January, Amtrak Consists, and the Southwest Chief

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson

January in any year brings the anticipation of problems for passenger trains encountering winter weather all across the country.  January, 2015, was no exception what with the winter storms that dominated the news along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.  All intercity train service north of New York City into New England was shut down for days, while south of NYC to Washington there was less service, but the trains kept running.  In the Midwest and West service ran nearly as scheduled, but when there was a disruption Amtrak’s notification system worked well.  On January 9, New Mexico rider Bill Page had reservations on the Southwest Chief from Lamy to Fullerton.  He was informed via email that the estimated Lamy arrival time for train 3 was going to be 3 hours 30 minutes late.

Christmas Day, 2014, every Amtrak long distance train arrived early into Chicago.  Since then the on time performance has resembled more normal times.  The good news was the Empire Builder was back on its normal schedule and problems encountered along the BNSF High Line were improving due mainly to the dropoff of number of oil trains running there and the opening of a 60 mile stretch of double track in North Dakota.

What got our attention however, was Amtrak’s decision to shorten the consists of all the long distance trains in the lighter traveled winter time.  There were exceptions, the City of New Orleans (Mardi Gras time), Sunset Limited (Tucson rock show and Super Bowl in Phoenix) and Texas Eagle were not affected.

First, it was announced that the very popular Pacific Parlour Cars would be removed from the Coast Starlight from January 12 through March 12 “for maintenance.”   The immediate reaction was concern that they would not return.  What has happened is those cars are still in Amtrak’s 8th Street Yard in Los Angeles, but at press time are on the wheel rack, indicating that wheel and truck work may be underway.  Those 1950-era Hi-Level cars do not have a ready supply of spare parts, so any that are needed must be either vandalized from another car or manufactured on special order.  We eagerly await resumption of this feature of the Coast Starlight.

Second, there was the reduction in long distance train consist lengths in January and February into early March.   Here are the cars that were removed initially:  20 Amfleet II Coaches (mostly off the Florida service), 17 Superliner Transition Dorms, 29 Superliner Coaches, 10 Superliner Sleepers, 3 Superliner Diners, 3 Superliner Sightseer Lounges, and 15 Heritage Baggage cars.  According to Amtrak VP-Operations D.J. Stadtler “this saves crew costs, wear and tear on the cars, and allows preventive maintenance to be performed.”  Really?  Did Amtrak management in Washington really look at the fallout from these decisions?

A TrainOrders writer summarized that the The Amfleet IIs and Superliner Transition Dorms are stretched thin as it is.  “Getting inspections done now makes sense,” he wrote, “so more can be available through the year.”  But, in the case of the removed Transition cars, crews would be taking at least 7 revenue rooms on the Sleeping cars on each train.  The Superliner Coaches were not removed from service, but were transferred to run on the state-supported routes out of Chicago during the winter months replacing the Horizon cars that normally run the rest of the year and do not do well in winter months.  One set of 7 cars was assigned to a train set that runs Chicago to Carbondale, IL.  Why 7 cars?  The Canadian National requires Amtrak to run no fewer than that many cars in order to assure signals will be tripped (the rule also applies to the City of New Orleans on the same line).  On one run in January, two of the seven cars were locked Superliner Sleeping cars, just taking the trip.

What became a major irritant for crews and affected passengers, however, involved the removal of the Heritage baggage cars, which were replaced by Superliner Coach-Baggage cars on Western trains.  There is no doubt those old baggage cars are near the end of their lives, but it was discovered rapidly that Coach-Bags were not adequate replacements.  RailPAC’s VP South James Smith was on the platform at Los Angeles Union Station for one of the first departures of the Southwest Chief using its shortened consist (no Bag, no Transition, two Sleepers, Diner, Sightseer Lounge, a Coach and a Coach-Bag).  The train set arrived at the platform at 5:40 for its 6:15 departure.  Four baggage carts arrived to be loaded in the Coach-Bag, where the interior space was such that organizing that many items into piles according to the destination station was almost impossible.  By the time all was loaded, the train departed at 6:45.  One of the features of the Southwest Chief’s route is its proximity to skiing areas.  Were the skis going to be carried in the small space?  By the end of January the Heritage Baggage cars were back on the Chief and the California Zephyr which of course stops at several ski areas in California, Nevada, and Colorado.  Did Amtrak’s decision making for these changes ever involve the crews who know what is going to happen?  It sure doesn’t look like it.

In January, 2014 the Southwest Chief carried an average of 368 passengers per train.  Under the new consists the maximum capacity is Superliner Coach-Bag 62, full Coach 74, Transition Dorm 36 revenue spaces plus crew spaces, Sleeper 44.  That’s 216 spaces per train, not enough space for a 368 space “average.”  The difference is passengers who ride less than end to end distances and are replaced by other passengers on each 2256 mile journey.

What about the fate of the Southwest Chief itself?  As readers know, the decision on the future of that train a year from now hangs in the balance.  It is the intention of Amtrak and the BNSF Railway that the cost of continuing the train between Newton, Kansas, across southern Colorado, through Raton Pass to the re-connection with the Transcon south of Albuquerque, New Mexico must be shared with those states.  Amtrak “cannot” or will not pick up the costs, the railroad has no frieght traffic south of Lamar, CO, so the argument for retention from that standpoint is weak.  However, as the Santa Fe New Mexican says, “The Southwest Chief plays a critical transportation role for rural communities in the region.” Some Colorado and Kansas communities pledged matching funds to help secure $22.5 million last year from the feds.  New Mexico has not, but their legislature is in session.  The Kansas budget outlook is dire compared to a year ago.  A December article in the Pueblo Chieftan reported that the one-time Colorado price tag for the rail upgrades is officially $8.9 million, which the railroad will cover, and is “significantly less than the $40 million we  were dealing with less than a year ago.  The rest of the funds will go to annual operating costs.

The NM Senate Finance Committee chairman told the New Mexican that their Governor must take the lead if the state “is to follow through with the type of financial commitment required to keep” the train.  Shrinking revenues may leave no room in the state budget for their annual share.  The proposal to shift the train to run its entire route on the BNSF Transcon line appears to be a dead issue, as the railroad will want almost an equal amount and the states and communities would have to pay for improvements and for new stations in Wichita and Amarillo, Texas.  And there it goes, the beginning of another new year full of anticipation and turmoil for the long distance trains.


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