Group Wants Michigan Demonstration Trains

April 25, 2018

A Michigan environmental group is pushing for special demonstration trains to operate in summer 2019 between Traverse City and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Ground Center for Resilient Communities has been seeking intercity rail passenger service on the route for several years.

The group has raised $100,000 to conduct a study of the route’s potential that it expected to be completed this summer.

Preliminary findings have shown that the A2TC route as it has been dubbed could generate enough ridership to support a passenger train.

Much of that is based on the projection that tourism in Traverse City is expected to double from 6 million a year to 13 million by 2045.

“It could provide options for baby boomers moving up to the region and for college students at Baker, Alma, CMU, U of M,” said Jim Bruckbauer, deputy director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. “We see the potential for what this can do for the downtowns between Traverse City and Ann Arbor — Owosso, Clare, Cadillac.”

Permanent rail service on the route is years away, but the group is eyeing operating some specialty trains in summer 2019.

Advertisements

W.Va. Officials Optimistic About Saving New River Train

April 25, 2018

West Virginia officials say they had a productive meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson about continuing the annual New River Train and expressed optimism that a deal will be worked out.

In a news release, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said the service has had a stellar record with no operational issues or citations

“I made sure that Amtrak knew the impact this would have on our economy and local non-profit,” Manchin said in the release. “Richard Anderson and I both agree that we need to find a solution and I received a commitment from him that they are committed to continuing their partnership with Collis P. Huntington and finding a solution that both sides are happy with.”

Echoing that was Rep. Even Jenkins who said the meeting has moved the New River Train one step closer to operating.

“There are still some issues that remain to be resolved, but every single person in the room wants to keep the New River Train running,” he said in a news release. “I will continue to work to ensure the New River Train runs for a 52nd year this fall and am encouraged by the results of today’s discussion.”

The New River Train has operated for 51 years, most recently between Huntington and Hinton.

It continued existence has been threatened by a new Amtrak policy that bans most special and charter movements.

Of late, Amtrak has expressed some willingness to allow a limited number of specials that use routes covered by scheduled Amtrak trains.

In the case of the New River Train, it uses CSX tracks also used by Amtrak’s Cardinal.

West Virginia interests have said the New River Train generates $5 million in tourism dollars.

Jenkins said that Anderson understands that the New River Train has a 50-year history and economic impact that distinguishes it from other charter trains.

As Political Winds Blow, Long Distance Trains Go

April 25, 2018

As a general rule I don’t put much stock in opinions on railroad chat lists that “predict” the imminent demise of Amtrak’s fleet of long-distance trains.

Such predictions have been made for decades and yet long-distance trains have survived.

Yes, some have fallen by the wayside over the years, most notably in 1979 and 1995. But numerous efforts to kill off all long-distance trains have fallen short.

With the planned discontinuance of full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited the prophets of doom are at it again.

But then I read a column by William C. Vantuono, the editor of Railway Age, in which he said he thinks the dining changes being made on the Capitol and Lake Shore are part of a plan to shut down the Amtrak national network and leave only the Northeast Corridor, Midwest corridor trains, California corridor trains and other state-supported services.

Vantuono is not one to make dire predictions, but I took notice when he wrote, “I’ve been hearing about internal plans within Amtrak to discontinue long-distance trains. The best way to do that, of course, is to make the service so unpalatable that people stop riding them. Are we looking at a veiled attempt to drive passengers away? I believe we are.”

But then I read the rest of his column and noticed that he had qualified his “prediction” by saying “maybe, maybe not.”

I later received an email from a friend who sent a link to meeting notes of a presentation in which Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson reportedly said to an audience of 150 passenger rail officials that he wanted to kill the long-distance trains and only operate corridor service of 400 miles or less with DMU equipment.

But when I read those notes I found the rail passenger advocate who took them said, “I noted that he (Anderson) did not specifically say that the long-distance trains would go, only that corridors are the future.”

Finally, I read Trains columnist Fred Frailey’s view that Anderson won’t try to scuttle the long-distance trains this year.

“If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump couldn’t axe them, why would Richard Anderson even try?” Frailey wrote.

The fact is no one knows the future of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson may believe that corridors provide the best marketing opportunities for intercity rail service, but neither he nor Amtrak’s board of directors are free agents in overseeing a company that depends on public money to pay its operating and capital expenses.

Amtrak is, has always been and always will be a political creature subject to decisions made by Congress and, to a lesser extent, state legislatures.

Congress has acted to kill some long-distance trains over the years and has acted to save them in others.

That said there may be good reason to believe that long-distance trains might be on slippery rails.

Anderson told Congress earlier this year that Amtrak won’t operate on routes that fail to meet the federal mandate that positive train control be installed by the end of this year. He also suggested Amtrak might not use routes that aren’t required to have PTC.

Much of this probably is political posturing. At the time of his testimony Anderson was still smarting from the Cascades and Silver Star crashes, which might have been avoided had PTC been in operation.

Yet some segments of long-distance routes either might not meet the PTC deadline. Is Amtrak going to chop up those routes?

Another potential threat is that the equipment devoted to long-distance service is wearing out. Will Amtrak seek to replace it?

Amtrak has rarely shown much, if any, interest in creating additional long-distance routes or expanding service on the long-distance routes it does operate.

Various Amtrak presidents probably have viewed the long-distance network, skeletal as it might be, as insurance for widespread political support.

In his talk to the passenger train officials, Anderson repeatedly said he must follow the law, meaning Passenger Rail Reform & Investment Act of 2015, saying it requires Amtrak to operate at lower cost and more efficiently.

In particular this applies to food and beverage service and an Amtrak inspector general’s report of seven years ago found that the lion’s share of losses on that could be attributed to the long-distance trains.

Anderson and perhaps the Amtrak board of directors might see long-distance trains as a hindrance to their ability to cut costs and operate more efficiently. They also might see the long-distance trains as dinosaurs.

Amtrak will turn 50 in three years. A half century is a long time for any one company to operate with essentially the same business model.

But most companies are not as subject to political pressure as Amtrak. As the political climates goes, so goes the future of long-distance trains or, for that matter, any intercity passenger trains.

Nabbing Amtrak’s Silver Service

April 24, 2018

My travels during my Florida vacation took me to the city of Lakeland, Florida. This is the Junction of the CSX A line and S line.

We set up at the abandoned former Atlantic Coast Line station. First we got Amtrak train 91, the Silver Star, going to Tampa. About an hour and a half later it returned on its way to Miami.

A pair of CSX freights went through, one north, one south, but that was the extent of activity in Lakeland.

On our way east we pulled up to a crossing only to watch the northbound Amtrak No. 92 fly by with no time for photos. Our next stop was Davenport where we just caught the southbound Silver Meteor, this time getting photos.

Article and Photographs by Todd Dillon

Some Private Car Owners Disappointed in Amtrak Policy, Fee Changes

April 24, 2018

In the aftermath of a change in Amtrak policy for handling of private rail cars, some car owners told Trains magazine they are disappointed in the new policy and how the passenger carrier is jacking up the fees it charges to haul and service their cars.

Amtrak’s new policy restricts where private rail cars will be handled and in particular limits where the cars can be added or removed from Amtrak trains at intermediate stations.

Some car owners said the higher tariffs and operating restrictions will make their business more challenging and expensive.

Some car owners are trying to be philosophical with Altiplano Railtours owner Adam Auxier telling Trains it is better to have bad news you know than good news you don’t know.

Auxier said private car owners need to be able to plan their trips nearly a year in advance.

Many private car owners sell tickets to the public to ride in their cars on set dates.

Railroad Passenger Car Alliance President Roger W. Fuehring told Trains that some changes in how Amtrak handled private cars is disappointing.

In particular he cited the inability to store cars near Washington Union Station, the ending of some mechanical services, and a sudden increase in fees.

Fuehring said Amtrak had increased its tariffs every October, but now has warned private car owners that those fees can be increased at anytime at Amtrak’s discretion.

“How can anyone plan their business with such small margins when we don’t know what the tariff rates will be day to day?” Fuehring said. “What does the tariff matter if Amtrak has the ability to adjust the rates again?”

Burt Hermey owns four original California Zephyr cars that he stores in Los Angeles.

He said the fee increases are putting him into the difficult position of having to tell his customers they need to pay more for upcoming trips.

Hermey said he created fares based on the October 2017 tariffs.

He explained that Amtrak will now only do what is necessary to bring a car that is in the middle of a trip back into FRA compliance.

“A strict reading of that would seem to indicate that defects identified during an annual inspection would need to be repaired elsewhere,” Hermey said.

Hermey believes that the rule changes show that, “Amtrak management wants us off the property despite the multiple millions of dollars we pay each year, most of which flows to their bottom line. It’s also clear how little they value that segment of their business.”

Amtrak Dining Changes are NOT Good News

April 24, 2018

Part of the experience for me of riding Amtrak to Chicago is having breakfast in the dining car.

I’ve had some good meals in Amtrak diners over the years and some interesting conversations with my table mates as the Indiana countryside rolled past.

Now Amtrak plans to end full-service dining aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited on June 1 in favor of pre-packaged cold meals for sleeping car passengers that they will eat in their room or at a table in a lounge car devoted exclusively to sleeping car passengers.

Coach passengers will have to make do with whatever cafe car offerings are available although Amtrak says it will sell the meals sleeping car passengers receive to coach passengers on a limited basis.

This downgrade in meal service will be most noticeable at breakfast, which will be no better than that of a Super 8 motel, dominated by carbohydrates with some fruit and yogurt available. No eggs, no bacon, no sausage, no pancakes or French toast, no potatoes, no vegetables and no table service. There won’t even be cereal.

It is particularly galling to see the Amtrak news release frame the meal policy change as an improvement in meal service, using words such as “fresh” and “contemporary.”

That is pure public relations and marketing balderdash. The changes Amtrak is making are all about cutting costs, not enhancing the travel by train experience.

Driving these changes is a 2019 deadline Amtrak faces under federal law to eliminate losses on food and beverage service.

Long before there was an Amtrak there were railroad dining cars that operated at a loss.

An article published in Trains magazine in the 1950s likened a dining car to an inefficient restaurant. Dining cars just don’t have enough volume of business to cover their expenses.

The only time that railroad dining cars paid their way was during World War II when the railroads handled an extremely high volume of traffic.

For the most part, railroads viewed dining cars as loss leaders and branding devices designed to lure passengers, particularly those who were affluent. Some railroad executives thought their image with shippers hinged on how they perceived a railroad’s passenger service.

This image of a 1950s streamliner and all of its trappings has stuck in the minds of some railroad passenger advocates as though it is a command from above that long-distance trains must have dining cars that serve full-course meals prepared on-board by gourmet chefs.

Amtrak’s dining service has gone through all manner of changes over the years, some good and some downright horrible as management sought to rein in costs while preserving at least a semblance of the eating aboard a train tradition. Now the current Amtrak management seems determined to blow up long-distance trains dining.

Perhaps another underlying factor is that the cost of eating in Amtrak dining cars has ballooned to the point where few coach passengers are willing or able to pay the prices.

On the current Capitol Limited menu, the least expensive breakfast entree is scrambled eggs, potatoes and a croissant ($8.50). If you want bacon or sausage that will be another $3.50.

An omelet with vegetable and cheese filling, along with the potatoes and croissant, costs $13.75. A stack of three pancakes costs $10.50 and doesn’t come with anything else.

At dinner, the least expensive of the seven entrees is vegetarian pasta at $16.50. If you want a salad that will be another $3.50.

Four of the entrees cost more than $20. The most expensive is the land and sea combo ($39). It comes with a flat iron steak and a seafood cake of crab, shrimp and scallops. A salad is not included but you get a potato (or rice pilaf) and a vegetable. Desserts range from $2.75 to $7.50.

If you want to enjoy an adult beverage with your meal, a cocktail costs $7.50, a single serving of wine is $7, and a beer costs between $6 and $7.50. It means you could spend upwards of $70 for dinner for one person including the tip.

Many of those who patronize Amtrak’s full service dining cars are sleeping car passengers who have “paid” for their meal in their sleeping car fare, which itself is not cheap.

For example, a Superliner roomette on the Capitol Limited from Cleveland to Chicago on April 25 is priced at $225. By contrast a coach seat is $73. A Viewliner roomette on the Lake Shore Limited is $181 and a coach seat is $58.

Some of those “fresh” and “contemporary” meals that Amtrak plans to serve sleeping car passengers might be tasty. But I can’t image too many folks who shelled out hundreds of dollars for a sleeping car ticket will be satisfied with a continental breakfast.

They want something hot and substantial. Dining cars on long-distance trains don’t need to be gourmet restaurants. Something approximating a Bob Evans restaurant would be sufficient.

If ever there was a need for a combination of technology and creative thinking to make this happen, now is that time.

What Amtrak plans to implement on June 1 on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited is far from that.

How Amtrak Framed Dining Changes to Employees

April 23, 2018

The way that Amtrak portrayed to its employees its plans to eliminate preparation of meals onboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited differs slightly from how it framed the change in its news release and service advisory.

For example, Amtrak told its employees that the plan to offer sleeping car passengers pre-packaged cold meals is temporary.

But that doesn’t mean that on-board food preparation is coming back.

Eventually, Amtrak told its employees, sleeping car passengers will able to “pre-order/pre-select meal options prior to departure.”

The memo sent to employees also said that the passenger carrier expects to save $3.4 million a year “some of which will be reinvested in the product.”

Another goal of removing full dining service aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore the Amtrak memo said is “less waste and providing a more contemporary food service model and product (with in room service) for our premium passengers.”

The memo also clarified in a way that the news release did not that Amtrak plans to devote a lounge car for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers where they can consume their meals.

Coach passengers will not be allowed to use this lounge, which will have an Amtrak attendant on duty but there will be no table service.  Table seating will be on a first-come basis.

The pre-packaged meals that Amtrak will serve passengers will come with condiments, napkins and cutlery.

“If a customer finds something missing from their package, needs another beverage or needs assistance moving from their bedroom or roomette to another car on the train – the sleeper car attendant or other employees can provide assistance,” the memo said.

As for staffing, the memo said each train will have an onboard food and beverage staff of two with one lead service attendant in each car.

Although sleeping car passengers will have the option of eating in their rooms, the Amtrak memo indicated that this is “subject to refinement as we move forward.”

As Amtrak framed the change for its employees, “this change will contribute to improved financial performance and more contemporary service delivery on these overnight routes between the East Coast and Chicago.”

The memo suggests that the meal program on both trains will be reviewed after the summer travel season.

During the summer the consist of the Capitol Limited will be two coaches, a baggage-coach, two sleepers, one lounge car for sleeping car passengers, one sightseer café/lounge (Superliner I or II), a transition dorm and a baggage car.

The Lake Shore Limited will operate with six coaches, two baggage cars, three sleepers, one lounge for sleeping car passengers (one of the new CAF cars) and one café/lounge car (Amfleet I split club).

The café/lounge includes 18 business class seats, the standard Amfleet café module and 24 booth seats.

Sleeping car attendants will make reservations for sleeping car passengers for meals in much the same way that they do today in the dining car.

Meal service hours will be the same as they are now: Breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The attendant in the sleeping car lounge will be on duty between 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. except for allotted breaks. This lounge will be available for passenger use for the duration of the journey.

Amtrak Raising Private Car Fees

April 23, 2018

As Amtrak is restricting where private railroad cars can operate it is also jacking up the rates that it charges to carry, switch and store them.

A new fee structure effective May 1 will increase the base rate to carry a private car will be $3.26 per mile, an increase of more than 12 percent from the current rate of $2.90 per mile.

Additional cars will be $2.50 per mile, up from the current $2.22 base rate.

The overnight base parking fee will rise to $155 with some facilities charging even more.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, the overnight parking rate will be $270. In Boston it will be $360. In Chicago, the premium daily parking rate will be $600.

Short-term and long-term parking fees are also rising to $2,400, up from $2,085 for short time parking and $1,600 per month, an increase from $1,391, for long-term parking.

Terminal switching fees and waste-tank service costs now incur an annual $400 administrative fee.

Amtrak last increased fees for private car owners on Oct. 1, 2017, using an Association of American Railroads quarterly index of prices and wage rates.

In its latest private car tariffs, Amtrak said its rates are subject to change “from time to time at the discretion of Amtrak.”

Amtrak to End Full-Service Dining on Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited in Favor of Cole Meal Service

April 20, 2018

Amtrak is ending full-service dining car service on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

In a news release posted on its website, the passenger carrier said that effective June 1 it will begin offering sleeping car passengers on the two trains what it termed “contemporary and fresh dining choices.”

That means cold meals delivered to the passenger’s room or consumed at a table in a lounge car.

Trains magazine said Amtrak did not respond to question about whether hot meals would be offered on either train, but a separate service advisory indicated that café car fare will continue to be available, some of which is heated in a microwave oven.

The news release said the service is intended to replace traditional dining-car service.

Meals will be delivered to the trains just before they depart their end terminals. The cost of these meals will continue to be included in the ticket price of a sleeping car room.

Among the mean choices, the news release, said are chilled beef tenderloin, vegan wrap, chicken Caesar salad and turkey club sandwich.

Breakfast options will include assorted breakfast breads with butter, cream cheese and strawberry jam; Greek yogurt and sliced seasonal fresh fruit.

A Kosher meal will be available with advanced notice.

Passengers will receive unlimited soft beverages; a complimentary serving of beer, wine or a mixed drink; and an amenity kit.

Previously, sleeping car passengers wanting an alcoholic beverage had to pay for it.

“Our continued success depends on increasing customer satisfaction while becoming more efficient,” said Bob Dorsch, Amtrak’s vice president of its long distance service line, said in the news release.

The service advisory said that after boarding, sleeping car attendants will continue the standard procedure of asking passengers to select a preferred time for dining with reservations available in 15-minute increments.

Tables in sleeper lounge and café/lounge cars will be first come, first serve for seating and there will be no at-table dining service.

Sleeping car passengers will also be offered complimentary morning coffee, chilled water and juices, in-room meal service, turn-down service for their beds, and shower facilities.

They will be provided pre-boarding privileges and same-day access to lounges, such as Club Acela in the Northeast Corridor and the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago.

Business class passengers on the Lake Shore Limited will be offered a la carte purchases from café/lounge menu, an alcoholic beverage and unlimited soft beverages, and a complimentary comfort kit.

Amtrak said coach passengers may purchase on a limited basis the pre-packaged meals served to sleeping car passengers. The existing café car menu will continue to be available to all passengers.

The news release also quoted Dorsch as saying, the meal service will continue to be refined and Amtrak looks forward to hearing from its customers about it.

What it all adds up to is that Amtrak is looking to cut costs by eliminating onboard kitchen staff and servers, and offering airline style meals that are provided by a catering company.

Trains magazine quoted the Rail Passengers Association as saying that the change reflects outside directives to the passenger carrier.

“It’s important to remember that this is simply an outcropping of the congressional mandate to eliminate losses on food and beverage service,” said James A. Zumwalt, director of policy research at RPA.

Zumwalt said the new meal policy “contradicts other successful models such as in the cruise industry, and proves unpopular with passengers. The mandate prevents best practices and should be removed.”

Amtrak Clarifies Policy on Specials, Private Cars

April 20, 2018

Amtrak has clarified its new policy on special moves and the carriage of private railroad cars and as expected the passenger carrier is largely eliminating moves to and from intermediate points.

The guidelines say Amtrak will only accommodate private car moves at endpoint terminals or intermediate stations where the scheduled dwell time is sufficient to allow switching of the cars.

Amtrak listed 40 intermediate stations where switching will be permitted. The list includes such points as Albuquerque, New Mexico; Denver; Houston; Kansas City; and St. Paul, Minnesota, but no cities in Ohio.

Private cars can also be added or removed from Amtrak trains at Pontiac, Michigan; Indianapolis; and Pittsburgh. However, the latter is limited to the Pennsylvanian, which originates and terminates in Pittsburgh.

Also excluded are Grand Rapids and Port Huron in Michigan, both of which are endpoints for the Pere Marquette and Blue Water respectively.

Nor is Huntington, West Virginia, included on the list. The omission of Huntington is notable because it is the origin of the annual New River Train and the home of the fleet of cars owned by the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society.

Amtrak said it will work with private rail car owners whose cars are marooned at prohibited intermediate switching stops on a one-time, one-way relocation move to a terminal or yard where private cars will still be permitted to operate.

The movement of private cars will also requires case-by-case written approval by Amtrak.

Amtrak plans to limit maintenance service for private-car owners to Federal Railroad Administration mandated repairs of safety appliances as necessary on private cars in the consist of Amtrak trains.

Private car owners will no longer be permitted to pay Amtrak’s maintenance services for preventative maintenance and general repair services. In the past Amtrak staff undertook such repairs and then billed the car owner for the work.

As for special moves and charters, Amtrak said those will be limited to existing Amtrak routes.

The guidelines also said Amtrak will continue to accommodate specials and charters that are already established in the Amtrak system. They must not be one-time trips.

That is good news for the annual New River Train, which uses the route of the Chicago-Washington Cardinal, but not so good news for the rare mileage specials sponsored by the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners.

Would-be operators of chartered trains that use Amtrak locomotives, equipment and personnel will be subject to the availability of those resources and their operation must not adversely affect scheduled operations.

A charter must also generate sufficient financial benefit for Amtrak to justify its use of its equipment and personnel, but the carrier did not explain how it calculates those.

The updated guidelines on charters and special moves do not apply to trains operated by Amtrak on its own or for governmental purposes.