Commentary by Russ Jackson
Whenever a passenger is ready to travel by Amtrak, has a ticket in hand and is ready to go to the station to board the train the first anxiety is always whether the train will be on time or be running late (in many cases hours late). For this trip let’s get the on time performance out of the way by saying that Amtrak’s October 5 Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited we boarded in Ft. Worth was nearly on time all the way. There were no major delay incidents. Since it takes upwards of 45 to 50 minutes on a good travel day for us to reach the Ft. Worth station it was good to know the status, and while “Amtrak Julie” is the best source, so are Amtrak Status Maps and the other sources of information. We arrived at FTW just as the train was arriving from Dallas. Great timing. Bad track sections in Texas still need work, particularly Temple to Taylor.
This report will cover mostly the westbound trip. Veteran readers know this reporter and spouse have been traveling Amtrak long distance trains since 1971, traveled on the AT&SF before that, with reports like this one having appeared in RailPAC publications since 1990. Train travel is our preferred means of travel, for those of you first time readers, and while we don’t do it as often anymore, we enjoy seeing how Amtrak train travel changes or doesn’t change from trip to trip. Meeting interesting people on board is a pleasant experience, and on this trip we met a couple from Waco traveling on Amtrak for the first time and also going to Los Angeles.
On the Texas Eagle trains from Chicago, arrival in San Antonio is scheduled for approximately 10 PM. On our train a full sized Dining car replaced the usual Cafe-Diner. Off-season staffing is two employees upstairs and two downstairs in the galley. The LSA upstairs also waits tables. Only one half of the car was used, approximately the same size as the Cafe-Diner. When the call for dinner reservations came there were only going to be two seatings, at 5:00 and 5:30. When asked, the LSA crisply replied that there couldn’t be any after that “on days we go to San Antonio.” Perplexed, I did not continue the discussion. When we arrived for our 5:00 seating we were pleased to find us sitting across from the Waco folks, and were able to answer most of their questions. They were sharing a Roomette. We ordered dinner, and this writer swears the steak was the best one ever in all our trips. The service crew was excellent, but it still is curious why they thought they couldn’t have scheduled a few later seatings.
Usually on the Eagle there is conductor chatter on the PA, but this crew was nearly silent. Our sleeping car attendant was very cooperative and helpful. Our car, #32079, is one that has not been fully updated and has the old carpeted walls that now look quite shabby and dirty.
At breakfast on the Sunset Limited after leaving Del Rio, we found a new crew that was not quite as good as the one on the Eagle but still very competent. Breakfast was first-come-first-served, and the scrambled egg meals were excellent. Lunch and dinner would be by reservations, and there would be multiple seatings for both. We were pleased we could share breakfast with the Waco folks again, and anxiously awaited their comments about the long stay in San Antonio and the overnight ride west of SAS to Del Rio. When the Eagle cars are transferred to the Sunset Limited in SAS the noise and jolting can be quite annoying, and for those folks it definitely was, as the full speed travel and rough track nearly bounced them out of bed. They thought they might be able to upgrade to a Bedroom, after seeing ours, but changed their minds when told what it would cost.
The Eagle sleeper and coach are the last cars on the westbound Eagle and Sunset, but on the Eagle the diner is only steps away while on the Sunset in both directions the Eagle passengers must pass through three Coaches and the Lounge car to get there. For younger travelers that’s not a big deal, but older folks (ok, geezers) it can be a chore. There must be a better way to position the cars as they do on the eastbound train north out of San Antonio the Eagle sleeper is placed at the head end just behind the transition sleeper and just ahead of the Diner.
When we arrived in the Sunset’s Diner for lunch going west things fell apart quickly. We had neglected to tell the Waco folks when we were going, so we were seated at a table and waited for new folks to arrive to sit on the other side. A young couple from the Eagle Coach arrived, who had experienced what was quickly called the “rowdy car” overnight, and they were involved in a “spirited” (loud) discussion with all the crew. There are no crew members on board while the train waits for the Sunset connection in San Antonio, so the overnight stay in San Antonio had erupted into quite an uproar in their Coach, which they had joined into apparently, and there were accusations of theft and drunken behavior being shouted. This turn of events was not conducive to a pleasant lunch meal experience for us. The crew was not really helpful in calming things down, and we quickly left the car without finishing our cheeseburgers (the best thing on the menu by far). We chose not to go there for dinner, forfeiting that paid-for meal. Instead we ordered some snacks from the Lounge, which our attendant brought us. That in-car service is important, and all four attendants on our round trip cheerfully helped us. It seems these days that there is always one “rowdy car” on a train, but thankfully that was not the case on our return trip.
At Alpine, Texas, there was the usual “smoking” stop, as well as passenger boardings and a crew change. Out of curiosity we asked the new conductor standing on the platform (we had recovery time) if he thought there would be a daily train on this route instead of the tri-weekly as it is now. His laugh could have been heard in El Paso. “I’ve been here for 27 years,” he said, “I’ve heard it was going to happen all the time, with nothing happening.” That reply was not unexpected, of course. He went on, however, to say there is no equipment for daily service yet. That’s the company line and the employees are stuck with it.
The trip progressed nicely, without further major incidents, up to and including the early arrival at Los Angeles Union Station. Some Sunset Limiteds arrive as early as 4:30, but ours pulled in at 5:05. That has been a controversial situation, with Amtrak putting in writing that sleeping car passengers “are welcome to occupy their accommodations until 6:30.” Not so anymore. The crews are intent on going home, so Amtrak changed the rule by opening the Metropolitan Lounge at 5:00 in LAUS. We were told that we could take our time, but the trainset would be “going to the yard at 5:30.” We had to wait until Hertz opened at 7:00, so we and the Waco folks trudged up to the Lounge.
Update: All this brings up the long distance service “experiment” taking place on the East Coast on the Silver Star, which has had its dining car removed and sleeping car fares reduced to see what the effect will be on ridership and revenues until January. NARP finally opposed this move, as did the rest of us, as it sets a dangerous precedent. NARP Chairman Bob Stewart reported that station agents have received many complaints, Lounge car attendants say they have had long lines for service, and some passengers reported they had purchased tickets at the old price but were not offered any adjustment. But, on the final day of the NARP annual fall meeting an Amtrak executive was asked how passengers on the Silver Star were responding to the no-dining-car experiment. He said it seemed clear that people were willing to give up dining car meals in exchange for lower fares. This writer has said all along that this is not an “experiment” but will be a permanent change as to do otherwise would mean Amtrak would have to admit they were wrong. In concrete? Oh, yes, and look for other long distance trains that only travel over one night to get the same treatment if this “experiment” is allowed to stand.
Andrew Selden writes that “The way Amtrak’s internal cost accounting works, it is impossible to know the results of this (Silver Star) ‘experiment’ in financial terms, because the financial results of everything they do are reported as allocations of category aggregates. Individual trains’ actual results are evaporated into averages and algorithms. Only months-later analysis of ridership on that one train reflecting re-purchase after a bad experience will show anything, and then only after those numbers have been normalized to the performance of similar trains with either normal or enhanced food service. Amtrak is too cheap to commission an expensive objective consumer survey.” Bye bye Dining Cars? Don’t be surprised.