Western Long Distance Trains at the End of 2015: A Positive Report

Here we are, Christmastime 2015, and lo and behold the Amtrak long distance trains continue to roll and to some extent thrive despite the negative publicity that they are “money losers.”  In recent posts this writer has talked about the positives that are being accomplished on the Coast Starlight, and the opposite effects that are creating heartburn on other trains like the east coast Silver Star which has lost its dining car.  In this article we will look at the other western routes that operate in and out of Los Angeles headed east, and what the imminent retirement of CEO Joe Boardman can bring to the future.

On December 5 RailPAC hosted its annual meeting in Los Angeles, with an all-star cast of speakers starting with Amtrak Board member Yvonne Burke, the sole representative from the west.  Although this writer was unable to attend in person, reading Noel Braymer’s report and viewing the video he made of the session made clear that the west is in good hands, including the long distance route managers for the Starlight, Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle.  Mrs. Burke made clear that she is “dedicated to a national rail passenger system,” and to the long distance trains.  That brought a loud round of applause from the attendees.  She is also grateful to RailPAC’s VP Long Distance Services, James Smith, for his communications with her that reflect the opinions of the group.  One thing she is convinced must happen is reflected in the new Transportation bill that has recently been signed by President Obama, that Amtrak accounting will have to be changed.  RailPAC and URPA have been thundering that for many years, and it looks like the Congress agrees.  Now we will see if Amtrak will do meaningful changes that reflect exactly what the real costs of the Northeast Corridor are, or will they shuffle the deck and say they were right all along just as they have when this subject has been previously brought up.  Frankly, can we trust Amtrak to really do what will reflect what is obvious, in the words of Andrew Selden, that costs of the NEC do not reflect the true costs because capital expenditures are routinely charged to all Amtrak trains in the country as part of the “overhead” whether they apply to the national system or not.  They’ve got a lot of “convincing” to do, and we trust Yvonne Burke will stay on top of it.

The other big news at Amtrak is that CEO Boardman has said he will retire in September, 2016, even though he was recently given an extension on his contract and had said he would be staying another 5 years.  Whatever his reason, the immediate conjecture started over who would replace him.  All of us want someone who knows what (1) Amtrak and (2) railroading is all about, and preferably does not come from an NEC transit agency.  One thing we learned from Mrs. Burke is the Amtrak CEO and the FRA director no longer have votes on the board of directors.  Recently Senator Carper (D-DE) announced he “is a candidate” for the CEO job, something “he has wanted for a long time.”  That would keep the corporation firmly in the hands of the NEC.  All bets are off as to a permanent replacement, but there could be another temporary head until the new Congress and Administration get around to it sometime in the future.  We do know that technically the President does not appoint the Amtrak CEO, and that person must be a citizen of the U.S.  However, if someone is chosen that the new Administration does not want, it will be unlikely that person will get the job.

Now what’s going on with the western long distance trains?  Another highlight of the RailPAC December 5 meeting was the presentation by Amtrak’s Route Managers, Erik Smith who has the Starlight and the Southwest Chief, and Jay Fountain who has the Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle, and Heartland Flyer.  Both of these very competent officers have extensive passenger rail on board experience in the west and are highly qualified for their positions.  Their presentations were unique in that instead of a laundry list of problems and “reasons” why something isn’t happening, they gave positive presentations of what IS happening for long distance trains and what they ARE DOING to make improvements.  No canned presentations or long-winded power point slide reading from them.

How about this for a partial list.  One of the complaints about on board food service has been the lack of “regional choices.”  In an effort to do something about that, and at the suggestion of the employees, the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle will soon offer “red beans and rice” on their Dining Car menu, and it will be offered to Coach passengers for delivery to their seat.  The experiment with at-seat food service has been a big success on the Coast Starlight and will continue (as will an expanded Business Coach).  The BLT will be replaced by turkey club and chicken sandwiches as variety.  This at-seat experiment has increased revenue for the Starlight food service by 16%, and at very little cost as no additional personnel were required.  Other long distance trains will get in on this idea as soon as details are worked out.  Another change, a temporary one for the Sunset Limited, will see the departure time for the eastbound train from LAUS changed to 4 PM (from 10 PM) for three months starting in January.  No change will take place for the westbound train.  The Union Pacific had declared there would be “bus bridges” from LAUS all the way to Tucson for train #2 due to winter-time major track work windows, but extensive negotiation brought the agreement for the earlier start time which, of course, will make the layover in San Antonio longer but is better than putting passengers on an overnight bus and suffering the consequent drop in ridership and revenues.

As Route Manager Erick Smith said, “a daily Sunset Limited is a good idea,” but was not seen as being something possible at this time, and the stated reason was lack of Superliner equipment (which we know is the company line), but we know reality means that the Union Pacific is still not receptive and Amtrak does not want to push it at this time.  If the UP’s winter track work results in finishing the double tracking between Coachella, CA and Maricopa, AZ the UP will have much less of an argument about carrying the daily train.   We note that the so-called Phoenix stop at Maricopa does well, but far from what it could do.  Arizona has received a $15 million grant to put a state highway bridge over the railroad at the Maricopa station location so the Sunset Limited will no longer block the crossing to make two or three traffic blocking spot stops, and will eliminate multiple crossing stoppages due to UP freight trains.

As for other questions, Noel Braymer asked if the Southwest Chief would be extended to Pueblo, Colorado, as the state there wants it.  Erik Smith was “optimistic” that it would happen but gave no details, and in response to the question of extending the Heartland Flyer to Wichita and Newton, Kansas, to connect with the Chief, Mr. Smith said there are already plans to create a bus connection with the Flyer to Wichita.  The Flyer is now a major connector to the Texas Eagle at Ft. Worth, and this bus connector even if it goes to Newton can be the forerunner of train extension…if, (of course) the states will pay for it.  Returning to Phoenix seems like something that will not happen…ever, as the state of Arizona is not receptive to paying for the return to service of the line from Wellton to Buckeye.

We can say that from all we’ve heard about the RailPAC meeting it was refreshing to hear what is being DONE, not just what ought to be done to improve service for the western long distance trains.  This writer reiterates that these items of on board service improvements, to the Starlight as detailed in our previous article, and what is happening now are largely things that can be done with progressive thinking by dedicated Amtrak officials who just do them particularly when revenue can be enhanced without significant increases in costs.  There are so many other promotional possibilities, and these Route Managers are working on them too.  One is event-specific promotions and here’s another one that should be looked at for next winter.  Tucson, Arizona has one of the world’s largest gem and mineral shows every year.  We have been on board the Sunset Limited when folks got off the train to attend it, and when others boarded with bags of “rocks” after attending the show.  Where better to carry “rocks” than on a train or in the new baggage cars?

We must end with the saddest news for the long distance trains, however, that Amtrak did extend the “experiment” of removing the dining car from the east coast Silver Star to April 30.  We have said all along that the “experiment” was really in permanent concrete, and unless the arrival of the new Viewliner Dining Cars to replace the ancient Heritage diners makes possible its return, two years from now no one will remember what first class service on that long distance train was…or should be.  We should all be diligent to see that the work of the western Route Managers is successful in keeping that “experiment” from happening out here.  Meanwhile, we know they, as well as Board member Yvonne Burke, will continue to listen to their employees AND to rail advocates about what improvements can be made.

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