Amtrak drops amenities on long distance trains, and there’s bad news for the Southwest Chief

Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC Associate Director

On February 1, 2014, Amtrak’s General Manager Long Distance Services, Mark Murphy, spoke to the RailPAC-NARP meeting in Los Angeles. While this writer was unable to attend the meeting I have viewed the video of his presentation. In it, Mr. Murphy spoke of the future of the long distance trains, and that subject is important to California because four of them serve the state, providing mobility options for those who want to travel beyond the state’s borders by train. Accompanying him were Mike Dwyer, the route director for the Coast Starlight and the Southwest Chief, and Joy Smith, Business Liaison Director of Service Excellence, long distance services. Mr. Dwyer’s contribution was the good news that the Pacific Parlour car will be continued on the Coast Starlight. Ms Smith was not heard from and that is unfortunate, as her presentation to a TXARP meeting when she was General Manaager in Texas was excellent and very well received. Mr. Murphy spoke of Amtrak’s need for more revenue and that they are “going after every dime we can get; we can’t cut our way to success.” Rail advocates in attendance loudly applauded this and the fact he stated that Amtrak earns 89-90 cents for each operating cost dollar. He proudly spoke of the “new equipment” on order, while not mentioning that those cars are the new low-levels that will be used only on the eastern trains. As for new equipment for the western trains, he only said “nothing today, but if we can show value…” meaning that the western trains still have to show their worth to the company? He wants to add capacity to “grow our revenue,” but did not say how that would be accomplished. We all know that the way to do that is to add Superliner cars as well as the new Viewliners to current consists.

As for the Food & Beverage discussion, he said he has a 5-year plan in the works to “eliminate the loss that these services generate,” is seeking “an innovative way to handle it,” and “will reach out to ‘us’!” Four days after his talk Amtrak unilaterally announced that there would be cutbacks to the amenities offered to passengers on (only) the long distance trains. Whether Mr. Murphy knew of this announcement or was left out of the loop, and whether or not the cuts are a big deal, is still to be decided, but in any case it left rail advocates looking at a black eye. Mr. Murphy confirmed the announcement in a message to RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, saying, “It was issued internally earlier this week as one piece of the overall 5 year strategy to address the food and beverage issues we briefly discussed on Saturday.” The announcement said, “The following amenity items are being eliminated and removed from long distance services.” That meant all trains, east and west. Included were the end of wine and cheese receptions on the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight (in the Pacific Parlour car) and Lake Shore Limited, no more complimentary cranberry juice and newspapers in all sleeping cars, no more amenity kits or chocolate squares on the Builder or Starlight, and no more flowers and vases on dining car tables (this had already been done on some trains). A subsequent announcement on February 26 did the same type cutting to the Auto Train. Not a big deal you say? Perhaps not, but RailPAC’s Marcus Jung noticed that it is the high revenue-yielding first class passengers that are hit with these cuts, and notice Murphy said the cuts are “one piece of the overall 5-year plan.”

So they would not be cutting their way to prosperity, and then the first thing they do is cut? Are they so afraid of certain Congressmen that all they can see is cutting, while telling everyone that they want more revenue? It doesn’t look now that there are any revenue enhancement plans. Will we be asked in advance or just expected to endorse whatever they do “in order to preserve the continuance of the trains?” It’s time all rail advocates spoke up for the riders who all deserve a clean, safe, reliable and enjoyable experience on board the Amtrak long distance trains and not let the eastern and corridor thinking at Amtrak be exclusive. If Mark Murphy means what he says it is time for “us” to hear that we have an advocate at Amtrak, not just as RailPAC’s James Smith told him at the meeting, a “marching orders” taker from the higher ups. Mr. Murphy, don’t make us long for the return of Brian Rosenwald. You told the meeting that Rosenwald’s initiatives are “still on the table.” Would Brian have approved of these cuts or seen them as the next round of what could be the end of the quality traveling experience? As RailPAC Director Bill Kerby said, “What disappoints is not the huge boulders that knock down the traveler’s anticipation for a good trip, but the small grains of sand that grind away the expectation for an excellent travel experience as the journey continues.” Paul Dyson called it “the crumbling edge of quality.”

Believe it or not, Amtrak also threw out the idea that cuts in luxuries could save the Southwest Chief. That outrageous notion gave hope to the folks along the line of that important train, which serves small communities as their primary source of travel. The discontinuance of the historic route of the Super Chief and El Capitan between Chicago and Los Angeles is reaching an almost certain bitter end and there is only a year left to save it. Colorado has been leading the way to generate support for continuing service to its southeast corner, and is calling for RailPAC’s idea of moving its route to also serve Pueblo and Walsenburg while not eliminating service to any communities in any of the three affected states. Amtrak’s CEO Joe Boardman told Pueblo Rep. Leroy Garcia that cost-cutting measures, including eliminating the amenities discussed above could “help rescue the line.” Garcia is sponsoring state legislation to create a state financing authority to “explore ways to pay for the track upgrades” necessary to preserve the line. U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) said “losing the Southwest Chief stops could be a major economic loss in southeastern Colorado.” That means the Colorado people have moved the discussion up to the Federal level and are to be congratulated. The issue has also resulted in a major national article in the New York Times. What about Kansas? Don’t expect miracles for financial support from there. New Mexico? Well, the latest report was a support funding bill had passed the lower house of the legislature, but got stuck on the last day of the session in the state Senate so is dead for now, but a bill for a $50,000 “legal study” passed and the Governor may sign that one thereby getting everyone off the hook. A big NM grass roots organization along the route was actively supporting the funding plan. The NM legislature does not meet again until next January, so the ball is back in the court of Amtrak and the host railroad, the BNSF. NM user of the train Bob Snow commented, “This is typical of NM, a chess game to avoid being the one putting in more resources than the others. Ultimately this ends up costing more money, but that’s the way they do things here. I’d bet they will come through at the eleventh hour.”

It is unbelievable that Mr. Boardman would really mean cutting amenities would raise the $100 million the BNSF has demanded for preservation of that route. It is and always has been a national system responsibility, and it is up to Amtrak to settle the issue with the railroad using Amtrak money, and the states should only pay a very small amount. Otherwise, Amtrak will have the precedent it can use to blackmail the states along all its long distance routes by having them face the elimination of their trains, just as they are doing with the corridor trains. In Trains magazine Fred Frailey revealed that the cost to Amtrak of moving to the BNSF’s “Transcon” line would be as much as preserving the old route. Does Amtrak want to serve new higher populated markets that have not had train service since 1971 or keep the loyal riders along the present Southwest Chief route? Has anyone offered the BNSF the quid pro quo of abandoning the present route between LaJunta and Trinidad in exchange for reaching the large Pueblo market which would draw Colorado riders from up to Denver? That increase in high revenue ridership alone could in the long run pay for the incremental track maintenance. This writer hates to write cranky articles. Amtrak, Mr. Boardman, and Mr. Murphy: actions speak louder than words.

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