An engine died in Kansas. So what else is new?

Comments by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

Southwest Chief train #3 that departed Chicago on February 20, 2012, arrived in Fullerton 8 hours 10 minutes late, and because of the end-of-run padding it arrived at Los Angeles Union Station 6 hours 58 minutes late. The reason? A locomotive engine died in Kansas, and when all was done that could be done it had to operate at freight speeds west of Albuquerque. On the same day, Sunset Limited train #1 was over 7 hours late into Los Angeles because of a bridge problem back in Louisiana. These are examples of continuing Amtrak problems for its long-distance trains, some Amtrak’s fault, some not.

Death of a locomotive. On Wednesday, February 15, Pacific Surfliner 763, the first northbound train out of San Diego with through service to Santa Barbara, spent 2 1/2 hours stranded near Los Angeles because the engine died. This train, which carries many business travelers, had several mechanical problems that month. Passengers waited while an Amtrak crew arrived by truck but could not fix the problem, then saw train 599 and 567 go by before a rescue locomotive arrived. An explanation from an Amtrak official indicated that they “could have done better and we often do.” It was “a day to forget but lessons were learned.”

How are we going to preserve passenger rail as an accepted mode of travel if the trains that are supposed to run, don’t or can’t? Yes, I know incidents like those above are few and trains run close to on time most of the time. Recently this writer, as you know an avowed supporter of passenger rail for many, many years, published two articles highly critical of Amtrak and the gloomy future for the western long-distance trains. “Amtrak to the West: Forget the future!” is more than a prediction. Question: Is what we are seeing happening recently 1) any different from the past, or 2) making us more hopeful? Well, here goes.

We all know Amtrak’s fleet is aging. Aging like many of its riders, and certainly like most of its rail advocates, this writer definitely included, and while our personal aging may be inevitable so is the life of rail equipment. Extending the age of the current Amtrak fleet of long-distance cars and locomotives depends not on doctors but the work of the maintenance department and the administration that guides that function which has declared that all they want to do for the western trains is maintain and/or rebuild what they have and will not attempt to buy new cars. Amtrak is in a panic to cut costs these days, and maintenance is often the first target. In the western part of the U.S. that means thousands of miles of hard usage with only one full service maintenance base, at 8th Street in Los Angeles. We understand only one daily work shift currently does locomotive maintenance there. The maintenance base in Oakland is used only for turning the California Zephyr, and for maintaining the Amtrak California fleet for the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins. Out on the rails if a maintenance problem occurs the “host” railroad can help, and Amtrak has technical people available in places like San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver, and Seattle, but if a part is required to fix a problem it must be shipped in. More maintenance bases are not the answer, better maintenance and inspection and crew awareness prior to letting a train depart its originating station and while it is en-route is. The attitude at the top at Amtrak must set the standard high for this function of the company nationwide!

The latest Amtrak “Delay Minutes Performance Report” available at this point is for November, 2011. We will use the California Zephyr as our example. The Zephyr was first on the list of total delay minutes with 25,322 or 6.5% of the total for the long-distance route delays that month. Of that, 4,903 minutes were caused by Amtrak: “Passenger holds, Engine failures, and other crew related or other causes.” That figure is bad enough, but “Host railroad delays” accounted for the other minutes in the categories of “Freight train interference, Slow Orders, Passenger train interference, and all else.” While the vast majority of those delays are “host railroad” related, what do the on-board passengers see?: trains standing still, and many times for long periods without the passengers being told the reason. On January 17, 2012, Amtrak reported that for Intercity service, 15% of the 184 P42 locomotives were out of service for maintenance or other reasons. But, in the West that day out of the fleet of 21 F59PH, 13 were required, but only 12 were available; of the 17 “California” locomotives, 15 were required and only 10 were available. Another maintenance neglect for the West.

It is what the riders see. Another recent prime example of the direct effect poor maintenance can have on travelers, especially those new to rail travel, happened on train #5, the California Zephyr, to a couple from Indianapolis who booked a deluxe bedroom from Chicago to Sacramento. That couple’s story went nationwide, because travel writer Chris Elliott wrote of their problems and it was published in newspapers everywhere. First, they had problems with the door latches on the bathroom in their bedroom which resulted in them being moved to another available bedroom. Good move by the attendant, until the new room carpet was found to be soaked from a spilled drink. The towels put on the floor did not help; they went on to complain of the decrepit, unclean condition of the room, and decided to get off the train in Salt Lake City and fly to Sacramento, filing for a partial refund which was finally granted. Now, some long-suffering rail advocates would probably ride it out, as this writer and spouse did on our trip on train #2 a year ago departing Los Angeles when a similar situation of a soaked floor could not be resolved by the attendant, a mechanic at El Paso, or a mechanic at San Antonio. Towels were placed on the floor, but were not helpful. How did these cars get out of the Amtrak maintenance base in these conditions? On another trip a rail advocate colleague saw the car attendant’s log book of maintenance problems and the attendant complained that he had reported problems over and over that were not dealt with.

On January 29, 2012, there was a problem with a car that had to be set off train #5 at Hastings, Nebraska due to a fire because a bag of linen which was set against a hot heater grate ignited. That is not a maintenance problem, right? No, it was a careless act on board. But, the problem cascaded when it took six hours to get the train and its 100 plus passengers on its way including setting out the car, then having the operating crew’s hours of service die and a replacement crew having to come from Denver to Holdredge, NB. Unfortunate circumstances, but just like airline passengers being stuck on a plane that is not allowed to take off, not very conducive to passenger morale or return business particularly by first time travelers.

On February 6, 2012, the Union Pacific had a freight derailment near Del Rio, Texas, which tied up train #1, the Sunset Limited. When it reached the derailment site, it was required to back up to San Antonio where buses were provided to passengers for the rest of their journey, or, they were told if they wanted to stay on the train they could ride when the situation was cleared and 30 hearty souls agreed to do so (probably fellow rail advocates). That trainset arrived in Los Angeles 35 hours and 27 minutes late, which included an additional delay with a work crew on the UP line at Shawmut, Arizona. Chances are those 30 were thrilled with the experience and will ride again, but after riding a bus how many of those other folks will come back? This writer had a similar experience years ago when #2, actually a Thru-Texas Eagle #22 which did not travel east of San Antonio but continued north to Chicago, came upon a UP freight derailment near Maricopa, Arizona, which delayed us 14 hours.

And the beat goes on. Day after day, train after train, some problem can occur that will cause passengers and crews grief. On Time Performance is certainly a factor in passengers choosing to ride Amtrak trains, but it is only one factor and each rider decides which factor or factors will determine whether a repeat trip will take place. For all the long-distance trains as of the end of January, 2012, trains were “on time” 74% of the time for the fiscal year starting last October 1. In FY 2010 for the Sunset Limited, 69.9% of the trains arrived within 30 minutes of their scheduled time, and 88.9% within 120 minutes. Rail advocates know all the problems and like us usually choose to keep coming back. But, how much business does Amtrak lose due to problems of on time reliability, cleanliness, safety, crew responsiveness, and/or neglected maintenance? We don’t know for sure, but we will keep riding them as long as they are there for us to do so. How long will that be?

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