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What did I learn from listening to Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald?

Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

It is safe to say that Amtrak’s Chief, Product Development, Brian Rosenwald is held in very high esteem by rail advocates in this country. His huge success in developing the Pacific Parlour Car and other enhancements for the Coast Starlight in the mid-1990’s is legendary, and he calls those five years the best in his career. But that success has only been partially duplicated on other Amtrak trains since then. Today’s Empire Builder is a very successful off-shoot of what Mr. Rosenwald under his boss at the time, Amtrak West President Gil Mallery, accomplished back then.

Most of the time all we hear is how Amtrak is in trouble, especially the long-distance trains. Look at the history of those “gems of the system:” Writer Gene Poon reminds us that the “Amtrak we knew has already been downgraded, like when there were 18 cars of the combined California Zephyr/Desert Wind/Pioneer out of Chicago, with two full dining cars; 16 cars of the combined Miami and Tampa sections of the Silver Meteor/Silver Star with a section of each train doing a thriving business on the Ocala route; and of course the loss of direct service to Phoenix, without even the provision of a Thruway bus.” Amtrak moans about how the long-distance trains lose so much money, Congressman Mica roars about the huge cost of the food and beverage service, the Union Pacific and the BNSF hand Amtrak multi-million dollar bills for retaining or restoring service that had already existed. Public perception gained from stories like those mask the actual success the long-distance trains are having with the passengers out on the rails.

RailPAC President Paul Dyson, left, presents a plaque of appreciation to Brian Rosenwald. It is the second time RailPAC has done so, the first was in 1995 for his work on the Coast Starlight, and that plaque still hangs in Brian’s office. (Noel Braymer photo)

On September 15, 2012, RailPAC and NARP held their annual Steel Wheels Conference at the California State Rail Museum in Sacramento. This writer attended, with my wife and I riding the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited (train numbers 421 and 422) from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles Union Station and back (more in my trip report to be posted on soon). Brian Rosenwald spoke. The ears of this writer and all our colleagues were finely tuned to hear what might be new, and we knew he would be listening to us. He didn’t disappoint. In his opening remarks he told the audience that he liked coming to meetings like ours because of our enthusiasm for passenger rail and its future.

He started with some statistics:
Long-distance ridership is up 24% since 2007, its revenue is up 37%, and on a fully allocated basis the cost recovery is 48% with an annual loss of $563 million. What, he asked, is Amtrak doing to make this better?
1) Increase revenue density through yield management and augmented capacity.
2) Continue to focus on increased passenger per train mile and average yields.
3) Contain costs through efficiency.
4) Strategically invest capital when possible to reduce operating losses.

In other words, did he say add cars when demand requires it? Are they doing that? Well, yes and no. On our trip train #421 was at capacity; both the through Coach and Sleeping Car were full out of Ft. Worth and remained so most of the way to LA. Train #422 was a bit less full. “Offs” and “ons” were frequent, with each station, even the flag stops in NM and AZ, serving many passengers. Amtrak had to know that, early enough to schedule an additional car to fill up. This summer the Zephyr and the Builder ran with added seasonal cars in the West. According to RailPAC’s Anthony Lee, Mr. Rosenwald said they were considering adding a fourth sleeping car and a first class Cross Country Cafe Diner (ala the Pacific Parlour Car) permanently to the Builder year around. Demand for travel into and out of Williston, ND, has skyrocketed because of the oil field expansions; they can board/detrain 100 folks a day there frequently. Also, they will extend Auto Train from 46-48 cars to 55 cars and are seeking approval from CSX. A Chicago-Los Angeles dedicated express car would be added to the Southwest Chief, but is that train moving to the BNSF Transcon line? Unknown now, but it looks very possible since KS, CO, and NM have said they will have no money to invest to keep it on the present line. Amtrak is going ahead with adding a new bus from Denver to LaJunta and one from Newton to Oklahoma City, making connecting through-service Denver-San Antonio possible! As RailPAC’s Noel Braymer wrote, “In the past the most successful trains were the longest ones that carried the most passengers. The problems with doing this now is the shortage of equipment and doing it in a way that doesn’t increase the cost of operating the train on a fully allocated basis.” A new, more independent Long Distance Train Division is being created at Amtrak, which will speed up the decision-making process and will result in a greater “ownership” of those trains by the Amtrak employees working in that Division, which will lead to improved service.

What can a passenger riding on a long-distance train expect to see? If you have ridden a long-distance train more than once lately you know there has been no change in the dining car menus. Mr. Rosenwald said it took him only three weeks to make menu adjustments on the Coast Starlight, while now it takes a year. So, variety may be in the future, with regional specialties available. In the sleeping cars, and this writer can attest that many of the items are already on the trains, they have been working on things like faucets and sinks. Forever, Superliner sinks have splashed water and the faucets have been hard to use. No more. Reading lights have been dim, but the new ones are bright LED type with touch switches! New mattresses are on the way to replace the thin ones in use forever. I pointed out that I had just come off one of the newly rebuilt sleeping cars, 32059, and there were no soap bars (only liquid soap), no paper cups, only one towel hook, and no hooks to hang up clothes, jackets, etc., only the small closet for those items. He made note. On our return trip in a car, 32032, that had been even further upgraded we had the soap bars and cups. Progress at last, in that restroom cleanser odors have been mostly eliminated. The clean, new floor carpeting is welcome, and the replacement of the carpeted walls with paneling makes cleaning the cars easier. The one major problem we have seen no progress on is the rattle of the doors that can open between bedrooms. Guess what: the PA in our car on #422 worked only partially and we missed all the conductor/dining car announcements. In the works also is a “business class” section to replace the lower level “Kiddie Car” on the Coast Starlight, which would generate an additional $3 million. Nothing’s perfect, but we commend Mr. Rosenwald and Amtrak for these upgrades, even if they were needed years ago.

Hey, Brian, here are some things you can do in the Dining car. Real china is returning to all the Western trains soon, he said. On our trips the crews were excellent and had high morale. Mr. Rosenwald noticed this writer’s article about 24-hour meal service, (see the July/August issue of Steel Wheels or look on or and he remembered the experiment and that the crews and passengers liked that. It didn’t go past the experimental stage because the bureaucracy found it would increase employee costs and they didn’t want that then, and probably don’t want it now. We have since learned that there has been a crew-size reduction on train #2. But the added revenue from 24-hour service would make up much of the loss today and would entice more Coach passengers in to eat. He thought another experiment might be feasible. As for food, we love the Angus Cheeseburger that is served at lunch and it should be available all day. How about a BLT? Everybody likes those, and they already cook bacon at breakfast and have lettuce and tomatoes available for salads all day. I showed Mr. Rosenwald a picture of a Texas-shaped waffle that I had at a hotel in Amarillo recently. Could a waffle iron be installed in the lower kitchen? Can you imagine the conversations a passenger would have about the breakfast waffle after he and the kids got off the Texas Eagle? And last, but not least, Brian, have those crews walk through the cars with illustrated menus promoting what passengers can have while they “eat their way across the country.” Sell! Sell! Sell! …with specifics!

I know the RailPAC Board joins me in wishing Brian Rosenwald well, and urge that he be selected to be the new Chief of the new Long Distance Division!