Commentary by Russ Jackson
The year 2016 is drawing to a close, and rail advocates will closely watch what happens in the new year with two new administrations taking control of transportation policy in this country. First was the Wick Moorman takeover as CEO at Amtrak, coming there from his long freight rail service with Norfolk Southern. The other, of course, is a new national administration which is always a challenge regardless of which party takes control in Washington DC. The incoming Transportation Department Secretary, Elaine Chao, will have a direct pipeline from Congress and the President for better or for worse. As of this writing no one knows what the new policy will be.
As for Mr. Moorman, so far little has come from him directly, but in the words of TRAINS Editor Jim Wrinn in the December issue, “I suspect that we’ll start to see things soon, but I’m also of the opinion that change and improvement will be evolutionary.” What has come from Moorman was in a speech he gave to Progressive Railroading on November 21. “Think of me as the plumber,” he said, after stating that “Amtrak’s not broken. There are things to be fixed.” Will he be around to institute change in an orderly manner? He also said that he does not have a long-term future at Amtrak. “I am doing this because the future of Amtrak is important to the country.” Rail advocates would agree with that. Many would also like to see a wholesale restructuring including letting the private sector take some routes, while some in the Congress continue to call for the total abolishing of Amtrak, and neither idea is likely to happen in the near future. Equipment replacement is under way for the Eastern long distance trains and the Acela. Moorman acknowledged “Replacing the railroad’s worn fleet of P42 locomotives can be done relatively quickly.” Oh? Well, if he can accomplish that we say “Let’s Do It.”
Will national policy toward Amtrak change? Statistics from the Amtrak 2015 Annual Report, as viewed by URPA’s Andrew C. Selden, bring some comparisons that are worth looking at, and the Congress and new administration certainly will be looking just as they have looked at Amtrak’s statistics for many years: “First, passenger revenue was up very slightly ($2.496B vs $2.479B), but management kept costs down even more and it is the only reason they can claim a better net from last year. That is substantially below the budget by $137M.” Gene Poon points out that they were down largely because of deferred maintenance and capital outlays. Ridership total was up 393,000 to 31.275M. Under Amtrak accounting, of course, the more riders they carry the more they lose. Load Factor dropped to 50.9% from 51.3%, which means there were more empty seats. “The Empire Builder,” says Minnesota’s Selden, “was eclipsed as the strongest single train by the California Zephyr. Revenue on the Builder was $51.8M, up 2.5%, but the Zephyr was $51.95M, up 6.5%.” The Zephyr was routinely carrying a third sleeping car, which contributed to its GROWTH. Ah, there’s that magic word again. We note that during the Thanksgiving season more long distance trains added additional sleeping cars and coaches. Amazing what that will do for the bottom line, isn’t it? Looks from here that Mr. Moorman is allowing much more flexibility at the train level than his predecessor ever thought to do. And here are other interesting stats from Andrew Selden: “An Amtrak Superliner sleeping car can run maybe 250,000 revenue miles a year. A domestic 737 airliner maybe gets 1.2 million.” “A 737 costs as much as $700,000/seat, a Superliner car about $91,000.” Which one is more valuable? The GROWTH ball is in the hands of Amtrak, the Congress, the DOT, and hopefully in the hands of the traveling public…us.
What’s happening with the long distance trains now? The 4th Quarter issue of RailPAC’s publication Steel Wheels has several interesting articles about the western long distance trains, including reports by Amtrak’s line managers Eric Smith (Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief) and Jay Fountain (Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle, and Heartland Flyer) that detail improvements they have been making at the train level. All those improvements have great merit, and are welcome. This writer has experienced several of those improvements while traveling on the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited this past summer, particularly the food service. Revenues have been enhanced on those lines, and similar changes are in the works for other long distance trains including business class and “Just for You” at-your-seat meal service. RailPAC’s Anthony Lee reports that West Virginia is looking to have daily service on the Washington-Chicago Cardinal now that the new sleeping cars are coming on line, which means they could get daily service before it happens to the Sunset Limited out west. RailPAC President Paul Dyson says of the Sunset Limited, “The train will not survive without a major improvement in the economics and this can only come about with daily service.” NARP has re-formed a Sunset Limited action group dedicated to service preservation and daily departures, says Dyson, who is a member of that group headed by NARP’s Peter LeCody. We wish them luck and encourage vigorous pursuit of those goals.
Now let’s look back, to the future. Way back in 1999 an article by this writer in the Steel Wheels predecessor publication Western Rail Passenger Review proposed an improvement based on research from URPA’s Dr. Adrian Herzog. Who is the rail advocate that doesn’t look to what could be and should be? In this case, the proposal rerouted the daily Texas Eagle west from Ft. Worth to El Paso via Abilene and Midland-Odessa, (the Union Pacific has rebuilt that line since then) and from El Paso through Arizona to Los Angeles as a second daily frequency on that segment. North-South in Texas would have been covered by a proposed train, (which eventually was inaugurated called the Heartland Flyer from OKC to FTW), but extending it from Newton, KS through Oklahoma City and Ft. Worth to San Antonio, connecting with the Southwest Chief. Personal observation has shown that almost all the riders on the Texas Eagle that connect today with the Sunset Limited in SAS come from east of FTW. So, instead of the approx. 22 hours those riders are on board from FTW to ELP via SAS, the time would be reduced to approx. 13 hours AND new markets in West Texas would be developed. The proposal would have the Heartland Flyer also run from FTW to SAS on the Eagle’s present schedule, and there would be no changes for the Eagle east of FTW. A hub would be created at FTW during the 2 PM hour, with all trains connecting there at that time. There would be no change to the schedule of the Sunset Limited, except making it daily, of course. The Union Pacific would be the elephant in the room, as Paul Dyson has said, and having a train on a new line segment or a second frequency on its double track main line between El Paso and Los Angeles would require extensive negotiation. But, our purpose here is to say what should be or could be! While some short Sunset Route segments are not double tracked yet, as URPA’s William Lindley points out the UP does have double track west of Maricopa, except it hasn’t been used for 20 years and it runs through Phoenix. There is much that can and should be done to preserve and expand service through the highly lucrative sun belt. GROWTH!!! Let’s go for it! Now, a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and let’s hope a Happy New Year to all!