By Andrew Selden
With America’s worst businessman, Joe Boardman, gone from his ruinous reign at Amtrak, one can hope for some stability and the prospect of rational investment policy and growth at Amtrak. That remains to be seen.
Boardman’s swan song was a doozy – a five-car, two-engine private train junket around the west in late July for Boardman and invited guests ranging from real railroad executives to gullible local politicians. The train consisted of Amtrak #10001, Beech Grove (a converted Amfleet business car), 10004, American View (converted Viewliner track inspection gallery car), 10021, Pacific Cape (converted Budd Heritage sleeper), 10031, Ocean View (ex-GN full-length dome), and 62044 (standard Viewliner sleeper). It was powered by P-42s 145 and 822, both repainted into a long-retired Amtrak paint scheme. (That is a lot of power for this train; the Empire Builder routinely gets only one P-42 for seven cars between Spokane and Seattle, over Stevens Pass.) The train came west from the Northeast Corridor, through Chicago, to Albuquerque and El Paso, then east on the Sunset Limited.
Boardman used the train to “celebrate” having fleeced the affected states and communities for $42 million used to rehabilitate BNSF’s track in western Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico used by the Southwest Chief. The Chief is a national system train that is, and should be, a 100% Amtrak/federal responsibility. So instead of reprogramming 4% of one year’s federal subsidy to pay for this trackwork, Boardman succeeded in squeezing that money out of the states and cities along the route, in effect getting Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to subsidize the Northeast Corridor. Boardman also worked the usual con by dangling the prospect of a rail connection between the Chief’s route in Kansas and Dallas-Ft. Worth (via Wichita and Oklahoma City), but only if the local states and cities paid for it. We’re waiting for Kansas to call his bluff and put that proposal out for competitive bids.
Another con that Boardman worked on was a proposed extension of the Southwest Chief route to Pueblo, CO. United Rail Passenger Alliance proposed this 25 years ago as a re-route of trains 3 and 4 between La Junta and Trinidad via Pueblo, allowing BN (now, BNSF) to downgrade or abandon the passenger-only track between La Junta and just east of Trinidad. Existing main line track existed then and still does now to allow Chief trains to run the new route, with a stop at the still-standing Pueblo Santa Fe depot, without any new track construction needed (existing track, as always, would need some enhancement). The extra hour or so of running time would be easily compensated by millions in new revenue from passengers using Pueblo as a gateway to the Colorado mountains, and to Colorado Springs and Denver. Amtrak’s current solution? A free-standing separate train connecting La Junta to Pueblo, but ignoring networking opportunities to serve Colorado Springs, Denver and Gunnison. The Pueblo stop by itself would add 14,000 annual customers and $1.5 million in revenue. No comment was offered on where those new passengers would sit once they got on the Chief, which is often sold out much of the year. Amtrak also offered no comment on why running a local stub train between La Junta and Pueblo made any sense, since by their own estimates only 20 people a trip would ride it.
We haven’t seen a cost estimate for Boardman’s last junket, but at commercial lease costs for five exotic specialty cars, two engines, service staff, engineers and conductors, and track usage charges by the host railroads, plus soft costs like insurance and entertainment, this could easily have come to a quarter of a million dollars. Spent by a totally bankrupt company, out of free subsidies provided by taxpayers and ordinarily used on NEC track maintenance.
The two P-42s commandeered for Boardman’s junket left Ft. Worth (and, we believe, Chicago) with no spare roadworthy locomotives. The Heartland Flyer, as a result, was forced to use borrowed BNSF power (BNSF 6892) after its own engine (Amtrak 177) failed on August 3, thus running late for days due to speed limitations on the freight engine.
Engines are in short supply in Chicago in part because all of the converted F40 car bodies used as cab control cars-plus-baggage room, mostly on push-pull Hiawatha service trains to Milwaukee, had to be parked after a Hiawatha grade-crossing collision on June 20 separated the cab control unit from the train, at speed, and sent it free-rolling on down the railroad for three miles before it rolled to a stop. It turns out that these units’ brakes aren’t designed to apply themselves after a break-apart, unlike all other rail equipment. CP and Metra promptly banned the units, and Amtrak had to replace them with a real, second, locomotive, making the Hiawathas the most ridiculously over-powered trains on the system.
Missed market opportunities aren’t limited to Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Phoenix Sky Harbor airport has 44 million passengers a year. Amtrak doesn’t run even a 9-passenger van to Phoenix from its middle-of-nowhere stop at Maricopa, AZ, 40 miles south. Annual visitation to Las Vegas adds up to more than 42 million people. Amtrak can’t be bothered to run a train to Las Vegas. Annual Canadian visitation to Florida, mostly on the Gulf Coast, is about 3.7 million. Amtrak’s share of that? Zero, because Amtrak can’t conceive of running the Silver Star to Toronto or Montreal.
In June, Joe Boardman said that Amtrak needed new diesel engines (no kidding), but leasing them with builder financing (the same way many people buy a new Chevy or Toyota) wasn’t the answer; instead, Boardman said, “Congress has got to come forward and decide to make some investments in rolling stock.” No one asked Boardman why he couldn’t reprogram a tiny slice of the billion dollars a year that Congress already gives him, to pay for new diesels.
Amtrak did manage to use $7 million of the annual billion subsidy dollars bestowed by congress to build a new Metropolitan Lounge, for business class and sleeping car passengers, in Chicago Union Station.
Replacing a cramped and worn-out space on the concourse opened in 1991, the new lounge is a two-story, 13,500 square foot facility in the depot’s historic main waiting room building. It seats 360, about twice the capacity of the old space. It has a separate street entrance, but lacks the direct access to trains that the old lounge featured using its “secret” back door. This is in addition to the “Legacy Club,” an extra fee waiting area opened recently off the main waiting room, open to anyone willing to pay the entrance fee. The old Metropolitan Lounge space will be redeveloped into a modern pre-boarding area for the nearby tracks. We haven’t heard if the new lounge also has the extremely useful “left luggage” room feature of the old club, where passengers could check baggage during a layover between trains so they could get out for a walk in the loop.
Summer is peak period on most of the long distance trains. For example, we know that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the Empire Builders have run with every seat occupied and every sleeping car room sold. But in the business traffic-dependent NEC, not so much. Traffic has been so weak in the NEC – already off several percent this year – that Amtrak ran a give-away sale on NEC seats, with prices as low as $49 between NY and Boston or Washington, DC. A 14-day advance purchase was required, ruling out use by most business travelers.
Amtrak was lead on an order for new bilevel regional corridor cars intended for use by several states, including Illinois and California. The low bidder/contractor is Kinki-Sharyo, whose inexperience with US rail car engineering standards showed up in spades last year when the prototype car failed the FRA 800,000 pound crush-load test. That much had been reported, and work on the entire order was suspended as a result. What wasn’t reported at the time was that the test car didn’t just deform slightly, it basically crumpled in a complete structural failure. And, the prototype car was already so over-weight that the usual over the seat luggage racks had been designed out of the cars. The lesson may caution if using an inexperienced low bidder on car orders when proven builders like Bombardier and Siemens are available.
Amtrak was hit by a phony overtime scandal again in July, when two supervisory workers in New Jersey were arrested and charged with fraud and theft for billing Amtrak for almost a hundred thousand dollars in fake straight time and overtime. The episode was reminiscent of a scheme discovered in Chicago a few years ago when workers would punch in at Amtrak’s Chicago shops, then walk out to a second job where they (presumably) actually did some work.
In a “deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic” scheme, Amtrak decided to revamp and re-launch its on-board magazine. (We assume that is cheaper than installing wi-fi on all its trains, but it still has a 19th century feel to it.) The new magazine, to be called “The National,” will feature slick travel photography and hired stories. The first issue will be released in October. Magazines like this are mainly advertising platforms that yield a small revenue stream to the owner.
Amtrak removed dining cars and meal service from the Lakeshore Limited (Chicago-NY via Cleveland and Buffalo) in July, because of structural defects in the 60-year old standard dining cars. (VIA’s identical cars are still going strong in Canada.) Until new Viewliner diners become available sometime this winter, food service, such as it is, will be offered in a second Amfleet dinette car. No reduction in sleeping car fares to compensate for the downgraded dining service were announced. Enough Heritage dining cars remain only to cover the Silver Meteor and Crescent routes.
Finally, Amtrak announced in late July that it had come to terms with Alstom to build a new fleet of replacement Acela II trainsets for the NEC. The original Acelas were introduced in 2000-2001 but have not held up well. By just the most amazing, wildest, coincidence, Alstom said they would build these trains in Joe Boardman’s home state, New York. New York Senator Chuck Schumer took credit for raiding the Treasury, oops, we mean “arranging the federal financing,” for the new trains. Existing Acela trains have an annual load factor of just over 50%, so it’s not entirely clear why new trains are appropriate, but Amtrak’s announcement didn’t explain that. Amtrak also didn’t explain why, if the existing Acelas are so “successful” and “profitable,” their replacements couldn’t be self-financed, rather than depending on “federal financing.”