Commentary, Issues

Amtrak Long Distance News in the New Year … the good, some bad, and the expected “ugly”

Let’s start with the ugly status of the Dining car removal from the Silver Star train, since it’s the hottest news.  On January 28, just as this is being written, URPA learned that Amtrak employees were told the day before that the Star’s dining car is PERMANENTLY gone.  As predicted here since this “experiment” was first announced last summer, there was no doubt it was going to be a permanent discontinuance.  The only figures pertaining to the “experiment” available currently are for November, 2015, where Silver Star ridership was 31,136, DOWN 12.4% over the same month in 2014, while its parallel train with full first class service, the Silver Meteor, was 30,089, DOWN only 0.6%.  But, the political situation where one Congressman led the charge to “reduce long distance food and beverage costs,” has prevailed over promoteable service to customers.  Yes, riders who “want” first class service can ride the Silver Meteor.  This writer checked the on-line reservation system and  found that ALL first class service had disappeared for the next 300 days on the Star, including Sleeping car space!  Andrew Selden said , “If they haven’t annulled the sleeping car-lines, they are at least forcing prospective passengers to call the RSO. Or deflect the naive to somewhere else, be it the Meteor or the buses or I-95.”  That raises the question of the future of the dining car on other long distance trains, and perhaps even sleeping car service!   What happens to the order for the new Viewliner dining cars that Amtrak has placed?  Will they be reconfigured to be Diner-Lounges?  Or could that part of the order be cancelled since construction of them has not started yet?  Just think of all the big bucks Amtrak is (not) going to “save,” while the passengers will see less and less quality service available.  Whose train is next?  Think trains that travel over only one night.

The year 2016 is almost a month old and Amtrak has survived brutal weather in the east and mid-west.   There were few cancellations of long distance trains in the west, and their on time performance was good.  On the east coast it was shutdown time.  Even the vaunted so-called high speed Acela trains were canned en masse because they are too fragile to run in heavy snow, apparently.  The long distance trains on the east coast were the first to be cancelled and the last to be re-started.   Amtrak did have an obligation to those who are in the middle of a three-day trip on a long distance train, however.  “One reason,” according to Andrew Selden, “that Amtrak cancels so many trains in the NEC is the demand just isn’t there.  It isn’t about being ‘tough’ and ‘rail can operate through anything’.”  If there aren’t any riders on the platforms in a blizzard, why run trains?  Well, PATCO in the Philadelphia area ran its regular schedule whenever possible because it would help keep its lines open.  On January 25 Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman issued a “dear colleagues” letter thanking employees “who kept America’s Railroad open and kept trains running during winter storm Jonas.”  Some trains did run, and of course the airlines cancelled more than 12,000 flights.  It could have been worse.  Will he write a letter explaining why the Silver Star’s dining car isn’t coming back?

So, what’s new now that we are in the new year?  Quite a bit, actually, and most of it is good news:  How are the at-seat meals for coach passengers selling on the Coast Starlight?  RailPAC VP LD Services James Smith reports that they are serving 20 to 30 meals per run.  However, ridership has dropped this winter on all the routes partly because of the weather and that results in lower revenue for the dining cars.  Why are the consists on the Superliner trains so much shorter right now?  While that is a normal occurrence for this time of year, Smith reports this year these cars are rotating on all routes for fumigation and “toothbrush” cleaning.  Is this really being done?  It should be, and will be noticeable to the riders.  How about Business Class on the long distance trains?  While exact counts are not available, the trains that have it are reporting success. Business Class is now on some of the eastern long distance trains, like the Palmetto, Cardinal, and the Auto Train.  Are there any route improvements?  The most important was the move of the Texas Eagle from the Union Pacific line between Dallas and Ft. Worth to sharing the TRE (ex-Rock Island) commuter line, which means improved timekeeping and no need to back in and out of the Ft. Worth station.  While the schedule has not been changed, reliability “will improve for the more than 100,000 Amtrak passengers who use our Ft. Worth gateway every year,” said Mike Chandler, Amtrak Deputy General Manager responsible for the Eagle who thanked the Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization and the Texas Rail Advocates for their help and support in this accomplishment.  Amtrak will be adding an additional Superliner coach to the California Zephyr between Emeryville and Reno on Fridays and Sundays through February 14 to accommodate passengers traveling to “the best snow in more than a decade in the Sierra Nevada.”  Dropping that car on Friday and picking it up on Sunday will be done in Sparks by the Amtrak crew, not by a separate move by the Union Pacific.  Small steps, but all these improvements are welcome!

Back to the future.  After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 Amtrak “suspended” the extension of the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Florida, and it still is listed that way.  From time to time organizations along the Gulf Coast have risen up and requested/demanded return of service, but Amtrak has put off doing anything.  On January 25 Amtrak announced they would be “conducting a tour to examine new ideas” by operating an inspection train from New Orleans to Jacksonville on February 18 and 19.  Not that it takes two days to cover that distance, but they will be stopping at each of the former station locations for ten minutes, and will overnight in Pensacola, arriving in Jacksonville the next day.  The Southern Rail Commission “recently released a study by Amtrak detailing the range of feasible service options” on the route.  An extension of the daily City of New Orleans train to Orlando was the first choice, as it would generate the greatest number of riders.  Debate will ensue about whether this service improvement will actually take place, and looking at Amtrak’s record of making a show and then doing nothing it would not be a good idea to get excited.  For one thing, the states will be likely expected to kick in big dollars, like $10 million for the City of New Orleans extension, which will cool off most of those southern legislatures.

Let me finish with a compliment to Amtrak’s western route managers for slowly but surely introducing new items and other improvements to “our” trains in the west.  While this is being done mostly “out of sight” of the eastern management, eventually will the big boys figure out that there are big successes occurring “out there” and the plan to reduce or eliminate long distance trains is being undermined by success?  It hasn’t escaped notice that Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer has been conducting a big advertising campaign on both print and television.  The Dallas-Ft. Worth market has seen a consistent flow of advertising for these trains, including an eye-catching cartoon style TV spot.  Where is Amtrak’s advertising dollars being spent?  Or is there any, in the name of frugality?  Growth…if the trains are going to continue…must be generated!   If you protested the Silver Star “experiment” as most rail advocates did, see how effective you were?  It’s time for a change, and do we have to wait until Joe Boardman retires this fall?  His replacement could have worse ideas.

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