Image by °Florian via FlickrThis Week at Amtrak; July 20, 2009
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
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Volume 6, Number 23
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1) The Amtrak Board of Directors should be furious about this document. Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman, since this document was issued during his stewardship, should be fired immediately. The Amtrak planning department should be outright ashamed of themselves and simply die of embarrassment they took a paycheck for producing such an untoward piece of drivel and written chicanery.
We can only be discussing the July 16, 2009 issuance of Amtrak’s P.R.I.I.A. Section 226 Gulf Coast Service Plan Report, mandated last year by the Amtrak reauthorization. Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who placed a million dollars into Amtrak’s free federal money handout last year deserves a refund for her efforts. At 77 pages long, plus the cover, $12,820.51 for each page will long be noted by government watchdogs as one of the greatest misuses of money in the modern history of the United States government. Certainly, when Congresswoman Brown threw Amtrak this generous bone she most likely never dreamed Amtrak would come back with such an insulting document to her, her constituents, and American taxpayers.
The report is an outright disgrace and complete misrepresentation of facts to restore service east of New Orleans to Orlando, Florida after the Sunset Limited was “temporarily” discontinued in August of 2005 because of the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. Four years later, Amtrak’s planning department and Joe Boardman expect us to believe their fantasy document provides any credence whatsoever as to what it will take to restore service over the Sunset Limited route along the Gulf Coast.
2) Here’s a summary of the document by one interested observer who has contributed accurate reporting to this space in the past. Then, we’ll take a close look at the nuts and bolts of this written travesty that one other commentator who exposed his complete lack of knowledge of the railroad world incorrectly called “a realistic assessment of existing difficulties.”
First, the correct summary.
After reading the Amtrak report I basically held my thoughts and comments until I had a chance to see the input from people within the group who are much more knowledgeable about running a rail passenger system than am I. I believe I can say without exception none of the reports I've read are optimistic or approving of Amtrak's report which is precisely my opinion from the minute I finished reading it.
With the single exception of the report indicating that regardless of which option was selected it would include sleepers between New Orleans and Orlando this was a disheartening report. This inclusion of sleepers was not intimated in the oral reports given to this point concerning the "new train" (Option 3).
Option 1 (tri-weekly Sunset Limited) seemed to be the least desirable based on oral comments simply because of the odd arrangement of having a daily "stub" train arriving in New Orleans (this stub train was made to sound like all but a certainty), but continuing to Orlando only with a tri-weekly schedule. This naturally meant playing havoc with anyone trying to travel through New Orleans to points East. Yet the written report makes Option 1 appear as the best option based on several points. Option 2 (City of New Orleans) appeared to possibly be the best option based on early reports, but the written report makes it sound undesirable on several points.
It's obvious to even the most casual reader that the primary recurring theme from Amtrak is that they don't want to reinstate any service between New Orleans and Orlando. They do not say that specifically, but by any interpretation of the facts they've done everything they can to make the return of the route as difficult as possible from inflated costs to inflated time frames and convoluted passenger counts and miles. I would love to know the real reason Amtrak absolutely is not interested in running a New Orleans-Orlando train. Might be interesting.
There is little doubt that there has been for years strong opponents of Amtrak (with the Sunset being the punching bag). However, many of those voices of dissent have been silenced or at least muffled to a large extent. We have a president and Congress professing strong support for passenger rail, and actually providing funding. It would seem if ever there was a good time to push expansion and improvement of Amtrak it would be now.
Yet Amtrak seems to still be on the wrong track as usual. I've never seen a company run only for the benefit of the management and employees instead of the customers as is Amtrak. This is what comes from a government-funded company I guess. Their goal seems to be to get more and more government money, but they don't seem to know what to do with it. Amtrak management does not seem to have a plan. They can't even decide whether they want to have long-distance trains. They can't decide the best way to manage the Northeast Corridor. They can't decide how to manage dining car concepts. They can't decide what kinds of cars to order. They can't decide what routes to operate. They can't decide whether to have High Speed Rail or even what HSR is.
If Amtrak were a private company they would have gone bankrupt a long time ago. However, American management can't seem to operate auto companies, banks or insurance companies either. Maybe we shouldn't expect them to be able to operate a rail-passenger corporation. Possibly we should replace the entire Amtrak management team with Japanese rail executives. They seem to have no trouble running passenger rail. I cannot possibly see how it couldn't help but be an improvement.
I for one am fed up with Amtrak's lack of leadership, vision, planning, and just general inability to function effectively. If I remember correctly we paid $1 million for this "informative" report which basically tells us all the reasons Amtrak doesn't want to reinstate service to Orlando. We already knew that. I'm tired of seeing my tax money being wasted by an incompetent company.
If they had just reinstated the train when CSX opened the route all of this could have been avoided. Instead of telling us why they can't reinstate it now we'd be talking about how best to improve service on the route. You don't have to be a rail expert to know this is a snow job which is the one thing Amtrak has perfected during their existence. I've waited four years to catch a train in Pensacola, and now the best they can tell me is that it likely will be four more years if ever. Enough is enough. What a crock. I've no more patience with this nonsense.
Our only hope is if Congress puts their collective foot up Amtrak's posterior, and tells them to make things happen or they'll find people who can. Without that it's going to be business (or no business) as usual for years to come.
3) Amtrak says the dog ate its homework, so it can only do so much to restore service between New Orleans and Orlando. It lists three options, two of which are pretty reasonable.
The first option is to restore the service as it was before, re-extending the Sunset Limited (or it’s named replacement service) from New Orleans to Orlando on a tri-weekly basis, using the same maintenance facility at Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando, as it previously successfully used for a decade.
The second option is to extend the City of New Orleans, operating from Chicago to New Orleans via Memphis, Tennessee, to Orlando, an option long sought by United Rail Passenger Alliance. This option would – for the first time since 1979 – provide single train service between Chicago and Florida, with a schedule which feeds all of the western transcontinental trains eastbound into Chicago to cross-platform travelers to the City and to Florida.
The third option is to recreate the old Seaboard Air Line/Louisville & Nashville joint train, the Gulf Wind, as a stand-alone train between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, and extend it down to Orlando. The Gulf Wind was discontinued on Amtrak Day in 1971, and the service was eventually replaced by the Sunset Limited’s tri-weekly schedule in 1993 until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
4) Amtrak’s report has such blatantly false numbers as a basis for the document, and the assumptions use such discredited junk science in the transportation industry, that it’s tough to zero in on a starting point. So, the most understandable thing to do is to go through the report as presented and point out the numerous inaccuracies – and, frankly, outright lies – as stated.
Here’s the first laugh: “The service remains suspended today because of the cost and challenges associated with restoring service to this route.” Really? CSX, the primary host railroad of the route, which suffered considerable damage from Hurricane Katrina, had the track up and running and available to Amtrak on April 1, 2006. The CSX efforts included replacing huge stretches of track, bridges, signaling, switches, and every type of railroad infrastructure in the wake of Katrina. Amtrak’s relatively small challenges of rehabbing stations (many of which are municipally owned) pale in comparison to what CSX (and Norfolk Southern on its Crescent line into New Orleans just to the north of the CSX line along the Gulf Coast) had to accomplish, and was able to accomplish in seven months. Of course, the difference is CSX is a private, for-profit company, and every hour the railroad was out of service was an hour of revenue lost. In the case of Amtrak, it could blow off the service and still turn to Congress for more money with yet another, ongoing sob story. When there is no accountability, there is no progress.
The report notes a $10.7 million cost for restoring stations along the route, including $3.2 million for the demolition and reconstruction of the Sanford, Florida station, which was damaged from other hurricane preceding Katrina.
Whoops! The Sanford station is also on the route of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. The reasons Amtrak gave for closing the station initially had absolutely nothing to do with the Sunset Limited, but rather because Amtrak said there were enough other stations in the area (DeLand, Winter Park, Orlando, and Kissimmee), and Sanford served no useful purpose, plus eliminating the Sanford station stop sped up train schedules.
Also, on an adjoining piece of property to the old Atlantic Coast Line Sanford station and division office building, Amtrak is using stimulus money to build a brand new Auto Train station and terminal.
Now, Amtrak is telling us it wants another $3.2 million – charged directly to the restoration of the Sunset Limited route – to build another new Sanford station that will also serve the Silver Meteor and Silver Star? If this station is built for the restored service, will the Meteor and Star also use it? If this station is important enough to the overall financial health of this route, why wait for this service to be restored; why isn’t the station in some other vision plan for the future? And, better yet, why wasn’t the Auto Train’s new terminal planned and constructed so it could serve both the mainline trains and the Auto Train, too?
The other $7.5 million will be used to upgrade a relatively new station in Pensacola, Florida, and the old Seaboard Air Line station in Tallahassee, which was well out of the way of Katrina. Amtrak said in the report this money would be used to add American With Disabilities Act requirements to the stations, which, most when built or reconfigured for service in 1993 met most of those requirements.
The one major station project to be undertaken is a completely new station in Mobile, Alabama. That building was severely damaged by Katrina to the point CSX sold the damaged building to a real estate developer since it was in such bad shape. A completely new facility will have to be created in Mobile. However, as anyone who has ever traveled around the country on Amtrak knows, there have been many stations in large cities and small hamlets which have functioned well using an Amshack trailer for a building, and later permanent construction considered. St. Louis Union Trailers is perhaps the most famous of these stations, with new construction coming after decades of “temporary” shelter. A single station in Mobile should not be enough to hold up this project; most of the passenger platforms in Mobile are still in place and serviceable.
The report states a cost of $600,000 for improvements at Amtrak’s Sanford maintenance facility. Well, prior to Katrina, the Sunset’s equipment base was in Sanford, and the maintenance crews there did an exemplary job of maintaining the train. Why, now, more than half a million dollars for upgrades? Is it just because as long as Amtrak is making a wish list or a discouragement list, this $600,000 of Other Peoples Money is necessary?
Amtrak’s report makes an assumption $20 million will be necessary to install Positive Train Control (PTC), as required by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 by 2015 on portions of the route solely because of restoration of passenger service. This is an issue we will delve into in a very soon future issue of This Week at Amtrak. CSX had indicated some of the current route may be downgraded because it can route some of its hazmat and other trains requiring the use of PTC on a similar route via Montgomery, Alabama.
5) One of the biggest ticket items in the report is alleged additional passenger rolling stock which would be required to operate either an extended City of New Orleans (two train sets) or a new overnight Gulf Wind (the same number of new cars). Amtrak estimates the need of between six and 14 new passenger cars, at a cost of $24 million to $63 million.
This is perhaps one of the most incredible and ludicrous parts of the report. Amtrak says it could take up to four years (yes, you read that right) to get either of these trains running because that is the time to design, plan, order, and build new passenger cars specifically for this route. Such hogwash.
A review of Amtrak’s current System Fleet Pan for Fiscal Year 2009 indicates after the few Superliners which will be taken out of the wreck line and restored with stimulus funds monies, 32 Superliners of every description, including coaches, diners, lounges, and sleepers will still be available to be taken out of storage and rebuilt for service. Even if Amtrak needs the maximum number of 14 cars it says it does, that still leave another 18 Superliners to be restored for other uses. New cars, designed and built specifically for this service? Why? Amtrak already owns all of the cars it needs; it’s a question of using existing assets through rebuilds and rehabilitation instead of the lengthy and expensive process of creating a new fleet of cars. In the report, Amtrak says it could cost up to $63 million to buy these new cars. If every car to be rebuilt cost as much as $1.5 million to rebuild (that follows what Amtrak is spending in stimulus funds currently for rebuilding Superliner cars), that a tab of only $21 million, not up to $63 million. It must be wonderful to plan and spend Other Peoples Money with great abandon when you have no accountability.
But, wait! you implore. Some of those Superliners are slated to be used IF the Pioneer is restored or IF the North Coast Limited is restored. Yes, that may be so. First come, first served. If the restoration of the Sunset’s route can fill that crucial gap before the gaps of the Pioneer and the North Coast Limited are ready to be filled, get in line, folks.
6) When we start delving into the financial aspects of this report, things become more complicated. Amtrak makes several wrong assumptions.
The report says ridership was a primary consideration in selecting the three preferred route options. Amtrak says if option one is used, and a tri-weekly Sunset Limited is restored, ridership will be 53,300 a year. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, an average of 45% of the Sunset’s ridership and revenues came from east of New Orleans. In FY 08, the Sunset, operating only west of New Orleans, had ridership of 71,700 passengers. A projection of 53,300 (171 passengers per trip) is probably the closest thing to a legitimate number in the entire report, although that figure could probably be altered up by 25% and still be a legitimate figure.
Everyone knows in the real, non-Amtrak world, business plan forecasts always figure revenue low and expenses high. Amtrak, of course, being Amtrak, has taken this to heart and grossly distorted its numbers for ridership, revenue, and expenses.
Option two, the extension of the City of New Orleans, creating a single train route from Chicago to Orlando, has the greatest chance of success, and Amtrak terribly underestimates its potential. Today’s City of New Orleans has ridership of 197,400 per year (FY 08), and Amtrak says an extended version of that will only bring in an additional 96,100 passengers on the haul to Orlando.
They are saying the system’s only Chicago-Florida train, with the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Lake Shore Limited, and all of the Chicago regional trains feeding into the City would only generate additional business to Florida, projected to be less than half of what the City carries today between Chicago and New Orleans via Memphis. One has to wonder exactly what Amtrak’s planning department is smoking on their lunch breaks. It’s unlikely enough equipment could be found on this train to make it 18 cars which would serve as a replacement for the long, lost Floridian, gone since 1979.
Option three, a reconstituted and stretched Gulf Wind, running as a stand-alone train between New Orleans and Orlando on an overnight schedule is, according to Amtrak, the most expensive to operate and not very productive, with a predicted ridership of 79,900, because, as Amtrak says, the train would have to have connecting passengers from the eastbound Sunset Limited successor, and the southbound City of New Orleans. Amtrak uses old and discredited junk science to say passengers will not want to detrain at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, spend a few hours in the Crescent City, and entrain for a late afternoon departure and midday arrival in Orlando.
Uh, lessee, well, airlines create their entire route systems around hubs, and passengers hub for bus travel, too. Amtrak expects all of its passengers north of New York City to hub in Washington for Florida trains and the Crescent, after arriving there on Northeast Corridor trains. Lots and lots and lots of passengers hub every day in Chicago for destinations all over the country, and Los Angeles is a big hub, too, not to mention Seattle and Portland, Oregon, and a half a dozen other hubs in the Amtrak system.
So, why is there a dire prediction about hubbing in New Orleans? Is this just another use of discredited junk science to make the report read badly so no service will be restored east of New Orleans? What is the prejudice the Amtrak planners have about those of us living in Florida or along the Gulf Coast? Is there some sort of genetic trait we have that makes us unworthy of passenger train travel? Do these people think all we do is marry our cousins and drink beer and never want to travel?
Here’s something else to put a smile on your face. Amtrak’s planners say the route between New Orleans and Orlando is adversely impacted by the circuitry of the rail route, a passenger train having to travel 769 miles versus 639 miles by automobile, and what it calls slow speeds which result in a trip time of 18.5 hours versus 9.6 by automobile.
Well. If that’s the case, why doesn’t Amtrak just turn out the lights and go home? It’s also much faster to travel from Jacksonville, Florida to Richmond, Virginia by automobile (less than 10 hours) than by Amtrak (12 and a half hours). But, that doesn’t mean everyone wants – or is able – to drive. It’s also much, much quicker to take a jet airplane, but that’s not always comfortable or easy or desirable for everyone, either.
The point of travel by train is just that – travel by train. Every individual train in Amtrak’s system to connected to every other train in the system through the matrix theory. Everything connects with everything (although, sometimes inconveniently), and every train feeds other trains.
Amtrak’s rather boorish presumption a new Gulf wind will only haul local business, and only haul those who want to avoid driving is hogwash. Amtrak provides a viable travel choice. Most likely, the Amtrak planning department denizens would be shocked to know someone from Washington State or Oregon may have an interest in riding a new Gulf Wind between New Orleans and Tallahassee or Jacksonville, or Palatka or DeLand or Orlando. That’s the beauty of the matrix theory. To presume little or no traffic from connecting trains, especially strong feeders like the City of New Orleans and a daily Sunset Limited (or replacement of that named train) west of New Orleans is like saying a gas station on an Interstate highway exit will only sell gas to local residents, and no travelers from other areas will ever stop at the station.
7) Let’s use the existing City of New Orleans as a model for this route. The City’s route is similar in length, 926 miles versus the projected length of 769 miles. The City begins in Chicago and ends in New Orleans, and has only one other major city on its route – Memphis, Tennessee. It has a number of smaller cities and state capitals along its route, such as Jackson, Mississippi. Much of the route of the City is rural, such as the route between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida. Since the southern terminal for the proposed Gulf Wind is Orlando, one of the world’s largest vacation destinations, the travel data for that city equals – if not exceeds – that of Chicago.
Let’s look at the characteristics of the City of New Orleans for FY 2008.
Total Revenue – $14,864,600
Passenger Miles – 93,433,000
Ridership – 197,400
Average Length of Trip – 473.3 miles
Train Miles – 666,000
Passengers per Train Mile – 140.3
Revenue per Passenger Mile – 15.91 cents
Load Factor – 63.8%
Available Seat Miles – 146,375,952
Here’s what Amtrak estimates for the three options east of New Orleans to Orlando.
Option One, Tri-Weekly extension of the Sunset Limited (or named replacement service)
Ridership – 53,300
Option Two, Extension of the City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Orlando
Ridership – 96,100
Option Three, Creation of a new stand-alone, connecting train, labeled the Gulf Wind by Amtrak
Ridership – 79,900
Amtrak says it used its normal methods to determine ridership, including “Ridership and revenue impacts for each alternative were estimated utilizing models and data Amtrak has developed to measure the impact of now or changed services. The inputs included surveys of Amtrak’s long distance passengers; socio-economic data; and forecasts of population and income in the areas served by each station.” Amtrak goes on correctly to say it includes data between Jacksonville and Orlando where a third frequency would increase travel opportunities for the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, and therefore, that ridership would grow, too.
What Amtrak did not bother to measure is overall passenger traffic along the line. Using Amtrak’s data, it is all based on population, and only the desire of the local population to travel. It does not account for incoming traffic from other routes or other parts of the country, and it does not account for Amtrak’s typical one tenth of one percent of the domestic transportation output Amtrak commands.
When using real data, we discover Interstate 10 parallels the route between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, and on any given day at any given intermediate rural point (outside of local traffic using the Interstate in such places as Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, etc.), an average of 36,000 to 70,000 passenger vehicles (excluding trucks hauling freight) pass a measuring point on the Interstate. What Amtrak is projecting a year for ridership, the Interstate hosts in a day, and we are unable to measure how many occupants are in each vehicle.
The same holds true for air transportation. When culling city pair information from the government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we learn travelers between Chicago and Orlando are measured in six and seven figure numbers, not counting other intermediate city pairs along this route.
As previously stated, Amtrak also eschews any real cross-platform business in New Orleans to bolster its numbers. It presumes people will not intentionally schedule connections from one train route to another. Apparently, Amtrak’s planning department, located in Washington, never bothers to stroll through Washington Union Station to see the millions of annual riders who make train connections there, or the millions who connect through Chicago or other points.
Therefore, Amtrak’s numbers for ridership, expenses, and every other category beyond basic diesel fuel are not credible.
Looking at the ridership and revenue passenger mile figures for the present City of New Orleans we see numbers which are double what Amtrak projects for east of New Orleans. These numbers are a more accurate barometer than Amtrak’s report numbers.
8) One final point. Amtrak’s report says the company wants an incredible 20 months or more to recruit and train operating personnel for this route.
Back in 1993 (before HD television), it took Amtrak substantially less than a year to – from scratch – create this service on a tri-weekly basis east of New Orleans. Apparently, the “can do” people who were running Amtrak at that time must be long gone, replaced by a group comfortable in their government-subsidized paychecks with no worries in the world, and no hurry to fulfill Amtrak’s national mission of providing passenger service to the lower 48 states.
Twenty months? Even if it has been four years since the Sunset last operated east of New Orleans, many of the train and engine crew members are still employees of Amtrak, just working other routes
9) There is much more ground to cover, but you get the idea. Amtrak fraudulently wasted $1 million of taxpayer money creating a worthless document with false data, incorrect assumptions, and incomplete conclusions.
This type of fiasco has been going on for far too long at Amtrak. Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman has been in office for nine months now, and this was created under his stewardship. He is ultimately responsible. He needs to be gone, at the earliest moment.
It’s worth noting a phrase from the last edition of TWA, taken from the Amtrak This Week employee publication story about the first restored passenger car coming out of the shops.
“An expanded fleet is a critical part of our ability to grow,” said Vice President of Policy and Development Stephen Gardner. “We need these cars as we pursue new service in partnership with states and also to increase capacity along existing routes where demand exceeds what we can currently offer.”
Still no future vision, still no business plan better than gouging individual states for money for short distance trains. If Mr. Gardner’s statement holds true, then Amtrak truly isn’t interested in expanding the long distance system and the entire $1 million exercise was just done to appease a Member of Congress.
So, at this point, is Amtrak worth saving? Or, is it time for a complete make over with an entire new leadership team which will have the ability to unleash the power and potential of Amtrak and allow many of the good managers and executives there to do their jobs properly and with some enthusiasm?
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA