Commentary by Russ Jackson
Whenever one can write a positive report after a trip on an Amtrak long distance train it is a welcome breath of fresh air. When a positive report can be written for two consecutive trips the celebration should begin. Not that these are the only positive trips in our 40 year riding experience, but I think there is a positive culture “out there” on the rails. The first trip report was written about our September trip, and this one is our January trip from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles on the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited; one way this trip; circumstances forced us to fly home.
The tri-weekly schedule for this train remains a problem for scheduling travel and it must be a high priority to get daily service, plus returning to Phoenix, adding Marfa,Texas and Willcox, Arizona (even as flag stops) to enhance revenue so spectacularly there will be no reason for the long distance trains, at least that one, to disappear. What’s happening with the NARP/RPA-sponsored “Sunset Unlimited” group? We haven’t heard anything lately other than that Jim Mathews was going to “talk to Richard” (Anderson).
The culture of the on board service was so positive on our January trip that it must be mentioned. From the time we boarded until we departed at Los Angeles Union Station the sleeping car attendants were helpful, easy to reach, and were seeking to know how they could help. Steven, Alissa, et al (I don’t have all the names) were first class, and that included room service for meals, assistance on the stairs and on/off the car into the redcap’s vehicle, and at the Metropolitan Lounge in Los Angeles. Everything Amtrak’s Eric Smith has been doing has paid off! Oh, and the meals were excellent. If you’ve looked at AmtrakFoodFacts.com lately, you’ll see that the menus on all the western long distance trains are identical, which is unfortunate from a “choice” standpoint, but what is served is of high quality. And, yes, our favorite is still the Angus steakburger sandwich on the lunch menu. If there was a BLT available, and there should be, it would be a nice alternative lunch as I’ve said before, and would probably sell better at lower cost than some of the fancy items on the menu.
Now to the transportation aspects of the trip. We were on time on the segment to San Antonio, this being before Amtrak had to detour the train from Longview to Taylor in Texas in February while the BNSF did maintenance of way work, which would have required us to board a bus from Ft. Worth to Taylor. And, we were on time from San Antonio to Tucson. Unfortunately, the old mysterious “technical problems” arose which had us sit at the Tucson station for an extra 90 minutes. Enroute we corresponded with our friend Ralph James, who follows on time dwelling at various stations including Maricopa. Ralph asked for a note about how long the stop there was for us. Maricopa, Arizona, has been the substitute station for Phoenix for almost 20 years. Its short platform requires the train to make “spot” stops for loading and unloading passengers. On this night, January 27, train #1 first stopped at 11:07 for the crew change; then at 11:11 spot stop at the baggage car; 11:15 spot stop at the front sleeping car; 11:21 spot stop at a coach car; 11:25 spot stop at the rear sleeping car (our Texas Eagle car); 11:27 we departed Maricopa. The Phoenix van was there and had passengers both ways, including the one from our car, a radio station manager from the St. Louis area who takes his vacations on Amtrak. That was a total of 20 minutes of stopping and blocking the state highway (the timetable calls for 10 minutes), Eventually there will be an overpass over the tracks although we saw no evidence it is under construction yet. Ralph James says it is common for the Maricopa stops to be 30 minutes or more. The situation there can only get worse now, as Amtrak has decided to unstaff the station, which means the on board crews will have to do everything. The best thing of course would be to return to Phoenix, but that is unlikely until the line west of Buckeye to Wellton is restored but that won’t happen until the nuclear power plant is shut down and the line is needed to transport material out of its desert location…that’s what we hear.
On to other things. Amtrak has removed the Pacific Parlour Cars from the Coast Starlight, the cars have been moved back to the mid-west, and no replacement is going to be initiated to retain this high quality amenity. I can’t help thinking that 81 years ago the Southern Pacific called its new Coast Daylight train “The Most Beautiful Train in the World,” in a style Gene Poon calls “unmatched…and yes, undreamed of…today.” It’s a shame that the work that Brian Rosenwald initiated 20 years ago on the Starlight has now disappeared into Amtrak uniformity. I don’t totally buy it that the age of the cars has ended their useful life. Nor that the need for such unique service doesn’t exist today. I agree with what RailPAC President Paul Dyson wrote in his letter to Amtrak CEO Anderson on the subject of Premium Accommodations, and if you haven’t read that letter you can find it on the RailPAC website. Paul wrote in Steel Wheels that Amtrak “scored a spectacular public relations shot in the foot,” and, “while we realize a political campaign against this decision would be difficult…it is a really bad business decision to stop providing this type of accommodation when Amtrak should be continuing to improve their product wherever possible.” While we are commending the service on the Eagle/Sunset, we see in a trip report by Ted and Sylvia Blishak in the 2018-1 issue of Passenger Train Journal, (names that are very familiar from their many years of promoting train travel from their travel agency), of their trip from Klamath Falls to Oakland on the Starlight. Both of them had similar circumstances as we did, in that sleeping car assistance was needed. Their experiences were almost the opposite from ours, with help being almost non existent. They write about requesting Special Service in advance, which we did not, and they found no record of their requests when they boarded. Is this the way Amtrak competes with the airlines? I must say that American Airlines was extremely helpful for our needs on our flight back to Dallas-Ft.Worth in a 737 that had only three empty seats. As Andrew Selden wrote, “Boeing is building 47 new 737s every month and can’t keep up. Airbus is doing at least that much with its A-320 series. Meanwhile the orders for new Superliners is…uh…never mind.”
The fact is, and this is addressed to Mr. Richard Anderson and his Delta Airlines recruits at Amtrak HQ: the first class service on Amtrak long distance trains remains strong in revenue and ridership despite the bad mouthing heard in Washington. “Your own” 2017 reports show the California Zephyr sleeping car revenue percentage on the trains to be almost 54%, on the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight it’s 45%. You want to lose that kind of revenue? If the long distance trains are zero’d out due to Congressional action or allowed to wither and die from little support from within Amtrak and from a lack of marketing, you know you will suffer politically and financially, so don’t let it happen! GROWTH is what will save Amtrak. Just look at how successful the Rocky Mountaineer is doing at selling itself. They know you have to spend money to make money. Amtrak must do the same!