Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

Grand Plan Could be a House of Cards

January 28, 2020

Amtrak has yet to release its grand plan of urban oriented corridors with multiple daily frequencies but has dropped hints in recent months about what it will look like.

The most recent hint came in a legislative hearing in Kansas. A senior Amtrak public affairs executive indicated the passenger carrier will seek millions, if not billions, from Congress to help states pay for the capital and operating costs of the new services Amtrak would like to provide.

That would include extending the Heartland Flyer into Kansas and creating a new route between Atlanta and Nashville.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said there are numerous unserved and underserved urban pairings, many of them in the South and West, which could be part of this new network.

But he has yet to release an actual map of those routes.

In advance of the release of the Amtrak plan, which is expected to be part of the carrier’s proposal for a surface transportation bill Congress is expected to take up later this year, the carrier has apparently launched a public relations tour of states that would benefit from it.

The strategy appears to be to seek political support among members of Congress from those states.

So why do I keep thinking it’s all a pipe dream?

There is no assurance Congress will approve the funding Amtrak is banking on to help pay for its urban corridor network.

That’s critical because in the Kansas legislative committee hearing an Amtrak official acknowledged that the cost of starting these new routes is more than states are going to be willing to pay.

But consider also some recent developments in places where states are already funding corridor service, have funded it in the past or where funding for new service is close to becoming reality.

In Missouri the state transportation director told lawmakers the Show Me State is in arrears in paying for the twice daily Missouri River Runner service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has suggested increasing funding for Amtrak service, but one lawmaker suggested instead the legislature rethink funding Amtrak at all.

Although Anderson cited Chicago-Indianapolis as an example last year of the “new look Amtrak” when testifying before a congressional committee, the Indiana legislature declined to continue funding the Hoosier State between the two cities and it ended after its last trips on June 30, 2019.

In Virginia, the news of late has focused on a plan to expand Amtrak service as part of an ambitious $3.7 billion project.

But in the southwestern corner of the state efforts by officials in Bristol to get Amtrak service extended to their city have stalled in part because host railroad Norfolk Southern walked away from the negotiations.

A proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, has encountered opposition from within Alabama.

The governor declined to support that state’s share of funding for the service even though the neighboring states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to provide funding to match a federal grant.

The service may be doomed if the Mobile City Council votes today against a resolution to approve $3 million in local funding for operating expenses of the route for three years.

It may be that funding will materialize in Alabama. NS will come back to the table in Virginia and the Missouri legislature will agree to provide the funding MoDOT wants.

Yet one of the Missouri lawmakers who is skeptical about continued funding of Amtrak summed up what all of these cases have in common when he said budgeting is about setting priorities.

No one would disagree with that but there is wide disagreement about whether passenger rail is or should be one of those priorities.

If Amtrak’s still-to-be released plan is to succeed, it will hinge on getting buy in Congress, state legislatures and host railroads.

In some instances, states will be asked to make a financial commitment for something they’ve never funded before.

There are sure to be some who will argue that limited public dollars are better spend on other priorities such as education, public health, public safety and highways.

I’ve long wondered if the urban corridors concept being pushed by Anderson and others at Amtrak is a ploy for something else.

It might be discontinuing long-distance trains or finding source of funding that can be used to collect “overhead” costs that go toward other Amtrak priorities.

There is a popular theory in some rail passengers circles that the national network is being used to prop up the Northeast Corridor so Amtrak can continue the fiction that it is profitable.

Anderson and the Amtrak board of directors might sincerely believe they can talk Congress into giving them the money that a Kansas legislative committee was told about recently.

And if those funds fail to materialize?

The urban corridors network will fall like a house of cards. Yet I’m not sure it wasn’t always a house of cards anyway.

The $25,000 Question: Was Amtrak Doing the Right Thing or Trying to Avoid Answering Tough Questions?

January 28, 2020

It didn’t take Amtrak long to back pedal away from an effort to charge a group of passengers, half of them using wheel chairs, a $25,000 service fee added atop tickets that normally cost $16 per person.

Actually, it might be more accurate to say the passenger carrier turned tail and ran away from the fee once it began receiving national attention that turned up the political heat to an unbearable level.

As is typical in these situations, Amtrak sought to spin it by framing it as a wrongful application of policy.

If the heat gets high enough, blame a rank and file employee for making a mistake. You might even call it an honest one. Then you apologize.

Yet there is much we don’t know and may never know about what led to this fee.

Amtrak may have appeared in the end to have done the right thing, but let’s not overlook that it reversed course in part to seek to avoid having to answer some tough questions, including why the fee was so high in the first place.

To recap the facts of the situation, a group of 10 members of Access Living, a Chicago disabilities group, wanted to travel together aboard a Lincoln Service train from Chicago to Normal, Illinois, to attend a conference.

Half of the group would be traveling in wheelchairs. It is not that Amtrak can’t accommodate those in wheelchairs, but it is not set up to handle large groups of wheelchair passengers who wish to travel together in the same car.

Each Amtrak coach has space for just one wheelchair. That means that the group had to be spread out over multiple coaches or seats needed to be removed to enable then to be seated in the same car.

The Chicago group has traveled via Amtrak before and the passenger carrier removed seats to accommodate them.

It is unclear how much above the regular fare the wheelchair passengers had to pay for those past trips.

One news account quoted a member of the group as saying they paid a few hundred more while another account quoted an Amtrak employee as saying the carrier absorbed the cost of removing the seats.

The group contacted Amtrak group sales last month to buy tickets and was told by a sales agent that a new policy meant they would have to pay a fee to have seats removed to accommodate additional wheelchairs in the same car.

The fee was an eye popping $25,000. When the group protested, the sales agent wrote back to say it was in line with the carrier’s policy pertaining to reconfiguring a rail car.

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

The group then turned to the news media. Initially, Amtrak stood behind the fee, telling National Public Radio it has a policy of adding “an additional fee when any group requires reconfiguration of our rail cars.”

Amtrak also suggested the group split up with some members riding one train and others riding another operating three hours later.

That stance lasted a day or two. Not only did the story get picked up by other news media it also drew the ire of Illinois U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth who described the fee as outrageous.

Duckworth is not just another senator. She lost both of her legs after the U.S. Army helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq was shot down.

She uses a wheelchair and has taken a great interest in legislation affecting the rights of the disabled.

Duckworth also is the ranking minority party member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on transportation.

After she demanded a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, Amtrak lawyers contacted an attorney for Access Living and offered a deal.

The carrier would remove seats, drop the fee and even offer a buy one get one deal.

The group accepted the offer. Amtrak later said it was dropping the policy that led to the $25,000 fee in the first place.

“After further review, Amtrak has determined to suspend the policy in question,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari doing his best impersonation of a referee in the National Football League.

“It was never meant to be applied to this situation. And we apologize for the mistake.”

A news story noted that Magliari spoke shortly after protesters gathered outside an Amtrak station in Illinois and chanted, “We will ride.”

The story seemed to have a happy ending with the group making the trip on Jan. 22 to the conference aboard Amtrak.

Adam Ballard, an Access Living transportation policy analyst, said everything went smoothly.

“Everyone got on the train really great,” he told NPR. “We were treated like kings and queens. There was extra staff to help with bags and work the wheelchair lifts.

“And they had extra staff on the train to attend to our every need. So it was not the typical Amtrak ride.”

Of course it wasn’t. It is no surprise that Amtrak decided to bend over backwards in an effort to save face. That is the substance of good public relations.

It also was an attempt to make the situation and its attending bad publicity go away.

It will, but will anyone in a position of authority ever demand that Amtrak provide a detailed bill showing why it costs $25,000 to remove a handful of seats from an Amfleet or Horizon coach?

There are fees that are designed to enhance revenue and there are fees that are designed to discourage certain customer behavior.

The $30 that airlines charge to check a bag on a flight is an example of the former. People grumble about it but they either pay it or take as much as they can aboard with them stow it in the overhead bins or under the seat ahead of them.

However, the $25,000 fee Amtrak wanted to impose on Access Living sure seemed like discouragement. It came across as the type of exorbitant fee someone dreamed up knowing a group such as Access Living couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it.

It not as though Amtrak would have to hire additional personnel to remove the seats. That task would be done by regular employees.

How long does it take to unbolt seats and put them aside on a shop floor? Amtrak would have you believe it’s a very complex and expensive task.

Amtrak is not unique in saying that something is expensive without having to prove it.

Companies of all kinds routinely engage in this behavior to pressure their customers to behave in ways favorable to the company.

What Amtrak doesn’t want to admit is that it wanted to force Access Living to do things its way because it didn’t want to remove the seats.

It either saw removing seats as a hassle and/or it could lead to lost revenue.

Under ordinary circumstances, if a group of 10 disembarks at Normal the seats they occupied from Chicago become available for sale to new passengers boarding in Normal or some other station downstream.

But the chances of selling that space to other wheelchair users probably were slim. It could be days before that space gets back into revenue service.

Amtrak CEO Anderson has been aggressive about cost cutting and revenue enhancement. He has his agenda of trying to do what he can to make Amtrak’s finances look better, which he sees as a bargaining chip to talk Congress into giving Amtrak more money.

The carrier has a lot of decaying infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor that needs to be replaced and that won’t come cheap. It also wants billions to finance its new urban corridor oriented network.

Although Anderson tries to run Amtrak like a private company, the passenger carrier can’t survive without public funding. That creates the perception in the minds of many that it is a public agency.

It didn’t help that the way the $25,000 fee came across in the news media and on social media was that of a heartless organization trying to bully a small group of handicapped citizens into submission.

That’s not how Amtrak would explain it but at some point high-ranking executives at the carrier, perhaps including Anderson himself, concluded that they couldn’t win this public relations battle. So Amtrak went into high gear damage control.

It is tempting to suggest that poor management at Amtrak led to this situation. There may be some truth to that given Anderson’s desire to squeeze every nickel and pick up every dime.

Some middle level manager should have recognized that if a $25,000 fee being imposed on wheelchair users went viral that Amtrak would suffer a great big black eye.

But middle level managers are not always courageous enough to put their jobs on the line. Some would rather curry favor with the managers above them by being all in on company policy.

As those who initially dealt with Access Living probably saw it, the group might protest but in the end would capitulate.

More often than not when Amtrak pulls the rules on its passengers they have no viable recourse. They don’t know how to get their plight publicized on NPR or gain the attention of a powerful policy maker.

But someone at Access Living is media savvy and Amtrak apparently didn’t take that possibility into account.

These types of situations will continue to occur so long as those whose job it is to enforce rules and policies lack authority to make exceptions when discretion is called for and/or lack the foresight to be able to see the consequences of how the company’s behavior could be seen by others if they find out about it.

It is unclear what the episode involving Access Living means long term for passengers with disabilities traveling as a group.

As one member of Access Living commented to a reporter, getting around can be pretty tough for those in wheelchairs even in the best of circumstances.

Underlying this story is that Amtrak wanted the Access Living travel party to change its behavior to fit Amtrak’s needs rather than Amtrak doing all it reasonably could to meet the group’s needs.

Most people traveling together would like to sit together. It wasn’t as though the Access Living members showed up one morning at Union Station and demanded accommodations on the next train out.

They contacted Amtrak weeks before they planned to travel in recognition of the fact that it takes time to arrange accommodations for a group of wheelchair passengers.

An overarching issue that Amtrak probably would like to dodge for now is what obligation it has to accommodate those with disabilities. That is not necessarily an easy question to answer because at some point it becomes a matter of character.

Amtrak is not insensitive to the needs of those with disabilities. It has been reconfiguring its stations in recent years to better accommodate passengers with disabilities and has taken other steps to be helpful to them.

But a fault line lies where the carrier has to forgo revenue and incur an expense in order to accommodate those with disabilities as they wish to be accommodated.

Amtrak said it suspended its policy which is not necessarily the same thing as repealing it.

The suspension might buy time to let things die down or to rethink and revise the original policy.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak management sees what happened with Access Living as a fluke and goes about doing business as usual or a sign that it needs to make some hard policy choices that come with price tags it doesn’t want to pay but must to avoid a similar PR train wreck down the track.

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.

So What Did Mr. Anderson Mean?

December 11, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently gave an interview to the Here and Now program on National Public Radio and a railroad passenger group found in his remarks a commitment toward preserving rail service to all of America and not just a few coastal urban corridors.

As the Rail Passengers Association sees it, Anderson indicated he recognizes Amtrak has a legal obligation to offer a national network.

When rail passenger advocates use the term “national network” they are talking about long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson has been outspoken in the past year that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are money losers and suggested the future of intercity rail passenger is short corridors linking urban areas.

He has hinted that Amtrak wants to eliminate some of those long-distance runners by chopping up their routes into corridors.

An NPR reporter said asked Anderson why if the long-distance trains are the money losers he says they are why that the carrier doesn’t say they are no longer a part of Amtrak’s core business and eliminated them.

Anderson responded this way: “Well, no, that wouldn’t be appropriate for Amtrak because we have a statutory responsibility to provide intercity travel. We also have a statutory responsibility to minimize losses and run this like a business. So we’re at an intersection of both a really important public-policy role and the responsibility to be very good stewards. So, we have to have good answers for rural communities. So we take that challenge.”

But was Anderson saying what RPA claims that he said?

Anderson indeed said Amtrak has a legal obligation to provide rail passenger service but that doesn’t necessarily mean he said that includes long-distance trains.

He said Amtrak needs to have good answers for rural communities, but didn’t say what those will be.

What constitutes a “national network” is a murky concept. There are vast swaths of the United States that lack intercity rail passenger service and haven’t had it for decades.

Amtrak has never served South Dakota. Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, have been off the Amtrak map for 40 years.

Does a national network mean that all 50 states and all principal cities must be served?

Some rail advocates might answer in the affirmative, but that doesn’t mean it is likely to happen.

RPA wants to see Amtrak receive a separate source of funding to grow its network.

The organization rightly fears the corridor services that Anderson is fond of promoting will come at the expense of long-distance routes.

The rail passenger advocacy group said a separate funding source for new Amtrak routes is gaining support in Congress and within Amtrak itself, but it remains to be seen if that materializes.

There have been many proposals over the years for dedicated funding sources for Amtrak, but none of ever made it into law.

Instead Amtrak funding continues to be the annual appropriations granted by Congress that are subject to the vicissitudes of which way the political winds are blowing at the time.

RPA claims Anderson’s response during the NPR program is a subtle but important change from his earlier rhetoric.

The advocacy group is correct in asserting that Anderson’s comment about the need to minimize Amtrak’s losses and run the passenger like a business speaks to a tension between operating a tight ship and the mission of serving communities that are unprofitable.

Getting to where RPA and other rail passengers advocates want to be is a long game that will still be playing out long after Anderson has left his post.

There may be some support in Congress for the type of expansive rail passenger network that advocates want to see – including a mixture of corridor services and long-distance trains – but there remains considerable opposition to it as well.

That opposition is not just in Washington but also in the headquarters of every Amtrak host railroad.

Even if Anderson’s rhetoric has undergone a subtle change, I have yet to see evidence, including in his comments made during the NPR interview that he has changed his mind about the role of long-distance passenger trains in America.

Perhaps Anderson has learned intercity rail passenger service is politically different than airline service provided by for-profit companies and his comments reflect that.

That doesn’t mean that he has come around to the viewpoint that all long-distance trains need to be kept in place in order to maintain a national network that meets the transportation needs of rural America. What constitutes the latter is subject to wide differences in interpretation.

Another Glimpse Into the World of Richard Anderson

November 21, 2019

A Bloomberg News reporter has given another glimpse into the worldview of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

It’s a small examination yet a revealing one.

Anderson is not a sentimental man. For him everything is about business.

OK, so you probably already knew that, right?

Still, consider this comment from Anderson in response to a question about how his father, who worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, used to take the family on train trips to Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I didn’t come away with some huge love for trains, just like I don’t have some huge love for airplanes,” Anderson said. “They’re machines that you build a business around.”

Just machines? If you think about it that’s the response you might expect from a chief executive officer who spends his day looking at financial reports and making financial decisions.

It’s just that his predecessor as Amtrak president, Charles “Wick” Moorman, did have a passion for trains and that’s something that makes railroad enthusiasts feel better.

The Bloomberg portrait of Anderson doesn’t contain much more of his thinking that hasn’t been reported in other articles or he hasn’t said during occasional speeches and congressional testimony.

My key takeaway from the article was a better understanding of how Anderson got to be president and CEO of Amtrak and why.

I’ve long argued Anderson is not a rogue operator or a Trojan Horse who has surprised those who hired him.

Anderson may get most of the criticism but one of the lesser discussed elements of the many changes that have been made at Amtrak in the past two years is that Anderson was hired by a board of directors who would have spent considerable time with him before offering him the job.

They would have asked questions about his vision for Amtrak and his philosophy about transportation generally.

They knew what they were getting: A former airline CEO, yes, but also a former prosecutor.

Leonard described Anderson as having the cerebral demeanor of a senior college professor.

The reporter quoted a former boss, Texas prosecutor Bert Graham, as saying Anderson was one of his office’s best trial lawyers. “He had a way of seeing through bullshit,” Graham said.

Amtrak board members might have thought Anderson’s no nonsense approach was exactly what the passenger carrier needed.

He had the personality to do what previous Amtrak presidents had been unable or unwilling to do.

In that sense, the Amtrak board might have been like the parent of a spoiled child who hopes a teacher will do what the parent failed to do in imposing discipline.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, indirectly touched on that point when he observed that Anderson was hired to operate Amtrak like a profit-making company such as Delta Air Lines, where Anderson served as CEO between 2007 and 2016.

“He looked everybody in the eye and said, ‘OK, are you guys ready for this? We’re going to break some stuff.’ And everyone said, ‘Yes, this is what we want.’ And then he started breaking stuff. And people were like, ‘Wait, hold up. Stop! What?’ ”

And that is the crux of why Anderson is so unpopular with many passenger train advocates. He broke too many of their favorite dishes and was unapolegetic about it. He didn’t even pretend to regret it.

Anderson knows that, telling Leonard, “Most of the critics are the people who yearn for the halcyon days of long-distance transportation.”

Leonard wrote that Anderson started to lose his cool when asked if he was trying to kill Amtrak’s long-distance routes as many of his detractors have contended.

No, he answers, Amtrak will continue to operate those routes as Congress has directed and will spend $75 million next year refurbishing passenger cars assigned to long-distance service and spend another $40 million on new locomotives.

But Anderson also reiterated a point he’s made numerous times. He wants to break up some long-distance routes into shorter corridors and transform other long distance trains – he specifically mentioned the Empire Builder and California Zephyr – into experiential trains.

Anderson said he planned to ask Congress next year to authorize an “experiment” of breaking up some long-distance routes, citing the tri-weekly Sunset Limited as one Amtrak would like to address.

He knows that won’t play well with many. “Part of the problem is that the people that are the big supporters of long distance are all emotional about it,” Anderson said. “This is not an emotionally based decision. They should be reading our financials.”

Anderson can be confrontational and doesn’t mind, as the Bloomberg piece noted, throwing an elbow or two against a critic or competitor.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because at his level the competition can be cutthroat as companies and organizations look to further their own interests.

The article noted that in an effort to confront the host freight railroads that handle Amtrak trains in most of the country Amtrak instituted quarterly report cards that grade how well they dispatch Amtrak trains on time.

Confrontation may be a useful tactic but it also has a price.

Knox Ross, a member of the Southern Rail Commission, discussed that with reporter Leonard as they rode a two-hour tardy Crescent through Mississippi toward New Orleans.

Ross said he has talked with managers at Amtrak’s host railroads who hate those report cards.

Those host railroads may not be so keen about cooperating with Amtrak to implement Anderson’s vision of corridor service between urban centers that airlines no longer serve.

The SRC has been pushing for the creation of a corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Federal funding has been approved and the states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding. But Alabama thus far has balked.

And, Ross, said, CSX, which would host the trains, doesn’t want them.

No date has yet been announced for when the New Orleans-Mobile route will begin and Ross sees the obstacles to getting that corridor up and running as a preview of what Anderson and Amtrak will face if the passenger carrier seeks to create the type of corridor services it has talked about creating.

In the meantime, Anderson continues to look for ways to cut costs as he works toward his goal of making Amtrak reach the break-even point on its balance sheet from an operational standpoint as early as next year.

Then Amtrak can take the money it now spends underwriting operating losses and use it to buy new equipment and rebuild infrastructure.

If you want to read Leonard’s piece, you can find it here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-11-20/amtrak-ceo-has-no-love-lost-for-dining-cars-long-haul-routes

But be forewarned that he has bought into the conventional wisdom of how the Northeast Corridor is profitable and the long-distance routes and state-funded corridors are not.

The piece is also heavy on the nostalgia angle, particularly in regards to the recent changes in onboard dining services and the historic role of passenger trains in America.

Yet if you can adopt even a little bit of Anderson’s “just the facts mam” personality, you will see where he’s coming from and have a better understanding as to why he has been doing what he’s done.

Beware of the Rabbits

November 16, 2019

The Rail Passengers Association appears to have launched a public relations initiative to boost its image.

The rail passenger advocacy organization has filled my email inbox this week with daily messages filled with “facts” about its activities.

Last week the chairman of RPA, Peter J. LeCody, took the campaign to a railfan chat list, Trainorders.com.

In his initial post, which was titled, “Why you may be wrong about Rail Passengers Association,” LeCody said he joined the chat list in an effort to “help counter misinformation” about RPA.

He said he acted after some TO members contacted him about what they viewed as “misinformation and comments they considered to be bordering on malicious in many posts.”

LeCody said he wanted to begin a conversation to provide factual information, answer questions and “explain what a member organization can and can’t do and what it can reasonably be expected to do.”

The post had scarcely gone up before the rabbits began coming out of the bushes.

Rabbits are attention grabbing because of the way they dart to and fro. They may be interesting to watch but difficult to catch.

And they are incidental. They distract you from focusing on the important things.

Collegiate basketball coach Bob Knight would tell his players before a game that if they fight the rabbits the elephants are going to kill them.

One of the rabbits was a criticism of RPA for publishing last summer a series of postings on its website written by a summer intern who traveled the country on Amtrak and wrote about food. The intern has training in the culinary arts.

RPA has been sending interns out by rail in recent years and their reports are more entertainment than policy analysis even if RPA sees them as supporting its overall mission of promoting travel by rail.

Does it matter much in the scheme of things that RPA is posting travelogues? No, it doesn’t.

Another rabbit was a criticism of LeCody’s use of the term “third world” to describe Amtrak equipment.

There is a vast difference traveling on equipment that is wearing out, which pertains to Amtrak’s long distance trains, and the type of travel experience described in the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Marrakesh Express with references to animals riding trains with people.

Besides, one poster noted, some so-called third world countries offer better rail service than what Amtrak fields in some parts of the United States.

LeCody should pay heed to that criticism and be more careful in choosing his words.

So, sometimes rabbits can be useful so long you avoid chasing them.

LeCody had a lot to say in his post – maybe too much – but he never explained what exactly that people believe about RPA that is wrong.

RPA, which used to be known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, has long been a target of criticism.

It’s one of the largest if not the largest grass roots organization devoted to promoting rail service. Being a target comes with the territory and sometimes that’s not fair.

Some of the criticism RPA endures is rooted in disagreements over strategies and tactics.

There are some who want RPA to take a more confrontational approach with Amtrak generally and its CEO Richard Anderson specifically.

If LeCody will use his TO membership to explain why RPA behaves as it does, he might be able to achieve something of value for his organization.

He may not change as many minds as he might wish, but he might be able to achieve a greater degree of understanding about why RPA behave as it does. With that might come more respect.

There is a difference between criticism and attacks that are mere irritants versus those that represent a threat to the well-being of your organization.

Having read the passenger board of Trainorder.com over the past several years I’m familiar with the free-for-all nature of the forum.

Sometimes you’ll find insightful observations or a good conversation; but not always.

I also wonder what RPA has to gain by creating a conversation on a railfan chat list.

The policy makers RPA is trying to influence probably don’t read railfan chat lists let alone take them seriously. If those policy makers are making borderline malicious attacks on RPA, that is a cause for concern.

But why worry about people who don’t have a vote on appropriations and legislation, don’t make transportation policy and don’t have the ear of those who do? Are your critics on TO likely to write to policy makers on your behalf?

RPA might be able to recruit a few people to its cause but just because people are interested in passenger trains doesn’t mean they are interested in devoting much, if any, of their time to advocacy activities.

LeCody would also do well to reconsider his communication strategies if he decides to continue posting on railfan chat lists.

All of what he said he wanted to achieve sounded good until he wrote that he would “not put up with anyone who can only whine about passenger rail issues without offering to pitch in and actually do something to help our association improve the rail travel experience for members and the public.”

He later wrote, “I enjoy constructive criticism. I won’t put up with ‘glass totally empty’ people who have nothing of value to add to a conversation.”

I grimaced when I read those words. Having an edge is not necessarily the best way to win over your doubters and critics.

I don’t fault RPA or any organization for wanting to improve its image with key constituents.

Yet it is not clear what about RPA’s image the organization believes needs improving. I have a hunch about what that might be, but that is for another column.

In the meantime watch out for the rabbits.

Take a Ride on the Amtrak Spin Train

September 16, 2019

Having breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited in March 2012 as Train 49 stopped in Bryan, Ohio. Note that the menu featured an image of a couple eating in the dining car while watching the scenery roll by.

In a news release posted last week, Amtrak described changes it was making to dining services aboard eastern overnight trains this way in the opening sentence: “Amtrak continues to evolve the travel experience on long-distance trains with the introduction of a new, flexible dining service for Sleeping Car customers traveling on the Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Crescent and Silver Meteor starting on Oct. 1 and the Silver Star in 2020.”

The next paragraph had a quotation from Amtrak President Richard Anderson saying this “evolution” is being done to meet the needs of today’s customers.

“Traveling on one of our trains has never been just about the destination – the journey is part of the adventure,” Anderson said.

That is the same Richard Anderson who has been trashing his company’s long distance trains by talking about how much money they lose and how they fail to meet the travel needs of those who live along their routes.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading this news release, which used variations of the word “evolution” three times.

That suggests, as the Oxford dictionary defines “evolution,” a process of gradually moving from a simple to a more complex form.

It is notable for what Amtrak is not saying in this release.

It doesn’t say the Crescent and Silver Meteor will no longer offer meals freshly prepared on board the train or that “flexible dining” will offer fewer choices at meal time.

It says nothing about the Amtrak onboard service employees who are losing their jobs.

It says nothing about how these changes are part of an aggressive cost-cutting campaign that Anderson initiated.

Some of the touted “benefits” of flexible dining cited in the news release are already being offered  and are not upgrades in the traveling experience. This includes having meals delivered to your sleeping car room.

If flexible dining service is an improvement it is only because it represents an incremental increase in the number of meal options being offered compared with the “fresh and contemporary” service model introduced last year on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Amtrak, like any other company, is seeking to portray what customers might see as a negative as actually being a positive.

So rather than speak about cost cutting and reducing labor expenses, it instead frames the changes as serving the needs of its passengers without saying what those are.

The news release follows standard public relations practice of focusing on something that is, arguably, of value to a customer while avoiding calling attention to changes that take away something else of value.

It is a standard public relations marketing strategy if you are taking something away to instead focus on something of value you are offering instead.

Therefore sleeper class passengers get one free alcoholic beverage per meal whereas they used to pay out of pocket for any drinks they ordered with lunch or dinner.

And they also get the exclusive use of the dining car as a lounge.

I would not undervalue that “benefit” because on most eastern overnight trains the lounge is an Amfleet car that doubles as the café car for coach passengers. It can get quite crowded and has limited seating.

Many railfans have complained bitterly about the loss of full-service dining on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

No longer can you order an omelet with bacon, potatoes and a croissant when traveling from, say, Cleveland or Pittsburgh to Chicago.

Gone is the end of the communal seating and in is having to make do with less variety on the menu.

Yet, even the Rail Passengers Association in writing about what has been lacking about “fresh and contemporary” has acknowledged that some of its members have applauded some aspects of it including lighter fare and being able to choose your own company while eating.

Some passengers dislike being beholden to the time shown on their meal reservation and not everyone wants to eat with strangers or is looking for a heavy meal for breakfast or dinner.

The changes that Amtrak has made in food service on its eastern overnight trains are not necessarily what the carrier says they are yet are not necessarily a nefarious plot to kill long-distance passenger trains.

It appears that way because these changes are being made at the same time that high-ranking Amtrak managers are trying to portray these trains as relics of bygone era.

The dining service changes also bear a striking resemblance to what freight railroads did in the 1960s when they downgraded service on intercity passenger trains and discontinued dozens of them.

Whatever the future may hold for overnight passenger trains, there is little to no reason to believe that full-service dining cars are going to return to the eastern long-distance trains or that those Amtrak workers who are losing their jobs are going to get them back.

The omelet you had hoped to enjoy for breakfast has been replaced by a Kind bar.

The steak and baked potato you wanted for dinner has been replaced with red wine braised beef and a side salad.

Passenger Cars such as Ocean View Was the Difference Between a Train Ride and a Bus Ride on Rails

September 4, 2019

Trains magazine passenger writer Bob Johnston had a valid point when he argued on the magazine’s website on Tuesday that Amtrak’s retirement of its last dome car means the carrier is losing a valuable promotional tool.

But how valuable? Amtrak management might argue that whatever the value of the Ocean View was as a promotional tool was no longer worth the cost to maintain it.

The news broke last week that Amtrak has retired its last dome car, former Great Northern Great Dome Ocean View, which had been built in the 1950s for the Empire Builder.

Ocean View had in recent years appeared on special occasions, including operating on the Adirondack in upstate New York during the fall foliage season.

It operated on the Hoosier State when Amtrak took back control of that train from Iowa Pacific, it ran on the Cardinal, and it ran on the Downeaster during a marketing promotion.

Ocean View also made appearances on special Amtrak moves.

The official line from Amtrak is that Ocean View is old and the cost of keeping it going had become too much.

That same reasoning was given for the retirement of the Pacific Parlour Cars, which had been built as Hi-Level cars for the Santa Fe.

Amtrak has all but been out of the dome car business since retiring its Heritage Fleet of short domes that once operated on such trains as the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited and City of New Orleans more than a decade ago.

Some of those domes are having third or fourth lives as private varnish or on tourist railroads.

Johnston noted that some Class 1 railroads have done cars in their executive fleet, including Union Pacific, BNSF and Norfolk Southern.

“Current Amtrak management’s current intense focus on cost cutting, however, dictates retiring the type of equipment its host carriers continue to value,” Johnston wrote.

And what value do dome cars have? Johnston argues they help make a good impression when a railroad hosts movers and shakers to show them the property.

That’s probably true but the value of a dome car in that context is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

The cost of maintaining the Ocean View can be demonstrated in hard numbers, but not so much the public relations value of the car.

You could argue that Ocean View is worth X number of passengers on a train such as the Adirondack who might not have ridden had the Ocean View been absent from the consist.

But can you prove that? Amtrak management believes that if it wants to stimulate ridership on a given route at a given time it can do so with a flash discount fare sale.

The carrier has other equipment it can use to show off its routes to VIPs, including office car Beech Grove. It’s not a theater car per se, but does have full length windows on the rear.

Amtrak could lease a dome car from a private owner if it desired.

The lamenting by some of the retirement of Ocean View has less to do with its role as a “promotional tool” than it does the belief that dome coaches, full-service dining cars and Pacific Parlour cars are what distinguish riding a train from riding a bus.

Passenger train supporters have convinced themselves that these feature cars are necessary to entice ordinary people to ride trains.

Otherwise, the Amtrak experience would be rather mundane.

At a time when Amtrak management has professed its desire to do away with long-distance trains generally and transform those left into experiential services, whatever that means, the retirement of Ocean View and, for that matter, the Pacific Parlor Cars, is a loss, but imagine what it would be like if there were fewer trains intercity trains operating across America.

Which is the greater loss that you’d like to have back?

Planned Dining Service Changes on Auto Train May be Predictor of Future of Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

July 22, 2019

The recent announcement by Amtrak of changes to on-board service aboard the Auto Train might be a blueprint for the “experiential” long-distance service that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has alluded to in public comments.

However, the upgrades that the carrier is making for sleeping car passengers on the Auto Train stand somewhat in stark contrast with what is happening with onboard service on other eastern long-distance trains.

In a news release, Amtrak said that starting in January Auto Train sleeping car passengers will receive complimentary wine with dinner as well as better linens and towels.

The release spoke of new dinner and breakfast menus, but it is not clear if that will involve food freshly prepared onboard or prepared off the train by a catering company.

The Auto Train announcement came about the same time that news broke that Amtrak plans to extend its “contemporary dining” program to its other eastern long-distance trains.

That program began aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018 and involves serving sleeping car passengers box meals in their rooms or in the dining car.

When “contemporary dining” began, Amtrak sought to sell it as an improvement in the sense that passengers received a complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals, would be able to eat when they wanted, and would have exclusive use of the dining car throughout their trip.

Initially, all of the sleeper class food aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore was served cold, but after a couple months one hot offering was added at dinner and breakfast.

The Auto Train announcement also referenced expanding sleeping car capacity during peak travel periods, but no such move was made for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Nor did Amtrak upgrade the linens and towels available for use by sleeping car passengers on those trains. Aside: those improved linens and towels may not be all that much. Amtrak is not about to become a high-end hotel.

Coach passengers aboard the Auto Train will be losing their complimentary dinner. Instead, Amtrak said it will expand the café car menu of meals, snacks and beverages. It also said it will have food truck vendors at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, that coach passengers can patronize.

That sounds like a 21st century version of the 19th century practice of passenger trains making meal stops at designated points.

Auto train coach passengers will receive a complimentary continental breakfast. That is more than coach passengers get on any other long-distance train.

Commenting on the Auto Train changes, the Rail Passengers Association noted that these changes are in line with the desire of Amtrak management to more clearly delineate travel classes. It also might be a scheme to delineate types of trains.

The Auto Train is unique among long-distance trains in not having intermediate stations. The clientele of the Auto Train is different in many ways from that of other long-distance trains and the more well-heeled among them might be the target audience Amtrak is seeking with the experiential trains.

I’ve long thought that Anderson might have in mind duplicating the Rocky Mountaineer or even VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, both of which attract a lot of affluent tour group travelers with disposable income to spend on experiences.

The Washington-Florida travel market has long been a strong one and is the only Amtrak long-distance market to have double daily service between endpoints even if those trains take different routes within North Carolina and South Carolina.

The implementation of “contemporary dining” on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited last year also represented a delineation between sleeper class and coach class in the sense that the latter are now limited to café car fare or bringing their own food with them aboard the train. But no food trucks.

In an analysis posted on its website last week, the RPA said Amtrak has hinted that the contemporary dining to be imposed on the Crescent and Silver Meteor, the only remaining eastern long-distance trains with full-service dining cars, will be different from that now available on the Capitol and Lake Shore. But RPA said it is not clear how or why it will be different.

“Meanwhile, problems with availability, choice and dietary restrictions have soured the perceptions of many repeat riders,” RPA wrote.

The rail passenger advocacy group acknowledged that Amtrak is trying to balance modern tastes and sensibilities within a long-distance ridership audience that includes large percentages of patrons who do not share those tastes and sensibilities.

RPA pointed out that one of its members wrote to say about “contemporary dining,” that “The food honestly is both better, tastier and more in line with how I eat when I am dieting like now and how my kids eat. Plus I like the dedicated lounge space in between meals.”

The latter comment reflects a facet of train travel that doesn’t get much attention.

If you are going to shell out the big bucks Amtrak demands for sleeper class, you want more than your own room and bed at night.

Amtrak argues that its surveys have found many passengers want less heavy meals and want to be able to eat when they choose rather that during fixed mealtimes.

Many passengers also don’t care for the community seating that has long been associated with eating in a railroad dining car. These passengers would rather not dine in the company of strangers.

Of course, RPA said, some passengers have found the food of “contemporary dining” to be terrible and even those who like the food have been put off by how it is presented.

That probably is an allusion to it coming in cardboard boxes and plastic containers, something that is being done because it is less costly and easier to manage.

In its analysis, the RPA said there are too few choices available with current “contemporary dining” fare, particularly with hot meal options.

“Members also tell us that kosher options are a problem, as are options for those with food allergies or sensitivities like gluten intolerance,” RPA wrote, “We’ve also heard from many of our members about entrees running out very early in the dining service.”

At the time that “contemporary dining” was launched, Amtrak said it would eventually allow coach passengers to purchase the meals made available to sleeper class passengers, but thus far that has not occurred.

Amtrak has said it is seeking to satisfy a Congressional mandate to cut its food and beverage deficit so the changes being made to the Auto Train and other eastern long-distance trains are being imposed with that in mind.

That means reducing the number of onboard employees involved in food and beverage service as well as trying to cut the cost of food and beverage acquisition.

The food trucks for coach passengers concept fits well into this framework because it shifts the risk onto an entrepreneur who probably is paying Amtrak a fee for the privilege of selling food trackside.

I wonder, by the way, what will happen when Amtrak begins getting complaints about food odors lingering in the air long after the food has been consumed.

Much of how Amtrak is framing these changes is akin to Michael Jackson’s fabled moonwalk in which he moves backwards while giving the illusion of moving forward.

Many railfans dislike “contemporary dining” but they are not necessarily representative of those who buy sleeper class tickets.

The sleeping customers are not necessarily looking for gourmet dining on wheels or trying to recreate the experience of traveling on the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, Twentieth Century Limited or the Capitol Limited during their heyday before Amtrak came along.

They want a good meal and friendly service that makes them feel that the hefty accommodation charge they paid was worth it.

Serving sleeper class passengers a complimentary alcoholic beverage and giving them exclusive use of a dining car turned lounge is fine, but can be negated by offering meals that too much resemble a school field trip box lunch.

RPA is correct in saying presentation is a problem here, but to get restaurant style presentation is labor intensive and reducing labor costs is one of Amtrak’s objectives.

Whatever shortcomings that “contemporary dining” may have, it could be worse.

Amtrak could borrow Southern Pacific’s playbook of providing food and beverage service from vending machines. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Lucky Me That I Picked the Wrong Day to Travel

July 17, 2019

Passengers get into position to board Amtrak’s eastbound Lake Shore Limited in Cleveland as it arrives more than three hours late on the morning of June 26, 2019. (Photograph by Edward Ribinskas)

On the evening of June 25, 2019, Amtrak Train No. 48 departed Chicago Union Station on time at 9:30.

It would be the only time that No. 48 would arrive or depart from a station on schedule during its 959 mile journey to New York City.

What Amtrak said would be a seven hour trip to Cleveland ballooned to 10-and-a-half hours.

That wasn’t all bad, I suppose. I got to see Sandusky Bay in daylight and got some “bonus” time at no extra fare aboard a train I had not ridden since May 2014.

Yet when the Lake Shore Limited finally halted at the Cleveland station I was more than ready to get off. I had things to do and places to go and had expected to be well underway in doing them already.

Officially, No. 48 arrived in Cleveland at 9:07 a.m., 3 hours, 29 minutes late.

How does a train lose 3.5 hours? Darn if I know because the crew never told us how or why, not that I expected them to do that.

A detailed accounting of that lost time exists somewhere. Amtrak conductors keep logs of time lost en route and report that information to a superior who forwards it to Amtrak headquarters.

Amtrak aggregates that information into report cards that the carrier periodically issues to show how its host railroads are doing in keeping Amtrak trains on time.

Those reports, though, are not necessarily a complete accounting. I’ve heard Amtrak crew members agree in radio conversations with each other to not report a particular cause of delay.

I also once heard an Amtrak engineer refuse to cooperate with the conductor in explaining why No. 30 had lost time in Indiana.

Amtrak operating personnel do not have access to the communication that goes on in the dispatching offices of the host railroads.

If a dispatcher for Norfolk Southern decides to hold Amtrak at a control point to wait for two westbound freight trains to clear before switching Amtrak from Track 2 to Track 1 in order to go around a slow freight train ahead on Track 2, the Amtrak crew doesn’t know why the decision was made to hold them rather than holding one or both of the westbound freights further east until Amtrak could go around the slow eastbound freight.

Further, they don’t know whether that decision was made by the dispatcher, by the dispatcher’s supervisor or by a computer program that NS uses to dispatch its railroad. Nor do they know with certainty the logic behind the decision even if they have some idea.

In fact, the scenario outlined above happened in the darkness of northern Indiana west of South Bend during my trip.

My train was moving slowly and I got my scanner out and listened to the NS road channel for a while.

As best I could tell, most of the time that No. 48 lost on the night and morning of June 25-26 could be attributed to the host railroad.

Amtrak might see it as freight train interference while NS might call it traffic congestion.

In the days preceding my trip, Amtrak had posted a passenger advisory warning that NS track work in the Chicago area would cause delays of up to an hour because two main tracks would be out of service.

Perhaps NS freight traffic was heavier than usual on the night I was aboard No. 48 as the freight carrier was getting caught up from delays to its own trains stemming from the track work.

We can’t blame NS for two other delays due to bridges being open in Toledo and Cleveland for marine traffic.

I’ve made dozens of trips on Amtrak through Toledo over the past 25 years and it was the first time I’d ever been aboard a train delayed by the Maumee River Bridge being open.

Otherwise, nothing happened during that trip of June 25-26 that I had not experienced before between Cleveland and Chicago. Many times.

Much of the lost time was racked up between Elkhart, Indiana, and Toledo where Amtrak trains have been losing time for decades, going back into the Conrail era.

What had been 1 hour, 11 minutes late at Elkhart skyrocketed to 2 hours, 51 minutes by the time we stopped at the Bryan station.

By then it was daylight and I got my radio out again and listened to the engineer on No. 48 call a steady drum beat procession of approach signal indications from Bryan to the west side of Toledo.

We finally got around a long manifest freight in Toledo and I’m not sure if it was a case of that train having mechanical problems, being underpowered or some other reason.

Of course there was a steady stream of westbounds on Track 1, including Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.

Shortly after we moved around that manifest freight the dispatcher said we would have to wait for Amtrak 49 to depart the Toledo station, where there is just one track that Amtrak can use.

Once we got across the Maumee River we moved at a steady pace but we were even later at Sandusky than we had been at Toledo.

NS has been particularly outspoken about its disdain for Amtrak’s report cards and at one point threatened legal action if Amtrak didn’t stop issuing them.

Of course NS is upset because those report cards suggest it does a poor job of dispatching Amtrak trains.

NS management would argue that dispatching decision making takes into account a myriad of factors and seeks to strike a balance in serving the interest of freight trains and passenger trains.

NS managers would say dispatchers seek to give Amtrak preference when they can but that is not always possible because things happen.

It isn’t the railroad’s fault that someone parked a car on the tracks that was struck by a container train that subsequently derailed and blocked both main tracks as happened in early June in Swanton, Ohio.

Nor can railroads predict when equipment failures will occur or acts of nature will strike.

These things also delay the transport of the freight of NS customers.

All of this is true as far as it goes, but overlooks that managers are people who make decisions based on their beliefs, biases and prejudices as to what is most important when conflicts occur in moving trains.

It also overlooks that these beliefs, biases and prejudices are built into the overall operating plan and tend to be viewed as sacrosanct.

It starts with the reality that we the host railroad own this railroad and not Amtrak. In our view the needs of the owner are just as important if not more so than those of the tenant.

I’ve ridden enough Amtrak trains to know that there is an element of luck involved in whether you will get to your destination on time or close to on time.

Had I departed Chicago on No. 48 on June 23 I would have arrived in Cleveland the next morning 27 minutes early. Had I left Chicago the day before I actually traveled I would have arrived in Cleveland 19 minutes late.

Had I traveled the day after I actually traveled I would have arrived in Cleveland 19 minutes late.

Had I left Chicago on June 27 I would have arrived in Cleveland one hour and 13 minutes late. That’s not good, but far better than 3.5 hours late.

So of five trains that operated the week I traveled I had the good fortune – yes, I’m being sarcastic – of choosing the travel day with the really late train.

But that was the date that worked best for me that week. It just didn’t work well for keeping the train even reasonably within range of being on time.

As for my fellow passengers who remained aboard No. 48 on June 26 after I disembarked, No. 48 would lose additional time on CSX, reaching its nadir of 4 hours, 19 minutes late at Schenectady, New York.

By the time it reached the end of the line at New York’s Penn Station, the lateness had been trimmed to 3 hours, 42 minutes, about what it had been in Toledo.

Whether it’s a plane, a train, or a bus, when you take public transportation you are rolling the dice that the carrier will get you to your destination when it says it will.

You know no carrier has a 100 percent on-time record, but always hope the aberration will occur on another day and affect someone else. Some people are naive enough to think it will not happen to them.

As you are loping along at restricted speed, waiting at a control point for opposing traffic or stopped because a heavy Great Lakes freighter has priority at a water crossing, there is a feeling of injustice that someone else’s priorities are more important than yours and there is nothing you can do about it.

If you are a writer you might dash off an indignant piece saying this ought to be done or that ought to have been done.

But if you know anything at all about transportation you should know better. Lengthy delays while traveling do occur and sooner or later they will occur to you.

It’s just that they can mess up your plans and, at times, spoil or dampen an experience you had long looked forward to having.