Image via WikipediaThis Week at Amtrak; November 17, 2009
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
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail email@example.com • http://www.unitedrail.org
Volume 6, Number 46
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which 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, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.
1) Here is the text of a speech delivered to the Florida Coalition of Rail Passengers here in Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday, November 7, 2009 by this writer.
It’s been an interesting week for the railroad business; changes we couldn’t imagine a decade ago have suddenly become true. America again has a “railroad robber baron” – but, this time, it’s a benevolent man who may be the smartest businessman in the world.
Warren Buffett said he would cheerfully pay $34 billion for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and BNSF said they would cheerfully accept his offer.
While many people agree this is not going to launch a series of mergers – there isn’t much left to merge other than creating a transcontinental railroad – this is a game changer. BNSF under private ownership no longer has to act by the dictates of Wall Street.
Think of the BNSF deal as a giant-sized version of what happened to our own Florida East Coast Railroad: going private allowed it to think radically outside of the box.
The FEC – after over a decade of waiting – has partnered with the Florida Department of Transportation and Amtrak to restore passenger service on its coast route between Jacksonville and Miami. Now, start thinking about BNSF and passenger service – they have already publicly indicated if the right business opportunity comes along, they will talk about it.
Reading the FEC/FDOT proposal – which is part of the national grab for high speed rail stimulus money – gives any reader respect for the Florida DOT.
Amtrak has its usual equipment demands, because both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star will again be split here in Jacksonville, and half of the consists will go to Miami via Orlando, and half go on the FEC.
The best part is the request for additional local regional trains running between Jacksonville and Miami to provide a higher level of frequencies. The most obvious part left out is extending the Palmetto south of Savannah and running it down the FEC or perhaps over to Tampa.
The only part of Florida’s rail plan found wanting is mention of doing something to bolster Tampa’s conventional train service. In the Tampa Bay area we have Florida’s second largest metropolitan area, and it’s level of train service is less than that of Sebring and Palatka.
If you really want to look at the unfairness of it all, take a look at Florida’s panhandle. The people living there pay all of the same taxes we pay, but their train – the Sunset Limited – went away because Amtrak doesn’t want to bother restoring the train after a hurricane that happened over four years ago temporarily tore up some track.
As I join you today on behalf of United Rail Passenger Alliance, my late friend and predecessor, Austin Coates, was no stranger to this group or many of you personally. We’ve never forgotten Austin’s most famous line regarding Amtrak – “it’s just business as usual.”
More than half a decade after Austin’s passing, we need to help Amtrak stop its continuing “business as usual.”
Let’s look at how Amtrak has treated us here in Florida over the past 25 years or so.
Going back to the pre-Amtrak days, Florida had so many passenger trains you couldn’t walk very far without tripping over one. Florida was a state built by the passenger train.
We had the Seaboard’s Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmland, Sunland, and Gulf Wind. Not only did we have service to Miami, but we also had service down the middle of the state and from Tampa down the west coast to Venice.
The Atlantic Coast Line provided us with service on the East Coast Champion, West Coast Champion, Gulf Coast Special, seasonal Florida Special, and the Everglades. The ACL on the west coast would take you to Fort Myers.
From Chicago and the Midwest, you could catch the City of Miami, South Wind, Seminole, or Dixie Flyer.
Until just a couple of years prior to Amtrak, the Florida East Coast even operated its daily two car train between Miami and Jacksonville.
Then came Amtrak Day in 1971.
Amtrak Day wasn’t as bad for Florida as elsewhere, for we still had the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Champion, and South Wind. We lost the Gulf Wind, and that huge – and currently unfilled gap – between Jacksonville and New Orleans opened up. We lost service south of Tampa on the west coast. But you could still get to Florida from Chicago with single train service, and you had three choices from New York to Florida, and both coasts and the middle of Florida through Ocala were still served.
We all know what has happened since then.
The once busy crew and maintenance base in Tampa is gone, with just a single daily train remaining. Naturally, this occurred only after the City of Tampa decided to spend a king’s ransom on the breathtaking restoration of Tampa Union Station.
Miami, once the golden goose of passenger railroading, now has two trains a day.
The South Wind, then the Floridian, with direct Chicago service, is gone.
The Cross Florida service between Tampa and Miami came and went.
The extended Palmetto from Savannah to Jacksonville, and eventually to Tampa, and then turned into the Silver Palm to Miami – is gone.
We now have Auto Train, but unless you’re taking along your car and only have a destination of Northern Virginia or beyond, it’s not the most useful service in Amtrak’s stable.
Then, there is the sad saga of the Sunset Limited. We all worked hard in Florida to bring the Sunset to us in 1993. The State of Florida ponied up over $7 million to help upgrade the CSX line in the panhandle.
We knew prior to the Sunset’s extension, there was an average of 75,000 calls per year into the Amtrak res centers seeking a train between New Orleans and Florida.
Now, the Sunset is almost history. I say “almost” because it never officially went away, just in reality went away. As [FCRP member] George Bollinger often asks, “what if it had been the Seaboard and L&N that had suddenly decided to stop running the Gulf Wind, just because it was inconvenient?”
For a while, unknowing people tried to blame our friends – yes, make no mistake about it, at CSX they are our friends – for not allowing Amtrak to resume service on the Sunset. But, we know CSX gave Amtrak written notice the line was available for the Sunset on April 1, 2006.
By law, when Amtrak cancels an entire train route, it is supposed to post a 180 day notice of cancellation. This minor technicality to Amtrak has never been honored, with the ongoing excuse of not only did the dog eat Amtrak’s homework, but Amtrak merely “suspended” the service due to conditions wrought by the hurricane.
A number of union jobs on all levels were lost by the suspension of the Sunset. Yet, Amtrak’s unions have chosen to do nothing about this. No union filed a lawsuit, no union screamed at the top of its organized lungs about this flagrant abuse of the law.
Congresswoman Corrine Brown put $1 million into last year’s Amtrak reauthorization to study the restoration of the Amtrak route. We know the result of that; a lot of paper with a lot of excuses and reasons why Amtrak doesn’t want to restart the service.
The quickest, cheapest, cleanest way to restore service is to extend the City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Orlando.
Because of bad equipment scheduling, the City trainsets sit for a full day in New Orleans before they return to Chicago. On any given day there are two trainsets in Louisiana, the one just departing New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal and the one about to arrive at NOUPT. By extending the route to Orlando, only one extra trainset would be required to bring the train to Florida.
Amtrak will instantly whine about stations; the only real station problem is at Mobile, where the Eisenhower-era relic of the L&N Railroad’s poor choice of architect station building was mercifully torn down after Katrina. The only problem for Mobile is finding a new spot for a platform and placement of a temporary Amshack.
Remember, the only manned stations between New Orleans and Jacksonville were Mobile, Pensacola, and Tallahassee. Everything else was just a platform and city-run shelter.
Many of my readers of This Week at Amtrak know I talk about the Sunset and the City of New Orleans a lot, and there’s a reason for that. From 1996 to 2000, I was a paid consultant to the Gulf Coast Business Group, working with both of those trains, plus the Crescent. My late business partner and I specialized in marketing for these trains, creating onboard services programs, the highly successful 24 hour dining car test runs on the Sunset, and handled special events, such as station openings and helped with the inaugural of the Gulf Coast Limited. Even today, those are still my trains.
From 1999 to 2000, we ran the Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans Promotional Office for Amtrak from our offices here in Jacksonville. We worked a number of projects that brought new riders to the Sunset and City through radio and television station promotions, worked with local media, and even hosted a dining car gathering in Memphis for local and regional media food critics.
Like any large company, we found white hats and black hats inside of Amtrak. Some very good people left because of the constant problems caused by the black hats, and others left merely because Amtrak was not the most pleasant place to work if you weren’t part of the good old boy network.
But, there is a shrinking core group of dedicated people who are there because they like running passenger trains.
What can we do to help those at Amtrak who want the company to succeed?
First, everyone must realize there is more than one answer to Amtrak’s problems. Those who constantly plead “we all have to work together” generally mean we all have to agree with them, and forget about any other solutions.
Second, we have to realize the reality of passenger rail around the world. Amtrak constantly wants us to believe no passenger rail system in the world makes money. This is only an excuse to enable Amtrak’s dysfunctional behavior.
I invite you to do your own research; scan credible publications like the International Railway Journal and read the stories about passenger rail systems in The Netherlands, Germany, and Japan which make money.
Doubters say this isn’t true, these companies are still propped up by their governments. Wrong. Some of these systems may operate over government owned right of way – just as trains do on the Northeast Corridor – but they still pay a train mile fee. Some of the systems share the rails with freight trains – just like Amtrak – and they receive a benefit – just like Amtrak – from the shared cost of infrastructure.
For years, URPA has been crunching numbers and seeing almost every long distance train in the Amtrak system makes money “above the rail.” This is the same system used by other countries – based on operating costs, not full infrastructure maintenance costs – and revenue passenger miles.
One thing URPA has talked about for decades is Amtrak’s erroneous use of warm body counts in the form of ridership instead of the real world metrics of load factor and revenue passenger miles. Amtrak wants us to be wowed by warm body counts, which are meaningless. What matters is how far you carry a passenger, and what revenue you derive from a passenger, not how many passengers.
Which passenger would you rather have: one passenger traveling the 608 mile average length of trip on the Silver Meteor at 15.7 cents a revenue passenger mile ... or four passengers on Oklahoma’s Heartland Flyer, traveling an average length of trip of 175 miles at 12 cents a revenue passenger mile? That one passenger on the Meteor not only makes Amtrak more money than the four passengers on the Heartland Flyer, but that one passenger will also spend more money onboard in the diner and lounge, had less cost to the national reservations system, less to reach through marketing, and tracks all the way through Amtrak’s accounting system with less costs because Amtrak is handling one passenger instead of four.
When the late Graham Claytor – without a doubt Amtrak’s best president – retired from Amtrak in 1993, the company was generating internally enough money to cover 72% of its 1989 $1.7 billion operating budget, up from 48% in 1981. Today, that number has slipped dramatically, down to about 60%.
Since Mr. Claytor retired, we have seen a virtual parade of permanent and semi-permanent interim chief executive for Amtrak, from Tom Downs to George Warrington to David Gunn to David Hughes to Alex Kummant to today’s Joe Boardman.
Every new Amtrak president seems to have made the company worse in so many ways. We’ve seen the Heritage fleet – which is highly valued and treasured by VIA Rail Canada today – sold off. The original Pennsylvania Railroad Metroliners were scrapped. The Turboliners were rehabbed with someone else’s money, and then suddenly hidden and stored, and are now for sale.
We have seen the delivery – and subsequent running off the wheels – of the too small order of Viewliners, with a promise, but no firm order for any more. We’ve seen a more than decade old order of Superliners, but those numbers are thinning due to neglected maintenance. We’ve seen the much heralded arrival of the Acela trainsets, but their mechanical troubles, too, have become legendary.
In short, Amtrak has no reserve equipment pool it can activate quickly to expand or create new services. Even though there are still nearly 200 cars sitting in the wreck line, most of that is needed just to restore existing consists to previous levels of productivity, or put a service back east of New Orleans.
During all of this while we have seen meaningless ridership numbers rise, we’ve also seen abysmal systemwide load factors; during some years more than half of Amtrak’s highly perishable inventory goes unsold.
We have seen train consists shrink and shrink.
So, Amtrak is running fewer seats miles for occupancy, creating less of a chance for success. Its equipment is old and getting more worn out by the hour. We know some equipment is being rehabbed by this year’s stimulus money, but it’s only token amounts for the national system.
Which brings us back to, what can you do to help change Amtrak?
I urge everyone in this room to start a new campaign.
The Cardinal is the only train in Amtrak’s entire system which is run by federal mandate. Senator Robert Byrd slipped into federal law that his train – the Cardinal running through his home state of West Virginia – has to be operated. Amtrak uses and abuses this train, but it’s helpless to cancel it the way it did the east end of the Sunset Limited.
My conservative soul is tortured by this next suggestion, but it may be necessary until Amtrak can be made to run like a real business. FCRP needs to convince the Florida Congressional Delegation the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and an extended Palmetto south from Savannah to Jacksonville and beyond, and some sort of restored service east of New Orleans, must be mandated to be operated by federal statute.
Your sister organizations in other states need to do the same with their trains. Remember – if it happened to the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans – it can happen to any train. Most of you know the very most basic rule of railroad safety: when on railroad property, be prepared for a train to be coming towards you at any time, from any direction. You know the second most basic safety rule – the one which separates real railroaders from rail fans – never, never, never, step on top of the rail; always step over the rail.
Florida – and every other state – is currently standing on top of the rail, unaware a train is bearing down from an unknown direction. Amtrak’s management is much more interested in seeking free federal monies than in operating trains.
We’ve seen no new equipment orders to date – just promises of a single-level order for Viewliner cars – and the just released update of Amtrak’s ongoing five year plan calls for no new cars.
If Amtrak is serious about keeping its system intact, it would be at least talking about a new car order, especially for Superliners. But, the silence is all we need to know.
Paul Dyson, President of the Railroad Passenger Association of California and Nevada, has openly raised the question of whether or not Amtrak is actually planning to exit the long distance route business because of a lack of equipment order.
A few weeks back, one of our URPA associates was attending a rail fair in the Northeast. He ran across an Amtrak Engineering Department intern who wanted the world to know how important he was – after all, he was an intern at Amtrak.
The question of equipment orders came up, and this young man offered a glimpse into Amtrak’s corporate thinking. He said, “Amtrak isn’t interested in slow trains, it’s only interested in fast trains.”
Just shortly after that, Tom Carper, Amtrak’s Chairman of the Board, gave a presentation to the Midwest High Speed Rail folks touting Amtrak as the logical and national operator of all of the nation’s high speed systems. When you read Mr. Carper’s presentation, you realize the young intern wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.”
So, if you’re [FCRP member] Jerry Sullivan and you want to travel west to visit your grandchildren in Texas, it’s not likely to happen any time soon on a restored Sunset Limited. If you’re George Bollinger and you just want to ride trains, you better plan your trip early, because too often you can’t get there from here.
Until Congress mandates Amtrak must operate its long distance trains, every one of those trains is in danger. The train may not go away today, but it’s consist will be constantly shrinking, the level of service will deteriorate worse and Amtrak will remain – as Union Pacific’s official spokesman labeled it – “novelty transportation.”
Amtrak today accounts for only two tenths of one percent of America’s transportation output, hardly enough for anyone to take seriously. Even worse, Amtrak isn’t doing much to change that.
The only people Amtrak listens to is Congress, when it mandates Amtrak do something. It’s time for Congress to mandate – without exception – Amtrak must run all of its long distance trains, and throw in some restorations like the Sunset back to Florida, the Pioneer, with a full second frequency operating all the way between Chicago and Denver, the North Coast Hiawatha, and take the Sunset and the Cardinal daily.
Amtrak will kick and scream and whine everyone is being mean to it by making it run trains it doesn’t want to run. But, if someone doesn’t do something this drastic soon, long distance passenger rail in America will be only a memory like steam locomotives, dome cars, and Pullman berths.
Thank you so much for allowing me to be with you today; it’s a pleasure to be here.
2) Warren Buffett’s privatization of the venerable Burlington Northern Santa Fe rocked the railroad world. Here is what William Lindley of Scottsdale, Arizona had to say.
Warren Buffett's offer for BNSF the first week in November might prove to be a pivotal event for intercity passenger rail, having come at a time when, as Don Phillips in his recent Trains magazine column recently highlighted, dissatisfaction over Amtrak's seeming refusal to participate in a renaissance of train travel is at a peak.
Undoubtedly, Buffett has a record of making sound business decisions; and BNSF, being among the best managed and progressive of large railroads, does fit a motif of acquiring something good and making it better.
Over the next weeks we will look at some of the synergies (much as that word is overused, it does apply here) and economies of scale that could apply to an enlarged role for BNSF in the passenger train business. But right now a single move would signal a positive direction. Words and attitude cost little but mean much; as you may know, trademarks, unlike copyrights and patents, are most defensible when they are in continuous business use. BNSF could gain much publicity, and build on its widespread and long standing – even if subconscious – recognition, by reviving its classic red, yellow, and silver "Warbonnet" scheme.
A new interpretation of their classic corporate symbol would show a revived interest in being a participating citizen in every railroad town and city. Not to mention the free advertising garnered from rolling under practically every child's Christmas tree. Renewing interest in today's youth will perpetuate the recent industry rediscovery that trains are good for more than just hauling coal – they are the future of transportation, as well as the history.
Yes, we undoubtedly will consider details in our upcoming columns here, but for now, Mr. Buffett, we simply convey – Welcome to the world of railroading.
3) Professor James McCommons of Northern Michigan University has a new book out this month, and it’s required reading for anyone interested in the business of passenger railroading.
For full disclosure, this writer was interviewed for the book here in Jacksonville by Mr. McCommons. The interview was full of serious, well thought out questions and observations; it’s very clear the product of all of his interviews and research has led Mr. McCommons to creating a book far any beyond anything else on the market today regarding passenger rail as it stands in America.
“Waiting on the Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service – A Year Spent Riding Across America” is much more succinct than its title, and presents a wide variety of honest opinions and thoughts about passenger rail. More than just the usual viewpoints are presented with conclusions both obvious and left for the reader to determine.
The book is actually too short; Mr. McCommons reports his publisher, Chelsea Green (www.chelseagreen.com) had him remove about 40,000 words of his original text to fit into a predetermined format. What a shame; when you read the book, you are wanting more, and another brief 40,000 words would be welcomed by any reader.
There is a lengthy review of the book in the current issue of Passenger Train Journal magazine by Karl Zimmermann for those wishing more detail, but, please, if your buy just one railroad book this year, buy “Waiting on the Train;” it’s time and money well spent. We can only hope Mr. McCommons will one day do a follow-up book.
4) Speaking of the latest issue of Passenger Train Journal (2009:4, Issue 241) which just hit the newsstands in the past week or so, there is an ever-so-timely article on Amtrak’s Pioneer, the subject of much discussion for an expensive route restoration, as well as the usual mix of good articles and photos. Editor Mike Schafer’s On The Point column – as always – not only hits the mark about the Pioneer, but covers some other good points, too. Other rail magazines may publish more frequently, but Passenger Train Journal remains the magazine of record for the business of passenger trains.
5) And, this e-mail to TWA arrived shortly after the last issue was published regarding VIA Rail Canada.
I am a big fan of VIA and have been doing a yearly trip from Toronto to Vancouver on that lovely train, the Canadian for quite a few years. About a year ago, I wrote a comment to Crain's Chicago Business online about Amtrak and their lack of interest in taking care of their equipment. When we board the Canadian in Toronto, she is shining, the windows are spotless, (glass, not micro scratched plastic), flowers are fresh and the crew seems happy to see us!
A couple of weeks ago, we went from Portland, Maine to New York City, and while waiting in Boston to transfer trains, several Acela's came and went: they were already grimy and neglected looking. One of my stories about VIA involved what I consider to be a remarkable piece of quality railroading when the Canadian from the west was delayed by a blizzard and a freight accident making it too late east to turn. VIA put together a very spiffy "shuttle" consist which left on schedule from Toronto with a complementary lunch, complementary wine too!, and in several hours we rendezvoused with the now turned train and proceeded west, right on schedule. I asked a supervisor how this feat was accomplished, to which he replied, "it is all a matter of attitude." Says it all about the difference between VIA and Amtrak.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA