Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson, with PHOTOS
For almost two decades this writer wrote a monthly column titled “Tracking Rail News,” which appeared in the Western Rail Passenger Review, the official publication of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada. It was discontinued when the RailPAC Board voted to go a different direction with its publications, along with the increasing popularity of the electronic media which brought the weekly e-newsletter edited by Noel Braymer, and the Steel Wheels publication edited by Paul Dyson.
Not that there is any real need for its resurrection, but sometimes thinking about the old days brings out the old three dot mentality, and there is no better way to end this summer of musings about the western long distance trains than to bring together several “news” items and “commentary” about them in the grand old style and see what we’ve learned along with two superb photos we have received.
… The Silver Star. Yes, this brings up again the Amtrak “experiment” in eliminating the Dining Car entirely from this east coast train that travels daily from New York to Miami via Tampa, Florida. How’s it going? Well, not much has been said, but it is very apparent that passengers who reserved space on this train before and since the discontinuance were taken by total surprise when they boarded. According to a report obtained by URPA, an Amtrak manager issued a statement in AUGUST, three months after the policy went in effect, saying that while “several channels have been used to communicate that there is no dining car, many passengers were not aware”….etc. So, a “notice” was attached that was to be posted at stations along the route that passengers would see WHEN THEY ARRIVED at the station to take their train. It says that “Silver Star Trains 91 and 92 Dining Car Temporarily Removed, & Lower Cost Sleeping Accommodations Offered.” When an on line reservation is made for that train there is a red flag warning taking the purchaser to advisories, only one of which pertains to the Star, but how many riders other than railfans go there? Well, not enough, as the complaints are rolling in. It’s just too difficult for non-railfan riders, who make up the huge majority of Amtrak’s riders, to notice everything. If they notice anything it is the lower sleeper fares, which can drive sales, but what a surprise welcomes them on the platform when boarding! Will Amtrak admit that this “experiment” didn’t work? Of course not. Concrete is set.
… On Time Performance. This has always been one of this column’s favorite topics. While full summer statistics are not yet available, this fiscal year has seen a consistency of “red” reports. On its official website, Amtrak.com, they publish their monthly performance reports which contains details of what they say are their financial and operations statistics. As of this writing, only the June, 2015 report is available, and it was a sea of red figures for OTP as none of the Long Distance Routes were doing better than the 80% On Time goal. In early August the Southwest Chief #3 stalled for 10 + hours on Raton Pass because there was “a mechanical issue with a locomotive on the ascent to the summit.” No passengers were allowed to disembark for any reason and with the on board electrical outages rest rooms did not operate and air conditioning was not functioning. How many “Never Agains” did that create because the vital locomotive head end power did not work? Can’t blame the BNSF or freight interference for that.
… Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief. There were several improvements to the on board service on the Starlight, which began some positive “experiments” first by adding a 12 seat “Business Class” seating in the lower level of the Coach just behind the Sightseer Lounge car. Did it work? Very well is what we hear. Reader Mike Palmer wrote that he attempted to get a Business Class ticket to ride from Los Angeles Union Station to Santa Barbara on Friday, August 14, but those spaces were sold out, and the train itself was almost sold out. Coach passengers on board the Starlight can now order BLT or Grilled Cheese sandwiches to be delivered to their seats at lunch time, or a Salisbury steak and salad at dinner time. They are selling like hot cakes; but where did these ideas come from? This summer Amtrak appointed a new route manager to handle both the Starlight and the Chief, Eric Smith, who is implementing these experiments and expects to try them on the Chief, too. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, and RailPAC VP Long Distance Development James Smith met with Eric Smith at LAUS recently. He is taking his ideas, along with three route chefs, back east to show how they work. As for the Southwest Chief’s other major problems of saving the traditional route in Northern New Mexico, Southeast Colorado, and in Kansas, agreements were worked out with the states to participate in the line maintenance and reconstruction, but more work can begin in Western Kansas after the August receipt of a Federal grant. What is undone, however, is who will pay for the installation of PTC (Positive Train Controls) on that portion of the route. The BNSF has no interest in paying, and Amtrak cannot or will not kick in the rest. URPA’s Howie Dash says, “The distance from Raton to Lamy is 176 miles. According to a report I read, the cost of installing PTC averages $130,000 per mile. So, on that section of track alone we are looking at a cost of approximately $23 million just for PTC installation.” The shakedown of the states resumes. Oh, and the City of Pueblo, CO, still wants the Chief rerouted to serve that city, and a $215,000 “study” could result “if the voters there approve an excise tax on marijuana grown in that county.”
… Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle, and Heartland Flyer. These trains are grouped together now that there is a new route manager for all three, and like Eric Smith, Jay Fountain will be based at Amtrak offices in Los Angeles Union Station. Technically, his title is “Director Long Distance Routes in the Southwest Region.” What is unique about Jay Fountain is his 40 year longevity with Amtrak, where he started as a Dining Car Steward in New Orleans. RailPAC’s James Smith salutes this appointment of someone who not only has been a manager but knows passenger railroading from experience on the road. The major development for these trains has been the relative high consistency of on time performance this summer, with many westbound trains arriving at LAUS early, some as much as an hour. While that sounds great, it means #1’s arrival in Los Angeles as early as 4:30 AM. Passengers who had been permitted to stay in their sleeping cars until 6:30 found that they now are required to leave the train. Amtrak has opened the Metropolitan Lounge for first class passengers at 5 AM, where they can wait. But, with the turnover load factor on this and the other long distance trains it means that end point ridership is low (see Andy Selden’s report in the current issue of Steel Wheels). Most of the layover passengers are transferring to the Coast Starlight. As for the Texas Eagle, major summer storms in the Midwest caused havoc with its on time performance.
… What did we learn this summer? Can you see some small steps being taken by Amtrak here in the West? All the positives outlined above are the result of “outside the box” thinking by local managers, something that was frowned upon for a long time. If this is an indication of a new attitude that can generate not only increased “ridership”, but also the vital passenger mile revenue that is the key to the success of the long distance routes even if east coast management ignores that factor. True, there have been some disappointing things happen this year, and the long distance trains are not out of the woods for longevity yet, but if it takes a bunch of small improvements to equal a big future we support that. As Dr. Bob Snow wrote when he sent his Winslow photo, “Managers who are into penny pinching these days are missing a growing trend in the country and elsewhere. People are turning toward quality over quantity and rejecting the McDonalds experience.” And, isn’t it interesting that the McD folks are now going to offer breakfast items all day now? How about that idea, Eric Smith and Jay Fountain? You now have BLTs and Grilled Cheese as successful as we predicted here. Keep those low cost highly popular ideas coming!