Commentary by Russ Jackson
Back in February, 2018, I wrote “Another positive Amtrak Trip Report?!!” that was an enthusiastic endorsement of the on board crews and food service on our train from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles on the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited. Those positive comments stand, but circumstances involving Amtrak’s long distance trains have changed. Let me set up what I want to say with reminiscences.
My first experiences with overnight train travel were in in the early 1960’s when I rode the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited overnight from Los Angeles to Tucson in consecutive years. The first trip was a joy, with a comfortable coach seat and visiting the observation lounge where the actress Lurene Tuttle was riding with friends. Dining Car breakfast the next morning out of Phoenix was excellent, service was very efficient, the train was on time, and I enthusiastically looked forward to the next time. On the next trip the great disillusionment set in. The SP had replaced the Dining Car with an automat car, the seats were uncomfortable, and no actress was in sight as the lounge car was gone. That was the last time I rode a train until my wife convinced me to take the Santa Fe’s El Capitan five years later, which I thoroughly enjoyed and we have ridden many trains since then.
The 1971 coming of Amtrak as the replacement for the freight railroads’ passenger trains which Anthony Haswell and the energetic new NARP brought into being was a new and different train experience. I will not discuss national politics here, but in the early 1970s other national events were overwhelming the news on a daily basis. On CBS radio at 4:30 in the afternoon Dan Rather’s commentary was a must listen for me, as he explained what was going on in the leadup to “Watergate.” Rather would explain what previous Presidents had done, then say, “But this President….” That brings us back to Amtrak today.
In the past, Amtrak CEOs would run trains in bad weather because rail was considered to be the “all weather” mode of transportation. But, this CEO, Richard Anderson, pulled the plug on trains faster than ever before, stranding passengers on the Empire Builder on one trip while the BNSF ran its trains and would have cleared Amtrak to run because the weather wasn’t “that bad.”
In the past, Amtrak CEOs ran charter trains and hooked private cars onto scheduled trains knowing it was a cash cow. But, this CEO has made drastic changes to this policy, which RailPAC President Paul Dyson says will cost Amtrak revenue and goodwill that it sorely needs.
In the past, Amtrak CEOs were convinced that providing amenities such as the Pacific Parlour Car on the Coast Starlight were incentives to attract higher paying first class riders, and the cars were successful in doing so for almost 20 years. But, this CEO eliminated the Parlour Cars as a “cost saving,” removing one feature that made Amtrak different from being just “transportation.”
In the past, Amtrak CEOs were convinced that the on board Food service was vital to the riders on the long distance routes in every part of the country. While the menus varied in quality, and service delivery was inconsistent over the years, riders could count on having a unique experience if they chose to do so. First class passengers paid for all their meals in advance with their high revenue ticket purchase. Western Amtrak leaders innovated by having new menus and added the “Just for You” at-your-seat meals for Coach riders. But, this CEO announced a surprise change by eliminating the freshly prepared food on two of Amtrak’s premier long distance trains in the East, the Lake Shore Limited, and the Capitol Limited starting June 1. Instead, first class passengers will pay the same fares on those trains but will get pre-packaged cold meals for dinner and breakfast on their one-night trip, and only one employee will be doing food service (saving $3 million according to Anderson). That was the alarm that rang throughout the rail advocacy and journalistic communities as assumptions were made that the policy of this CEO is the national system will only be a group of state supported corridors. And, fixed consists will eliminate any chance to add a car if a train is sold out. He plans to do a drip by drip elimination of everything except a train car and a seat for the passengers. As Paul Dyson wrote, “This is how Anderson will restructure Amtrak.” It’s a “strategy” where while it is impossible to eliminate everything in one swoop, he can “downgrade the product and limit inventory in order to prompt a death spiral of declining patronage and revenue which will ‘justify’ further cuts.” We all are waiting to see what happens next to the long distance trains in the East, because they are forerunners to what will happen in the West. Is stopping trains at Harvey Houses for meals next?
Just what is the function of a CEO? Is it to come in and destroy what his company has to offer to the country? Not likely. Or, is it the CEO’s job to aggressively sell the product and its image to potential customers? Is the CEO a cheerleader for his troops in the field, working hard to make sure they have what they need to do the job? Let’s look at a recent non-transportation company CEO and see what a difference can be made by someone who believes in his product and has positive policies to GROW the company. John Legere is the CEO of T-Mobile. He is everywhere in his company, talking to the field employees as well as the executives, taking on the competition with aggressive policies that attract new customers, and his enthusiastic performance of his job is legendary. He moves around his corporate headquarters on a Segway. In the past few years T-Mobile revenues have increased so much they are now ahead of one of their national competitors and are securing their place in America. The success is due almost exclusively to his ideas carried out by a workforce that responds to success.
Back to Amtrak. Does this CEO go “out among ’em” by riding the trains where passengers can be reached, or where future customers can be found as Graham Claytor and David Gunn did? Does this CEO know firsthand what needs to be done or is he just listening to the bean counters at headquarters in DC? When he does travel is it usually by air, such as when he came to Los Angeles to speak at the Rail Summit in April, 2018? While there did he venture into Union Station to meet his customers and employees? I don’t know, but I do know what Paul Dyson wrote about his and Dana Gabbard’s experience in asking Anderson questions at the meeting. Anderson was quite annoyed that someone would challenge him and his policies and that “hobbyists” (us) were there. Anderson has called his employees thieves, while it is internal weaknesses that lead to the opportunity for them to be tempted. An on board employee once told this writer that the reason there are no toasters in the Dining Cars is because when the next crew arrives to work at the endpoint there is no toaster there. That attitude is correctable, cashless payments can be instituted, but the vast number of employees are hard working folks who enjoy doing their jobs and look for support for their efforts.
We are stuck with an Amtrak CEO who has surprised all of us with his aggressive Non-Growth policies, which are designed only to cut costs in order to provide more funding for the Northeast Corridor just like too many of his predecessors. We will have to work twice as hard to overcome this destructive strategy this time. This CEO is convinced that the long distance trains do not make economic sense, and his NEC-centric board agrees that corridors are the only reason for Amtrak to exist. Can he accomplish the goal of gutting the system drip by drip, thinking no one will notice or try to stop him? Are we up to overcoming another wrong-headed approach at Amtrak? We all know the answer to future success for this company is GROWTH… and we will keep saying it.