A Culmination of Deliberate, Destructive Efforts to Kill the Long Distance Trains-Ignoring Their Financial Impact Upon the NEC
By Eliminating a Modicum of Acceptable Dining Service Extinguishes Any Rationale for Taking Long Distance Trains
By M.E. Singer
Within but just four months of 2018, we find ourselves suddenly confronted with the inevitable end of the line for our long distance trains. This very well could become the final chapter in time for the sixtieth anniversary of David P. Morgan’s superb analysis in the April, 1959 issue of Trains Magazine, “Who Shot the Passenger Train.”
We are now forced to react to the “salami tactics” of an unrecognizable, unpredictable Amtrak that has already moved just in this year to kill off the Pacific Parlour Car, restrict the freedom of private car (PV) movements, and drastically curtail charter/special trains.The one common characteristic shared between these operations was the fact they each contributed incremental and profitable revenues to the bottom line of Amtrak. In essence, this will be the major theme throughout this analysis of “How Amtrak Shot the Passenger Train”–how the long distance trains when scrutinized in an unbiased, unfiltered perspective were actually relied upon to financially support Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC).
Starting with the persistent mis-management, and now destruction, of the food and beverage services (F&B) on long distance trains we need to examine the issues contributing to how we got to this position, and where we are clearly headed-the demise of the national system on a fast track basis. Many of these issues have been long identified, but ignored, through numerous Inspector General (IG) and General Accounting Office (GAO) reports. However, the one common denominator is how these issues are inter-connected to achieve a maximized impact against the long distance trains, despite the reality how this sector has been floating the NEC.
Surreptitious Maneuvers Laying the Groundwork to Dismantle the Long Distance Trains
Just as it is said that the ancient Greeks looked at the entrails of birds to predict the future, it should be clear by now that when Amtrak’s CEO Anderson threw down the gauntlet challenging the Class 1s that if they did not fully install their Positive Train Control (PTC) by year-end 2018, he would take the position of embargoing those lines. In true Orwellian double-speak to cloak any transparency, Anderson was directly communicating to those Class 1 CEOs that they would soon have an escape clause to legally trigger and rid themselves of the bothersome hosting of Amtrak. Ever so politically savvy, Anderson embraced the “Brer Rabbit” strategy declaring anything but not to be thrown into the “briar patch,” when that was exactly his goal–no PTC means too achieve overnight the elimination route-by-route of long distance trains: the perfect “briar patch” leaving Anderson with clean hands. The binary choice handed to Anderson was to induce and manage the decline of the long distance trains in order to focus upon the favored NEC. It starts and ends with the dining service, just as we experienced in the 1960s, as we know so well personified by the Southern Pacific (SP).
As food/beverage services (F&B) represent on Amtrak’s books a significant expense as a requisite service expected on a long distance train, this became the obvious target to move Anderson’s Götterdämmerung agenda forward. As noted here, the lack of interest to earnestly tackle the obvious issues regarding F&B clearly evidences how Amtrak’s management has not taken ownership of its self-inflicted problems; in essence, we are to accept “bakers that will not bake.” However, as we dissect the contributing factors deliberately ignored by Amtrak’s leadership in their haste to strangulate long distance trains by minimizing F&B services, we should remember the failure of Anderson and his Board to heed the caution offered by H.L. Mencken: “for every complex problem their is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
How These External and Internal Factors Directly Contributed to the Demise of an Acceptable Food/Beverage Operation on Long Distance Trains
Rather than accepting the required stress test to improve the touchstone issue of F&B on long distance trains; to make F&B a paragon of the epitome of what the long distance trains could offer leisure, vacation, personal, and even business travel; Amtrak instead endeavored to work beyond the guardrails long ago established in its core mission. Amtrak chose to successfully unmoor itself from the long distance trains by neglecting the many opportunities a competent, motivated, and well led management team, benefiting from the oversight of a seasoned Board, would have aggressively seized upon. Instead, the contributing factors towards the neglect and substitution of subpar F&B service on long distance trains include:
As an excuse (for everything travelers detest), Amtrak conveniently points to the various congressional statutes. The same Congress that mandates specific routes, also mandates cost cutting. But why has this Potomac bi-polarity never been attacked by Amtrak management/Government Relations team, its own Board, or, its “friends” in Congress; even the media (now deprived of experienced transportation writers). How many of these politicians, who lack the institutional knowledge of how Congress has historically subsidized every possible competitor to the passenger train, have experience, let alone have knowledge, regarding the passenger train?
An interesting perspective on Congress not picked up by Amtrak is when the New York Central’s CEO Alfred Perlman conceived the original Empire Service in the 1960s to frequently connect Upstate New York with Manhattan, he was required by New York state regulations to include a tavern-lounge car in all consists–at the railroad’s expense. Yet, fast forward and we find that when the cafe lounge on Amtrak’s trains operated at the cost of New York state, the governor in a cost-cutting effort refused to pay and the cafe cars were cut between NYC-Albany.
Amtrak Board of Directors
In evidence of how this Board is so pathetically conflicted and singularly focused on the NEC in adherence to their political patrons (and the wealth derived from its multiple real estate development opportunities), note how the Board never evidenced its position of stewardship to come front and center to educate Congress and protest its ridiculous statutes. To protect their prized NEC, this Board is obviously quite willing to shrug-off the cost of the 25 CAF-built V-II diners, with 11 already pushing-up weeds at the Hialeah yard. Clearly, this Board is conflicted and will not fight for the long distance train, particularly if it threatens or interferes with their NEC. If their was a nano second of integrity their would have been an acknowledgement of how competent stewardship required recruiting to the Board members with experience in F&B, customer service, and travel to apply their knowledge in a meaningful manner of oversight.
To what extent do we need to reference the historical record of explicit deficiencies identified by the IG and GAO reports denoting problems with contracts, conflicts-of-interest, lack of cash and product controls, etc? How do we overlook former Rep. Mica’s rants to accept obvious realities long ignored by various tenured Amtrak management teams? Despite the extent of excessive management in the F&B area, why did the proposed bar-coding concept fail? Today, the important question is why the Point-of-Service program (POS) has lagged in its implementation, despite verification of its ability to ensure cash control, product control, minimizing waste, and inventory PAR controls? As well, why was the F&B business model never intricately dissected and reviewed for its application in the 21st century, such as:
1) Why was it never seriously considered to fully outsource F&B beyond commissaries to include on-board services? Or, would that open Amtrak to be competently managed by a private-operator?
2) To reduce costs by directly assuming commissary operations? When was that even last reviewed?
3) To convert diners to include coffee shop/grill to serve between 0630-2300? Improved asset utilization for a fixed market.
4) To revamp the concept of the diner crew traveling aboard the entire trip?
5) To charge again for all meals to sleeper passengers to avoid the accounting gimmicks working against the long distance trains?
6) To offer pre-purchased meal tickets? Did it not work well for the AT&SF and UP?
Interestingly, we have yet, and will probably never receive a concise explanation why Amtrak elected to ignore and not seek to benchmark with successful F&B alternatives, including:
1) VIA Rail Canada’s superb dining operation on “The Canadian,” including car attendants and wait staff working in the galley; a different menu per meal per day.
2) VIA Rail Canada’s trolley cart service in coach on its corridor services.
3) VIA Rail Canada’s upgraded hot meal, open cocktail service on corridor Business Class services; thoroughly knowing its customer base to put more into breakfast and dinner menus and less into the midday lunch.
4) Amtrak’s own Acela Roll On/Roll Off (RORO) self-contained trolley cart for first class hot/cold plated meals.
5) American Airlines proven program to allow first class passengers to indicate their meal choice for lunch and dinner flights.
Amazing how Amtrak has restricted its revenue building opportunity by eliminating the “short” coaches and built consists anathema to purchasing from its cafe-lounge cars. Years ago, the “Empire Builder” accepted “shorts” between CHI-MKE, who frequented the cafe-lounge on their 85 mile trip. With the only cafe-lounge on the “Lake Shore Limited” positioned in the Boston section eight cars forward of the NYC sleepers, and no interest on the part of the Sunnyside-based crew to secure drinks, how much revenue was lost? (And Amtrak thinks these same sleeper attendants are going to serve and clean-up meals, plus handle the berths? Good luck! But at least the toilet lid in the Viewliner roomette will now have a real purpose to stack food boxes.)
When we see how Amtrak is devoid of knowledge regarding the travel tastes of the growing millennial and baby boomer populations, their interest in seeing the USA, and expectations of a favorable customer experience, I am reminded of how we ex-MadMen (Marketeers) were taught how some competitive firms for “too long sat in their castle while others built catapults to seize their markets.” How will Marketing sell a long distance train bereft of the traveler’s expectation of a favorable food service experience, or, is the proposed amenity kit thought to be a substitute? What has really changed from when a family or foreign visitors planning planning vacation would see in every railroad produced publicity brochure the focus on the dining experience-food, service, ambience, and pride? Today, lacking marketing and advertising, Amtrak has self-immolated such a favorable image.
As it all starts with HR, how has their criteria been identified, verified, and preferably reviewed at the Board level, for recruiting, training, and orientating dining car staff? To what extent does HR ensure crews have the tools to competently conduct their job? How are diner crews properly supervised; re-trained? Why is it accepted, almost as SOP (standard operating procedure) that the customer experience continues to be impacted negatively by the inconsistencies in cooking and table service? On the same route in the same week, I too have experienced the extremes of half-hearted table service and insufferable cooking eastbound; yet, westbound on the same train the next day, ordering the same meals for dinner and breakfast-waiter service was great, and the cooking spot-on.
To what extent has HR been involved from the beginning, and ideally benchmarked to other operations, to figure out how the sleeper attendants will properly handle and serve boxed meals (e.g., public health regulations), timely offer beverage refills, clean-up, prepare compartment for night and day use, man the door at stops, maintain cleanliness of the car, etc? Amtrak may have fooled itself into believing the feasibility of such a routine, based upon the limited exposure to how outsourced catered chicken dinners are handled at Havre, Montana for the “Builder’s” coach passengers; or, other boxed meals delivered for coach on the “Coast Starlight.”But judging from the persistent passenger reports complaining how the bathrooms are not properly maintained by many attendants, I predict Amtrak will quickly fail here. Indeed, from my own experience, I understand this issue quite well, and why it will not work. In my past role in senior management at a Chicago teaching hospital taken over by Columbia/HCA, the corporate owner, desperate to cut labor costs in this large, northern, unionized hospital, proposed to cross-train housekeepers to deliver and pick-up meals, take vitals, while continuing to clean rooms and make beds. As a teaching hospital, we were fortunate to have in my area physicians in epidemiology and infectious diseases, as well as clinical risk management, who adamantly opposed this proposal and provided detailed studies evidencing how harmful this would to all concerned. Our efforts negated any need to even introduce for discussion and negotiation to the union involved.
Realizing HR’s dismal record with labor agreements, and its inherent hesitancy to re-open and negotiate such agreements, how will Amtrak explain to these dynamic unions its position that although it will be piling on more work and responsibilities, it will not necessitate re-negotiation to increase wages for the attendants? Historically, Amtrak has succumbed to union demands for staffing levels; preventing alternative external food options (e.g., Subway food on Albany-New York City Empire Services); continuing a craft mentality to prevent fully utilizing attendants in diners.
The adamant union position has been to the detriment of Amtrak, and now the passenger, as the long distance trains are faced with a labor cost that Amtrak has been unable to contain without simply gutting the service itself.
Pushing the Long Distance Trains Off the Cliff
Amtrak’s historical defiance of Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles (GAAP) to dress-up its NEC as being “profitable” by diverting its high overhead and infrastructure costs onto and at the detriment of the long distance sector, was achieved without any challenge or consequences. Despite Amtrak claiming how it came close to covering its operating costs in FY2017, nobody challenged that claim either, questioning to what extent were funds collected from its full cost methodology for state-supported corridors applied to subsidize the NEC? Realizing the demise of dining service on the long distance trains fulfills the goal of eventually finally cutting those routes, regardless if Amtrak proposes a substitution of daytime trains on selected corridors, where is the clamor to attack the Amtrak HQ castle with pitchforks and torches to demand retribution? Why have we not heard that parallel to the pending death of the long distance trains, Amtrak will also be gutting staff-at all levels-at HQ in product development, F&B, government relations, public relations, marketing, HR (recruiters, trainers, labor relations), operations, finance? No need for such extensive, expensive overhead when the remaining trains, for the time being, will only be handling and selling hot dogs, chips, and pop; boxed meals for sleepers–until a public health or union incident. Mr. Anderson, you can take down that worn pennant, “We’re Making the Trains Worth Traveling Again.”
We see how each of the above areas described here has been shown in detail how it contributed to at best, inhibiting, a pro-active approach to enabling the long distance trains to thrive and survive. Pathetically, Amtrak started with an airplane executive who was lost from the beginning and religiously following orders to prepare for closure within a few years (Roger Lewis-General Dynamics). For a while, Amtrak benefited from knowledgeable railroaders, including Paul Reistrup, Alan Boyd, W. Graham Claytor, and David Gunn. Although the original make-up of the proposed Amtrak Reform Council offered a glimmer of hope, that was quickly dashed when many of those key members quit, rather than be a rubber-stamp for the administration’s true intent. The second effort at the Amtrak Reform Council lacked the pedigree members, nor a capacity to implement any meaningful changes. After 2005, Amtrak became a convenient stop for political administrative appointees who actually believed they were on a “glide path towards solvency,” while they allowed Marketing to discard a well known brand that defined Amtrak, “Metroliner.” As if they were playing with Monopoly money, they rejected purchasing off-the shelf proven high speed train sets for the re-built NEC; instead, selecting on unproven, expensive, and now worn-out in less than twenty years, Acelas. In parallel to this record of mis-management, the long distance trains were neglected and suffered. With the federal loan only for another generation of Acelas, while totally ignoring the long distance trains, it is quite obvious the route Amtrak has chosen.
To our chagrin, Amtrak as we have known it, as defined by the named long distance trains, will be closed out by another airplane executive (Richard Anderson-Delta). As Anderson pushes the long distance trains into the dustbin of history, perhaps he is contemplating using the idle diners for premium freight service, as recently evidenced in Italy with older HSR sets? As for the baggage cars he will no longer need given continuing reduction in staffed depots, and the inevitable loss of traffic, perhaps he will seize upon the recent concept being contemplated by some airlines and their manufacturers to utilize the cargo hold by inserting sleeping and lounge modules?
What the corporate culture jockeying for position with the Board of Amtrak has neglected to advise Anderson is how, in actuality, the NEC is so dependent upon the national network of long distance trains, not so much for connections, as for the ability to dump NEC costs, while concomitantly deflating long distance revenues by ignoring the standard of measurement of “revenues per passenger mile traveled.” But that would place the long distance trains almost at the same level of the airlines, with the added feature of turning over its seats and compartments an average of 2.5 times per trip. Rather than re-equip the Superliners, build seasonal, tourist, and vacation travel schedules, and equip other routes with the successful Pacific Parlour concept, Anderson heeds the Board’s verdict better to push the long distance routes over the cliff by strangulating dining services. Certainly, SP’s Biaggini is smiling, from wherever he rests.