Commentary by Russ Jackson
You already know what the situation is these days with Amtrak and its plans for October. What we need right now is some philosophy that will keep our chins up and continue working to first get them to see they are on a path to self-destruction, and then get them to take a positive “growth” position looking forward with the long distance trains. As the eminent philosopher, Yogi Berra the Hall of Fame baseball catcher said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And he’s right. Amtrak has its head in the sand regarding its own future.
Railway Age summed up what happened by quoting Amtrak EVP and Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer (How’s that for a title?) Roger Harris’s June 15 letter to employees: “Citing a “need to be smart about how we deliver our service in this market environment” as well as “to demonstrate that we are using our resources efficiently and responsibly” because “Congress is not going to support us indefinitely to run mostly empty trains,” .Harris began his announcement by saying that Amtrak “remain[s] committed to operating a national network that serves our customers across America.” Then, following his pronouncements about “smart” service delivery, “efficient” and “responsible” resource use and uncertain Congressional support, he announced plans for train frequency cuts of 32% on the Northeast Corridor and 24% for state-supported service, and a reduction for most daily Long-Distance trains to three days per week. “Low ridership on Long-Distance trains has significantly increased our operating losses, which already exceeded $500 million annually on these services before the pandemic*,” Harris said. “We expect these Long-Distance frequency reductions will save as much as $150 million in FY21 vs. the losses that would have been incurred with daily service. Harris said Amtrak’s goal “is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021.”
You already knew that. Now let’s see what the rest of the story is. We already know that Amtrak’s own figures are not real, just what they want us to know. Many articles have been written, aired, published, and posted nationwide about what that October 1 plan is, so a realistic question is how much damage has been done to the Amtrak legacy because of what they plan to do? Instead of an enthusiastic “We’re still here…come on back and ride, we have room for you!!!!” we get the bad news above. They do not have to put this plan in force this Fall. We know that, they know that, and hopefully the Congress knows enough to force them to rescind the plan and provide the full national service that its constituency needs and wants. Or, is the Congress going to finally wash its hands of Amtrak and say, “Go ahead, do it and maybe you’ll see what happens is the opposite of what you want.” But then, maybe that’s what the current management does want. They don’t have much corporate memory to know that their plan is doomed to failure.
In more philosophical words of the great Yogi, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Is Amtrak management playing games expecting the Congress to dump more money on them? I think so. Then we are right back where we started, but with the whole country reduced to Tri-weekly service and all the planning variables that entails when potential riders are looking at making a trip. My question is: What’s the plan for Tri-weekly service? If the plan is to restore service as demand increases, what are the goals for that to kick in? Is connectivity a part of the plan? For example, if we want to take our usual trip to California from Ft. Worth, will the days the Texas Eagle runs be the days it connects with the Sunset Limited in San Antonio? We’ll be watching as the specifics are spelled out, as a clue to whether Amtrak is really serious about restoring service based on demand.
Meanwhile, let’s go back to Harris’s letter above. Did you catch that $150 million figure? Andrew Selden did, and he says, “$400 million to start up a new NEC station (Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station) when they say they are broke? No problem…$150 million (they say) to sustain the national network? No can do.” Selden said, “It appears that based on normal business planning considerations Amtrak is doing its recovery planning exactly backwards, due to political pressure, a failed business model, ignorant leadership, and an utterly deceptive and deeply flawed internal cost allocation process. Amtrak’s CEO William Flynn showed that he doesn’t understand any of this when he threatened in early June to cut all long distance trains to tri-weekly ‘to save money’ and then issued his plan.” Pierre Loomis wrote, “Amen, and it’s long past time to expose the fact that Amtrak’s ownership of the NEC amounts to a huge subsidy for the NEC’s commuter railroads.” Bob Johnston, writing on the Trains magazine newswire said, “While ridership and revenue remains suppressed because of the pandemic, long-distance ticket revenues climbed 71%, from $6.8 million to $11.6 million, between April and May. Operating with approximately the same frequencies, Northeast Corridor billing rose about 60% from $1.5 million to $2.4 million, and state supported trains generated less than a 50% increase, from $2.3 million in April to $3.5 million in May. So existing long-distance service, mostly operating seven days a week, provided almost double the May revenue of Corridor and state-supported operations combined.” And, Johnston also said what we have been saying for YEARS: “The operating losses Harris cites include allocated costs attributed to those services. Amtrak has historically declined to provide line-item dollar amounts which would detail these costs for any train.”
Anyone who follows the Virtual Railfan web cams from towns like LaPlata, MO, Flagstaff, AZ, etc. has seen a gradual growth return of passengers to/from the Southwest Chief. Was Amtrak premature in announcing the October plan? Yes. Did they do it deliberately? Have a look at the consists on the long distance trains today. What started as 5-car trains during the pandemic is now back to 7 cars on most trains, so Amtrak is recognizing that riders are returning. Is this a tacit recognition that despite their efforts their plan is doomed? As for ridership on just the Southwest Chief, for example. According to Great American Stations, in Kansas in FY2018, 5,289 rode to/from Dodge City, 7,056 in Garden City, 4,415 in Hutchison, 8,362 in Lawrence, 15,218 at Newton (Wichita and connections from the Heartland Flyer), 9,136 from Topeka for a state total of 49,466. How many of those riders would adjust their trips for tri-weekly? Can Amtrak afford to lose the CASH generated by those folks?
Here’s a comment from long time RailPAC member Ralph James: “I have heard that the October plan would reduce the long distance network to tri-weekly service. If true I’m afraid it would be the beginning of the end for the national network. We have put up with the tri-weekly Sunset schedule for several years shuttling between Northern California and Benson, Arizona. We have made it work with some effort, but it takes some dedication that I don’t believe the average person would have. If the connecting services are also tri-weekly there will necessarily be some connections that do not occur on the same day, meaning at least one overnight stay will be required. Throw in missed connections due to late arrivals and instead of one overnight at Amtrak expense the traveler could be delayed two or three days with most at their own expense unless Amtrak puts everybody on airplanes to their final destination. Sounds like a recipe for shutting down the long distance network to me if that is true. There are not enough states in a position to even consider financing the off-days of a tri-weekly schedule so the network still fails even if one or two routes remain daily.”
Those of us who are “used” to tri-weekly service from the Sunset Limited for too many years know how hard it is to plan trips, as Ralph James said above. There are some who would travel by train, but have to look elsewhere. Bill Lindley in Phoenix is one, and he’s a veteran train rider: He told us, “The Sunset Limited is practically useless to me. It never runs on a day I need it. An often overlooked part of (Dr. Adrian Herzog’s) “Matrix Theory” is that the shorter the trip, the more often a service needs to run to be reasonable. On this basis, Phoenix should have at least six daily trains to Los Angeles,m three to El Paso, and hourly service to Tucson. Meanwhile here I sit in Phoenix waiting for Amtrak’s first train of this millennium to arrive.”
And so we close with another Yogi-ism, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s where Amtrak is and it either knows or doesn’t know where to go. If there really is a plan to return to full weekly service (and real food in the dining cars for all riders) it should start with telling everyone who is taking its cutback plan seriously that it is a joke and really isn’t going to be implemented. Do you think there’s a chance of that? Ah, but baseball is coming back in July…so let’s follow that for relief from the aches and pains of being rail advocates…but keep a firm eye on what Amtrak management is doing. Let everyone know what you think, too, and as everyone says these days, “Be safe.”