Comments by Russ Jackson
Can you believe that Amtrak is 45 years old? Those of us who were around that long ago and were interested in passenger trains cannot help looking back, and sometimes that’s not a good idea. Were we better off on that May 1 in 1971 than we are now? Well, on that day one what we now know as Amtrak was blessed with running a few trains, introduced a new through service from San Diego to Seattle on the SP Coast Line, but deleted service to many communities that had it the day before. A look at the current service route map shows trains running all over the country, many connecting buses, only two states (Wyoming and South Dakota) without Amtrak train service of any kind, and the prospect of returning service to the Gulf Coast after “suspending” it since 2004. Growth? It’s not likely that the system will grow much in the foreseeable future. Oh, by the way, if you don’t have a paper copy of Amtrak’s route map you’d better hustle to find the current national system timetable as it is the last one that will be printed. Amtrak has decided that in this electronic age no one needs one anymore, so they will save huge amounts of money (maybe?) in printing costs, make the timetable available only on the internet, and just print some of the route-specific leaflet timetables. This writer is one of the few who has a copy of every national system timetable. What do I do with them?
News stories now point out how successful the airlines have become, and some point to how Amtrak is losing big money at the same time. They usually include the caveat that the Northeast Corridor is making a profit, but regular readers to RailPAC and URPA publications know that idea to be fiction. “The airlines are making money for one big reason,” says URPA’s Howie Dash, “namely the price of fuel has dropped dramatically and airfares have not.” Andrew Selden adds, “AND (air) traffic is booming and load factors are at record highs.” Can Amtrak say the same? No, “ridership” and revenues are declining at Amtrak during this time which begs the question, if fuel prices have dropped why isn’t that seen in lower operating expenses and/or price adjustments to induce “riders” to the trains? Maybe it’s just the way Amtrak cooks the books. Any savings anywhere get plowed back into paying the enormous unreported costs of maintaining the NEC, while the long distance national system trains continue to have huge losses unfairly charged to them. That, and Amtrak’s determination to keep running NEC trains at low load factors for image purposes.
In the West, there have been some very positive service improvements on the long distance trains. Quietly, Amtrak’s route managers have found ways to make the on board experience a bit more interesting, including variety to the Dining Car menus. RailPAC’s VP Long Distance Services, James Smith, called us from Albuquerque on his trip to the NARP meeting where he was using the Southwest Chief and the Capitol Limited to get to Washington DC. He was excited to report his meal departing Los Angeles had been enchiladas! and they were very good. Unfortunately, that night his train was delayed several hours in southern Colorado because of a locomotive failure which caused him to miss his connection in Chicago. Instead of continuing to DC, Smith returned to California on the next day’s California Zephyr. His call to tell us about that experience started with high praise for the Zephyr crew and how efficient it had been. But, James was very critical about how Amtrak handled the notification of passengers as to their Chicago connection status, there being only a brief on board statement that connecting passengers should go to Customer Service in Chicago’s Union Station. In the past, Smith says, when a similar situation arose with advanced notice, Amtrak sent people to Galesburg who boarded and worked out the travelers’ problem so they knew well in advance and had the peace of mind of knowing their fates. Not so this time. And, speaking of food service, the east coast Silver Star has permanently lost its Dining Car, just as was predicted here. However, RailPAC’s Anthony Lee sent us a link to the Star’s colorful new Cafe Lounge Car menu which includes new food items. Take a look at it at https://cmsstage.amtrak.com/ccurl/295/142/Silver-Star-Cafe-Menu-0406.pdf. Enticing? Fancy. Uh, still not the Dining Car experience, though.
Just as talk out of Oklahoma indicates that the state’s budget is severely constrained due to the slowdown in the oil business, the annual appropriation to support the daily Heartland Flyer train that runs from Oklahoma City to Ft. Worth and averages about 80 passengers per trip, could be in jeopardy. At the same time Amtrak contracted to run a new bus connection from the Southwest Chief at Newton, KS, to Oklahoma City making through service that allows route passengers to connect not only with the Chief but Chief passengers to connect to Texas and the Texas Eagle via the Heartland Flyer. Service returns to Wichita, KS, even though it will be in the middle of the night (1:35 AM northbound and 5:00 AM southbound). Why did it take so long for this to be done? Wish we knew.
That brings up some other un-done things. RailPAC’s Ralph James and Richard Strandberg have recently toured the double track construction sites on the Union Pacific’s Sunset Route in California. James reports that freight traffic is down, but periods of serious congestion are still occurring. In one case he noted that it was about three hours total for everything to unclog and get moving again. Strandberg says there are now about 40 miles of single track left in California, and he saw no current construction. What that means is the completion date for complete double tracking that route gets farther away, and Amtrak will not have the opportunity to initiate daily service for the Sunset Limited, not that they would do so anyway. Expansion of long distance train service except for the politically active Gulf Coast route between New Orleans and Florida is not only unlikely, but likely to be the opposite if “revenue” and “ridership” on these routes don’t show improvement. Strandberg followed the Gulf Coast test train, and was impressed with the turnouts at the cities along the route, but does that mean Amtrak will act on restoring service there? Other than cosmetic improvements like the un-promoted Business Class on trains like the Coast Starlight, a few menu changes like at-your-seat service for Coach passengers and the red beans and rice on trains that serve Texas and Louisiana which add some revenue without extra expenses, where is the growth? The whopper of a challenge is preserving the life of the Superliner long distance train cars which are now older than many of the low level cars Amtrak inherited in 1971. While some (some!) of those cars have been upgraded, there are many that are the same as they were in 1980 or 1994 when they were purchased. Yes, there are new low level Viewliner cars slowly coming on line for the eastern long distance trains. But, for the West? Nothing new. The overworked P42 locomotives used on western trains are slowly becoming a super maintenance problem.
This modern world knows that travelers are more and more expecting “WiFi” phone service to be available, but where is it on Amtrak? RailPAC’s Mike Barnbaum wrote to Amtrak and the reply was that Amtrak has plans in the works for a more robust option for WiFi, but to Mike’s point that it is needed on the Coast Starlight, Amtrak said that train travels through so many scenic yet remote areas that most of the solutions that are available will not be what can be expected in more urban corridors, but that may change with improved cell coverage. Until then, Mike was told, “our crews are quick to remind passengers that the scenic views out the windows are a nice replacement.” No doubt about that, but that keeps Amtrak passengers living 25 years or more ago and while long time train travelers may not care whether there is phone service or not one cannot help looking at the number of phones that are “welded” to the hands of almost anyone anywhere these days. Growth? Modernization? Important!
What about the replacement for Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman when he retires this Fall? Many names have been mentioned, but there are some names coming forth that could result in elevation to the top job. In his column in the June, 2016, issue of Trains magazine, Don Phillips mentions the names of Al Engle who has worked with the California High Speed Rail project and was with Amtrak’s high speed rail department in Philadelphia, and a name that excites western rail advocates, Richard Phelps who worked in Los Angeles in charge of the long distance trains and all California services before moving to the Washington HQ in 2007 and is now retired. Phillips points out, accurately we think, that Boardman expects to pick his successor but may get a surprise when the Board of Directors ignores him. Another name his risen, former Amtrak executive Bill Crosbie. Crosbie was offered the top job at New Jersey Transit, but turned it down for “family reasons.” Some have speculated that he thinks he will get Joe Boardman’s job. If this column could be so bold as to recommend a future Amtrak CEO, it would have to be from the two that know California best, Gene Skoropowski or Richard Phelps. What do you think? So, this report has gone from 1971 through the present and ends with the future. Amtrak has a future, but the next leader will take it either to growth or continued stagnation.