Rail Provocateur/M.E. singer
In the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man,” it took a while for mankind to interpret that the aliens presenting their manifesto on earth,“To Serve Man,” was not an indication of their benevolence, but rather, a concise cookbook to prepare and serve mankind as the entrée. At least when their cookbook was deciphered, the aliens did not deny their true intent. Given this past week’s pronouncements by Amtrak, and a state supported corridor service, I have to question how Amtrak defines its mission; what is its true intent and business expectations are these days.
In the case of Amtrak’s recently “oh by the way…,” last minute announcement crippling the “Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle” underscores how critics have correctly declared that by exhibiting such unsavory, almost negligent attitudes towards long distance passengers could only be manifested by an arrogant monopolist certain of no reaction or retribution by its governmental stakeholders. Indeed, Amtrak clearly evidences how comfortable it has grown to be just languishing in the Potomac swamp petitioning for subsidies. Certainly, Amtrak has defaulted its presumptuous position as a legitimate passenger transportation firm exclusively dependent upon as a provider of passenger rail services.
Belatedly, we have learned that between 17 January-9 March, UP’s track record will kill one of three weekly “Sunset” runs; terminate “Texas Eagle” thru passengers in San Antonio; significantly and critically break the connection in LA between the southbound “Coast Starlight” and the eastbound “Sunset Limited.” But, all we hear is total silence; just as we did a few years ago when, with little pushback from the self-pronounced East Coast rail advocates, Amtrak broke the long-term connection between the “Coast Starlight” and eastbound “Southwest Chief” at LA. When I previously discussed the “Starlight”route with Amtrak’s “A team,” Jim McClellan, and later with Kevin McKinney, interestingly their mutual points were how the “Starlight” served to link the major west coast cities between Seattle-LA, with the certain understanding that there would be direct connections in both directions to the East with the“Southwest Chief” and “Sunset Limited.” With Amtrak so blithely breaking these critical connections, how is Amtrak any different these days than the Southern Pacific was in the 1960s?
Amtrak has created its own self-fulfilling void in every sense of how the marketplace defines itself, which explains Amtrak’s soft traffic and revenue numbers, despite how Amtrak’s EVP Gardner attempts to spin the reality, as if he was on LBJ’s staff. While acknowledging other track work planned, such as to interrupt “The Crescent” on the Norfolk Southern; “Carolinian” and “Piedmonts” on the CSX; “The Saluki” on CN, just focusing on the UP track work explicitly triggers the following reaction:
1) Given the appalling lack of sufficient timing of notification to ticketed passengers on the “Sunset/Eagle,” where was the well deserved loud, vocal objection to Amtrak’s insufficient, untimely lack of notification? How did Amtrak’s weak response pass without objection: “Amtrak only finalized the operating agreement with UP in the prior week?”
2) How long ago did Amtrak know about UP’s intentions for track work between El Paso-San Antonio, 17 January-9 March? Hard to believe how UP being such a darling of the NYSE and proud Class 1 member of the AAR, of which Amtrak is a member, just decided over New Year’s what a great time it would be to perform track work in Texas.
3) What effort did Amtrak undertake to make the most of a bad situation, such as:
a) By negotiating with UP a firm commitment going forward for OTP;?
b) Did Amtrak seize the opportunity to negotiate a far more reasonably priced-and scheduled daily “Sunset Limited?”
4) Although we never had a proper introduction to the gentleman from Amtrak’s IT who assumed a year ago the mantle of VP of Long Distance Service Line, Bob Dorsch, his tenure was quite short term, unremarkable, and without any clarity of why he left, or, grabbed a a buy-out offer. (Reminds me rather darkly of Vietnam when nobody bothered to learn the names of new arrivals, figuring they would soon be a KIA statistic). However, we have now learned of Amtrak’s anointment this month of Roger Harris as the new VP of the Long Distance Service Line.
a) To what extent has Mr. Harris been involved in orchestrating, or simply approving, this pathetic approach to the marketplace re minimal, belated notification?
b) Does Harris subscribe to this barely ambivalent, if not, outright hostile condemnation by Amtrak of the long distance passengers? Does he consider these passengers, as Amtrak historically has indicated, as people with no choice; no need to advertise to entice aboard; not to worry if coach passengers cannot be served in the diner; no worry about failed OTP and mis-connects? How does it fit within a federally subsidized quasi government acceptable of a civil conduct to create the impression of throwing crumbs to these travelers by claiming how Amtrak will be benevolent and not charge them for changing their travel reservations?
c) Critically thinking, has Harris picked-up the mantle left by Paul Rosenwald’s team who proposed to a previously long term disinterested past CEO the common sense re-routing of the “Sunset Limited” from LA-San Antonio-Chicago; to determine if a stub train was appropriate between New Orleans-San Antonio; what the gain would be in asset utilization with a run thru operation LA-Chicago? Given the the travel time of rail vs. air, and even bus, between Houston-San Antonio, who in their right mind would choose rail?
Funny how the NEW YORKER’S article, “If Amtrak Were An Airline” (14 May 2015) pointed out how a resolution of Amtrak’s malaise would be competition that would trigger innovation. In the end, we must continue to charge forwards, avoiding the “windmills,” for a competitive landscape for passenger rail, just as the public has achieved and benefited from how the airlines adapted to a new marketplace. Although Amtrak takes for granted its monopoly on long distance and state-supported routes, if we can insert meaningful competition upon its Northeast Corridor, we will finally be moving in the right direction for an national rail system.
When it comes to Indiana’s “Hoosier State,” as I have extensively previously commented this situation, frankly if I was consulting on this issue, I would tell the Indiana governor to save the funding; tell Amtrak to “shove it!” Why? How many reasons do we need to think within a sphere of economic common sense, including:
1) The schedule is pathetic and serves no viable purpose; the timecard of 5+ hours is practically twice as long as any scheduled bus, or, auto.
2) Amtrak has done absolutely nothing to ameliorate the schedule that nobody can utilize as this is nothing more than a “hospital train” for equipment to repair at its Beech Grove shops.
3) Instead of departing Indianapolis at 0600 am EST to arrive in Chicago at 1000 am CST; leaving Chicago at 5:45 pm CST, arriving Indianapolis at 11:39 pm EST, where has Amtrak been all these years not to have this train leave at a more sensible departure time of 0700 from Indy; perhaps 4:30 pm from Chicago? This could have been achieved at a minimum on the days this route was not simply covered by “The Cardinal.”
4) Amtrak’s depot at Indianapolis is horrific and dismisses any reasonable sense of security for anybody entering the maze, unless one favors East Berlin.
5) Important to acknowledge their is a definitive reason why it is so impossible for just anybody to declare they are in the market to provide passenger rail services As we learned from Indiana, any potential private operation must be vetted before responding to an RFP to evidence-and prove-the basic requisite requisites to be taken seriously, including: fiscal solvency to provide working capital and start-up costs-without any MOU from a state; availability of FRA acceptable equipment, current viable working relationships with Amtrak and Class 1s, critically key is to evidence operational experience.
6) Interestingly, in respect to Mr. Ed Ellis of Iowa Pacific, what he proved beyond Amtrak’s understanding of travel, was the fact that despite the horrific schedule, he could induce more passengers on board with a very positive food/beverage program in his first class dome. Importantly, Ellis did not commit the faux pas of Amtrak by ignoring the food/beverage needs of the coach passengers. With this information, would it not be possibility increase the frequencies, as well as to extend service to Cincinnati and Louisville?
Until Amtrak appreciates the proven concept of asset utilization, rather than sticking the “Hoosier State” on a layover track in in its 14th Street yard Chicago, their must be a professional managerial oversight on Amtrak re how it schedules trains; asset management, including the potential of thru service operations.