Amtrak Backs Down on $25,000 Fee for a $16 Ticket

January 22, 2020

What was quoted as a $25,000 fee for a trip that ordinarily costs $16 landed Amtrak a lot of unflattering headlines recently.

And when the dust had settled the passengers got tickets for the regular price while Amtrak wound up with a black eye.

The story involved a group of 10, five of whom use wheelchairs, who wanted to book a trip from Chicago to Normal, Illinois, to attend a conference.

When the passengers, one of them the CEO of Access Living, which news reports described as a Chicago disability service and advocacy center, contacted Amtrak they were told their tickets would incur a $25,000 fee to cover the expense of removing coach seats to accommodate the group.

Amtrak coaches used on Lincoln Service trains have spaces for one wheel chair, which meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lincoln Service trains typically have three coaches.

Access Chicago member Adam Ballard told National Public Radio that in the past Amtrak had with advance notice removed seats in a coach or put the group in a café car and charged them a few hundred dollars extra.

The $25,000 price was given to the group by an Amtrak group sales agent.

Amtrak said said the alternate would be for the group to travel on separate trains scheduled three hours apart.

The group said doing that would mean some of its members would arrive at the conference late or would incur the cost of overnight lodging if they had to travel the day before the conference was to begin.

Amtrak initially told NPR that the $25,000 charge reflected a new policy of “an additional fee when any group requires reconfiguration of our railcars.”

After NPR broadcast the story it got picked up by other news outlets and also drew the attention of U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois who lost both of her legs while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq after the Blackhawk helicopter who was co-piloting was shot down.

Duckworth called the fee outrageous and demanded a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

She also Tweeted that it was “disappointing that Amtrak leadership appears to have failed to offer a public apology for its initial mistake.”

Duckworth is the ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation.

She said on Twitter that she wanted to discuss with Anderson “eliminating Amtrak’s nationwide policy of refusing to absorb any costs associated with reconfiguring a railcar to accommodate a group of wheelchair users.”

Two senior Amtrak executives later contacted an attorney for Access Chicago and offered to find extra space aboard a train to accommodate the group.

Amtrak also offered to allow two passengers to ride for the regular price of one ticket.

Although Access Living accepted the offer another complication arose when Amtrak learned that another disability group was sending staff to the same conference and had two wheelchair users who wanted to take the same Lincoln Service train.

Amtrak agreed to find space for all of them, apparently by taking one coach out of service and removing some of its seats.

Access Living had contacted Amtrak last month to request accommodations for its group.

When it protested the $25,000 charge, the agent wrote back and said the fee was in line with Amtrak policy about reconfiguring a rail car.

“”With the removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” the agent wrote.

The agent acknowledged that in previous years Amtrak had removed seats and absorbed the cost of doing so.

“We understand and appreciate your loyalty with Amtrak,” the agent said. “Going forward, we cannot continue to absorb these fees. These policies have changed nationwide as of 2019.”

Bridget Hayman, a spokeswoman at Access Living said that although her organization appreciates that its members will all be able to ride Amtrak at no additional cost, what is needed is a long-term solution so that Amtrak won’t charge those high fees in the future.

In a statement, Amtrak said it would review its policy and meet with Duckworth.

Amtrak Apologizes to NAACP Attorney Asked to Move

January 22, 2020

A high profile civil rights attorney received an apology from Amtrak after she was told by a conductor to move to another seat.

The incident involving Sherrilyn Ifill, of Baltimore, began as she was riding from Washington last Friday.

An assistant conductor told Ifill that she wanted to keep the seating area where Ifill was seated open for other passengers who would be boarding later.

In Tweeting about the incident, Ifill suggested that the incident was racially motivated and said the car in which she was sitting was sparsely filled.

“When I was laying her [assistant conductor] out to the [lead] conductor, at one point, I said, ‘I can sit where I want,’ and I thought, ‘This isn’t 1950,’ ” Ifill, who is African American, wrote on Twitter.

Ifill said she had approached the lead conductor to complain and he apologized but that the assistant conductor told her, “Follow me; I’ve found a seat for you.”

Amtrak spokesman John Abrams said in an email to the Baltimore Sun that Amtrak sought to contact Ifill numerous times on Friday to apologize for the incident, but did not make contact with her until Saturday morning.

“We should have responded publicly sooner, and we apologized for the incident and our slow response,” Abrams told the Sun. “Amtrak is looking into the matter more closely so that we can prevent situations like this going forward.”

Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and cousin of the late PBS political analyst Gwen Ifill.

“I am colossally disappointed in @Amtrak for both this incident & the way it was handled,’” Ifill tweeted on Saturday.

“What really disturbs me is how someone with this authority can just entirely make up something so ridiculous and approach a customer in this way,” Ifill tweeted. “I did wonder when she was carrying on — how far will I take this? And the immediate answer in my mind was ‘all the way.’ ”

Boulder Strikes Missouri River Runner Train

January 22, 2020

A boulder struck a Missouri River Runner train between Washington and Hermann, Missouri, last Friday, forcing the train to return to St. Louis.

No serious injuries were reported in the incident involving Train 313 en route to Kansas City with 145 passengers aboard.

Amtrak said one passenger was treated for smoke inhalation.

The boulder hit a passenger car on the roof right above a restroom and electrical cabinet.

“It shook the car,” said Rita Holmes-Bobo, a passenger from Kansas City who was sitting nearby. “It hit very hard.

The train stopped in Hermann where it was inspected and soon departed,

But after the electrical cabinet began smoking the train halted in Morrison, Missouri, east of the regularly scheduled stop in Jefferson City. The train later wastowed back to St. Louis.

Passengers were returned to their original boarding station. An Amtrak spokesman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that those asking for accommodations and alternative transportation received them.

Holmes-Bobo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there was much confusion about alternative transportation.

At one point she said passengers were told the buses would meet them in Jefferson City. That was later changed to Hermann.

She said many passengers in the damaged car wound up standing all the way back to St. Louis in a different car.

“Every mode of transportation is going to have issues, but how you treat the passengers and communicate with them was lacking with Amtrak,” Holmes-Bobo said.

Another news report said the train sat in Morrison for three hours with one passenger Tweeting that there was no heat and one car was filled with smoke.

By the time the train reached St. Louis is was 12:30 a.m.

Tuscaloosa New Station Efforts Stall

January 22, 2020

Efforts to create a new Amtrak station in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have stalled.

Tuscaloosa officials have been trying for years to create a new station, but have been unable to reach an agreement with host Railroad Norfolk Southern.

City officials want to located the station in the Alberta neighborhood, which would put it in close proximity to the campus of the University of Alabama.

The current station, which is served by the New York-New Orleans Crescent, is located on Greensboro Avenue and is in poor condition.

Amtrak has reportedly threatened to cease using the station.

Work on creating a new station began in 2016 but has made little headway.

Work Continues on Vermont Rail Line

January 22, 2020

A rail line between Rutland and Burlington, Vermont, is expected to be rebuilt for Amtrak service sometime within the next year say Vermont transportation officials.

They said that the track work is needed to extend Amtrak’s New York-Rutland Ethan Allen Express to Burlington.

The work involves 75 miles of rail and a new tunnel in downtown Middlebury.

The work has been underway for a few years and also involves grade crossing upgrades and new stations.

The Ethan Allen Express is funded by Vermont. Burlington has never been served directly by Amtrak although nearby St. Albans is the northern terminus of Amtrak’s Vermonter to and from New York.

Something to Promote at the Time

January 18, 2020

Amtrak was particularly keen to promote its new equipment in the 1970s as it continued to emphasize the slogan “we’re making the trains worth traveling again.”

That included the use of new SDP40F locomotives that began arriving in 1973 and continued to be delivered through 1974.

An example of that was the cover of the regional timetables that Amtrak issued in the middle 1970s that depicted one of the new locomotives along with a relic of the streamliner era, a dome-lounge-observation car.

Also note that the timetable cover shows a drawing of the new Amtrak station in Jacksonville, Florida.

It may look dated today and remind some of steps that Amtrak took that didn’t quite work out as planned — the use of SDP40F locomotives – or which have not quite stood the test of time — the modular stations designed in the 1970s.

But it was what Amtrak had to promote at the time it did so with pride.

The Tennessee Passenger Expansion Waltz: A Serious Proposal or Just a Talking Point for Public Consumption?

January 18, 2020

The news this past week that an Amtrak executive spoke to a Tennessee legislative transportation committee is being seen by some as the first tangible step that Amtrak is moving to seek to implement a vision that CEO Richard Anderson has been articulating for more than a year.

Anderson and Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner have spoken in interviews and occasional appearances about transforming Amtrak’s route network to one more focused on corridor service between urban centers, particularly growing metropolitan areas.

They repeatedly have hammered home the point that many of the nation’s fastest growing cities are unserved by Amtrak or underserved by trains arriving at inconvenient hours.

Such talk has alarmed many rail passenger advocates who see is as code language that means dismantling the carrier’s long-distance routes.

Indeed Anderson and Gardner have been bad mouthing long-distance trains, saying they lose money and could be restructured into the type of corridor services they have described in principle.

Amtrak’s aborted efforts to truncate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief by creating a bus bridge between western Kansas and Albuquerque is often cited as Exhibit A of Anderson’s plan to kill long-distance passenger trains aside from one or two “experiential trains.”

Waltzing in Tennessee

The appearance of Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, at a meeting of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee was significant for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, it was the first time Amtrak has named a specific route that fits the criteria that Anderson and Gardner have been talking up.

That route would link Atlanta and Nashville, but Lang also talked about extending a pair of Midwest corridor trains to Memphis.

Second, it offered concrete proof that Amtrak expects state and local governments to pay for its vision of the future of rail passenger travel.

It is not clear why Amtrak chose Tennessee as the opening act for what promises to be lengthy process.

Perhaps Amtrak has quietly sounded out other states on their interest in ponying up money for new rail passenger service and we just haven’t heard about it.

Or perhaps Amtrak projects the Tennessee routes as among the most likely to succeed.

The news reports out of the Volunteer State generally portrayed a favorable reception to Amtrak’s proposals with some legislators speaking well of the prospect of rail passenger service where none exists now.

Atlanta and Nashville have never been linked by Amtrak and Tennessee’s capitol has been off the Amtrak route network since the Floridian makes its final trips between Chicago and Florida in early October 1979.

Amtrak probably viewed its road show in Nashville as a first step. It might also have been seeking to gauge the interest of Tennessee lawmakers in funding the service.

An Amtrak spokesman and CSX executive said as much.

“We are also talking to current state partners regarding how additional frequencies might be implemented,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari to Trains magazine.

“This is the first we’re seeing of this,” CSX State Government and Community Affairs VP Jane Covington said during the committee hearing.

Covington said it was her understanding that Amtrak was trying “to simply gauge the state’s interest.”

Whatever the case, nothing is imminent and there is no assurance that the routes discussed will ever operate.

There are numerous hurdles the service needs to clear starting with the willingness of Tennessee legislators to spend the money to underwrite the operating losses of the trains, which have been estimated at $3 million annually.

State and local governments also will likely be asked to advance money for capital expenditures on such things as stations.

Warning Shots Fired

Other players in the process will also play a role in whether the trains operate.

Chief among them is would-be host railroad CSX.

CSX’s Covington fired a warning shot across the bow in saying, “introducing passenger trains to heavily used freight lines will be a complex, costly process.

“And I understand that you guys are hearing from your constituents about the crowded roads, and you’re obviously looking for solutions to that. But we want to make sure you do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t backfire and divert freight off the rails and onto the highways.”

That’s another way of saying that CSX will demand some very expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to host the trains.

More than likely the price tag for those projects will be more than state lawmakers are willing to pay for a service that Amtrak said will lose money.

Another player will be the Illinois Department of Transportation, which funds the trains now operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, that Amtrak has proposed extending to Memphis.

Amtrak spokesman Magliari said it would be relatively easy to have the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini serve Memphis because Amtrak already has crews based in Carbondale who operate the City of New Orleans on host railroad Canadian National between Carbondale and Memphis.

But what looks easy or even possible on paper may not be so in practice. IDOT will want assurance that its interests won’t be harmed in any rescheduling of the trains.

An unknown about the additional service to Memphis is whether the state of Kentucky would be willing to help fund trains that run through their state.

Looming in the background is the Sept. 30 expiration of the current surface transportation act that authorizes Amtrak funding among other things.

No one in Congress has yet released to the public a draft surface transportation bill and details about what those drafts will ultimately contain have been scarce.

“It’s going to take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to redo the surface transportation bill,” said Amtrak’s Lang in the legislature hearing.

He reiterated the rhetoric that Anderson and Gardner have been using in suggesting that without a restructuring of its route network Amtrak will wither away.

“We think this presents us an opportunity to really transform the company,” Lang said.

Magliari echoed that theme in his interview with Trains when he said the passenger carrier is engaging in outreach efforts to enlist future support from states now underserved by outlining what routes might be viable.

History Lessons

At the time that Amtrak began in May 1971, the only intercity passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta was the former Georgian of the Louisville & Nashville.

That train operated with single coach between St. Louis and Atlanta and had a travel time of seven hours between Nashville and Atlanta.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Florida route served Nashville but not via Atlanta.

The planners who set up Amtrak’s initial route network considered operating between Nashville and Atlanta but declined to do so due to difficult operating conditions, including a top speed of 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta.

Another complication was that Amtrak would need to build a station in Georgia’s capitol city.

The Floridian was one of Amtrak’s most troubled trains and then Amtrak President Paul Resitrup said in 1977 that its future was hopeless unless it could be routeded via Atlanta.

In April 1978 Amtrak announced a preliminary plan to route the Floridian via Atlanta, but it fell apart when L&N refused to host the train, citing freight train congestion.

The Southern Railway demanded $20 million in track improvements as its price for hosting the Floridian to Atlanta.

The Floridian never made it to Atlanta before its 1979 discontinuance.

In October 1989 Congress directed Amtrak to study resuming service between Chicago and Florida via Atlanta.

That plan has the support of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a conference at which then Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. said the train would only become reality with financial support from the states along the route.

That never materialized and opposition from CSX and Norfolk Southern torpedoed a demonstration route during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Claytor was involved in another effort to revive passenger service to Atlanta in the early 2000s.

That proposal was to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville from Louisville and a test train ran over the route in December 2001.

Amtrak told CSX it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal over the 181-mile route once owned by L&N and used by the Floridian.

Claytor told a congressional committee he was bending over backwards and making every effort to get passenger service to Nashville.

Apparently Claytor couldn’t bend far enough or do enough because Amtrak still hasn’t returned to Nashville.

Political Strategy

All involved have been careful to emphasize that the proposed Nashville-Atlanta service is still in the idea stage.

Much needs to happen to make this train a reality and a best case scenario is it will be four to five years – or more – before the Music City Peach or whatever name it is given appears in the Amtrak timetable.

You have to wonder just how serious Amtrak is about its vision of bringing frequent daylight service to unserved or underserved corridors linking growing metropolitan areas.

Lang said this week in Nashville, “Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all.”

Those make for good talking points, but Amtrak management must know based on its experience in working with host railroads how obstinate and demanding they can be.

It also must know that asking states for money is one thing but getting it is another. Remember the Hoosier State?

The Rail Passengers Association commented on its website on Friday, “CSX is required by law to host Amtrak trains, but has the ability to price state DOTs and Amtrak out of the market if it so chooses.”

RPA, Amtrak and anyone who has paid any attention at all to the behavior of Amtrak’s host railroads knows how they have wielded that power on multiple occasions.

Rail passenger advocates by nature must put on an optimistic face so RPA also said this about Tennessee service expansion proposal: “State officials will have to act accordingly, and work to bring all stakeholder groups onboard.”

That is much easier said than done particularly given that Tennessee has never funded Amtrak service and it is not know how committed state policy makers are to seeing through what Amtrak has proposed.

Has any else noticed that no one is talking about whether the Nashville-Atlanta service will need funding from Georgia, another state that has never funded Amtrak service?

This is not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy and going into this process the odds are stacked against the prospect.

Amtrak’s top management probably has convinced itself that it really can have the type of network that Anderson and Gardner keep harping about.

But are they serious? Or is this just another talking point to be used to strategic advantage to provide political cover as management goes about scuttling the long-distance trains?

Amtrak could offer its plan to, say, carve up the route of the Capitol Limited into a Chicago-Pittsburgh service funded by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When that funding fails to materialize, Amtrak can say it tried to “save” service to those states but their elected lawmakers declined to pay for it.

Don’t blame us, go talk to the folks in Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield because they’re the ones who made the decision.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak is actually going to release a master plan that spells out what specific new services it envisions.

That plan, if is exists, will look impressive and get a lot of people excited just as the Amtrak road show in Tennessee did this week.

But I can’t help but wonder if it will be just another plan that winds up sitting in a drawer somewhere as Amtrak shrinks to a company with service in the Northeast and a few other state-supported corridors.

House Democrats May be Planning Infrastructure Bill

January 18, 2020

House Democrats have signaled that they plan to release an infrastructure bill next week but it is unclear if they are on the verge of also revealing details about their planned surface transportation proposal.

In a meeting with news reporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi avoided providing any details of the bill and what she did say appeared to reference a surface transportation proposal.

It may be that Democrats will package an infrastructure plan with the surface transportation bill but they might also present it as a stand-alone program.

The Rail Passengers Association said Pelosi’s comments could have been referring to as many as three separate pieces of legislation.

Efforts to date by Congress and the Trump administration to reach agreement on an infrastructure program largely have failed.

It may be that the Democratic infrastructure proposal will include transportation among such things as water and sewer projects, power transmission systems and municipal facilities.

New River Gorge Train to Operate in 2020

January 18, 2020

The Autumn Colors Express will operate in 2020 through the New River Gorge of West Virginia.

Rail Excursion Management Company, which sponsors the train, said there will be four round-trip runs between Huntington and Hinton, West Virginia, from Oct. 22 to 25.

Tickets go on sale Monday at www.acewva.com. Ticket prices range from $599 (chairman’s class) to $225 (coach).

The train will stop in Charleston to pick up passengers and will operate during the Hinton Railroad Days Festival.

The consist of the train is expected to be 25 to 30 cars. Last year’s train was made up of private rail cars pulled by Amtrak locomotives.

Private Car Train to Operate in September

January 18, 2020

Private car trains are making somewhat of a comeback on Amtrak.

The passenger carrier has given the Association of American Private Car Owners preliminary approval to operate a private car special from Chicago to Vermont in September.

The train is scheduled to depart from Chicago at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 22the previous day.

The special will also operate on the Mohawk Adirondack Northern Railroad and the Vermont Rail System.

In announcing the special to its members, AAPRCO said Itinerary is subject to railroad approvals, but the group said it has contingency routings.

The announcement did not say what route the train would take between Chicago and Cleveland, but it likely would be the Norfolk Southern line used by Amtrak.

Nor did it say which route would be taken between Cleveland and Buffalo, New York.

In September 2014, an AAPRO special traveled on NS east of Cleveland.

The train has been named the American Autumn Explorer.

The announcement said the train would operate overnight through Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania and expects to pass the former Buffalo Central Terminal during breakfast hours.

The train will continue to Niagara Falls, New York, where passengers will be able to disembark and spend time there.

The train will depart Niagara Falls on Sept. 23 and use the former New York Central Water Level Route to Utica, New York, where it will drop its Amtrak locomotives and operate as a special train on the Mohawk Adirondack Northern Railroad.

The destination will be Thendara, New York, where the train will park overnight.

Departing Thendara on Sept. 24, the special will go back to Utica, pick up the Amtrak locomotives and use former Delaware and Hudson Railroad tracks (now owned by Canadian Pacific) to travel to Saratoga Springs, New York.

The special will leave Saratoga Springs on Sept. 26 and en route to near Plattsburgh, New York, where it will reverse direction and run to Albany-Rensselaer, New York, to pick up additional private cars.

Departure from Albany-Rensselaer will be on Sept. 27 for Whitehall, New York, and then east to Rutland, Vermont.

At Rutland the Amtrak locomotives will be dropped off and the train will continue on the Vermont Rail System to Burlington where it will be parked downtown for three days.

The annual AAPRCO convention will be held in Burlington.

The special will depart Burlington on Oct. 1 and return to Albany-Rensselaer where the special will terminate and its cars forwarded back home on regularly scheduled Amtrak trains starting on Oct. 2.