This Week at Amtrak; September 25, 2008
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA
Volume 5, Number 27
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 http://www.unitedrail.org.
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1) ONBOARD AMTRAK TRAIN NUMBER 97, THE SILVER METEOR, Southbound, between Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Thursday, September 25, 2008 – The Silver Meteor is running about a half hour late south of Orlando, but that’s okay. Just before noon, we came to a sudden stop somewhere 20 minutes past the middle of nowhere in the fern growing area of Volusia County (west of Daytona Beach for those unfamiliar with Florida geography). Our locomotive engineer had spotted a stalled truck at a roadway grade crossing, and was able to bring the Meteor to a stop before slamming into the truck. After waiting 25 minutes for a tow truck to arrive and clear the tracks, we were on our way without harm or injury to anyone. It’s a good day for the train and engine crew; an often unavoidable accident scenario failed to materialize.
Load factor leaving Jacksonville in the three sleeping cars, dining car, lounge car and three of the four coaches which are occupied is hovering around 50%; not bad for an early fall trip after school is back in session.
Downline business is brisk for the Florida part of this journey. More passengers board in Jacksonville than detrain, and every station stop brings new passengers boarding, including sleeping car passengers.
This onboard services crew of three sleeping car attendants, one dining car chef, one dining car lead service attendant and one dining car waiter, plus two lounge car attendants and one coach attendant (for four coaches) is on the last nine hours of its weekly run between the Miami crew base and New York City, and return.
2) The crew, like the passenger cars, are beginning to show some weariness. Everyone is friendly and has a smile on their face, but as we race closer and closer to Miami, the anxiousness to be home shows.
The coach attendant gave up on keeping the coaches anywhere neat and tidy. Some restrooms are nearly inhabitable, others are completely non-habitable.
Tony, the young man who is one of the lounge car attendants, has his necktie flying at half-mast, and it’s tough to determine if he’s fashionably sporting a two day growth of beard, or if he just didn’t bother to shave before coming on duty this morning. He’s chugging an energy drink to keep his obviously heavy eyelids open, and, when he’s seated at a table for the moment while no passengers are at his counter, he’s busying himself with games on his cell phone. The other gentleman lounge car attendant doesn’t bother to wear a necktie or uniform vest or name tag.
The sleeping car attendant in the first sleeper is napping. Jay, the attendant in this car, however, keeps his car in good order, and is frequently checking with his passengers to see how he may serve them.
Safety doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with many on this train and engine crew; car doors have been propped open (many don’t fully work), and there is a propped open door between the forward sleeping car and the baggage car, which has both of its doors open at each end, exposing the trailing locomotive without any foothold between the baggage car and the locomotive. An over-enthusiastic, enquiring rail fan could easily bring harm to themselves on this train.
One thing is certain. When Amtrak still had onboard service chiefs, silliness like this didn’t exist if the chief was on the ball. This is a crew with no supervision, and it shows.
This also brings up the question: since the demise of the Pullman Company less than five years before the advent of Amtrak, why has the crew quality declined so much? Why do all other areas of the travel and hospitality industry, from air lines to cruise lines to hotels demand and receive so much more from their employees than Amtrak ever has since it formed in 1971? Why is it okay for railroad onboard employees to have sloppy appearances, for ticket agents to often look unkempt? Doesn’t anyone understand the appearance of employees directly impacts performance and customer/passenger acceptance?
3) Breakfast was available in the dining car after leaving Jacksonville this morning, and, while the selection was slim, the food was served hot and had a good presentation, even if it was served using disposable plates and cups.
Lunch was a nice variety, ranging from burgers (turkey or beef) to meatballs over yellow rice to a chicken salad sandwich. As always, a vegetarian lunch was available, too. Dessert was a special treat, a chocolate and cherry torte, good enough to be found in any restaurant. Today’s beef cheeseburger, a warmed up pre-cooked concoction, could best be described as, well, close to unacceptable. Whatever cow gave it’s life for that cheeseburger, gave its life in vain.
4) The state of the passenger car rolling stock on this train which used to be the flagship train of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad (the Silver Meteor was the first streamlined train from New York to Florida, dating back to the 1930s), is less than stellar. Most of the problem stems from poor maintenance. It is a sad irony this equipment is principally maintained in Miami at the Hialeah shops. Before controlled by Amtrak, the Hialeah shops were rated as one of the two best in the country, the second being King Street in Seattle.
A comparison of this equipment to the real world would be that of an aging Holiday Inn about to lose its franchise because of a lack of maintenance. Rusty metal in the Viewliner sleeping cars, chipped paint, doors that don’t work ... you name it. The large surface areas are mostly clean, but the "details" usually found in the best housekeeping are missing. Anybody’s fussy mother would look at this level of lack of cleanliness and only snort in derision at so much dirt and filth left behind by the cleaning crews. These sleeping cars are only a dozen years old, but they’ve been run hard and never put away for any type of extensive maintenance. Fifty of these cars remain in active service, with a daily use requirement of 39 cars. Twenty-two percent, with a replacement value of over $1 million per car of this Viewliner sleeping car fleet is always out of service.
The exciting video and audio systems which equipped these cars when new are long gone. Door handles and locks have been replaced with hardware store fixtures. Window shades have been replaced with curtains because the shades no long go up and down. The seats, which convert into beds remain comfortable. The annoying chair in the full bedrooms which was welded in place and prevented the lavatory door from opening fully has been replaced by a clever folding chair which allows for extra seating while permitting the door to open fully.
The dining car, of Korean War era heritage and a survivor of Henry Christie’s "A" and "B" list for equipment to convert to head end power, has been recently refurbished, and is neat and clean, but has a lunch counter feel to it. The carpets are replaced by linoleum, and spray paint has been liberally applied to every surface, whether or not it was originally intended to be painted.
The three decades old lounge car and coaches have all recently been refurbished, too, but hard wear has taken a toll. Missing molding, carpet replaced by linoleum in the lounge, and various signs of hard use are everywhere.
This lounge car is one which has been converted for either lounge or lounge/dinette use. There is the usual assortment of lounge rats hanging out, plus some families and assorted passengers using computers, taking advantage of an electrical outlet at every table.
There are no longer any crew cars on single-level long distance trains, so revenue sleeping car space must be taken out of service to house crew members.
From a distance, the outside of the train looks good; up close, there are missing decals, cracked and peeling paint, and a general lack of upkeep.
5) Stations along the route in Florida which were originally built by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad have mostly seen better days. While the relatively new (built in the 1970s by Amtrak) station in Jacksonville has seen some much needed improvements, many of the other stations have that look of benign neglect, and hope for a better budget year next year.
6) By federal statute, Amtrak has the right of way over all freight trains, and on this day, CSX has given us the railroad. We’ve had one stop other than for the stalled truck in Volusia County, and the quality of the ride has been superb. Once bumpy track has been replaced with smooth-as-glass continuous welded rail, and we know why the this railroad used to be referred to as the Seaboard Air Line.
Rail fans and Amtrak apologists will protest this account; after all, the train arrived on time, departed on time, and arrived at my destination station on time. The trip was overall uneventful, and everyone smiled.
Anyone who understands the business of travel and hospitality is appalled. Whether or not Amtrak receives mountains of free federal monies every year, it is still a business, but it operates like a poorly-run government agency, with no accountability. If Amtrak is going to succeed, it needs to shed its ambivalence towards most things proper, and start behaving like it has constant adult supervision.
7) This is the long distance network of Alex Kummant’s Amtrak, the one so many people are now clamoring to bring new train service to their cities and states.
If you were considering one particular phrase to describe today’s Amtrak, you could probably do it with just one word – mediocre.
Sleeping car passengers are paying multiple hundreds – and sometime, thousands – of dollars to ride in equipment which would embarrass the sloppiest hotelier. Coach passengers are riding in tin cans with upholstered seats that don’t even measure up to the Spartan standards of some commuter railroads.
In his third year of stewardship of Amtrak, President and Chief Executive Officer Alex Kummant’s railroad is generating more buzz in the local and national news media than has been generated for decades. Americans are rediscovering an important part of our domestic transportation network – passenger trains. Congress is moving towards a long-awaited reauthorization of Amtrak, and state governments are plotting and planning expansion of state and regional rail routes.
At this moment, about all anyone can do is plan, because Amtrak through the years has squandered its resources, decimated its fleet of rolling stock, and stubbornly stuck to a bad business plan which has resulted in Amtrak remaining technically bankrupt since its founding in 1971.
8) Let’s repeat Andrew Selden’s assessment of Amtrak, as published in this space earlier this month.
Amtrak under CEO Alex Kummant is continuing its long slide into irrelevance. Amtrak’s market share (including in the NEC) dropped again. Kummant led the company to an increased annual loss in 2007. On $165 million increase in ticket revenues, and $110 million increase in total revenues, Kummant produced a $53 million increase in the net loss and a whopping $280 million increase in total loss on the year, of $1.l338 billion on total revenue of $2.15 billion. $180 million in increased labor costs from forced labor settlements were a major factor in the results, but expenses surged in every major category except casualty clams. The Annual Report, published months late (by SEC standards), called this "... a good year."
The Annual Report, almost devoid of critical and relevant metrics of segment performance such as load factor, return on investment, and output in passenger miles, is a depressing celebration of Amtrak’s squandering of hundreds of millions of dollars of free federal subsidies on its absolutely least productive and most grossly over-served markets. Amtrak’s total revenues were higher in 1998 than in 2007, although "passenger ticket" revenues did reach a new record last year. Its operating ratio, at 1.48, has not improved in ten years.
What has improved is federal support. Amtrak’s subsidies during the Bush administration have averaged about $1.2 billion a year, fully 40% more than during the Clinton years. (Discounted for inflation, the growth in subsidy has not been that great in "real" terms). But, judging from the financial results reported for 2007, that money has not been prudently or effectively invested. Management’s entire focus has been on its least productive services, the short distance regional corridors.
9) At this given moment, Amtrak has a passenger car fleet of 1,345 active cars for nationwide use. Daily requirements call for 1,072 cars, so there is a very small cushion for cars to be taken out of service for maintenance, or if some cars are lost due to wrecks.
There are another 200 or so identifiable cars beyond the active car roster, a few of which are being rebuilt and refurbished to be put back into service, and others which Amtrak claims it has no money to rehabilitate so they can again generate income and revenue to the company.
If Amtrak was serious today about any small or medium expansion of its network, it could only dream and run trains on paper. There are so few passenger cars left that any type of serious route expansion is in jeopardy.
10) The House of Representative this week passed reauthorization legislation for Amtrak which is coupled to a bill requiring the installation and implementation of positive train control systems for all railroads throughout the country (Positive train control is a system which automatically stops a train if it has run a red stop signal or is in the wrong place at the wrong time instead of where the dispatcher has placed the train.).
The reauthorization legislation, which has not yet passed the Senate, will authorize (but, not appropriate; that is a separate process) billions of dollars for Amtrak, including the upgrading of some currently derelict passenger cars.
What the reauthorization doesn’t do is require Amtrak to be a better run company, nor spend its resources where the most good is accomplished, such as in the national long distance network.
The specific uses for the money is mostly up to the Amtrak Board of Directors and Amtrak’s cadre of executives. That’s pretty scary, because most likely most of the money will be spent propping up expensive-to-operate, but low revenue short distance and regional trains.
11) Amtrak’s moment is now; the opportunity is at hand to take advantage is a growing interest in a full renewal of passenger rail travel coast to coast. The looming question is whether or not Amtrak’s management understands the gravity and opportunity of the moment, and will do something which will benefit both Amtrak and our nation.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA