A loud COMMENTARY by Russ Jackson

The recent commentary by this writer published on the internet and in Steel Wheels was highly complimentary of Amtrak’s long distance trains and its crews following my recent trips.  RailPAC VP Long Distance Services James Smith agrees that the atmosphere and morale “out there” is very high, after his recent trip on the Sunset Limited, City of New Orleans, and Southwest Chief.  To Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson I say “keep it up!”  Good customer service is the most important area to generate word of mouth promotion!  Mr. Anderson, you have a nucleus of talented employees and junior executives who are doing top jobs.  Don’t mess it up.  Keep listening to them, and to rail advocates!  Get out among ’em!  Your presentation to NARP in Chicago was particularly impressive when you said that upgrading Superliner equipment is a priority.  Unfortunately, that will only keep total capacity at what we have now, making growth difficult.  Come west, young man, see what we have out here…and build on it!

A new calendar year is upon us.  Amtrak has been around since 1971, yet there are some projects dating back to that date that need finishing, and many have emerged since then that still need to be addressed, solved, and implemented.  Maybe rail advocates haven’t been loud enough, so in this writing (one of many from this author for over 30 years) I will show my frustration at the lack of finality for some things that should have been accomplished YEARS AGO.  Notice the ALL CAPS?  Well, as you read the following and see something in ALL CAPS, think of the writer SHOUTING those words.  Maybe we can finally have ACTION, AND SEE GROWTH! 

1.  HEY AMTRAK:  WHY isn’t the Sunset Limited DAILY?  It certainly looks like that is still on the back burner, but now the new “Unlimited Sunset” committee has been formed maybe they can DO SOMETHING.  That group met in of all places, San Diego, which if I read the map correctly, ISN’T ON THE SUNSET ROUTE, but was a wonderful (REALLY wonderful) place for a meeting.  They are supported by NARP?  HEY, why isn’t Amtrak doing this themselves?  Is it easier to ignore an outside group?  I am very happy that RailPAC is involved in this new group, and includes Paul Dyson, Bob Manning, and Noel Braymer, as well as retired Amtrak official Richard Phelps, all of whom bring years of level headed advocacy to the table.  If the two biggest hurdles to daily service are the UP and a lack of equipment, GO CAMP IN OMAHA!…THINK LEASING!  LET’S GO!  Amtrak revenue GROWTH and higher passenger mile counts are IMPORTANT.  Would it work to add one new day each timetable change until it’s DAILY?

2.  HEY AMTRAK:  WHY isn’t restoring the route along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Florida DONE?  For several years a Southern group has held numerous meetings, run a test train, and worked hard to get this service going.  It’s been, what, twelve years since Hurricane Katrina wiped out the railroad and ten years since that railroad was rebuilt.  We still wait for restoration of service either by extending the Sunset Limited or the City of New Orleans to Orlando.  WHAT’S THE HOLDUP?  If the two biggest hurdles are the CSX and a lack of equipment, GO CAMP ON HUNTER HARRISON’S CSX DOOR! . . .THINK LEASING!  LET’S GO! 

3.  HEY AMTRAK:  WHY does the Palmetto STILL end its run in Savannah, GA?  Isn’t the logical end point for this train in Orlando?  Orlando is only the biggest tourist attraction in the East, ISN’T IT?  WHY does the “Silver Starvation” (Silver Star train) not have first class dining?  Looks like removing it is in concrete and shall return “nevermore.”  Think revenue enhancement, think Passenger Miles!  WHY isn’t the Southwest Chief connection to Pueblo, CO, a DONE DEAL?  ColoRail has done a GREAT job working on this project, and certainly are to be congratulated on getting the Winter Park Express ski train back.  Small things?  Each one is a revenue enhancer!

4.  HEY AMTRAK:  WHY isn’t there more momentum on adding the new train, the connection from the Crescent at Meridian, MS, through northern Louisiana to Dallas/Ft. Worth?  HOW LOGICAL it is to get something accomplished that locals have been asking for and are willing to support?  Is it the railroads holding it up?  GO FOR IT!   And, while you’re at it how about extending that train west of Ft. Worth through Abilene and Midland, to El Paso and on to Los Angeles as the second frequency which also would bring it through Palm Springs in DAYLIGHT.  Sure, this train would have low-level equipment. WHO CARES?  Amtrak, you’ve got lots of low level cars and California is going to be stuck with some from the new car order.

5.  HEY AMTRAK:  What do you think of this idea:  “A rolling hotel overnight between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.”  Can you think of a new marketing idea with A GREATER CHANCE OF SUCCESS?  We floated this idea many years ago and almost had it approved.  The Coast Daylight plan apparently is dead, so this plan provides second service on the flip schedule of the Coast Starlight.  By extending the California Zephyr trainset from Oakland to Los Angeles with departures from each end at 8 PM, and arriving by 8 AM next morning using the Coast Line.  It would be a national system train not needing state support.  Superliner west coast maintenance could then be consolidated in the LA 8th Street shop.  Railfans would want the train named the Lark, but whatever the name it’s a potential gold mine IF IT IS MARKETED.

6.  HEY NARP...or RPA…or whatever you call yourselves now.  Amtrak pays you to run THEIR Customer Advisory Committee, and you know what?  I’ve NEVER seen anything that it recommended.  IS IT TRUE that the work of that group is ignored?  If so, WHY does it exist and WHY do you go along with it?  It SHOULD BE the most important committee Amtrak has.  I’ve attended far too many rail “meetings,” where Amtrak big shots come, speak, take a couple of questions, and then nothing happens.  The most productive meeting I attended was the RailPAC dinner with Brian Rosenwald in Sacramento where we were able to talk customer service.  WHY aren’t you yelling as loud as I am? You should CONCENTRATE on PASSENGER issues!  WHY are you only proud of things like taking the railroads to the Supreme Court?

7.  HEY NEC!  (Notice that I singled out the NEC from Amtrak?)  WHY is the load factor for travel on the Corridor huge between Philadelphia and New York, yet so small on either side?  Do all Regional trains have to run to DC?  Why not save some precious bucks and run some trains only between Philly and NYC, freeing up more space for high revenue generating through passengers!  And while you’re at it, if you need more money for the NEC, ASK for it and STOP DUMPING NEC COSTS onto the state supported and long distance trains!

8.  HEY BNSF, UP, NS, CSX:  STOP being so antagonistic to passenger rail.  If you are being underfunded by Amtrak or other rail agencies, get your acts together and march on Washington together to get fair compensation for carrying passenger trains.  And I mean FAIR, don’t try to squeeze as much as you can.  It should be obvious now that Amtrak and passenger trains are here to stay, with general support from a big majority in the Congress.  WORK WITH US!!!

And so the end of my rant is here.  Am I calm?  Yes.  Am I tired of writing about these things over and over?  Yes.  Am I at an age when I’d like to see some of these things HAPPEN? YES.  When people ask why I do these writings the answer is I’ve tried to save Amtrak from itself, and in some ways there HAS been success.  The key LOUD word to Amtrak from rail advocates and me is GROWTH...think it, work for it!