By Noel T. Braymer
The last 12 months have not been the best for Amtrak. There have been 2 fatal train wrecks in the Philadelphia region, in the heart of the Northeast Corridor. Drops in ridership and revenues are causing frantic efforts to cut costs. Recent legislation passed by Congress is demanding that some Long Distance Routes be turned over to private operators which Amtrak is opposed to doing. Also Congress is requiring Amtrak to pay for improvements on the Northeast Corridor from it’s “profits” instead of”subsidizing” the Long Distance Trains, neither of which are true. As bad as thing are now for Amtrak, it will likely get worse as these and other issues facing Amtrak continue to develop.
It isn’t hard to find the reason Amtrak’s ridership and revenues are down. The major crash last May in Philadelphia not only shut down traffic for several days on the NEC, but also turned away many passengers in the aftermath. The heart of the problem with declining ridership and revenues comes from Amtrak’s efforts to “save money” instead of improving service to attract more ridership and revenue. The major crash last May was preventable if the 1930’s signaling system had been active on the track that the speeding train came at a tight curve. In the 1930’s a train doing that would have been stopped automatically. This old signal system was in place on tracks next to the one the speeding train was one. But it was not working on the track the speeding train was on.
A common problem at Amtrak from day one is routine maintenance is often put off which impacts passenger ridership. There are stories that a sleeping car on the California Zephyr has serious problems with its sewage system. It leaks, the sleeping car smells and the toilets don’t work. This problem has been reported many times by the on-board crews, yet the Chicago Yard keeps placing this car on the Zephyr without repairing it. This is a great way to insure you don’t get repeat business from some of Amtrak’s most valuable customers in terms of ticket revenue. This is not an isolated incident. Train crews have been reporting problems with equipment on trains for years only to have them be ignored repeatedly by the maintenance yard. Many train failures have been caused by breakdowns of equipment that should have been repaired before the train left the the yard.
A major source of revenue, although Amtrak plays this down is Sleeping Car revenue. Under pressure to cut costs on Dining Car operations by Congress, Amtrak as an experiment eliminated the diner on the Silver Star last year. The Silver Star just so happens to serve a State of one of Amtrak’s chief critics is from and who rails about Amtrak’s reported losses on Dining Car service.The result was sleeping car business soon crashed on the Silver Start, but not on the Silver Meteor which also serves the New York-Florida market and still has a Diner. Despite this loss of ridership and revenue, Amtrak has made the dinerless Silver Star service permanent.
With the recent deaths of 2 Amtrak track maintenance workers and serious injury of a third, there have been complaints by the Unions of Amtrak Management. Clearly allowing track maintenance crews to work at an active railroad without radio contact with dispatch or a shunt device which are both mandatory by FRA regulations does not speak well of Amtrak Management. The shunt device if used as required would have placed a red block on the tracks the workers were working on. This would have prevented the Palmetto from entering the track the maintenance workers were at. Placing a red block on this track was something the dispatchers were also suppose to do, but failed to do causing this needless accident.
Amtrak for years has focused its attention on the NEC. Years and money were wasted on planning an all new 200 plus mile per hour passenger train service with help from the Federal Railroad Administration on the NEC. Reality finally hit Amtrak that the best they could hope for was 160 miles per hour with some improvements long overdue on the sharpest curves and oldest bridges and tunnels on the NEC. Such repairs on the aging infrastructure of the NEC while not costing the hundreds of billions of dollars needed for 200 miles per hour high speed rail service will still needs billions. These improvements are primarily needed for maintaining the heavy commuter train traffic on the NEC. For example at Penn Station in New York, Amtrak runs at most 4 trains an hour while New Jersey Transit runs up to 20 trains per hour during rush hours. Amtrak’s top priority according to its President Joseph Boardman is the Gateway Project which is now budgeted at $24 billion dollars. This is for track improvements in the New York and New Jersey area which includes a new double track tunnel under the Hudson to Penn Station, rehabilitation of the 2 existing 100 plus year old single track tunnels and 6 new tracks with platforms for New Jersey Transit trains under Penn Station. This project is suppose to be funded largely from a Federal Government Loan to be paid back by the States of New York and New Jersey as well as Amtrak. New Jersey now has a budget deficit and is having problems paying for their current transportation projects while refusing to raise taxes to pay current bills.
Like many bureaucracies, Amtrak tends to be reactive rather than proactive. In other words, instead of planning ahead to deal or prevent future problems, they seem to hope the problems don’t happen on their watch. All to often some Amtrak managers hope the problems will go away or become somebody else’s problem. The results of this is when there is a problem, more often than it should, Amtrak’s staff and managers are unprepared. This doesn’t make a good impression on passengers. In the wake of last year’s Philadelphia crash, the victims had nothing but praise for the work of the emergency responders at the scene of the crash. The same could not be said by the victims of the response by Amtrak at the crash scene. How a corporation handles emergencies has a major impact on lawsuits filed by customers effected by an emergency. Many companies are very aware of this and plan for a prompt response when an emergency occurs.
There are many competent, creative and born leaders at Amtrak. But they are the ones most likely to be ignored, passed over for promotion, fired or quit in disgust. An example of this was a retired military officer with a background in heavy machinery repair who was hired a few years ago to take over maintenance of the Acela trains. These trains had a long history of problems, with the equipment often breaking down or being unavailable for service. This retired military officer turned this around giving Acela trains the best record for availability at Amtrak. You’d of thought Amtrak would have had plans to promote this man and replicate this success at all their maintenance facilities. While this was happening, Amtrak in an attempt to save money was offering early retirement bonuses to encourage managers to retire early. This retired military officer took the retirement bonus and left Amtrak. This is a common problem with such early retirement plans. Often the people you want to leave, stay. While the ones you want to stay take the money and run.
To often the main concern at Amtrak is finding ways to cut costs with no thought of what this will do to ridership or revenues. What is needed is more effort to increase ridership and revenues. That requires improvements in passenger service. These problems have been around for years since the start of Amtrak, if not before. Many of these issues have their basis in politics, not good transportation. It is up to the Amtrak Board of Directors to choose a new Amtrak President this year. I don’t envy them having this job. But we need a new Amtrak President who is good at finding subordinates who are leaders not risk adverse bureaucrats, who in turn inspire leadership from their subordinates. These kind of leaders are hard to find.