system, NOT the skeletal system that exists today. There certainly should be several more cars per train in the "high" seasons to accommodate the demand, but instead Amtrak has dozens if not hundreds of cars sitting in its yards, languishing due to needed repairs while hundreds of other cars that should NOT be out on the railroad are in fact running in trains.

On page 54 there are several egregious errors, showing a lack of editing, a lack of consulting with rail experts or just plain sloppiness. The California Zephyr runs, in fact, on the FIRST completed (1869) transcontinental route, NOT the last. The Canadian on VIA Rail Canada makes dozens and dozens of stops as it travels across Canada, NOT nine stops as you state.

There are apologists, train fans, Amtrak employees, and many critics, any of whom could have given you a much more balanced view of the state of Amtrak – sadly you chose not to dig deep enough to find them.

Next time you feel moved to write about Amtrak (after your Ombudsman has handled all the complaints you'll receive on the basis of this article) please check with some of us who traveled with Amtrak from the beginning, through thick and thin, and now choose to use their trains seldom if ever anymore because of the abysmal state of disrepair of the corporation, its people and its trains.

I'll not be renewing my subscription to Conde Nast Traveler.


Lloyd Adalist
Seattle, Washington

[End quote]

[Begin quote]

Bruce –

I just read your distressing column on the Empire Builder trip from hell.
I just want to reassure you that this trip is very much the exception, not the rule. I ride the train frequently between Chicago and Winona (Minnesota), always eating in the diner. While things aren't always perfect, they are generally much better compared to Amtrak travel a few years ago. I've never seen a whole car missing, the food in the diner is good, most of the crew members work pretty hard and are reasonably friendly, the train runs pretty close to schedule (both ways), the AC works and is well-adjusted, and there is an interpreter in the lounge car everyday in summer in this segment. Most importantly, there are a lot of passengers and they seem to be pretty happy. A lot of the people have not been on the train for a long time.

David Phillips

[End quote]

[Begin quote]


It's sometimes hard to believe that a company can be so inconsistent with regard to employees and equipment. I just completed a Milwaukee – Seattle round trip (deluxe bedroom both ways) that would rank as near perfect, and I have been very critical of Amtrak performance over the years, writing up train operations and employees when they needed it. (Sleeper attendant Paul needs to be fired, but unfortunately that's hard to do.) Sleeping car attendants, coach attendants and lounge car people on this round trip were great. Dining car steward (happened to get the same one in both directions) was merely average, but waiters compensated.
Westbound was on time, eastbound was a half hour late, due to excess time removing a private car at Twin Cities. We left Seattle one hour late due to sleeper toilet maintenance and diner grill needing work, but it was better to leave late than to leave with non-working equipment. En route, our attendant recruited a mechanic in Minot to fix a balky call system.
By the way, it is standard practice to load chicken dinners at Havre, Montana in both directions. Reservations for them are taken by the lounge car attendant and he handles the dinners. There isn't time to feed everyone dinner in the diner.

For a while, Amtrak employed train chiefs to monitor all onboard services. It was a great system when the chief was good, but I saw some who were all but invisible, did nothing and were useless. Unfortunately, the onboard crews tended to mirror their chief.

Mark Weitenbeck
Treasurer, WisARP [Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers]

[End quote]

[Begin quote]

Accountability and responsibility? In a union shop? Especially in a Gov'mint Union Shop? Oh, please, Bruce! That's just too funny!

Amtrak, as you and I both know, is full of good people doing good work on behalf of the customer. But as with every barrel, there are going to be some bad apples. And those are the ones that get written about. I have rarely seen such a report when things were good, which they often are, even with Kummant in charge.

Oh, and I have some news that will no doubt warm your heart. I have it on good authority that David Gunn would love to come back if he is asked.

[End quote]

[Begin quote]

[This writer wanted TWA – in response to the last TWA – to know there are some good Amtrak trips on other routes.]

Leaving from Baltimore on July 16th, we took the Cardinal to Washington and then Chicago. All facilities worked fine and the train was nearly on time at Chicago. We had a roomette which was comfortable and well air conditioned.

The negative was that the sleeper was the last car on the train and tended to bounce and sway on well-worn truck springs. At Indianapolis, additional cars were added and this stabilized the sleeper. We did notice that the dining car crew was generally grumpy and lacked customer service skills.

Next we took the California Zephyr westbound to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Our sleeping car attendant was very helpful and prompt and the dining car food was well prepared. At times the dining car crew seemed surprised that so many people wanted to eat! The AC and toilets worked fine. However, we arrived in Glenwood Springs approximately three hours late.

On July 19th, I went to the Glenwood Springs station to take some photographs and witnessed both the eastbound and westbound California Zephyr arrive on time! It was the talk of the town.

Dave Highfield
Westminster, Maryland

[End quote]

[Begin quote]

Dear Bruce:

And, what about the front line mangers of this route? Where are they? Off on their own vacations, leaving their near-helpless passengers to fend for themselves? Yes and No. There's one manager in Portland, Oregon. He probably can't cover it all.

In Seattle, the biggest concern is to get the trains out on time, and then the managers look good. None of the foreman ever follow up on the cleaners and the trains are just filthy inside. The stench is unbearable.

As far as the A/C goes, Amtrak for whatever reason doesn't have any parts for most of the repairs needed on the Builder in Seattle, Washington, or Portland for that matter. They won't requisition the parts either, because for some reason money has to be put out for those parts sitting on the shelf. So, it's a no win situation. The managers have got to want Amtrak to fail. Then, to quick turn the train after it has come in off the road for three days, NEVER even touches the surface of the problems on this train.

The Chicago crew base has the parts, but employees who don't want to do the work and no one to make them.

Or, maybe hanging out in a back office, hoping no one will notice them?

Does anyone at Amtrak understand a) accountability, and b) personal responsibility?

Amtrak Managers are never held accountable. They screw up by the numbers and nothing is ever done to them.

Not all, but 90% of all Amtrak managers are ... and Hell-bent on destruction.

If you are reading someone else’s copy of This Week at Amtrak, you can receive your own free copy each week by sending your e-mail address to

You have a great newsletter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

[End quote]

And, finally,

[Begin quote]

Mr. Richardson,

I just finished reading the latest TWA, and this story on the Builder is all too accurate.

As someone who travels continually on the western long-hauls, as in every couple of weeks for business purposes, I have noticed a dramatic drop these past several months of the overall management of these trains. I just sampled the Starlight on July 8th for the first time in months, and for someone who has traveled this train steadily for the past 25 years, I have never seen service in such turmoil since maybe 1979.

Filthy cars, no air-conditioning, disastrous understaffed diner service and the list goes on and on, though the time-keeping has now been restored, the train is a complete mess.

It makes me sick that this railroad is now receiving more money than ever just because of the energy situation and is now going to squander all of that as well in the Northeast as the national system continues to suffer and shrink.

My question to you is, is there anyway to contact the board or whoever at the top, to begin effectively unseating Mr. Kummant? He's now proven that he is completely incapable of running this railroad. I'm tired of his arrogance and his continued willingness to ignore the financial facts that could finally make this railroad a successful, viable service once and for all.

Any contacts that you could provide would be appreciated and handled in a professional manner.

[End quote]

Well, in answer to that last comment, yes, there is a way of reaching the Amtrak Board of Directors. Perhaps, if enough people were to professionally contact the board members, they may begin to take notice of the company and its many problems, instead of rubber-stamping whatever is put in from of them by Amtrak staff and management.

The five members of the Amtrak Board of Directors are (There are two vacant seats on the board):

Mr. R. Hunter Biden
Vice Chairman of the Board

Mr. Thomas C. Carper

Mr. Alexander Kummant
President, & CEO, Amtrak
Ex Officio/Non-Voting

Ms. Donna McLean
Chairman of the Board

Ms. Nancy A. Naples

The Honorable Mary Peters
Secretary of Transportation
United States Department of Transportation

The official mailing address for board members is

60 Massachusetts Avenue, Northeast
Washington, D.C. 20002

HOWEVER, if you fear your message may not reach Amtrak board members because of any "filtering" which may occur by Amtrak staff members at Amtrak headquarters, the following public information is available to all interested parties via a Google search on the Internet.

R. Hunter Biden (son of Delaware Senator Joseph Biden) is a Washington attorney and government relations professional, working in international trade and business development at the law firm he helped found, Oldaker Biden & Belair, LLP

Mr. Biden’s contact information is
R. Hunter Biden
Oldaker, Biden & Belair, LLP
818 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, Suite 1100 Washington, D.C. 20006 Telephone 202-728-1010 Facsimile 202-728-4044

Thomas C. Carper is the former Mayor of Macomb, Illinois. He is currently a State of Illinois employee.

Mr. Carper’s contact information is

Thomas C. Carper
Regional Director
West Central Region for Opportunity Returns Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity State of Illinois 510 North Pearl, Suite 700 Macomb, Illinois 61455 Telephone 309-836-2684

Donna McLean is a former airline industry official at the U.S. Department of Transportation, and is the owner of Donna McLean Associates, LLC, a Washington, D.C. based lobbying and consulting firm specializing in transportation policy. Among her clients she lobbies the United States Congress for are Boeing Air Traffic Management, Indiana University, the Miccosukee Tribe, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLC, the international accounting firm.

Ms. McLean’s contact information is

Donna R. McLean
Donna McLean Associates, LLC
300 Independence Avenue, Southeast
Washington, D.C. 20003

Telephone 202-448-9500
Facsimile 202-448-9501
Mr. Kummant and Ms. Peters can be contacted through their respective offices.

There is no readily available public information on how to contact Ms.
Naples other than through Amtrak offices. Ms. Naples is a former State of New York highway official in the now-departed Governor George Pataki administration.

If these member of the Amtrak board choose to be public servants, then they choose to be accessible to the public. However, don’t abuse the privilege of being able to reach these board members. If you communicate with them, do so in a professional manner, and clearly state your point of view or presentation of facts. If you send something abusive to them you will only serve to cloud an issue, not clarify an issue.

2) Some people may wish to communicate with Amtrak’s senior officers on various issues. Each one of them can be reached at

60 Massachusetts Avenue, Northeast
Washington, D.C. 20002

Amtrak’s main corporate headquarters switchboard telephone number is


Alexander K. Kummant
President and Chief Executive Officer

Eleanor D. Acheson
Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary

Joseph H. Bress
Vice President, Labor Relations

William H. Campbell
Chief Financial Officer

William L. Crosbie
Chief Operating Officer

Emmett H. Fremaux
Vice President, Marketing and Product Management

Lorraine A. Green
Vice President, Human Resources and Diversity Initiatives

Joseph H. McHugh
Vice President, Government Affairs and Corporate Communications

William Rooney
Vice President, Security Strategy and Special Operations

Ed Trainor
Chief Information Officer

Anne Witt
Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Business Development

If you are reading someone else’s copy of This Week at Amtrak, you can receive your own free copy each week by sending your e-mail address to

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URPA leadership members are available for speaking engagements.

J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA Telephone 904-636-7739

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