A Road Map for Congress to Embrace Long Distance Trains
By Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
Recently, I have attempted to enlighten through local commentary certain senators to the reality of their own Potomac politics. Until the issue hit home directly, they failed to appreciate how they abrogated over the years any sense of oversight to ensure Amtrak fulfilled its mandate as a national rail provider.
With a deleterious consequence, Amtrak’s Board and management took advantage of this vacuum to steer Amtrak 180 degrees in the opposite direction, so that today NRPC actually reflects Amtrak’s curtsy in reverence to its Northeastern political and real estate patrons, as it has evolved into the “Northeastern Railroad Passenger Corporation.” Today, Amtrak HQ management, with the consent of its Board, interprets every version of a Rorschach test as a challenge to their edict to turn on, and eradicate the Long Distance routes. In their minds, if only they did not have to deal with the National Network, all would be well.
Actually, not so. Indeed, what we have identified is a total failure on a persistent, deliberate internal basis by Amtrak, far from the obvious modal and infrastructure funding bias claimed over the years. With confidence, we can identify a systemic organizational failure of Amtrak exemplified by its Board of Directors, executive/senior management, and marketing. Their decisions have deliberately crafted a negative environment to deny the actual facts of the unique services and revenues accrued by the long distance trains.
Who At Amtrak HQ Knows, Let Alone, Understands the Meaning of “Santa Fe All the Way”?
The key failure of Amtrak management was not to study history to learn what created the success of our private railroad-operated passenger trains after WWII. The singular fact was how the railroad marketplace functioned, by operating more than a once per day frequency. This enabled every market to be served by a conveniently scheduled train, while facilitating the higher speed premier train. To what extent did Amtrak falter when it lost its rail experienced and initial new management; by default, turned to Potomac apparatchiks? Certainly, this appreciation of the market was accepted by the Santa Fe (Chicago-Los Angeles-“The Chief/Super Chief/El Capitan”); DRG&W (Denver-Salt Lake City-“The Prospector/Royal Gorge”); Illinois Central (Chicago-New Orleans-“City of New Orleans/Panama Limited”); Southern Pacific (Los Angeles-San Francisco-“The Lark/Coast Daylight”; San Francisco-Portland-“Shasta Daylight/The Cascade; The Owl/San Joaquin Daylight”); Baltimore & Ohio (Chicago-Washington-“Capitol Limited/The Shenandoah”); Great Northern (St.Paul-Seattle/Portland-” Empire Builder/Western Star”); Northern Pacific (St. Paul-Seattle/Portland-“North Coast Limited/The Mainstreeter”).
Moving Congress Into Action
Seizing the opportunity of Senator Moran’s (R-KS) indignant exasperation of being buffaloed by Amtrak over the destiny of the“Southwest Chief,” I recently commented this month in the Kansas media, including The Kansan, HPPR, and The Garden City Telegram, to explicitly point out the machinations of Amtrak at the expense of the National Network. Perhaps such points can evolve into a battle plan required now to move Congress to embrace the National Network; not merely react on a frantic piecemeal basis to one individually threatened long distance train in their state?
In response to “Moran: Amtrak Pulled Out of TIGER Grant” ( The Kansan 27 Jun):
“Senator Moran must move to demand accountability now, in lieu of the lack of oversight, to identify how Amtrak makes and implements decisions. Such action must require a full scale external audit that will finally identify how costs, revenues, and funding are allocated by Amtrak. Even a first year CPA would see with shock the egregious denial of GAAP (Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles ) by Amtrak in how it allocates its full, unaudited costs in PRIIA against the long distance trains and state-supported trains. Note how Amtrak refuses to invest in the National Network of long distance and state-supported routes.
Their is no reason to pathetically perpetuate our taxpayer support for any exclusive benefit in such a regional discriminatory concept as is PRIIA, which was created for the bailout of the Northeast Corridor. PRIIA should be viewed as an active negation of interstate commerce and a violation of the Tenth Amendment.
Look, it’s about time to take-off the gloves and ensure that Congress takes an aggressive position now: long distance trains completely fulfilling the National Network, or, no funding for the Gateway Project, which is nothing more than a regional commuter issue for New Jersey and New York.
The state-owned government enterprise Amtrak is pushing its monopolistic agenda to protect the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the National Network. This abrogation of its mission, despite the additional funding received from the federal government this year, can be stopped in its tracks by Congress.
Congress must acknowledge the error it made when it enacted the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). Ironically, this legislation was designed by Amtrak and one of its now current senior executives, Stephen Gardener, to give a free ride for all trains on the Northeast Corridor, while charging all other states 100% for their trains based upon Amtrak’s own unique full cost allocation methodology.
In essence, only Congress can change this deteriorating situation by revising PRIIA to require all states to pay for their trains; to require state payments to be spent and reinvested only in that state. Or, to just eliminate PRIIA and require the federal government to uphold its responsibility for infrastructure and safety systems, just as it historically has done for the interstate highways, air traffic control system, and inland waterways.
While at it, Congress should dismiss Amtrak’s Board of Directors for their conflict-of-interest by enabling Amtrak to overtly favor the Northeast Corridor, and their failure of stewardship to provide oversight and accountability for a national train system.”
In response to “Did We Get Hustled by Amtrak?” (The Kansan Editorial Board, 29 Jun):
“There is most certainly action that the Senate can take to stop the planned, impending dismemberment of our National Network of long distance trains, starting with the “Southwest Chief.”
The Senate should pass a resolution expressing the extreme displeasure of the Senate, and legislation to include: withholding of funds earmarked for the Gateway Project in the Northeast and the federal loan for the new Acela trains sets to be built for the Northeast; prevent Amtrak creating any deleterious changes in the schedules of long distance trains; define a long distance train as a contiguous route not interrupted nor substituted by busses; hold the Administration’s appointments to Amtrak’s Board of Directors; require a balance in the funding of the Northeast Corridor and the National Network; require Amtrak to reimburse Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico for their costs due to Amtrak’s violation of its contractual commitment.
The Congress must act now to stop Amtrak conniving to change from the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to the Northeastern Railroad Passenger Corporation. As I stated before, Congress should light a fire under Amtrak:
1) Require a competent external accounting firm to completely audit how Amtrak allocates costs, funding, and revenues between the Northeast Corridor and National Network.
2) Given how “the fish rots from the head,” Congress should immediately disband Amtrak’s Board of Directors; let Amtrak for now just report to the Federal Railroad Administration for direction, accountability, and oversight; for Congress to detail its expectations.
3) Stop the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act of 2008 requiring all non-Northeastern states to pay for trains under 750 miles length, while the Northeast pays zero; stop those funds from being re-directed to subsidize the Northeast Corridor.”
Accepting the points made in the Kansas media, we need to concisely, but with vivid detail, disseminate to Congress what Amtrak’s insular culture has willfully missed and failed to achieve with the long distance trains by narrowly focusing resources exclusively upon the NEC. The issues to identify focus upon marketing, executive management, and the Board of Directors. As the issues below are so self-evident, so must be the resolve of Congress to be fired-up before Amtrak initiates any changes to the Long Distance routes. The issues include:
Marketing (Edsel Redux):
in respect to the very highly acceptable and attractive roll-out of the regional long distance programs offered by “Rocky Mountaineer” in Canada, proves customers are not adversed to spending big bucks to enjoy a unique ride, whether real first class or coach, to sightsee and visit national parks. Obviously, the issue is not subject to North American or world-wide anathema to touring by train. Also, despite VIA Rail Canada operating under the shackles of the Canadian government, instead of the private railroads that used to pride themselves on serving the western national parks, their is a reason”The Canadian” operates as a 25-32 car consist during its peak summer season. Although Ottawa acquiesced in 1990 to push this train off of the more populated route and direct access to Banff and Lake Louise, the marketing savvy of VIA has enabled”The Canadian” to overcome the additional night en route, as it continues to support superb food & beverage services.
Interesting how our long distance routes are under siege from every possible aspect, with the active support of Marketing. Note how both the “Lake Shore Limited” and “The Cardinal” were cutback from accessing Penn Station-NYC during the prime summer season just so Amtrak can repair the place for Northeastern commuter lines. The failure of the recent “Roomette for 2 Sale” ad just validated how Amtrak lacks the ability to market a National Network. Marketing used to be “tell them where you go, how much, and what time.” Despite relying upon algorithms, the essence of marketing has not changed-just Amtrak’s own insular perceptions that even Cliff Notes™ warned to avoid. In the land beyond the NEC, where is the marketing and advertising to promote the long distance trains? A deliberate, not too subtle action to deny their existence; yet, interesting how Amtrak has to rely upon its long distance routes to drive revenues through its roomette sale.
The relevances of history can never be ignored, particularly when dwelling in such a negative, insular culture. Marketing could have learned so much to be relevant in the marketplace, and to appreciate and support the long distance trains. For example, this summary is from a CN Internal Marketing Research Document (January, 1969):
“An interesting element of trip enjoyment, the only one which both business and pleasure travelers seem to regard as very important, is meal service. In several studies this specific subject has generated much comment and discussion. The enroute meal is an all important “time filler.”It can be an opportunity to meet people (a particular advantage of conventional rail service). It is a focal point for evaluation of the carrier’s service, and by inference, the carrier’s concern for its passengers.”
What if Marketing had read this research before believing they could implement the on-going demeaning of any semblance of Customer Experience by hyping cold box meals; cutting diner service hours on arrival day; operating diners without toasters; operating without a separate grill/lounge for coach passengers; offering the flimsiest of excuses for a minimal bar and cafe; not pushing for cashless purchasing and a Point-of-Service IT program? When Amtrak outsourced its commissaries, did it also outsource, or, just close down the need for skilled food & beverage and customer experience management?
Perhaps the crippling of Marketing can best be explained by comparing Amtrak today to a current position ad from American Airlines for a Manager, Brand & Advertising, to appreciate what Amtrak lacks in these requisite skills, including: “Lead the development of brand and product positioning; Ensure brand principles are weaved through all internal and external touch-points; Collabo rate with internal departments to adopt brand principles in their areas of focus; Work with internal communications teams to translate our brand promise to frontline team members; Work with marketing strategy teams globally to prioritize and develop creative assets based on commercial objectives.” Notice the absence of silos, but rather a collegial approach.
Management (By Fiat du Jour):
When will Anderson’s “brain trust” with the few Amtrak executive holdovers protected from buy-outs figure out that once they scuttle the Long Distance routes, from where will they divert funds to subsidize the NEC? Grabbing state payments from PRIIA for the NEC states will only last until the states refuse further hiking in their payments, or, better, from an irate Congress tuned up to realize the gross discrimination of PRIIA giving the NEC states a free ride—at the expense of all other states.
Amtrak continues to unravel as a direct consequence of losing its competent rail-oriented leadership from the past that is long gone; the best managers were previously forced out through re-organizations and buy-outs. The history of Amtrak’s fatal demise will surely mark the year 2005 when Mr. Gunn left, as from that point on, Amtrak floundered with long term, non-rail experienced leadership that has taken it to the abyss. When it comes to the lost revenue opportunities specifically for the “Southwest Chief,” note the obvious act by Amtrak to cut the feet off of the “Southwest Chief” by eliminating its long-time connection in Los Angeles between the southbound “Coast Starlight” and the eastbound “Southwest Chief.” What financial impact did this create, plus the inability to carry PVs, particularly with the popularity of the Grand Canyon? Would this had been mandated prior to 2005?
Does anybody still believe “the dog ate” Amtrak’s proforma to Congress requesting additional long distance equipment to increase frequencies, expand new routes, serve peak seasonal traffic, or to just to operate a consist to sufficiently accommodate all those unable to book travel? It is important to appreciate the potential consequences of Amtrak’s Amfleet I re-equipment program. We have already heard Amtrak’s CEO Anderson eagerly embrace the concept of Diesel Multiple-Units (DMU), but of the suburban-style, not the first/business class with food/beverage service set-up as found in Switzerland. The other issue re DMUs would be the lack of versatilely to build-up as we have with a diesel-hauled consist to meet different travel demands. Also, remember how Anderson visualizes tearing down the continuity of a long distance route, and substituting DMUs to operate on select segments–at state expense per PRIIA. Another permanent “black hole” in Amtrak’s management is evidenced by what Alaska Airlines seeks in a Manager, Network Strategy: “Leads a team of strategy analysts through network related projects designed to develop and maintain the network strategy and network planning process for Alaska Air Group and its subsidiaries.” Note the emphasis on “network,” as in National Network; not one region where the political winds prevail.
We know the standard industry metric judging performance is “revenue per passenger mile.” This explains why the LD routes are not dogs, as they actually are equivalent to the airlines by carrying a passenger an average of 800 miles; a lot further than the 457 miles between Boston-Washington (and how few travel even that distance?) Also, unlike a flight, accommodations turnover an average of 2.5 times per trip on an LD route. To emphasize this point; how “Anderson’s Whiz Kids” (remember McNamara’s Whiz Kids?) lack an understanding of transportation, let alone the difference between air and trains, in an article from “View From the Wing” (29 Jun) reporting on “That Was Fast: United Will Stop Flying Los Angeles-Singapore on Route’s One Year Anniversary,” a very salient point was made that is quite apropos for our support of the long distance routes: “As for opportunities in the Los Angeles-Singapore market American Airlines said in March they wouldn’t consider the route and that ultra long haul flying takes up too much aircraft time and has too high an opportunity cost.” Unlike the full asset utilization achieved by the long distance trains, long haul flights cannot favorably compare. Under different management with vision, Amtrak would not be content to allow Superliners to sit idle in the Sanford, FL yard during off season, but rather, re-deploy as a summer seasonal service, perhaps between Chicago-Denver, a major gateway to the national parks?
Board of Directors (Case Study of Conflict-of-Interests and Impact of inexperience):
With the recent nomination of Rick Dearborn and the past two board members nominated in this year evidences nothing more than a “catspaw” inserted by the administration to support the current members of the Board, and their sycophants left over from prior management turnover. Given the lack of any railroad, travel, food&beverage, and marketing expertise sorely needed on this Board, it becomes quite apparent that the Board’s mission is clearly to take apart and take down the National Network of long distance routes; continue to divert funding for the National Network to fill the void of the NEC.
Action Plan (No Little Ships to Save Us at Dunkirk):
Rather than waiting to watch the goal of Amtrak’s Board and management to kill the Long Distance Network to be achieved, we should be directly attacking the heart of Amtrak’s funding now, by demanding legislation for the withdrawal of PRIIA; taking a position that holds and stops all Gateway Project/NEC funding in lieu of Long Distance National Route route funding. Also, legislation to prevent any downgrading of contiguous Long Distance routes and services; to fund infrastructure and PTC for all railway lines serving passengers, with mineral deposits found, e.g., oil, going to the state; to audit Amtrak’s costs and expenses; to release the current Board of Directors.
With the attention of Congress focused, one question to consider is how much could be saved if Amtrak was just let out on a management fee basis to an experienced firm; thus, eliminating all the overhead expenses and excessive HQ costs, as well as the Board of Directors, who have given a new name to the term, “Quisling”?
We must remember as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said in 2003, “National or nothing!”