Image via WikipediaThis Week at Amtrak; September 4, 2009
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
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Volume 6, Number 35
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1) An interesting collection of mail came flying over the This Week at Amtrak transom this week. Plus (see item number five, below) an answer from Congresswoman Corrine Brown on the future of passenger rail east of New Orleans and into Florida.
First, a regular rider of the Empire Builder from cold country.
Allow me to share my observations about Amtrak's "state of good repair" on it's most important train (at least outside the vaunted Northeast Corridor), the Empire Builder. I refer to this train often as Amtrak's "most important" or "most successful" train simply because it earns more revenue, by a wide margin, than any other single train they operate.
I have had the opportunity to travel on the Empire Builder several times this summer for short trips (about 300 miles one way, 600 round trip each time), on personal business. I have done these in coach on a daytime leg of the itinerary, between Milwaukee and St. Paul, but have made the point of walking the train each time to look at the interior and gauge the patronage, and I have also used the lounge and diner each time.
You may recall several years ago, when Amtrak went through its most recent spasm of trying to starve itself into prosperity by cutting way back on the quality of on board food service on its overnight trains, it also conducted an experiment by actually upgrading the Empire Builder to see if an elevated level of service and quality would support a higher fare level than on the run-of-the-mill long distance train.
As part of the experiment, the Empire Builder is supposed to be (but, this year rarely is) equipped with all Superliner II rolling stock and the better engines, to assure a top quality customer experience. The idea, I suppose, was to use all recently-refurbished rolling stock to minimize the frequency of equipment malfunctions like air conditioning failures, ratty carpets, inoperative toilets and doors, etc. They also staffed the Builder exclusively from the Seattle crew base, using mostly re-trained, top-quality on board service staff.
The dining car kept the previous Amtrak-standard meal service, with Amtrak china and stainless flatware, and more-or-less cooked on board meals. The train already had some of the best time-keeping in the country, due to attentive dispatching by BNSF Railroad on the Builder's "home rails" on the ex-Great Northern Railroad "High Line" across northern Montana and North Dakota. (On other trips, I have seen BNSF put their top-priority freight "Z-trains" on a siding to let the Builder run through.) And, they added a summer-only "upstairs guy" to work the upper level snack kiosk in the lounge car (in addition to the full snack bar downstairs), between Chicago and Whitefish. The Empire Builder does not offer a separate first class lounge environment like the "Pacific Parlour Car" on the Starlight, or the "Park" cars on VIA's Canadian, and other overnight trains.
What I have seen this summer, however, in terms of the rolling stock is a sadly degraded environment. The fares are as high as ever (sleeper fares especially are breathtaking on this train), but, the cars are not clean, even on No. 7 westbound leaving Chicago; some are smelly; restrooms are not in good shape physically or mechanically (i.e., they work, but it seems there is always some issue with them – water splashing around from the faucets, toilets don't flush, door locks are jammed, etc.); surfaces are badly worn out in places, leaving a third-world impression of tattered and worn, ill-kept, trains. Signage is worn out or missing, or crudely hand-written and taped up. Things are literally falling apart inside the cars.
The lounge cars are not well-kept, with many seats patched, and floors worn out. And again, this is supposed to be Amtrak's best effort (in the west).
I have NEVER seen any main-line train in this kind of physical condition in Europe (except in the United Kingdom).
The dining car, on each trip on No. 7, has sold out at dinner and turned away customers, despite serving from 5 P.M. through to well after 9 P.M. Sporadically, for a variety of reasons, the diner has resorted to plastic plates and utensils ("the dishwasher is broken" or "we weren't stocked properly at Chicago").
There have been discussions inside and outside the company this summer about promoting this and the other long distance trains with a renewed advertising effort. But, I have to say I am skeptical, based on my trips this summer. I fear almost any ad campaign is likely to create a consumer expectation which will be inevitably disappointed by the actual travel experience, even if employees are well behaved, and the train is on time.
A majority of the other customers with whom I have interacted are still first-timers or foreigners, so even in 2009 many "first impressions" are being formed with every trip. Since mid-June, each Empire Builder I have ridden has had more than 300 passengers on board between St. Paul, Minnesota and La Crosse, Wisconsin, or vice versa. Conductors frequently make public address system announcements to the effect the Builder is or will shortly be completely full, and people cannot use two seats for one person.
The sleepers appear to be heavily – if not fully – booked. They are operating a single coach as an extra car between Chicago and St. Paul, and it appears to sell out each trip (it runs in the computer as "Train 807/808"). Amtrak turns over anywhere between 90 and 125 passengers at St. Paul on each train. One cannot help but wonder how many other would-be customers have been turned away this summer for lack of carrying capacity. That adds up to a lot of people who, if not exactly "never-agains," are at least left with negative impressions, and far from a "come back soon" experience.
It is hard to experience an on-board environment like this, where there is both physical/mechanical decay and a slow erosion of service quality, in a train carrying so much promise and potential. It's almost heartbreaking at times. And, at times one gets angry, wondering what this train could be if management had chosen to invest a trivial fraction of the $1.3 billion dollars in subsidy they get each year from congress into keeping these cars in an actual state of good repair, and supporting the on-board service people, to create a truly premium travel experience.
Northwest Airlines airplanes aren't rolling junk, even though parts break periodically, and I'll bet money no brand-name cruise ship is even remotely like these aging Superliners. It just doesn't have to be this way on a premier passenger train. Amtrak already has that much money available. They just haven't chosen to spend it here. It has gone to other uses, because first former President and CEO Alex Kummant and now Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman have chosen to use it elsewhere instead of here. And that is disappointing, and a lost opportunity.
A perpetual optimist
This is yet another example of a promise Amtrak management made to its employees it has made a conscious decision not to keep. When the crew base for the Empire Builder was moved from Chicago to Seattle, there was a promise made to employees who chose to work this train, telling them they would have first-rate equipment to work with and provide their passengers good service. Oops! It didn’t take very long for Amtrak to slip back into its wicked ways, and start putting junk equipment back on the Empire Builder.
The country this train traverses is breathtaking. The route of the Empire Builder rivals that of its VIA Rail Canada cousin to the North, The Canadian. between Vancouver and Toronto. Tourists from all over the world are willing to pay big bucks to ride the Canadian and experience a level of passenger service often unknown on Amtrak.
But, here’s the kicker. Most of the equipment on The Canadian is half a century old, or older. The Canadian runs Budd built equipment originally designed and ordered for Canadian Pacific Railway when The Canadian was the flagship of a combined travel system that stretched nearly around the world and included passenger trains, ocean-going cruise liners, and an airline.
VIA Rail Canada has lately let some of that equipment slide into a less than perfect state of repair, but it is still much better maintained than newer equipment on Amtrak which is half of its age, or even younger. The VIA equipment underwent a major renovation, but that was about 20 years ago.
With all of the cash Amtrak’s long distance trains throw off to the company, why is there constantly a choice made to squeeze these trains until it hurts, even though they are the geese laying the golden eggs?
2) This came from another part of the country.
Dear Mr. Richardson,
I have really enjoyed your TWA articles and the website for the last nine years since they provide an alternative to the doom and gloom that I've read from most railfans. Your group's solutions to this country's passenger rail system are very unique.
I have some thoughts in regards to a recent column. I would actually go a bit further than the reader in the August 19th issue and turn O'Hare into a second main Chicago station based on former Amtrak Reform Council member James Coston’s comments in the April 5, 2007 edition, where he talked about Union Station being “beyond obsolete” due to “crowd control and user friendliness problems.” Why not have a stop at one of the world's busiest airports? It would provide air travelers and locals another option. I will also suggest Union Station be skipped by some O'Hare trains and be served by a select few trains primarily for transfer purposes to/from other trains.
Even though I don't live in the Windy City, it's a good thing they have four major train stations left over from the Golden Age of Rail. I believe once we know the operators of certain Midwest High Speed Rail routes (and it's very likely that Amtrak will be outbid on some of these contracts), some of the other companies may want to leave Union Station to less crowded areas.
Here are how the other three main stations in addition to Union Station could play a role in a post-monopolistic intercity rail industry:
A) The Oglivie Transportation Center (former CN&W station) could provide service for Hiawatha service to the Twin Cities and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Also, another operator could choose to serve alternate stops between Chicago and Milwaukee, like Kenosha and Racine.
B) Millennium Station. The Randolph Street station could host Illini and Saluki routes, the super HSR St. Louis service (if it can get pulled off), and maybe, Cleveland service; and
C) The La Salle Street Station could host Quad Cities/Iowa/Omaha service and/or Cleveland service.
To alleviate the problem of changing trains and operators, HSR authorities like MWHSR should work out a special transfer program for passengers if they have to transfer from one station to another operator at a different station in the same city. That would guarantee passengers a connection (e.g., A passenger on the westbound Capitol Limited needing to take a high-speed train to Madison would get his or her transfer at Union Station and take a cab to the Ogilvie Transportation Center to continue on to Madison).
Impressive thoughts, aren’t they? Passenger rail historians will recall it was common in the pre-Amtrak days to shuttle both passengers and passenger rail cars between stations in Chicago for through-train service.
It’s not hard for many people to peer into the future and see a fascinating world of passenger rail. Amtrak seems to be the only group of people constantly incapable of doing this.
3) And, finally, these thoughts came from Georgia.
Thank you again for this [last] weekend's editions of TWA. As always, they continue to be enlightening. Here are some random thoughts from my Monday Morning brain.
I do not wish to disparage Dr. Herzog's academic mind and practical experience. In reading his proposal, has Host Railroad cooperation been taken into consideration? I feel like three routes daily on all those lines listed would work great on a privately owned, passenger-only right of way, but in the real world of constant delays (some Amtrak's fault, others the Hosts' fault) and even one-per-day run trains regularly (quarterly, perhaps?) encroaching on the train ahead of it, and then turn-arounds and bustitution to get people where they need to go, to multiply that liability as well by three, would seem to clog up the freight network in a manner that the Hosts would not care to take such risk on.
My random thought on HSR is that it should overlay current Amtrak routes and be completely separate (preferably not even run by Amtrak). If you take Dr. Herzog's plan and you overlay an HSR system on top of it, you would have major cities connected with few, if any, stops in between.
Stations would be co-located with current Amtrak stations, but all new. It would have to be all new because HSR should never be envisioned without being at least Class 8 service with a dedicated ROW and no grade crossings.
Boston would be connected to Miami with stops in Providence, Hartford, New York Penn, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia, Savannah, Jacksonville, Orlando, and West Palm. You could break it up with Washington being the focal terminus. The existing Amtrak system would then be Dr. Herzog's "milk run" stations, taking people from the co-located Amtrak/HSR stations and moving them to their local destination.
My thoughts aren't completely random, as this is very similar to the way HSR was introduced in Japan nearly 50 years ago. “Shinkansen” means “New Trunk Line,” and that's what they did – all new ROW with major stations co-located with local service to intermediate locations (that were not necessarily along the same ROW).
Additionally, there is a desperate need for SE to NW corridors. But I think you know that already.
Dr. Herzog was a primary supporter of changing the way Amtrak deals with its host railroads. Like many others of us at United Rail Passenger Alliance, Dr. Herzog felt Amtrak underpays its host railroads for use of tracks and dispatching, and Dr. Herzog felt a new bond should be forged where everyone played equally, without winners or losers when it came to private, freight railroads hosting Amtrak passenger trains.
For so many years, we have all been indoctrinated with the thought Amtrak can’t run trains because host railroad main lines are clogged with freight trains.
While there is some validity to this, that concept has often been a convenient excuse for host railroads to subvert the law which they agreed to at the formation of Amtrak which allows Amtrak access to any two chosen steaks of rust in the country, pending a deal where maintenance costs are worked out if upgraded rails are necessary to host passenger trains safely and comfortably.
For Amtrak to grow and prosper, the word “no” needs to be filtered out of its corporate vocabulary.
If a passenger route can support more than one daily frequency (which is the case on EVERY passenger route Amtrak runs.), then what adjustments need to be made between Amtrak and its host railroad to make this happen? More sidings? Some other type of realignments? Never has the time been more providential than now to determine what needs to be done to host more passenger trains and at the same time have the freight railroads not suffer any inconvenience for the sake of Amtrak passengers.
The freight railroads, through the Association of American Railroads, have indicated a willingness to sit down and discuss more passenger trains. Government has indicated a willingness to come up with funding mechanisms to make this happen.
Now is the time to focus on the future and why things can be accomplished, not why not things can’t be accomplished.
4) Had a conversation with the map maker referred to in the last edition of TWA about the continuing work of creating a map of the late Dr. Adrian Herzog’s vision for a full and robust Amtrak system.
The map maker is still hard at work.
5) To date, we have heard no official word from Congresswoman Corrine Brown of here in Jacksonville in regard to Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Service report she inserted a million bucks into Amtrak appropriation last year to pay for.
However, her primary aide which handles transportation issues, Nick Martinelli was quoted this week by reporter Leo King on www.examiner.com.
[Begin quote from Mr. King’s article of Thursday, September 3, 2009]
Returning to Amtrak and trains along the Gulf Coast, he said, “Any rational person would say, ‘We need to address some of the issues with the costs on the long lines, – the Sunset Limited, when we get that back – and, of course, running the whole way to L.A. Those prices are really expensive and there are flights that are cheaper, but you have to think of the system holistically, and I think that’s the way the Congresswoman and a lot of people do.”
The Sunset may not return, but there is movement to bring passenger rail service from New Orleans to Jacksonville and on to Orlando.
“No question. The Congresswoman would kill them if they didn’t. That’s ideal. It is expensive and the problem that we’re facing now is that states have to be partners in this system to maintain the things and do that instead of ‘Look, we’ve got no money. The federal government wants us, they need to do it.’
Martinelli said “They presented a couple of options. Amtrak isn’t even love with running that Sunset Limited line because it’s expensive for them, so they weren’t going to kill themselves to rebuild the line, but CSX was up in a year, had the system up and going. That’s something we’re going to have to pressure Amtrak [on].”
Well. Many of us were waiting for a comment from Congresswoman Brown on what she got for her (our) money with the Amtrak report.
Now, we know. Her office wants to pressure Amtrak on restoring service, BUT, Mr. Martinelli said “now that state have to be partners [financially].”
So, does this mean no train unless Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida pony up the money?
And, of course, we know this brings us to the precipice of the very, very slippery slope that if Amtrak can put on a mask and use a gun to hold up the three states east of New Orleans, then a precedent is set and it can try this type of robbery ANYWHERE ELSE in the country (Except, probably, the sainted Northeast Corridor, where no states EVER have to pay for anything.).
Somebody needs to stop this madness, right now.
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