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This Week at Amtrak; April 27, 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
Volume 6, Number 12
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.
URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.
1) We’re hearing many things about the Sunset Limited route; not many of them are what we want to hear.
Working from west to east, and working from confirmation from good, multiple sources, it appears Amtrak’s plans to make the Sunset Limited a daily train mostly consist of extending the Texas Eagle from its artificial endpoint of San Antonio, Texas all the way west to Los Angeles.
This is the good part, having the Texas Eagle now providing a second daily service between Los Angeles and Chicago over a variety of other intermediate stops and opportunities for hubbing and allowing the natural affects of the matrix theory to come into play. The bad part appears to be this will replace the Sunset Limited, America’s oldest named passenger train, with a train once mistaken by Al Gore’s office for a noble species of bird.
If the Texas Eagles does extend all the way to Los Angeles on a daily basis, that will be a boon to the fortunes and finances of that train, and – if Amtrak uses enough foresight – a boon to the fortunes and finances of the beleaguered Sunset Limited.
In every way the Sunset has been mismanaged by Amtrak through the years, and even with some of its best frontline managers running the train and making the most of a bad situation, the Sunset has always suffered from being an exceptionally long route with a multitude of stations and infrastructure, but only tri-weekly operation. Where all other Amtrak trains have 730 departures a year (once a day in each direction), the Sunset only has 312 departures a year, yet carries all of the station and corporate overhead of a daily train. Basically, by design, the Sunset has never been given a chance to show its financial chops.
If you take today’s Sunset Limited numbers and extrapolate them over a year for a daily train, they are dramatically different, and move the Sunset into a much different financial category of long distance train.
Using Fiscal Year 2008 annual performance numbers, the Sunset (Based on its truncated route of Los Angeles to New Orleans; not its full pre-Hurricane Katrina route of Los Angeles to Orlando, Florida.):
Total Revenue, tri-weekly – $8,046,900
Total Revenue, projected if daily – $18,827,682
This moves the Sunset from next to last place (The Cardinal, Amtrak’s only other long distance tri-weekly train.) in revenue for all long distance trains to in front of the Palmetto, City of New Orleans, and Capitol Limited.
Revenue Passenger Miles, tri-weekly – 66,149,000
Revenue Passenger Miles, projected if daily – 154,771,698
This moves the Sunset from next to last place (The Cardinal, again.) in revenue passenger miles for all long distance trains to in front of the Palmetto, City of New Orleans, Capitol Limited, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, and Texas Eagle.
Ridership, tri-weekly – 71,700
Ridership, projected if daily – 167,759
This moves the Sunset from dead last (including the Cardinal) in Ridership for all long distance trains up one place to in front of the Cardinal.
Seat Miles, tri-weekly – 116,569,226
Seat Miles, projected if daily – 272,742,099
This moves the Sunset from next to last place (Back to the Cardinal, again.) in Seat Miles for all long distance train to in front of the City of New Orleans, Palmetto, Texas Eagle, Capitol Limited, and Lake Shore Limited.
This brief display of numbers shows two points: First, if allowed, the Sunset Limited can be a reasonable performer, and not the financial punching bag of every blow-hard politician who doesn’t understand passenger rail economics. And, second, ridership numbers alone, the way Amtrak loves to present them as an absolute of performance measurement, mean nothing. While the Sunset’s spot for ridership moves up only one position, it moves up dramatically in all other categories which really matter.
But, you wisely say, “what about expenses; won’t they go up, too?” Yes, they will, but will only go up incrementally for some, but not all categories.
As an example, station costs will go up, but, since some stations, depending on the train’s schedule, are open most of the week, or all of the week anyway (Such as New Orleans, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.), the only difference will be what it takes to open the remaining stations every day instead of most days.
Train miles, of course, will increase. But, so will the corresponding number of opportunities for revenue to be produced, too, and on Amtrak long distance trains, revenue exceeds actual operating costs. Onboard services employees and train and engine crews costs will increase, but only incrementally. Train and engine crews will take the smallest hit, because they work only an average of eight hour shifts now, and with tri-weekly service, these crews are often paid to sit around waiting for the next train instead of staying in continuous service such as on daily trains.
Where incorrectly Amtrak piles on the excess costs to the long distance system (Often, so the Northeast Corridor trains look better financially.) usually occurs in areas of corporate overhead, the reservations system, and related areas. If the Sunset is a daily train, there will be near-zero additional costs associated with all of these functions (Okay, there probably will be a slight increase in the cost of copy machine paper and toner.). A daily Sunset will require no additional costs for reservations, the number of corporate managers in Chicago and Washington, or the number of people in Human Resources.
Put all of this together and tie a nice bow on the package and – suddenly – if the Texas Eagle goes daily and starts fully sharing expenses with the Sunset between San Antonio and Los Angeles, and the Sunset goes daily and provides actual travel choices instead of the one-service-in-each-direction-take-it-or-leave-it for all of the 13 stations between San Antonio and Los Angeles, there is a financial and transportation output boon for both trains.
But, from what is coming out of Amtrak right now, this scenario is unlikely, and a butchered Sunset Limited route seems to be in the making.
If a daily Texas Eagle assumes the Sunset Route on the west end, then most likely a daily, daylight train will run between San Antonio and New Orleans, consisting of coaches and reduced food service from a full dining car to a lounge car selling potentially stale sandwiches. The home terminal for this train would be New Orleans, which has an excellent crew base, and used to have a good maintenance base before most activities were moved elsewhere.
While two connecting trains meeting in San Antonio would preserve the length of the original, pre-1993 Sunset route, it doesn’t do much for passengers; but, it does keep intact Amtrak’s penchant for operating trains for the convenience of its operating and maintenance departments.
From 1993 to the dark days when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 (We’re fast approaching the 4th anniversary of that tragedy, and Amtrak for that long has been telling everyone the dog ate its homework and refusing to reinstate the train and make any move to reconsider running it, even though it officially never cancelled the train or abandoned the route. CSX released the track to Amtrak for use again three years ago, on April 1, 2006.), the Sunset was the only fully transcontinental train in North America, virtually running from the Left Coast in Los Angeles to the Right Coast in Jacksonville, Florida, and down to first Miami and then more sensibly truncated to Orlando.
Passengers luxuriated in single-car, single-train service to any station, without bother of changing trains. And, the service was popular, despite the many digestive ills of Union Pacific Railroad as it gobbled up the Southern Pacific Railroad, owner of the Sunset Route between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Despite the Sunset being tri-weekly, and constantly running late, passengers still rode the train. It wasn’t until the final year and a half before Hurricane Katrina when CSX was performing many maintenance and infrastructure upgrade chores on the Sunset route east of New Orleans, that ridership fell for the simple reasons Amtrak management at the time was CONSTANTLY cancelling the train for the entire run east of New Orleans, and the unofficial slogan of Amtrak was “no alternative transportation provided.” This was occurring every season of the year; it was nearly impossible to book a trip on the Sunset much in advance of departure because of all of the cancellations.
The arrival of Hurricane Katrina provided the biggest reason of all for cancellation of the Sunset, and Amtrak, in one of its darkest and foulest corporate moments, took advantage of the cancellation to drive a stake through the heart of the Sunset and keep it off the rails east of New Orleans, even though CSX gallantly made a Herculean effort to restore that track and get the route open again in record time.
After all, Amtrak managers and planners could point to the declining ridership east of New Orleans and with something of a con man’s straight face, declare to Amtrak’s Board of Directors the route was more of a loser than most. The dishonest part of that on the part of Amtrak’s management cadre and what it was presenting to the Amtrak Board of Directors was the numbers were falling by Amtrak’s own design, as it constantly, in the months preceding the windy arrival of Hurricane Katrina, kept cancelling trains because of CSX planned maintenance and did nothing to assist passengers other than directing them to the bus station and telling passengers they were on their own.
In effect, Amtrak’s dishonest managers at the time grabbed onto knowingly false and manipulated information, and killed a train that was a vital link in its system, all the while claiming there was no financial benefit in restarting the train, using every excuse in the book, from storm-damaged stations to bad track, to the dog ate their homework.
Now, after Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown has given Amtrak $1 million in free federal money to “study” the reinstatement of the route, Amtrak has come up with a scenario which breaks a once promising transcontinental route into three different trains, all at the inconvenience of Amtrak’s passengers.
2) All of this brings us to Amtrak’s April 23rd initial presentation to the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. This coalition of the three states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama has a long history of promoting efficient and effective rail services along the Gulf Coast.
The bottom line on Amtrak’s presentation for restoration of service to the Sunset Limited route east of New Orleans was one of three proposals would likely be chosen.
The first proposal is a complete restoration of Sunset Limited service as it was previously, with an endpoint of Orlando, as before Hurricane Katrina. It should be noted – again – that 46% of the Sunset’s total route revenues originated on the route east of New Orleans, a concept which seems to constantly escape the numbers crunchers at Amtrak.
The second proposal is one long advocated by United Rail Passenger Alliance of the route of the daily City of New Orleans being extended eastward to Orlando over the previous Sunset route.
The third proposal, which is probably the most likely, is a new daily train on an overnight schedule, based either in New Orleans or Sanford (Orlando) running the Sunset’s east-end route, with connections to the new train to the west of New Orleans, replacing the Sunset to San Antonio.
In its presentation, Amtrak did its usual huffing and puffing about a shortage of equipment (Self-inflicted, by choice, if they were honest with themselves.), and, oddly, about a lack of funding to run this train. Since funding wasn’t a problem prior to Hurricane Katrina, one can’t help but wonder why funding is a problem now, since this is a national system train, and not a state-sponsored corridor train.
Let’s veer to the left here for a moment. If Amtrak is allowed to get away with taking a long distance route and chop it into pieces, and then tell certain states that restoration of service will only come with the proffering of state or regional monies, then no route – NOT A SINGLE ONE – in the Amtrak system is safe from this type of blackmail shenanigans. Amtrak could just as easily take the California Zephyr, and declare the route between Chicago and Denver to be a new corridor, and the company not be willing to operate the Zephyr unless Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois pony up big bucks. Since Missouri and Illinois are already paying twice for Amtrak service (Once through the federal dollars which flow to Amtrak, and the second time for trains within Illinois and Missouri Amtrak says it won’t run without state funds.), what’s to keep ambitious managers at Amtrak seeking more from these current donors?
But, back to the Sunset route east of New Orleans. Any of the three solutions outlined above are acceptable, as long as the actual restoration of the Sunset be done on a daily basis, and not return as tri-weekly service.
In its presentation, Amtrak said a dependable train between New Orleans and Orlando would generate somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 passengers a year, an increase over the final year numbers from Amtrak of 16,000 to 17,000 passengers a year based on the many months of train annulments and outright cancellations Amtrak did to the Sunset due to an isolated period of CSX track work and upgrades before Katrina.
Taking Amtrak at its word, at 17,000 passengers a year, and 312 departures a year (If none of the annulments had taken place.), that means an average of only 54 riders per departure were on the train.
That number can’t be correct. Year round, Orlando always had heavy boardings, as did Jacksonville. Tallahassee and Pensacola usually had pretty good business, too, and more than a smattering of passengers called Mobile their station stop. What happened here? Most likely, whoever crunched the numbers at Amtrak didn’t pull the counts correctly. It’s impossible to think that train ran empty through all of the major metropolitan areas it served, especially Orlando, one of the world’s busiest vacation destinations. However, Amtrak may have been using one of its old hocus-pocus tricks when pulling this number, by just using local boardings for points between New Orleans and Orlando.
Years ago in the 1980s when URPA fought and won the war to extend the Palmetto from Savannah, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida, when Amtrak managers presented data to the Board of Directors, they presented data which showed local business only between Savannah and Jacksonville, a short distance of only 148 miles. The Amtrak planning department never took into account how many passengers in Jacksonville (Which turned out to be a substantial amount.) would board a northbound Palmetto and travel beyond Savannah to all of the other cities along the route, including those cities in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. The only figures the Amtrak planning department pulled were for Savannah-Jacksonville business.
It’s likely this same scenario has happened with the Sunset numbers east of New Orleans, where we know 46% of the pre-Katrina Sunset’s revenues originated east of New Orleans. Passengers boarding in Orlando, Palatka, Jacksonville, Lake City, Tallahassee and elsewhere to the west are just as likely to travel to Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Maricopa, Yuma and Los Angeles as they are to Pascagoula, Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, and New Orleans.
Again, we drift into the discussion of intellectual honesty when discussing Amtrak, even when discussing internal numbers crunching and internal communications, and who has what agenda.
The new 50,000 to 100,000 projected figures are probably a bit low, as any figures in a service estimate should be. Based on 100,000 passengers per year, and 730 departures, that puts an average of only 137 passengers per train, on a route which is just over 600 miles in length, which includes Orlando, Jacksonville, Florida’s capital of Tallahassee, Pensacola, Mobile, and all of the other Gulf Coast cities between Mobile and New Orleans. It isn’t unreasonable to say Amtrak’s passenger count estimate is low by as much as 50%, but, again, for estimating purposes, it’s good to have a low count of revenues.
Much of the Sunset’s transcontinental on-time performance factors in the past were due to the Union Pacific Railroad’s problems integrating the Southern Pacific into its larger UP system. It was not unusual for the Sunset to register the lowest on-time performance measurements in the Amtrak system. Today, that has much improved, with the Sunset’s on-time factor somewhat equivalent with most other long distance trains.
Running a single train across an entire continent does present its own special set of problems and challenges. Enormous and expensive pad time in the Sunset’s schedule partially solves that problem, including, when it ran all the way to Orlando, at least three to four hours layover time in New Orleans, which often wasn’t enough.
In an ideal world, the City of New Orleans would be extended to Orlando as the overnight train, offering connections from an eastbound train from San Antonio, but a separate, daylight train would also run between New Orleans and Jacksonville. The increased travel choices through two frequencies generally push ridership numbers through the roof, even with just a second frequency.
So, it’s possible the Sunset will be butchered into three separate trains. It would be nice to know Sunset cars would be carried on the Texas Eagle (including sleepers) and transferred in San Antonio to the New Orleans bound train. At least that would provide through-passengers with the convenience and courtesy of same-car service, and would also preserve the Sunset Limited name. A single change in New Orleans is not the end of the world, as long as legal connections can be made and enforced. Even in the early days of the Sunset’s coast to coast service, splitting the train in New Orleans, offering a “fresh and clean” on-time train between New Orleans and Orlando was discussed and considered an option. It’s tough to explain to someone in Atmore, Alabama their train was delayed by multiple hours because of a grade crossing accident in Yuma, Arizona, about 2,000 miles away.
3) Let’s take a moment and study what could happen east of New Orleans if the present City of New Orleans was extended to Orlando (Or, even better, to Tampa, which sits in the middle of a four million resident metropolitan area on Florida’s West Coast, just 99 route miles beyond the Orlando Amtrak station, and has a complete, but unloved and unused maintenance base.).
Today’s City of New Orleans operates between New Orleans and Chicago via Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; Carbondale, Illinois and various other cities and towns.
Southbound, the City leaves Chicago at 8:00 P.M., arrives in Memphis at 6:27 A.M., and pulls into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue at 3:32 P.M.
Northbound, the City leaves New Orleans at 1:45 P.M., arrives in Memphis at 10:00 P.M., and arrives at Chicago Union Station at 9:00 A.M., at the end of rush hour.
The City trainset lays over in New Orleans for over 21 hours each day and night before it heads north, again. There is an 11 hour turn time in Chicago.
Okay, let’s be creative and get away from Amtrak’s habit of only running routes in a straight line, and loathing to split trains into sections (Even as it successfully does each day in Spokane, Washington for the two sections of the Empire Builder.).
Remember, the matrix theory, where more trains to more places with more city pairs dramatically improves travel choices and ridership and revenue passenger miles.
During the 1979 murder of much of Amtrak’s long distance system by Democrat Jimmy Carter’s administration, Amtrak lost its only Chicago to Florida service, the Floridian. Now, there is an opportunity to not only restore a much-agitated-for Chicago to Florida same train service, but improve on the concept, too.
Understand the Auto Train maintenance facility in the Orlando suburb of Sanford is one of Amtrak’s best maintenance facilities. The work done there is consistently superb. When the Sunset had its maintenance performed there instead of Los Angeles, equipment reliability jumped substantially, as well as passenger satisfaction because the train was cleaner and everything worked.
So, move the maintenance of the City of New Orleans to Sanford/Orlando. Since you won’t need to rely on maintenance in Chicago, do something dramatic on that end of the route, and extend the City’s route to either Minneapolis/St. Paul to the west, or Detroit to the east. Either of these logical extensions make sense because a second, full service train is being added to the busy Minneapolis/St. Paul to Chicago market, or Detroit for the first time in years will have a full service train (And, there is already a maintenance base in Detroit, too.) with direct connections to the lower Midwest and Florida. It’s an eight hour run from Chicago to Minneapolis, and about an eight hour run between Chicago and the Detroit maintenance base, too. In other words, the existing Chicago-New Orleans schedule of the City could easily be maintained with either of these extensions.
But, you wail, Amtrak would need more sets of equipment to make either of these changes. Yes, it would. And, there is adequate equipment available, sitting around in the wreck line weeds which could be restored and put back into high revenue service instead of deteriorating on some unloved siding. At some point someone has to make a visionary choice and say either the highly valuable equipment sitting on the wreck line is worth something, or Amtrak is not interested in running long distance trains, and the equipment should be sold to some Third World country which has better service than the United States has today.
Okay, so we’ve extended the north end of the City to other logical endpoints. What else can we accomplish getting this train to Florida?
Easy. We can restore the River Cities between Kansas City, St. Louis, Centralia, Memphis, and New Orleans. When Amtrak went through its second massacre of routes under Democrat President Bill Clinton, this piggyback train which operated as part of the City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Centralia, Illinois and then split into a separate section, provided the two major metropolitan areas of Kansas City and St. Louis with a direct connection to New Orleans.
If this service is restored, then a passenger in Kansas City or St. Louis will be able to board a train and stay in the same seat or accommodation all the way to Orlando, Florida via Memphis and New Orleans. Again, the power of the matrix theory with enhanced city pairs and many more travel opportunities comes into play, creating a powerhouse of a train.
Think of this, all on the same train:
From the Minneapolis/St. Paul side of the equation (substitute Detroit if you like),
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
Red Wing, Minnesota
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Kansas City, Kansas
Lee’s Summit, Missouri
Jefferson City, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri
Du Quoin, Illinois
Yazoo City, Mississippi
New Orleans, Louisiana
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Lake City, Florida
Winter Park, Florida
What a powerhouse. Here’s a single train departing Florida, with a section to Kansas City and a section to Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul (Or, Detroit.), providing 60 terminals and intermediate stations, with a total city pair possibility of 1,770 city pair combinations JUST FOR ONE SINGLE TRAIN ROUTE. When you add the additional hubbing/matrix opportunities for this proposed route in Orlando, Jacksonville, New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, that number explodes into more thousands of combinations because over a dozen other major Amtrak routes suddenly become connected to this one impressive train. If you calculated every city pair in Amtrak’s entire system (Even those which are impractical, such as Dallas-New Orleans.), you have 129,795 city pairs. That is the power of the matrix theory, and that is what can help make Amtrak much more of a player in Advanced Passenger Rail, as a springboard to a high speed passenger rail system all over the country.
Here’s hoping Amtrak looks at ALL of the options, and first makes decisions that are best for its passengers and customers (The people who pay the bills and make the company possible.) before it makes decisions based on the comfort and convenience of the operating and maintenance departments.
And, keep in mind when Amtrak WANTS to do something, it can always miraculously find the equipment to do so. Those stimulus dollars which have floated into Amtrak are not the last dollars it’s going to receive from the federal treasury. If Amtrak is serious about restoration of service, it will somehow find the money to put a couple of trainsets back together, and get operating funding again for a train which has never been officially discontinued.
This is one of those moments when the Amtrak Board of Directors needs to step up and closely examine all possibilities, not just blindly accept what is presented to them by staff which may have an agenda that is separate from that of the board.
4) On the subject of Advanced Passenger Rail, William Lindley of Scottsdale, Arizona has some thoughts on the subject.
By William Lindley
Amtrak is the glue that is to bind the growing local rail networks, and it can have a definite role in what Andrew Selden has named Advanced Passenger Rail. Here's how ...
A prerequisite to APR is a national commitment to opening at least one new passenger railcar factory in the United States. Today, all railcars including commuter, light rail and subway cars, are imported from already overburdened foreign plants. Part of rebuilding America will be reigniting our dormant skills in manufacturing, and if passenger trains are part of our future we will be needing many more of them. There must be significant sources of new equipment, and even if an American plant says "Bombardier," "Siemens," or "Kawasaki" it's a step in the right
As the single physical roadblock to new trains – namely, manufacturing – is removed, Amtrak can go to the states and make offers. In its history, Amtrak has rarely sought expansion; it has nearly always been the states asking for new trains, or Amtrak making demands and threatening to cut service. Instead, let Amtrak now devise a plan to fulfill its charter of tying together America's existing and emerging regional systems, connecting Los Angeles Metrolink to proposed commuter lines in Phoenix and Houston; connecting Dallas's Trinity commuter trains to Chicago's; and likewise across the country.
Specifically, Amtrak's charter is:
"Amtrak shall operate a national rail passenger transportation system which ties together existing and emergent regional rail passenger service and other intermodal passenger service."
– Title 49, Chapter 247 Section 24701 (http://uscode.house.gov/download/pls/49C247.txt )
There has been no better time, with new light rail systems in places like Phoenix and Houston bursting with new riders, many of whom never set foot on a bus but have now discovered that, to quote Amtrak's old slogan, “There's something about a train that's magic.”
Cities are looking to expand their rail systems but budgets are short. Commuter rail and regional rail deliver more "bang for the buck" than light rail projects do; in Phoenix, a few hundred millions are slated for several five-mile extensions, but similar money could run trains sixty miles northwest to Wickenburg, thirty miles west to Buckeye, maybe even a hundred miles southeast to Tucson. In Arizona, both BNSF and Union Pacific railroads are at the table with the state, counties and cities on passenger rail projects. Arizona DOT and the associations of governments are careful to point out that the railroads are private businesses, and that any agreement must make business sense to them. But experience from Los Angeles to Denver and beyond proves fair agreements can be reached ... agreements that expand freight capacity and bolster safety while providing space for passenger trains. The recent Arizona pattern is being repeated in nearly every major American city.
With new equipment, and with new determination to forge relationships with the railroads, and with regional rail projects looking like better bargains than subways and new highways, there is little in the way of nationwide passenger rail expansion.
Amtrak's challenge is to develop an Advanced Passenger Rail-style proposal to connect these existing and new commuter and transit lines together – first regionally and then nationally. This lays the base for high speed rail in five to ten years, but more importantly it's how in two or three years we can get our people, and our economy, moving sooner rather than later.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA