Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

Analyzing Amtrak’s Revamped Dining Service

August 3, 2021

Amtrak returned full-service dining to five long-distance trains a month ago, all of them operating in the West and parts of the Midwest.

I haven’t had an opportunity to sample the revived full-service dining, but a two-part report written by Bob Johnston, the passenger correspondent for  Trains magazine was published last week on the magazine’s website and offers some insight into the service.

Johnston generally gave Amtrak high marks for its revamped dining car menus and service.

One key take away from his report is the food has improved in quality over that served in dining cars before full-service dining was removed in late spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sent Amtrak ridership plummeting.

A chef working the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief gave as an example the flat iron steak which he said is “the same cut, but these (served now) have more marbling and are a lot more dense.”

Other changes have included the addition of colorful garnishes, more seasoning and multiple sauces. Vegetables served with entrees were described as fresher.

The steak still comes with a baked potato but patrons can request a creamy polenta, which the chef said compliments the Bordelaise sauce served with the steak.

Before the pandemic, dinners came with a lettuce salad but that has been replaced with a choice among three appetizers: A tossed-to-order salad of baby greens and tomatoes topped with a brie cheese; a lobster cake, or a green cheese tamale.

As before, dinners come with a desert. Unlike before, dinners now come with one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

Yet in some ways full-service dining is little changed from what it was before the pandemic. Entrée staples still include the flat iron steak, chicken breast, and salmon. There is also a tri-color cheese tortellini pasta dish.

Not everything is prepared fresh on board. The lobster cake comes precooked and frozen so the kitchen staff merely heats it onboard.

The Trains analysis, which was based on sampling meals aboard the Southwest Chief, said the changes to breakfast and lunch have been a little more subtle.

Back is French toast, which can be ordered with whipped cream. There are made-to-order omelets.

However, passengers still can’t order eggs over easy or get toast at breakfast. Both were eliminated in the 1990s.

Full-service dining is available only to sleeping class passengers. Coach passengers are confined to the snack-heavy café car.

At the time that Amtrak announced the return of full-service dining to the western trains it also said it planned to add fresh selections to café cars. Those additions have yet to be made.

And it remains unclear when or if full-service dining will return to eastern long-distance trains or the Texas Eagle.

The Trains analysis aptly noted that some passengers aboard those trains are onboard for more than four meal periods.

Amtrak has hinted that full-service dining might return to eastern long distance trains late this year or in 2022. Officials said the carrier wanted to gauge passenger response to the new menus on the western trains before looking to implement them elsewhere.

As for when or even if coach passengers will be able to dine in the diner, Amtrak has been noncommittal. Officials said they were studying that but suggested it might take the form of allowing coach passengers to buy meals on a take-out basis and/or have them delivered to their coach seat.

The Trains analysis offered a glimpse of two conundrums posing a challenge to allowing coach passengers back in the dining car. It would require additional staff in the kitchen and dining room in order to create faster table turnover.

Another factor is pricing. Before Amtrak instituted flexible dining in June 2018 on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited, dining car menus had prices. The current dining car menus on the western trains do not show prices because the clientele already paid for their meals in their sleeping car fare.

As I’ve written in previous posts, most of those dining car prices were quite high with some entrees costing more than $20. Even breakfast was quite pricey for what you got.

The Trains analysis suggested some less labor intensive food selections would have to be added to the menu that could be sold at lower cost.

Many, if not most, coach passengers are unwilling to pay or unable to afford the prices Amtrak charged in dining cars in the past.

There will always be coach passengers willing to pay those prices to have the dining car experience. But they are not necessarily a majority of the coach clientele.

Amtrak’s food and beverage service is an evolving process that isn’t moving as fast or necessarily toward the destination that many rail passenger advocates want it to see.

The dining car experience is still not the same as it was before the pandemic or, in the case of eastern long-distance trains, since the onset of flexible dining with its limited choices.

Amtrak management has not talked about the prospect of doing what the passenger carrier did in the 1990s when dining car menus featured regional offerings associated with a region of the country the train served.

That lasted a few years then fell by the wayside as Amtrak management went to a standard dining car menu for all trains with diners.

For now, the dining car experience is available only in the West and only to those with the means to afford sleeping car fares.

Dining service is an emotional subject for some passengers and passenger train advocates, particularly those above a certain age, who wax nostalgic about all of the people they enjoyed conversing with over a meal and lament having lost that.

Some remember a time when railroads used their dining service as a marketing tool and offered meals that rivaled in quality what was served in the better hotel restaurants.

They tend to believe as an article of faith that full-service dining is critical to drawing more people aboard the train and boosting Amtrak’s revenue.

Johnston, the Trains passenger correspondent, falls into that camp. In his piece he argued that reviving full-service dining on such trains as the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, and City of New Orleans would give “travelers in some of the country’s top population centers more incentive to ride.”

That in turn would generate more cash for Amtrak, Johnston asserted. How much more? He didn’t say because he doesn’t know.

There is much Amtrak knows about its finances and passengers that it doesn’t share with the public, arguing that that information is proprietary.

It probably is true that the upgraded dining service has boosted the morale of Amtrak food and beverage workers as the article suggested and resulted in happier passengers.

Yet as the pandemic and the politically-motivated attacks on Amtrak food and beverage service of past years have shown, all of that can change virtually overnight and probably will.

Infrastructure Agreement Cuts Money for Amtrak Expansion

June 29, 2021

As details about the $978 billion compromise infrastructure plan that President Joseph Biden and a bi-partisan group of senators announced last week, the future for Amtrak service is looking less rosy than it was last March when the passenger carrier released its Amtrak Connect US plan.

Nonetheless, it’s still a promising future albeit one that is less grand in scope.

Back in the spring, the Biden administration was talking about Amtrak getting $80 billion, much of which would be used to expand its network and increase service.

But the plan announced last week contains $66 billion for passenger and freight rail to share, which means that although Amtrak will be getting a funding boost, it won’t be nearly as much as some had hoped for.

The bi-partisan plan calls for allocating over the next five years $579 billion in new spending of which $312 billion will go toward transportation.

Of the new transportation spending, public transit would receive $49 billion; ports and waterways, $16 billion; roads, bridges and major projects, $109 billion; and airports, $25 billion.

Other spending includes $266 billion for infrastructure spending on water, broadband and power.

Although the plan has bi-partisan support in the Senate, it will not necessarily have smooth sailing through Congress.

Some Republican opposition is inevitable and it remains to be seen if the bi-partisan coalition will hold and if senators in both parties in the coalition can get their colleagues to go along with it.

Already there has been one dust up in which Republicans were reported to have been angered by

Biden’s remarks that the infrastructure deal was tied to Congressional approval of a separate Democrats-only $4 trillion plan to spend trillions more on health care, child care, higher education access and climate change programs.

That plan is contingent on changing the U.S. tax code, something Republicans have strongly opposed.

During his remarks last week, Biden said he would not sign the bi-partisan infrastructure plan without also signing legislation for his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan.

After GOP discontent about that spilled into the news media, the White House backpedaled, insisting that Biden had misspoken.

“I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do,” Biden said. “I intend to pursue the passage of that plan, which Democrats and Republicans agreed to on Thursday, with vigor. It would be good for the economy, good for our country, good for our people. I fully stand behind it without reservation or hesitation.”

To win the support of some moderate Republicans and Democrats, Biden had to give up some of the funding for transportation that he initially had sought in his infrastructure plan.

 Nonetheless, a White House fact sheet about the revised infrastructure plan contends the infrastructure plan contains funding that would modernize and expand transit and rail networks across the country.

 “The Plan is the largest federal investment in public transit in history and is the largest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak,” the White House said.

All of that may be accurate, yet it is becoming clear that the ambitious route expansions envisioned in Amtrak Connect US will be scaled back.

Even when the plan was announced earlier Amtrak had indicated it was a goal of what its network would look like by 2035.

Some commentators suggested the plan was more something to aspire to than a set of realistic objectives.

For its part, Amtrak was supportive of the bi-partisan infrastructure plan. “Amtrak is ready to support this vision for greater public transit,” an Amtrak spokesperson said.

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier is excited to be on the offensive instead of having to constantly defend itself and its spending. 

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, had told Business Insider in mid June that the $80 billion plan was “extremely ambitious.”

However, even getting a portion of that would be “revolutionary,” he said.

That sounds like what you say when your pie in the sky dream collides with reality.

If things work out with the bi-partisan infrastructure plan then Amtrak will have additional money to expand some of its network.

It may be that the expansions that actually come about will occur in those states that have expressed a willingness to put up money to pay for new service.

Expansion is less likely to occur in states where state officials and legislators are apathetic, indifferent or even hostile toward spending money on supporting new Amtrak service.

Aside from money, what Amtrak also wants out of Congress is better leverage against its host railroads.

That would play out in two ways. First, it would give Amtrak more power to go after host railroads that consistently delay its trains or fail to give them preference over freight traffic.

Second, Amtrak wants more legal tools to force host railroads into hosting new service.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is leading the effort to give Amtrak a right to have federal courts settle disputes with host railroads. 

“Right now they’ve got it the way they want it,” DeFazio said of Amtrak’s host railroads.

“So we’re going to change the law and give Amtrak better access.”

It remains to be seen how successful DeFarzio will be in doing this and whether those changes will withstand a court challenge that would likely be brought by the Association of American Railroads.

DeFazio is correct in saying host railroads like the balance of power they have with Amtrak and are not going to give that up willingly.

The legislative fight will play out this summer and fall, but the larger battles will take years to resolve if they ever are.

Amtrak Anniversary Saturday: Where Were You and What Were You doing May 1, 1971?

April 30, 2021

Where were you on May 1, 1971? Did you do anything to observe, document or celebrate the transition between freight railroad operation of intercity passenger trains and Amtrak operation?

Maybe you were too young to remember or to have been aware of the day that Amtrak began. Or maybe you had yet to be born.

I was a senior in high school on the day Amtrak started. It was a Saturday just as the 50th anniversary this year is falling on a Saturday.

At the time I was living in Mattoon, Illinois, which would be a stop for Amtrak trains operated between Chicago and New Orleans, and Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

I recall seeing from my backyard the first New Orleans-bound Amtrak train from Chicago.

I was disappointed that it looked exactly like the Illinois Central City of New Orleans of the day before with locomotives and passenger cars wearing IC chocolate brown and orange with yellow striping.

Like all teenagers I was naïve about how the world worked. I had read in newspapers about this new Amtrak operation that was to begin on May 1.

Yet I was expecting the trains to look quite different than they had. In fact, it would be more than a year before I saw a passenger car or locomotive that had been repainted into Amtrak’s livery.

Aside from seeing the first Chicago to New Orleans Amtrak train I also saw the last IC passenger train to complete its final journey.

The last northbound City of New Miami had left its namesake city on April 30. Trains that left that day were to continue to their terminus.

Therefore, the last pre-Amtrak train to finish its trip that was not slated to be part of Amtrak would not halt for the final time until May 2.

The City of Miami would not be joining Amtrak. Instead, it passed through Mattoon around 3 p.m. just as it had for many years and rolled into history. The number of trains making their final runs was a major focus of news coverage of the coming of Amtrak.

Sometime that summer cars from other railroads began showing up in the consists of the Amtrak trains that served Mattoon.

It had always been a thrill for me to see whenever I could passenger cars from other railroads. It wasn’t something I got to see often.

That June, I began college although I wouldn’t begin living on campus until late August.

I sometimes saw Amtrak trains during my trips home and during school breaks and made mental notes as to how they had changed or not changed.

My first opportunity to ride an Amtrak train did not come until late 1972.

In looking back I recall having had a sense of something historic occurring but I’m not sure I realized the gravity of it.

I wish now I could have done more – far more, actually – to have experienced and documented those historic days.

But I didn’t have a camera, didn’t have much money, and didn’t have anyone who could have taken me to ride and/or photograph trains in their final hours.

Besides, I was in school and the only time I might have been able to do that would have been on weekends.

So I just followed what was happening by reading about it in the newspapers. I did, by the way, save some of those newspaper stories from April 30 and May 1.

Fifty years later I’ve ridden most Amtrak routes at least once and made thousands of photographs of Amtrak trains and related operations.

More than a decade ago I started collecting Amtrak system timetables and have a nearly complete set.

In fact the last printed Amtrak system timetable still sits on my desk. Dated Jan. 11, 2016, I refer to it often when looking up information for stories I’m writing about Amtrak.

My collection also includes some Amtrak memorabilia, including dining car menus, annual reports, and route guides.

My Amtrak photo collection may be vast, but not nearly as comprehensive as I wished that it was.

I wish I had photographed more or had the opportunity to photograph more widely during Amtrak’s first decade, which I still consider the most interesting one in its history.

Much of my collection of things Amtrak was prompted by my research for a book that was published by Indiana University Press in 2006 titled Amtrak in the Heartland.

I have had a keen interest in Amtrak since it began, probably because I’ve always had a passion for passenger trains.

In many ways, the company that calls itself America’s Railroad and I came of age at the same time and have grown older on parallel tracks.

I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t interested in Amtrak and can’t envision a time in which my interest in the history and current day affairs of the carrier will ever wane.

So, happy anniversary Amtrak; it’s been quite a ride we’ve had together.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

More Hope Than Plan at This Point

February 3, 2021

News outlets in Ohio over the past few of days have reported stories about Amtrak service expansion plans in the state.

The intercity passenger carrier has been reported to be planning five new corridor services including Cleveland-Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton; Chicago-Cincinnati via Indianapolis; Cleveland-Detroit (Pontiac) via Toledo; Cleveland-New York via Buffalo, New York; and Cleveland-New York via Pittsburgh.

Most of these routes would have multiple daily frequencies including four daily roundtrips on the Chicago-Cincinnati route.

The 3C corridor service would be three daily roundtrips while the Cleveland-New York service would be two daily roundtrips via Buffalo and one roundtrip via Pittsburgh.

Amtrak would fund these services through a program for which it is seeking $300 million from Congress.

For its part, Amtrak has been issuing a written statement to reporters seeking information that is far less detailed.

After stating that corridor services of 500 miles are the fastest growing segment of its network, the passenger carrier has said, “We have developed a visionary plan to expand rail service across the nation, providing service to large metropolitan areas that have little or no Amtrak service.

“We are working with our state partners, local officials and other stakeholders to understand their interests in new and improved Amtrak service and will be releasing that plan soon. We will call on Congress to authorize and fund Amtrak’s expansion in such corridors by allowing us to cover most of the initial capital and operating costs of new or expanded routes”

And that’s it. The statement did not provide any details about specific routes and service levels.

The specific information came from All Aboard Ohio, an advocacy group that has long sought without success to push for creation of a network of passenger trains in the Buckeye state.

But is this proposal the “game changer” that some on social media are calling it?

It could be but keep in mind it is simply a proposal. There is no guarantee Congress will approve funding for the corridor development program and no guarantee that any of the proposed Ohio trains will ever turn a wheel.

AAO public affairs director Kenneth Prendergast acknowledged in an interview with Trains magazine that the five corridors that his group has identified are “more of an outline or goal than a plan.”

Amtrak officials have been meeting with local officials throughout Ohio to discuss the corridor program proposal. Similar meetings have been held in other states, including Tennessee and Kansas.

Based on what Amtrak government affairs officials said during state legislative hearings in those states, Amtrak would front the costs of route development and pay operating expenses on a sliding scale for up to five years.

State and local governments would have to begin underwriting the service starting in the second year and assume all funding after the fifth year.

If you read the Amtrak statement carefully, it says the passenger carrier would pay for most of the initial capital and operating costs.

That is not necessarily the 100 percent federal funding factoid that AAO described in a post on its website and it officers have been talking up in news media interviews.

In fairness, though, the AAO post later said that Amtrak might pay up to 100 percent of the initial capital costs and up to 100 percent of the operating costs for the first two years.

Given that Amtrak has yet to release details about the corridor development program and has yet to formally ask Congress to fund it, there is much that remains unknown.

And given that the Amtrak statement falls short of saying it will pay all costs of getting a route up and running it is reasonable to conclude that state and local governments would need to pay something, although we don’t know yet what that would be.

One guess is local and state money would need to help fund station development.

Not even AAO expects the proposed services to come to fruition anytime soon.

Writing on Twitter, AAO said it can take three to six years to get a route started depending on its complexity.

In the meantime, AAO has said it will seek a “small appropriation” in the next biennial budget to pay for state-level planning of the five proposed corridors.

It is not clear whether Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio legislative leaders would be receptive to that.

AAO argues that DeWine is more inclined to be supportive of passenger rail than was his predecessor, John Kasich.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Kasich adamantly opposed using a $400 million federal stimulus grant the state had received to start 3C service.

Upon being elected, Kasich returned that money to the U.S. Department of Transportation although not before making an unsuccessful pitch that the state be allowed to redirect the grant toward highway development.

AAO contends that DeWine has asked the Ohio Department of Transportation to put passenger rail “back on the radar.” But the scope of DeWine’s support for passenger rail has yet to be publicly articulated.

It is all but certain that once concrete proposals are introduced in the legislature authorizing spending state money on rail passenger service development that opposition will arise from opponents decrying wasting public money.

Another unknown is what demands the host railroads would make to agree to allow these trains to use their tracks.

We know that in the past host railroads have submitted lists of millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements as the price of acceptance.

How necessary those improvements were is debatable, but the demands seemed exorbitant enough to discourage the proposed service.

Such pricey demands have thwarted efforts to operate the Chicago-New York Cardinal and the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited daily rather than tri-weekly.

Some of the articles and social media posts about the proposed Ohio corridors have noted that President Joseph Biden is an avid supporter of passenger rail and is expected to release an infrastructure proposal later this year.

Passenger rail advocates are hoping to use that as the springboard to shake loose billions of federal dollars for passenger rail development.

It may be a time to be optimistic yet nothing is certain. At best Amtrak’s proposal represents hope. But as we’ve seen in the past, those hopes can be a very fragile thing.

Generational Change Underway at Amtrak

January 25, 2021

Several weeks ago I conducted an online search to determine the age of Amtrak president Stephen J. Gardner.

Some believe you can find anything on the Internet. Well, almost anything.

Maybe I didn’t look hard enough but I never did find Gardner’s birth date.

But extrapolating from the years that he attended Hampshire College as an undergraduate, which are listed in the resume posted on his Linked In page, I concluded Gardner probably was born in 1976. That makes him fortyish.

He wasn’t around when the original California Zephyr made its last trips in March 1970, when South Dakota lost its last passenger train in September 1969 or when the Twentieth Century Limited succumbed in December 1967.

If his parents took him on a trip by train during his childhood, it likely would have been aboard Amtrak.

By the time Gardner was old enough to begin remember much about the world around him Amtrak was well into the transition from streamliner era equipment to Amfleet and Superliners.

He is not old enough to remember a time when the intercity rail passenger service network was far broader than it is today.

As far as Gardner is concerned there always have been between 15 plus long-distance trains in America, not dozens of them.

Likewise, Gardner’s conception of intercity rail passenger service is that it has always been funded with public money, most of it coming from the federal government.

In many ways, Gardner’s career arc seems ideally suited for working at Amtrak because much of his career has been in the public policy making arena.

He worked for a short time in his early adult years for two railroads, but much of his time has been spent working on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer.

That gives him insights into the politics of Amtrak funding that many rail passenger advocates don’t understand or don’t want to understand.

Gardner’s vision of the future of intercity rail passenger service is something more akin to Brightline, the privately-owned Florida service that developed in a public-private partnership in a densely populated urban corridor.

Until it suspended operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brightlight offered frequent, fast service between Miami and West Palm Beach with modernistic equipment that looks like it has been transplanted from Europe.

In his public comments, Gardner has paid lip service to long-distance passenger trains, saying they will always be a key part of Amtrak’s business.

But he also describes a world of corridor services focused on short-distance travel.

In Gardner’s mind the market for long-distance trains is shrinking and those trains create a mismatch among population density, transportation demand and Amtrak’s existing network.

“We are trading route miles for passenger trips by serving a lot of route miles but not a lot of people,” he said in one presentation.

This doesn’t sound like someone who expects today’s long-distance trains to be around in perpetuity as many baby boomer rail passenger advocates would like.

Top executives at Amtrak come and go. Gardner is the fourth person to sit in the Amtrak president’s chair in the past five years.

How long he will continue at the helm of the intercity passenger carrier remains to be seen.

However, Gardner is part of a wave of younger managers overseeing the passenger carrier who do not have the memories of past generations who lived through the last years of the streamliner era.

When Gardner says long-distance trains will continue to be a key part of Amtrak’s business he is making a political statement.

He knows senators and congressmen from largely rural states look out for those trains and so long as that is the case they will continue to operate at some level.

But that doesn’t mean those running Amtrak are fully vested in those trains or believe they should bear a resemblance of the great streamliners of the past other than their names.

One common theme I see in the writings of some rail passenger advocates is a disenchantment with Amtrak behaving as a sort of generic transportation provider rather than acting like a railroad.

This type of change seems inevitable as those who oversaw Amtrak in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s leave.

What we have seen in the past couple years in regards to Amtrak’s national network is reflective of this transformation.

Whether you like him or not, agree with him or not, the life experiences and vision of rail transportation of people such as Stephen Gardner are the future of Amtrak.

‘Amtrak Joe’ Offers a Reality Check

January 18, 2021

President-elect Joseph Biden has yet to take office and already has disappointed some rail passenger advocates.

His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief plan released last week contains not a dime for additional Amtrak funding or, for that matter, airlines or intercity bus companies.

All of those modes of transportation received some funding from a pandemic relief bill adopted by Congress in late December.

At the time, the incoming Biden administration had said it considered that package to be a prelude to another round of pandemic relief in the spring.

We’ve now seen what that next aid package will involve. The Biden proposal does contain $20 billion in assistance for what the president-elect has described as the hardest-hit public transit agencies.

Although those were not named, they are likely to include systems based in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The plan noted that these systems have been devastated by lost ridership and revenue.

Of course a similar scenario has played out with intercity rail, air travel and intercity bus travel.

The Rail Passengers Association issued a statement in response to the Biden plan praising it for proposing aid to public transit.

However, RPA stopped short of criticizing the proposal for ignoring Amtrak.

Instead RPA called for amending it to including funding to enable the intercity rail passenger carrier to resume operating its long-distance trains on daily schedules by next summer.

The Biden proposal is just that, a proposal and not a guarantee. It will be up to Congress to approve the plan, which is subject to change as it makes its way through the House and Senate.

There is no guarantee that Congress will adopt another pandemic relief plan at all. Biden’s Democratic Party controls both house of Congress by thin margins.

There will Republican opposition and not all Democrats will necessarily be on board with everything the new administration is proposing.

Biden, who is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because of how he used to commute to Washington by train has just given rail passenger advocates a reality check.

Some advocates, including RPA, have hailed the possibilities of what might happen with a president who supports passenger rail.

A letter I received from RPA last week claims Biden has a vision for a “second rail revolution” and “will be looking far beyond just paving roads to secure our transportation future.”

That was last week. This week RPA was writing on its website that the Biden plan falls far short of the “resources needed to tackle the immediate crisis.”

By that RPA means a billion dollars to restore long-distance trains to daily service.

The Biden administration has signaled that it will release another plan a few months from now that will propose infrastructure improvements.

Presumably, that proposal will benefit rail passenger service by providing capital dollars for such things as new equipment and route development.

In the meantime, Amtrak and the rest of the transportation network looks to remain much as it has been of late with fewer flights, fewer intercity bus services and less-than-daily Amtrak service in many places.

Airline industry observers have been writing for months that they expect it will take up to four years for the air service network to return to the level it was in early 2019 before the pandemic took hold and the travel market all but collapsed.

Rail passengers may not like it, but the Biden pandemic relief plan has shown them that restoration of suspended Amtrak services may be following a similar track.

Less-than-daily trains and fewer corridor services are likely to be with us for a while longer and maybe quite a while.

The Biden administration might be thinking that public transit has higher priority because it enables people to get to work. For some workers, it is their only option to get to work.

Much of the Biden aid package is oriented toward bolstering state and local governments. The thinking appears to be to take care of that first and as the economy recovers and the pandemic is tamed then travel will recover as business travel resumes and pent-up demand for leisure travel explodes.

Only then will we be seeing more flights, more bus service and more daily Amtrak trains.

Rail Passenger Future Gains Some Clarity

December 29, 2020

With the signing of legislation this week granting another round of federal stimulus funding and giving final approval to federal spending for fiscal year 2021, we now have some clarity on what the nation’s rail passenger system will look like over the next several months.

It is likely to look a lot like it does today, meaning it will be more Spartan that it was a year ago with long-distance trains continuing to operate on less-than-daily schedules and reduced levels of corridor service trains.

Amtrak was granted $1 billion in pandemic emergency funding, which Amtrak CEO William Flynn characterized as a band aid that will get the passenger carrier through to the spring when he said additional funding will be needed.

That’s the same level of emergency funding Amtrak received from the CARES Act adopted last March in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The latest emergency aid given Amtrak bans it from furloughing additional workers or reducing services further, but that is not the same thing as a mandate to restore service that has already been suspended or recalling workers who have been furloughed.

In a statement, Flynn tied service restorations, employee recalls and moving ahead on capital projects to Amtrak receiving additional funding next year.

As for FY 2021, Amtrak received $2.8 billion of which $1.3 billion is for the national network and state-supported corridor services.

That is not much more than the $2 billion the passenger carrier sought back in February before the pandemic began and well short of the $4.9 billion for FY2021 that it sought last October.

The legislation contained a policy rider expressing the sense of Congress that Amtrak is to operate long-distance routes in order to provide connectivity throughout the intercity passenger carrier’s network and provide transportation to rural areas.

That is far from being a mandate to restore daily operation to trains that shifted to less-than-daily operation, primarily tri-weekly, last October and July.

The rail passenger advocacy community may be united in believing that less-than-daily long distance trains are a bad idea, but Amtrak management is doing it anyway.

The downsides of less-than-daily service have received a lot of ink and bandwidth from railroad trade publication and railfan magazines, but that hasn’t moved the needle of Amtrak management’s behavior much if at all.

Amtrak has shown some sensitivity to the accusation that reducing long-distance trains to less-than-daily service is part of a larger plot to eliminate those trains.

In interviews and congressional testimony Flynn has tried to frame the service cuts as a temporary response to plunging ridership triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has also devastated ridership of airlines and buses.

He and Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia have sought to underscore that Amtrak is committed to having a national network.

That is not necessarily a commitment to operating that network at the same level of service that existed at the beginning of 2020 or even operating that network in perpetuity.

Flynn’s most recent statement about the latest emergency aid said nothing about when daily service will return to long-distance routes.

He told Congress in October that daily service might be restored in May “when financially possible.” That is hardly an ironclad promise.

In looking back at the fight over the past few months over rail passenger service cuts a couple of conclusions come to mind.

First, without public funding there are not going to be passenger trains of any kind. That particularly has been illustrated by the service cuts in state-supported corridor service.

The Chicago-Detroit corridor went from three trains a day to one, which reduced service to the lowest level it has been in the nearly 50 years of Amtrak operation.

Other corridors that had multiple daily frequencies saw service cuts as well and a few state-supported corridors that were suspended have yet to resume operations.

Second, passenger train advocates continue to lack the political clout needed to realize their visions of an expansive intercity passenger rail network.

Advocates have done well at keeping Amtrak funding at a suitable level to maintain a skeletal level of intercity rail passenger service but have failed to prevent Amtrak and its state partners from making service cuts when ridership and revenue plunged during the pandemic.

Congress has not shown a willingness to unlock the federal piggy bank to open-ended levels of financial support for intercity rail passenger service.

Getting intercity rail passenger service back to where it was in early 2020 is going to be a long, hard slog.

The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but it might take much longer to get there than many want to believe.

Although it seems likely that significant numbers of people will want to travel again, airline industry observers have talked about a four-year time frame to get air service travel back to where it was before the pandemic took hold.

It is not unrealistic to think intercity rail service might be operating under a similar time frame.

It may be that pent up demand will move that up slightly in the next year or two but that is going to hinge on how quickly the economy grows and how soon larger numbers of people feel confident that traveling and unfettered social interaction are safe again.

‘Amtrak Joe’ May Favor Passenger Rail, But That Doesn’t Mean a Pending Passenger RenaissanceHeadline

November 24, 2020

President-elect Joseph Biden is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because during his time in Congress he commuted to Washington aboard Amtrak.

Biden took an interest in the intercity passenger carrier and former Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs told Trains magazine this week he believes Biden will be supportive of Amtrak’s national network.

The Biden administration won’t be taking office for another two months and it remains to be seen what policy positions it will take and how those will affect rail passenger service.

I would not expect, though, Biden’s election to presage the type of robust passenger rail renaissance that rail passenger advocates have dreamed about for decades in which federal funding spigots gush forth billions of dollars to fuel large scale rail passenger expansion.

What might be more realistic is the type of stimulus funding for specific improvement projects that the Obama administration pushed through Congress in its first two years.

That did not, though, result in any expansion of Amtrak’s long-distance network and only a minimal effect on corridor services.

It remains to be seen what the new administration’s position will be toward federal funding of intercity rail service, particularly the long-distance routes. Past administrations have sought to shift funding for the latter to the states served by those routes.

There has been just enough political support of federal funding of the long-distance routes on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to keep that funding flowing. I would expect that to continue during the Biden years.

I would expect a Biden administration to be less hostile toward funding Amtrak’s national network.

You won’t see budget proposals calling for replacing long-distance trains with buses as a first step toward phasing out federal funding of the long-distance network.

Biden budget proposals might seem to favor expanding the national network through a proposed infrastructure program.

But don’t expect to see anytime soon, if ever, increased frequencies of service on existing routes, say, two or three trains a day between Chicago and New York, or new long-distance routes.

Likewise, what position will the Biden administration take on supporting federal funding for corridor service? Many passenger advocates want repealed a federal law requiring routes of less than 750 miles to be paid for by state and local funding. Getting that done won’t be easy.

A Biden administration will be receptive to spending federal dollars on such Northeast Corridor projects as the Gateway Project to build new tunnels leading into New York City.

There is a long list of capital improvements for the NEC on Amtrak’s wish list, yet it remains to be seen how many of those will benefit from federal funding directed their way with the help of Biden administration support. Some probably will but not necessarily all of them.

The future of rail passenger service hinged on how much money Congress is willing to spend on it.

We’ll get a preview of that soon because lawmakers must approve another continuing resolution to extend authorization for federal spending in fiscal year 2021, which began more than a month ago, or approve an FY 2021 budget plan.

Amtrak has been adamant that without more money than it asked for earlier this year – just over $2 billion – it will have to furlough more workers and make additional service cuts.

It is not yet a sure thing that Amtrak will get the additional funding it wants.

There continues to be talk about another round of emergency pandemic spending and, of course, Amtrak wants a cut of that, too.

Yet the same conservative senators who opposed a stimulus package before the election can be expected to continue to  balk at what they view as excessive pork barrel spending that further balloons the national debt.

How much money the Biden administration will be able to get for transportation spending will hinge on the makeup of the next Congress. Democrats have retained control of the House of Representatives, albeit by a slim margin.

In a best-case scenario for Biden, the Senate will be split 50-50 between the two parties with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes. Yet Republicans may well continue to control the Senate.

In his interview with Trains, Downs predicted it would be some time before Biden’s influence over Amtrak and passenger rail will be felt.

The incoming president’s initial agenda will be dominated by responding to the pandemic and other pressing national and global needs.

How many times a week Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operate is not on that list.

Perhaps the best that will happen during a Biden administration is Amtrak’s route network eventually will return to whether it was in January 2020.

Most long-distance trains will operate daily again and all of the suspended state-funded corridor service will be restored. That won’t happen overnight.

I expect more studies, lots of speeches and many proposals couched in how environmentally friendly passenger rail is.

Those don’t cost much, but when it comes down to actually paying for those ideas, that’s another matter altogether,

That why rail passenger service in the United States remains limited and will continue to be so other than, perhaps some incremental changes.

Railfans and Sports Fans: They Have Much in Common, Including Frustration at Being Ignored

October 18, 2020

It’s a spring evening in 1975. I’m sitting in a class at Sangamon State University, now known as the University of Illinois-Springfield, listening to Gerald Rawlings, a staffer in the Bureau of Planning of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He was talking about transportation systems in the Prairie State when he said something that at the time struck me as odd for a government planner to say.

It is the height of absurdity for planners in the Bureau of Planning of the Illinois Department of Transportation to talk about the future of Illinois coal reserves when those reserves don’t belong to them.

He seemed to be saying that what he did as a planner was a waste of time and, by extension, the public money being used to pay him and the expenses of his office.

Yet I remember Rawling’s comment because it contained a hard truth that not everyone considers when talking about things they care about but don’t control.

Railfans in general and rail passenger service advocates in particular are much like rabid sports fans.

They are passionate about “their” teams and many are not shy about expressing their ideas of how the owners should be spending their money and how management should be doing its job as though the fans have an ownership stake in the team.

Owners tolerate this because fans can be a source of revenue. Fans buy game tickets, team-themed merchandise and concession stand products.

Even a fan sitting at home watching a game on television is money to the owner because the more people who watch the game the more valuable the rights to broadcast those games become.

But while owners might at times acknowledge the views of fans they are not going to give up control of it. That frustrates countless fans who think they know better than owners and managers how the team ought to be run.

It can be quite entertaining to read or listen to the views of those who don’t own a railroad company about how those who do should be operating and managing their property.

They have been out in full throat since late May when Amtrak announced it would scale back the frequency of operation of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

A popular view is that it is part of a plot to kill the long-distance passenger trains by driving away business.

Amtrak denies that, but it is not out of the realm of possibility given some of the public statements made in the past couple of years by former Amtrak president Richard Anderson and current senior vice president Stephen Gardner about their desire to transform Amtrak into a more corridor-oriented business.

There are valid arguments to be made that less-than-daily passenger train service is not an ideal business practice.

Yet Amtrak management has chosen to do it, ostensibly as a money-saving move during a time when ridership and revenue are way down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There may be other motivations that management is not talking about publicly.

The critics have been decrying Amtrak’s plans on social media sites and in the printed and website pages of such national publications as Trains and Railway Age.

The Railroad Passengers Association has flooded my inbox with email messages urging its members and friends to exhort Congress to force Amtrak to run the trains daily.

Although legislation to force the carrier to maintain daily service on long-distance routes has been introduced it continues to languish in Congress.

There is nothing wrong with lobbying lawmakers in favor or your pet cause. The Constitution encourages it in the First Amendment, which grants the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Yet some of those social media posts and magazine articles are veering into the realm of “height of absurdity” territory by advancing ideas that have little to no chance of being adopted given the realities of the political system.It’s fine to write in social media posts what you want to see Amtrak do, but be careful about getting too caught up in your views.

They are just ideas about decisions that are not yours to make. Those who have the authority to make those decisions are free to ignore your views and more than likely they will.

That is not to say that decision makers can’t be persuaded to come around to accepting your ideas.

But I see in many of these writings little reason to believe that the authors of these posts or magazine articles have a good grasp of what it will take to get there let alone a viable plan.

Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

October 16, 2020

It might be hard to believe today but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing losses high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared to the early 1950s and revenue having fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with an automat car containing vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers.

In return NARP agreed not to protest moving the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the day that Amtrak began in 1971, it inhered tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting much like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by removing from most trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of food prepared off the train.

Amtrak has sought to frame the move to tri-weekly service as temporary and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less than daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less than daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago every day, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was later extended north to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago. At various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 via a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on certain days when travel demand is less, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have advocated strenuously against Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan argued in a Progressive Railway essay headlined “farewell, long-distance trains?” that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s plans disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less than daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less than daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.”

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily but also eliminated the Pioneer between Salt Lake City and Seattle and Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service.

Whether any or even all of the trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process and how Amtrak management responds to it.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.