Commentary

Thanksgiving Ride on Train 4, the “Roughwest Chief”

014During this past Thanksgiving holiday I had a privilege to a ride on the eastbound Roughwest Chief, from Los Angeles to Chicago… I’ve traveled on the Chief before, and it seemed to be fine. However, this past trip will probably be my last.

First, some positives:

  • The on-time performance was truly impressive. Both train #4, and later – train #30 “Capitol Limited” have been on time (and even ahead of time) throughout the whole journey! This has given plenty of extra time – to explore some cities along the way (including Albuquerque, where I walked for over an hour!) and suburban towns.
  • Quality of onboard service was good, particularly in the sleeping cars.
  • Restrooms were functioning well and were free of odor. Unlike my other train trips – where a few restrooms consistently malfunctioned – both on train #4 and #30 all toilets worked perfectly, including high elevations, and were well maintained. Thank you, Amtrak!
  • Refurbished Superliner equipment – with interior brown-wood wall covering, contrasting with distinct white ceilings – looks classy and gives good aesthetic. Unlike the utilitarian “Stainless Steel” exterior, the train interior feels warm and has welcoming tones. Amtrak did a good job in interior refurbishing! Perhaps, one thing that Amtrak could improve is placing curtains / draperies on hallway windows. A horizontal handrail beneath the windows would also help – for added comfort and safety.
  • We did not encounter any emergency stops, or incidents, along the way. During my past trips at least once would the train have to use emergency brakes due to an incident… but thankfully, not this time!

However, this is where the positives come to a screeching halt… So, let’s get to the problem areas. As we know, Amtrak’s Superliner cars are 30-40 years old, and signs of aging become more & more noticeable. Some things don’t work; malfunctioning climate control (inside the roomette) and broken air-conditioning levers have unfortunately become the norm. So, on train #4 it was too cold, on train #30 it was the opposite – too warm. Suspension keeps producing strange sounds, etc., etc. Sadly, Amtrak isn’t too eager to reorder double-decker long-distance equipment, but keeps band-aiding the existing old cars.

MenuAnother major issue: dining car service and menu. Unfortunately, the diner meals / menus are standardized all across the system (*see suggested Photoshop image of Dining Menu; at least, this would be more truthful to the train passengers!) – with barely any variation. The standard menu offers very limited and many unhealthy selections, especially for lunch. It’s also laughable to see the “Daily Special” item on the menu. What is so “special” about the exact same item that repeats every day, on every route, I wonder?.. Amtrak truly must differentiate the menus per each train route, as it was in the past. However, those mentioned issues are pale – comparing to the rough (and even unsafe) ride on train #4.

So, here are some details.

1) TRAIN RIDE AND TRACK SAFETY

The ride aboard the Roughwest Chief was extremely rough – particularly throughout the states of New Mexico, Colorado, and especially Kansas. Violent swaying & rocking, and even occasional jolts, have made this ride quite uncomfortable, if not worrisome. Such rough ride, as I learned, is due to:

(A) The BNSF-owned track being decades-old and rundown;

(B) The track being overly jointed (with the obsolete, early 20th century “Staggered” joint technology);

Tracks

(C) Long, heavily-loaded freight trains, many filled with coal, keep “pushing down” the old railway just further into the ground, thus destabilizing the track even more. One must wonder, whether the track is even safe for fast-moving passenger trains, to begin with;

(D) Amtrak keeps running trains at high speed despite the tracks being in bad shape.

(…Jumping ahead: just 3½ months after my trip, a Southwest Chief train did derail – this happened on that segment of old track in the state of Kansas. One of the passengers during an interview said that she “woke up when she felt the ride “getting really bumpy” and the train started to shake”; this is the exact same thing that I experienced on my trip described herein. Whereas the derailment is still under investigation, I am positive that the track conditions – combined with infrequent inspections, as well as excessive speed – have played a major role. If the track were to be inspected twice a day – not twice a week, and if the train were to run at a safer 30 mph speed – not 60 mph, the consequences would have been far less severe).

The BNSF-owned old track – some of which dates to the 1940’s – is in dire need of repair. While on certain segments new rail has been installed, most of the track – especially its worst 158-mile span – has noticeably deteriorated. Furthermore, not only is the railway itself very old, but the jointed track has been constructed by an obsolete “Staggered” joints technology, where very frequent joints are located on different levels, similar to brick-laying method (*see image attached, comparing the Wrong vs. Right method of placing joints).

This awkward joints technique causes a very unsteady, bumpy, even unsafe ride – especially for double-decker fast-moving passenger trains. Not even mentioning the significantly higher wear & tear that such type of joints-laying method causes. And when you combine an old, deteriorated railway with staggered joints, this forces the train to shake & sway from side to side, making the ride purely unsafe (let alone extremely uncomfortable). And on top of that, Amtrak allows the trains to roll at 60+ mph speeds! I have been through a derailment just a few years ago, and have learned first-hand how easy it is for the train to jump track…

On the other hand, I’ve traveled by train in European countries, where staggered joints are rarely used nowadays, and therefore riding trains in Europe offers a much smoother, more pleasant experience. Most countries around the world have avoided using staggered joints for the reasons of decreased safety, higher wear & tear, and overall inefficiency. The only place staggered joints make sense is on bridges and on curves – but not on straight track, lasting for dozens of miles!

And finally, a single track – still prevailing throughout much of the Southwest Chief route – is a shame. In this day and age, when most of the world has electrified double-, triple-, and quadruple-track railroad systems (including our own Northeast corridor), it is purely astounding to see hundreds of miles of non-electrified single track, filled with old wooded ties, and inundated with staggered joints from the steam-engine era!

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just recently BNSF has received several grants from both federal and state sources, allowing the much-needed track repair to commence. It’s about time!

Another peculiar thing during my trip: the Roughwest Chief was arriving into Albuquerque, NM about an hour early (which is good). Yet the train engineer continued to roll at top speeds. So, why oh why does the train go so fast (thus making things uncomfortably shaky for passengers) despite running ahead of time? From my experience, if the train is running before schedule, then the engineer slows down – to purposely lose some time and adhere to the scheduled arrival. But this isn’t the case for Amtrak, as it appears. I guess, for Amtrak’s bureaucracy the main goal is to place a bold checkmark where it says, “Traveling at max. speed”, while ignoring the fact that the train is way ahead of time. Or maybe, Amtrak is forced (by BNSF) to travel at top speeds – to clear-up the way for the never-ending parade of coal-filled freight trains?..

2) TRAIN SUSPENSION

The train’s worn-out suspension was also noticeable. All night long I heard loud squeaking and other strange sounds. As you can imagine, constant squeaking and banging has only added to the “pleasure” of a very rough ride, resulting in no sleep whatsoever – on both nights. Jumping ahead, only on the Capitol Limited I was able to get decent sleep, thanks to much newer track and slower train speed, thus smooth ride.

3) ROOMETTE EQUIPMENT AND OTHER ISSUES

  • Air-Conditioning /Heating: Thermostat / climate control in my roomette was not working, and was not adjustable (rotating the dial between “Cold and “Max Heat” produced no effect). Both in my roomette and hallway it was way too cold;
  • Ceiling vent: The vent’s lever was not functioning, either. Hence the cold strong air kept blowing nonstop (on the other hand, on train #30 the vent barely produced air, hence it was too warm);
  • Reading Lamp: The reading lamp was pointing elsewhere, not into the reading area. I tried to read and use the lamp, but it was impossible; the reading lamp direction could not be adjusted, either.
  • Trash in the Roomette: The roomette wasn’t even properly cleaned prior to initial boarding in A.; I found a big bag of trash under my seat.

4) DINING CAR POLICIES AND SERVICE

  • Diner“Community Seating” Policy Gone too Far: The need of Amtrak to seat as many people together is understandable – especially when the diner is full, but sometimes it is going too far. On numerous occasions many diner tables were unoccupied, yet Amtrak staff still chose to cram four strangers into one little table, merely for the convenience of employees. Clearly, the forced “community seating” policy is too socialistic (reminds me of Soviet summer camps!), and should be relaxed. An attached photo – taken during one of the meals – clearly shows all but two tables being empty, yet “Community Seating” was fully enforced. Sadly, it appears like for Amtrak – employee comfort takes precedence over adequate customer service or passenger comfort.
  • Breakfast Hours: Train #4 has very short breakfast hours; passengers were required to enter the diner by 8 – 8:30 a.m., or else they would “miss the breakfast”. The dining car steward was particularly strict, refusing to even give details. She wouldn’t announce the time for lunch on the last (3rd) day of the trip. The steward just kept saying, “Come as early as you can”; to which I replied, “How early?”, and she responded, “Very early” (still no cut-off time was given). Again, pure socialism!
  • Improving Overall Service Hours: Ideally, Amtrak should have the diner open all day, i.e. from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., with rotating service shifts – as it’s done in many other countries. I’m also aware of a recent experiment, conducted a few years ago on an Amtrak train – with a diner being open for 24 hours. The experiment was very successful! All-day dining service avoids overcrowding, forced “community seating”, as well as overworked, fatigued staff. More importantly, all-day dining service is much more customer-oriented. It’s time for Amtrak to take advantage of its successful experiment with all-day dining, and to follow other countries’ dining car procedures. Doesn’t it make sense to eliminate the ridiculous policy of time restrictions, forced seating, and strict reservations?..

5) FOOD QUALITY AT THE DINER

  • Poor Food Quality: For the most part, Amtrak continues to serve high-cholesterol, high-fat, high-carb, high-sodium meals, with barely any vitamins or fiber. The Coast Starlight, perhaps, is the only exception (especially the Pacific Parlour car), but all other trains keep serving mediocre meals.
  • Children’s Menu: Current selections on the Children’s Menu are an indicator of Amtrak’s lack of vision on healthy choices. The high-cholesterol, fat-saturated choices for kids include: “Hebrew National All-Beef Hot Dog”, “Pizza”, and “Griddled Cheddar Cheese Sandwich”. Those unhealthy types of food directly cause obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, and other health problems. Knowing that America leads the world in childhood obesity, Amtrak should make an effort to serve healthier meals. The existing Children’s menu items should be overhauled – and replaced with much healthier choices: green salads or other salads (natural home-made potato salad, carrot salad, tuna salad, etc. – are just a few examples). Our children deserve better, healthier meals!
  • “Half-Chicken” Meal is Too Much: The way Amtrak keeps wasting food is outrageous! For instance, the “Half-Chicken” meal cannot be fully consumed by any human being. I haven’t seen a single passenger (myself including) who was able to eat an entire (!) half-chicken. The request to change “Half-Chicken” to a “Quarter-Chicken” size was addressed to Amtrak numerous times, but thus far has been ignored. Amtrak’s actions are hypocritical, to say the least. On the one hand, management attempts to find ways to reduce spending on food service, but on the other hand – Amtrak keeps wasting food by serving oversized meals. Given its severe budget constrains, Amtrak should seriously re-think its “Half-Chicken” size, and change it to a “Quarter-chicken meal; this would be perfectly sufficient.
  • Too Few Lunch Choices: On the other hand, on all trains dining menu has very limited – and unhealthy – lunch choices (except for the Coast Starlight). Besides the plain green salad, the only lunch choices are: hamburger / cheeseburger / vegetarian burger, pizza, pasta (when available) and that’s about it. Again, why does Amtrak love treating passengers with such high-carb, high-fat, high-cholesterol, and low-vitamin meals?.. And on top of that, they add a chemically-saturated “pickle” and artificially flavored chips! Considering that train ride promotes a sedentary (zero-exercise) time-spending, such high-cholesterol, high-fat meals directly can cause weight gain. Therefore, adding healthier choices to lunch meals is a “must”! For instance, Lunch menu could have soups, other types of salads (tuna salad, potato salad, carrot salad, etc.), and other choices. All in all, Amtrak’s few lunch choices that are available, in my opinion, are awful, and are worse than even what fast-food restaurants offer.
  • Adding Soups: Adding a soup – either as an appetizer or entrée – would greatly enhance the dining menu. Soups are good for both lunch and dinner, and definitely need to be considered by Amtrak.
  • Dinner Rolls: Amtrak’s dinner rolls – full of gluten – are unfortunately the only choice. It would be nice to see other kinds of bread: for instance, Rye bread or other high-fiber rolls should be served.
  • Discontinued Breakfast Items: Unfortunately, the Railroad French Toast – a very popular dish – is now gone. Not sure about other routes, but both on train #4 and train #30 it was no longer available; very sad.

To summarize the dining experience: it is good that we still have our dining car… except for the Silver Star (completely eliminating the dining car from the train was a major mistake). However, Amtrak could do a much better job with its existing service. The dining policies and rules are antiquated and socialistic. Very limited hours of operation do not only put tremendous pressure on the diner staff, but also reduces Amtrak profits – while ignoring the reality of all-day customer demand. Amtrak should implement a pilot program and launch all-day diner service on one of its routes. Additionally, most of the menu should be overhauled – where fresher, healthier selections should be offered, without necessarily costing Amtrak more. At the meantime, reducing food waste (especially changing the “Half-chicken” to a “Quarter-chicken”) would be a great start.

6) ATTENDANT CALL BUTTON

One of the nuisances while riding the train is the “Attendant Call” button. It produces a very loud signal, heard throughout the entire car! People get awakened at night – because every time a passenger presses the “Attendant Call” button, a loud signal is heard in all sleeping compartments. Amtrak needs to configure the feature so that only the Car Attendant would get the signal – e.g. via a buzzer, beeper, a smartphone app, etc. – without bothering everyone else in the car. It’s time to implement 21st century technology into train communication.

7) NUMBERING OF TRAIN CARS

Amtrak should change its complicated and confusing system of indexing/numbering cars. Instead of assigning a meaningless 4-digit code, a single- or double-digit car number can be assigned and placed on the ticket. The car number should start from the train front, in the ascending order. This is how it’s done throughout most of the world. For instance, our Southwest Chief car #0430 can be just indexed as “car #3” (since it’s the third passenger car from the front). Likewise, if an Amtrak train consists of 11 cars, then the car numbers should simply be “Car #1” through “Car #11”, in the ascending order. This car number should be marked on each passenger’s ticket, and also – be clearly visible on each car’s exterior. It’s easier, simpler, and allows a passenger to locate his/her car immediately.

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