Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

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.

But Does It Really Matter?

June 24, 2019

When reading essays and op ed columns about intercity rail passengers service generally and Amtrak in particular, I often find myself thinking that the author has a good point but wondering whether it really matters all that much if at all.

Such was the case when I read a well-written argument by Jim Mathews, the president of the Rail Passengers Association, that it is simply wrong to say that Amtrak must make a profit.

Mathews acknowledged that the 1970 law that established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation as Amtrak is formally known did set it up to operate as a for-profit entity.

But Mathews cited language from a 1978 change as stated in H.R. Rep. No. 1182, 95thCongress, Second Session, 15): “Section 9 amends section 301 of the RPSA that Amtrak shall be ‘operated and managed as’ a for-profit corporation. This amendment recognizes that Amtrak is not a for-profit corporation.”

Mathews’ essay also quoted A. Daniel O’Neal, then the majority counsel for the Senate Transportation Subcommittee as saying, “We added the ‘for-profit’ clause because we thought this new entity should have high aspirations.” That came from a 2002 Congressional Research Service report that can be viewed at http://research.policyarchive.org/1446.pdf)

It is not difficult to understand why Mathews is seeking to knock down what he terms the myth that Amtrak must be profitable.

Amtrak’s critics have long framed the carrier as a “money loser.” That term in particular is used to describe Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

It’s a powerful argument for those seeking to end public funding of Amtrak. The power of the argument is its simplicity.

If Amtrak trains don’t earn enough revenue to cover their expenses then why have them? If there was a market for intercity rail passenger service then for-profit companies would be clamoring to exploit that. If a product or service can’t make a profit then it is economic waste.

You’ll find that in your day one lecture notes for American Capitalism 101.

Of course the American economy is far more complex than it is made out to be in American Capitalism 101. You will learn that in Political Economy 101.

As a policy wonk I enjoy reading a good argument such as the one that Mathews made. I even enjoy reading those arcane and obscure reports that largely go unread except by a handful of scholars and policy making staff.

Most policymakers and most Americans don’t have a deep level of interest in the nuts and bolts of the legislative and policy making system.

They have general beliefs. That’s not to be critical, merely to make a point about the reality that leaders such as Martin are up against.

Martin’s argument is that rail passenger advocates and those who have the authority to decide how public money is spent should focus on the value that Amtrak service provides and not the financial losses or lack of a profit that it incurs.

“We as advocates need to stop talking about profits, and instead start talking – shouting, really – about value (emphasis in original). Amtrak’s routes create value in every community they serve,” Mathews wrote.

The challenge is that whether Amtrak made or didn’t make a profit is easier to quantify and express in a sound bite than the value that it provided.

Profit and loss is well understood and agreed upon by most everyone but value is a more subjective term that lacks widespread agreement.

Of course advocates such as Martin have sought to quantify value. In his essay, Martin argued that the Empire Builder contributed a $326.7 million in economic activity to the states that it served at a cost of $57 million.

Critics will note that Martin conveniently overlooking the fact the Empire Builder did not earn enough revenue to cover its operating costs.

It needed public funding to pay for crew salaries, locomotive fuel, track rental fees to the host railroads and other expenses.

The critics might also challenge the validity of that $326.7 million in economic activity that the train is said to have generated. That number was derived from a study that like all studies is based on assumptions.

Discussing such studies, including those that argue against the value of intercity rail passenger service gets into wonk territory, a place that few people wish to visit for long.

No small part of Martin’s job is to bolster the morale of his members and motivate them to get involved in the political process.

There wouldn’t continue to be an Empire Builder were it not for their advocacy.

If they stop advocating, then the political support for continuing to fund trains such as the Empire Builder will erode and its funding might vanish along with it.

Martin knows well the future of Amtrak’s national network is never assured. Every year there will be those pushing to end public funding of the “money losing” passenger carrier.

The belief that Amtrak was created to be a for-profit entity and the fact that it has never turned a profit is well entrenched in the psyche of the political economy.

Rail passenger advocate may be able to prevail for another year in the perpetual struggle to keep Amtrak’s skeletal national network rolling because there are just enough members of Congress who agree that Amtrak provide a value worth funding.

Yet it will be a very tall order to get policy makers to see the value of funding for intercity rail passenger service as just as essential and unquestioned as that of the military, police department, fire department, parks department and even the local library.

Victim of the Rules?

April 29, 2019

When I first read a news story that broke recently about Amtrak putting a teenager off a train in Michigan because her being aboard violated Amtrak rules, I was outraged.

That was particularly the case because the story prominently featured a police officer being critical of Amtrak’s behavior.

The story was disseminated by a Grand Rapids TV station on its website under the headline “Amtrak Strands 13-year-old in Battle Creek.”

But the more facts that I learned about the case the more I realized the passenger carrier was not necessarily being the cold-hearted monster some might think.

The incident began when the 13-year girl from Lapeer, Michigan, boarded the Chicago-bound Blue Water by herself for a trip to visit an uncle in Chicago.

Things were going fine until another passenger asked her how old she was. A conductor asked her the same question.

“The conductor came over and asked my age and I said ‘13’ and he said I was too young to be on the train alone,” the girl told the TV station. “I explained that my uncle was going to pick me up [in Chicago] and they still said that I had to get off.”

Amtrak requires unaccompanied minors between ages 13 and 15 to board at a staffed station and obtain a wristband to wear for the duration of their trip.

Lapeer, though, is an unstaffed station as are most stations served by the Blue Water.

The girl’s mother told WOOD-TV she did some online research and believed her daughter could ride Amtrak alone.

Battle Creek police corporal Joe Wilder was dispatched to the station after Amtrak personnel called police to say they needed assistance with a passenger.

The girl had texted her father about how the conductor planned to put her off in Battle Creek but he was unable to get off work to come get her.

He told WOOD-TV that Amtrak could have put his daughter off at Durand or East Lansing, which would have been closer to her home.

Wilder told the TV station that when he arrived at the station he asked the ticket agent what was going on.

“They basically just laughed at me because I said, ‘What are you doing with this child?’ And they just laughed and thought it was a big joke,” he said. “My biggest issue is they drop this child off, they’re responsible. What if something happened to that child? What if I wasn’t here? It seems like this would be a huge lawsuit or big mess, don’t you think?”

Wilder took the girl to the police station and showed her around while she waited for her mother to arrive.

He said the passenger carrier should have contacted her parents to let them know their daughter was being put off the train in Battle Creek.

“They didn’t even call the parents,” Wilder said. “To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Maybe not to a police officer, but it makes sense to me, which is not to say that it was the right or best thing to do.

The Amtrak conductor handled the incident by the book. His job is to collect tickets, oversee the operation of the train, and deal with any other situations involving passengers.

He may later have been reminded by a supervisor to do a better job of checking passengers before they board a train to ensure they are not unaccompanied minors.

When he realized he had an unaccompanied minor on board, he simply enforced Amtrak’s rules.

If anything, he probably believes the girl’s parents should have done more to determine the rules before putting her aboard the train by herself.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said as much in an emailed statement to the TV station.

“When someone of that age is traveling alone and outside those procedures, there is no way for our train conductors to know if they are traveling with the permission of their parent or guardian, if they are a runaway or if they are being trafficked,” Magliari said.

“The safest decision was to transfer the child to a police agency, which is what occurred in this case,” he said.

Officer Wilder doesn’t necessarily disagree with that, but he has experience in being called to the Amtrak station for other incidents.

“We don’t have jurisdiction on the train. They have their own police department that’s supposed to be dealing with this, so I’m not really sure why they use us for a dumping ground, but that’s ultimately what they did,” he said.

I understand the officer’s frustration, but wouldn’t necessarily agree with his assertion that Amtrak police should have handled the situation.

The Amtrak police force is small and the nearest Amtrak officer might be hundreds of miles away from where an incident is taking place.

Magliari also said the Amtrak website states that when purchasing a ticket for an unaccompanied minor, parents must book over the phone and cannot book online.

Just to see how that works, I went through the process of making a reservation on the Amtrak website for a child age 13-15 traveling from Lapeer to Chicago.

The site automatically booked a reservation for the child and an adult. When I tried to remove the reservation for the adult, a warning in red letters popped up directing me to call Amtrak reservations to make reservations for a youth traveling alone.

It would not allow the reservation process to continue unless at least one additional reservation was made for someone 18 or older to travel at the same time.

The girl’s mother said she had purchased her daughter’s ticket online so it is not clear how she got past the red flags. Maybe she bought an adult ticket for her daughter.

Yes, the girl’s parents should have done this or should have done that. Yet I can understand why they did what they did.

They probably figured their daughter would be safe aboard the train. Her uncle would be waiting for her at Chicago Union Station. It wasn’t like she was hitch hiking or relying on a stranger to give her a ride.

Stories such as these surface somewhat regularly and must cause Amtrak’s PR department to cringe.

These stories don’t make the carrier look good but they probably don’t cause long-term or even short-term harm to Amtrak’s reputation.

Magliari acknowledged that the Lapeer station is not staffed. The nearest staffed Amtrak stations are in Detroit, Dearborn or Ann Arbor.

Those are reasonably close to Lapeer, but there are places where the nearest staff station is hundreds of miles away. A parent wanting to put an unaccompanied teen aboard a train might be out of luck. Travel on Amtrak, it would seem, doesn’t work for everyone.

Would Any Message Have Been Successful?

April 24, 2019

The pending discontinue of Amtrak’s Hoosier State has been greeted by the type of hand wringing and indignity that is typical of the rail passenger advocacy community whenever a passenger train is in jeopardy of ending.

It also has triggered the typical overwrought comments of self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives.

Advocates have been sharply critical of the decision by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to end funding for the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train and the refusal of the Indiana General Assembly to reinstate it.

Both the Indiana House and Senate have declined to fund the Hoosier State beyond June 30 and Amtrak has announced that the train will be “suspended” on July 1.

The passenger carrier used “suspended” rather than “discontinued” because at the time the notice was issued there was a slim chance the legislature might funding the Hoosier State after all.

Last Friday the Rail Passengers Association weighed in. RPA described the legislature as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater by cutting their state train’s operating funds.”

After recounting the perils of Pauline struggle the Hoosier State has faced since 2013, RPA commented, “the Indiana state legislature is responding with apathy, doing the shortsighted, pound-foolish thing.”

And what does RPA mean by that? It argues that the Hoosier State saves the state $3,154,432 in road maintenance and congestion costs.

The number was arrived at by figuring that the loss of the train will add 1.6 million vehicle miles traveled to Indiana highways.

If you wish to read further about how this figure was computed, read the RPA post at https://www.railpassengers.org/happening-now/news/hotline/hotline-1-113/

It is an argument that goes over well with rail passenger advocates and their allies, but does nothing to persuade governors and state legislators to appropriate public funds to underwrite the cost of a four times a week passenger train.

Likewise, the argument that the Chicago-Indianapolis market is ripe for development as a rail corridor “if given a chance” won’t change their minds either.

As they see it, ridership of the Hoosier State has declined by double digits in recent years and the travel time is slower than driving.

The statistic about saving road maintenance and congestion will be dismissed as irrelevant assuming they reached lawmakers at all.

You have to wonder if there are any arguments that rail passenger advocates could have made that would persuaded Holcomb and the legislature to continue Hoosier State funding.

This reality is not unique to Indiana. It is the same dilemma passenger advocates face throughout the United States.

Intercity rail passenger service is not a growth industry. It faces entrenched opposition that does well at hiding its motives even if those can gleaned somewhat by careful study of how transportation policy in this country is and is not made.

Amtrak has been giving signals that its vision for the future is a series of corridors linking urban areas, particularly in the South and West.

Federal law requires that routes of less than 750 miles must be funded by state and/or local governments.

Assuming that Amtrak is serious about developing these corridors – and I’m not sure that it is – it will have to win hearts and minds of legislatures in places that have never funded intercity rail passenger service.

This 750 mile rule is what got the Hoosier State into trouble in the first place. It was discontinued in 1995 but restored in 1998 because Amtrak needed a way of ferrying equipment to and from its Beech Grove shops in suburban Indianapolis that did not delay the tri-weekly Cardinal during its Indianapolis station stop.

RPA probably is correct in saying the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor “may now take a generation to be revealed.”

There is also much truth to RPA’s assertion that the Hoosier State “has been treated like an ugly stepchild  . . . acts like it.”

I don’t want to be too critical of RPA because beyond rhetoric and calls for its members to contact their legislatures it doesn’t have many weapons to overcome the entrenched opposition to its vision for intercity passenger rail.

I’m reminded of a comment made by the president of a Jesuit university where I once taught.

He wanted to get the city to close a street that ran through the campus, but the mayor was opposed.

The president said every time he met with the mayor he would mention closing that street because “the more you hear something the less it seems like a foreign idea.”

Alas, the president died before he could persuade the mayor to close the street and to this day it remains open through the campus.

It may be that it takes repeated exposure for a message to sink in and be taken seriously. But they also say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Maybe if rail advocates keep repeating their vision for intercity rail service it will begin to gain traction. But a generation can be a long time and time is running out for the current generations who have dutifully repeated the “we need passenger trains” message for decades now.

In Memory of Francis Parker

April 4, 2019

I never really knew Francis Parker, a retired professor of transportation planning, who died on March 27 at age 80 in Muncie, Indiana.

I spoke with him by phone a couple of times and met in person just once.

Yet his work as an Indiana railroad historian was instrumental in helping me launch my first railroad history book about passenger service in Indiana.

Parker was the co-author with the late Richard Simons of Railroads of Indiana. It was that book that provided me with the blueprint that became my book Limiteds, Locals and Expresses in Indiana, 1838-1971.

In part, Railroads of Indiana was organized by railroad and it was that structure that I adopted for Limiteds, Locals and Expresses.

I called Parker when I was contemplating creating a book about the history of passenger service in Indiana and he was encouraging.

I likewise traveled to Marion, Indiana, to meet with Simons, who was also encouraging and allowed me to use some photographs from his collection.

Parker was one of four founding professors of Ball State University’s Department of Urban Planning in the College of Architecture and Planning. He retired from Ball State in 2013.

He also was an author of Indiana Railroad Depots: A Threatened Heritage.
Parker also served as a volunteer on the Whitewater Valley Railroad in Connersville, Indiana, where he was an engineer and conductor, and led training classes for new members./

He also was the group’s historian and editor of its newsletter.

A published obituary noted that Parker was a fan of steam engines and model railroading.

Musing Aboard Boardman’s Legacy

March 18, 2019

In my world Joseph Boardman was just another name and visage I knew only from a printed page or megapixels on a computer screen.

Our paths never crossed and even if they had our relationship would have been brief and superficial.

Following his death on March 7 several transportation industry leaders issued warm statements about the life and career of Amtrak’s ninth president who died at age 70 after suffering a stroke while vacationing with his family in Florida.

The tributes were the predictable things that people say when a high-profile person passes away.

There’s nothing wrong with that. They are paying homage and not writing a biography with detail, context and nuance.

Some tributes described Boardman as a friend of long-distance passenger trains.

He gladdened the hearts of passenger train advocates by attacking the efforts of the current Amtrak administration to replace the middle of the route of the Southwest Chief with a bus bridge.

Boardman was a persistent critic of current Amtrak management, which was enough to make him a hero in the eyes of some.

Of the many tributes paid to Boardman, two have particularly stood out to me because they hint at a cautionary tale for those wanting to see Amtrak expand its network.

A friend of mine in announcing Boardman’s death during a local railroad club meeting said he didn’t agree with all of Boardman’s policy decisions as president of Amtrak, but understood the pressures and realities he had to deal with and how those shaped his behavior.

Jim Wrinn, the editor of Trains, sounded a similar theme in his tribute posted on the magazine’s website.

Acknowledging he didn’t know Boardman well, Wrinn recalled a comment Boardman made at a 2010 conference in Chicago.

In responding to the many questions posed of him about when this or that was going happen at Amtrak, Boardman often replied, “Not in a time frame that you and I would find acceptable.”

In an interview with a Trains reporter last September, Boardman said he had been unable to persuade the Amtrak board of directors to find and spend more money on the carrier’s national network.

So such things as daily operation of the Cardinal and Sunset Limited were not accomplished on Boardman’s watch.

There are two ways to look at that.

One view suggests Boardman lacked the communications skills necessary to persuade those board members to adopt his point of view.

Could a more skilled communicator have succeeded where Boardman failed?

Maybe not and that raises the second way to look at Boardman’s comment about being unable to persuade the board.

There are powerful institutional forces surrounding Amtrak that for the most part made Boardman little more than a keeper of the status quo.

These forces stymie the type of expansion that passenger advocates crave and ultimately will hamstring the vision of the current Amtrak management to restructure the passenger carrier into a series of corridor services and a few experiential long-distance trains.

Boardman’s defense of the Southwest Chief could have been motivated by a desire to preserve what he viewed as one of his crowning achievements. Maybe he did believe in the long-distance passenger train.

Yet that network remained frozen in place between 2008 and 2016 when he served as CEO.

We await a comprehensive review of Boardman’s time at Amtrak that will provide an in-depth examination of the successes and shortcomings of his distinguished career.

That includes a review of his interaction with the carrier’s board of directors, Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation and transportation policy makers at the federal, state and local levels.

That review might find that Boardman was not quite the friend of the long-distance train that some have made him out to be or it might find that no one person no matter how personally dedicated he or she is to long-distant trains would have been able to move the mountain standing in front of having more trains not to mention enhanced services aboard those that exist.

Reminders of George Warrington

March 7, 2019

Seeing this string of former Amtrak RoadRailers on a westbound Norfolk Southern passing through Berea, Ohio, in April 2012 brought back memories of George Warrington.

Warrington served as Amtrak’s president between 1998 and 2002. During his watch Amtrak rolled out in December 1999 its Network Growth Strategy in an effort to boost its financial position by adding additional trains and going all out to increase its carriage of mail and express shipments.

As part of the strategy, Amtrak acquired a fleet of RoadRailers that were tacked onto the end of select trains.

In implementing the Network Growth Strategy, Amtrak’s board of directors estimated that it would net $66 million in financial benefits through fiscal year 2002.

Although some of that would occur through the launch of new trains, much of it was expected to be garnered through head-end business even if much of that actually rode on the rear of trains.

A few of the planned new trains did launch, most notably the Chicago-Louisville Kentucky Cardinal and the Chicago-Janesville, Wisconsin Lake Country Limited.

But the Chicago-New York Skyline Connection and a proposed transcontinental luxury train never made it out of the station.

Aside from turning Amtrak trains into something resembling a mixed train, what I most remember about the Warrington era was his use of the term “glide path to profitability” to describe the goal of the Network Growth Strategy.

It didn’t seem likely to be the end result of the Network Growth Strategy and it wasn’t.

Warrington didn’t come across as dynamic. He was no W. Graham Claytor or even a Paul Reistrup or David Gunn.

But he also had, arguably, the misfortune of following Thomas W. Downs who is best known for seeking and in some cases successfully achieving, the elimination of some Amtrak routes, including the Desert Wind and Pioneer.

Amtrak presidents are products of their times and such was the case with Warrington, who had the impossible task of trying to satisfy Congressional critics unhappy with Amtrak’s financial performance.

Warrington’s successor, David Gunn, went to work right away in dismantling the Network Growth Strategy and focused instead on returning Amtrak to a “state of good repair.”

As I write this, Amtrak seems on the verge of launching yet another Network Growth Strategy although it won’t be called that. It is expected to seek more daylight corridor services between major cities and de-emphasize long-distance trains.

It hasn’t been announced yet and already it’s triggered protests and controversies.

What insights would George have as to what lies ahead for Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson as he tries to implement his vision of Amtrak’s “next big thing.”

We will never know. Warrington died in December 2007 of pancreatic cancer, but his legacy lives on in the memories of those who were around to experience it.

Some of the rolling stock Amtrak acquired to haul mail and express found new owners, including the RoadRailers shown above.

Some Amtrak RoadRailers were picked up by Norfolk Southern and used in its Triple Crown service.

As seen above, they continued for a time to continue wearing their Amtrak colors with one of the trailers above still having Amtrak markings.

But RoadRailers largely have fallen out of favor with North America’s freight railroads. NS has cut its Triple Crown service back to one lane.

The RoadRailer concept is one still seeking to prove itself.

Hoosier State Down to its Last Strike

March 6, 2019

To use a baseball analogy, Amtrak’s Hoosier State is down to its last strike.

The quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train has swung and missed twice now, first when Indiana Gov. Eric Holmcomb declined to seek continued funding for the train in his budget proposal and, second, when the lower house of the Indiana General Assembly also rejected continued funding.

The House actually voted against Hoosier State funding twice. A House committee declined to reinstate the funding to Holcomb’s proposed budget and then the full House voted against an amendment to add the funding back.

Now the hopes to continue the train go to the Senate which, in theory, could restore the funding. But it would then have to get through a conference committee.

Much of the political support for continued Hoosier State funding has come from Lafayette and West Lafayette.

Those two cities along with Tippecanoe County and the cities of Crawfordsville and Rensselaer collectively contribute $500,000 a year. The state’s share for the Hoosier State is $3 million annually.

The train’s supporters in Lafayette knew that keeping state funding going was a long shot once the governor deleted it from his budget.

“We’ve been working and we knew were going to have to keep working,” Arvid Olson head of Greater Lafayette Commerce’s transportation committee, told the Lafayette Journal & Courier shortly after a House committee declined to reinstate funding for the train.

Olson acknowledged that the train’s ridership isn’t where its supporters would like it to be and, so-so ridership was one reason that Holcomb gave for ending the funding.

“We’re not flailing,” Olson said. “We’re just making the case that the Hoosier State is an important economic development piece for our community. And if it goes away, it’s going to be very expensive, if not impossible, to get back.”

Indeed it will be. But it won’t be impossible.

The Hoosier State has a long, colorful and at times troubling history.

It began on Oct. 1, 1980, as demonstration project mandated by Congress at the behest of former  Indiana Senator Birch Bayh.

Bayh had slipped an amendment into the 1979 Amtrak Reorganization Act directing Amtrak to launch a Chicago-Indianapolis route.

No small part of the rational for the amendment was to give Amtrak a dedicated train to ferry equipment to and from the Beech Grove shops.

The same law that gave birth to the Hoosier State had also made possible the discontinuance of Amtrak’s last train to serve Indianapolis, the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

From Day One the Hoosier State has been hindered by a slow and circuitous route.

None of the traditional passenger routes between Chicago and Indianapolis were intact when the Hoosier State was launched. Things have not improved since then.

The Hoosier State might have folded in the 1980s because, then-Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor, told Congress in March 1984, it failed to meet the Congressionally-mandated loss per mile and passenger-mile-to-train mile criteria.

But operating the Hoosier State was cheaper for Amtrak than paying Conrail to ferry equipment to and from Beech Grove.

The Hoosier State became a quad-weekly train on April 27, 1986, when the Chicago-New York Cardinal was rerouted between Chicago and Cincinnati via Indianapolis.

Then as now, the Hoosier State, which had been renamed Cardinal at the time that it became quad weekly, ran on the days the tri-weekly Cardinal did not run between Chicago and Indianapolis.

Restoration of the Hoosier State name and daily operation began on Oct. 25, 1987.

An Amtrak budget crunch in 1995 led to the Hoosier State reverting on June 11, 1995, to tri-weekly operation.

That resulted in no rail service from Indianapolis to Chicago on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and no rail service from Chicago to Indy on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Amtrak said it only kept the Hoosier State in order to ferry equipment to and from Beech Grove.

After Amtrak decided not to discontinue the Cardinal between Chicago and Cincinnati as part of its September 1995 route restructuring, it discontinued the Hoosier State instead.

The state of Indiana declined to provide funding to keep the Hoosier State going, a decision made by then-Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, the son of the man whose efforts had been key in creating the Hoosier State.

Amtrak created a Chicago-Beech Grove “hospital train” to ferry equipment, but it often received unfavorable dispatching from the host railroads and crews often outlawed.

Using the Cardinal to ferry equipment between Chicago and Indianapolis also proved to be unsatisfactory because of delays incurred in switching cars at Indianapolis Union Station.

Amtrak reinstated the Hoosier State as a tri-weekly train on July 19, 1998, operating on days that the Cardinal did not run between Chicago and Indianapolis.

On Dec. 17, 1999, the Hoosier State was extended to Jeffersonville, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, in a bid to build mail and express business. It was renamed Kentucky Cardinal.

The move was part of Amtrak’s ill-fated Network Growth Strategy that sought to make the passenger railroad financially self-sufficient through head-end business.

That didn’t pan out as hoped and in January 2003 Amtrak said it would end the Kentucky Cardinal in July because of low ridership, high financial costs and the failure of head-end traffic to develop.

However, Amtrak returned the Hoosier State name and operated the train between Chicago and Indianapolis on the Cardinal’s off days.

And that was where things stood until 2015 when a proviso of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement took effect that required states to fund Amtrak trains operating less than 750 miles.

It was not a sure thing that Indiana would approve funding to keep the Hoosier State but a deal was worked out with the Indiana Department of Transportation and online communities chipping in funding.

The train was turned over to a private company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, although Amtrak operating personnel actually operated the trains under contract.

Under IP stewardship, the Hoosier State had full-service dining in a full-wide dome car. IP actively sought to market the service.

In late January 2017 Iowa Pacific said it would cease operating the Hoosier State after the state rebuffed its request for more money. Amtrak took over the Hoosier State on March 1.

Funding of the Hoosier State is assured through June 30, 2019, and INDOT has said that it will discuss with Amtrak when the train is to be discontinued.

It’s possible that some last-ditch plan to save the train might materialize.
Amtrak will have to ferry equipment from Beech Grove on the Cardinal or in hospital trains. As the carrier discovered several years ago, those can be less than ideal from an operations standpoint.

Then again Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently hinted that Beech Grove may not remain an Amtrak repair shop forever.

In announcing that he was cutting Hoosier State funding, Gov. Holcomb said the train “hasn’t performed as originally billed.”

Primarily he meant that ridership has been disappointing. Patronage in fiscal year 2018 fell 5.5 percent, from 29,504 in 2017 to 27,876 in 2018.

In fiscal year 2014 the Hoosier State carried 33,930 passengers, which means that ridership has fallen 21.7 percent over five fiscal years.

Rail passenger advocates have pointed out – correctly – that ridership would improve if the Hoosier State has a faster travel time. Amtrak has said the same thing.

But getting there won’t be inexpensive and it’s unlikely that Indiana will agree to contribute capital funding toward that end.

Legislators may not understand the ins and outs of why the Hoosier State is so slow. Nor do they care about such things. They only see the falling patronage and wonder why spend limited public funds on a service that is losing ridership.

Olson of the Lafayette chamber of commerce understands that. State lawmakers are under pressure to increase funding for such priorities as the Department of Child Services and education.

“People, we’re finding, are sympathetic,” Olson said. “At the same time, everyone’s approaching this realistically.

“This falls below those things, even though it has value. The governor set the bar high on this. “We haven’t cleared the bar, yet. Can we clear the bar? I think we can. This [is] maybe one of those things we appreciate only after it’s gone.”

Flip-Flap Board Nostalgia Will Abate in Time

February 7, 2019

Reader Greg Knapp recently wrote to ask why some folks in Philadelphia are obsessed with the removal of the Solari board at 30th Street Station.

You might think that someone had suggested moving the Liberty Bell to Washington or New York.

Knapp wrote that given the challenges that intercity rail faces in the United States, the end of this tradition is minor. He is correct of course.

Much of this story has been driven by nostalgia and the fact that the retired Solari board was the last of its kind.

Featuring a flip-flap mechanism, it was a marvel to behold. When train times were updated the board came to life with numbers and names whirling around at a fast clip.

If you looked carefully, you might see names of trains that are gone and destinations Amtrak no longer serves from Philly.

The many news stories I’ve read quoted people as saying they would miss the sound of the flaps flipping over.

I can understand that to a point even if I’ve never lived on the East Coast nor traveled all that much in the Northeast Corridor.

I’ve come to associate the whirling flaps and the noise they made with a way of life that is long gone in the Midwest where I’ve spent most of my life.

One of my fondest memories is sitting in New York’s Penn Station on a Saturday night back in the early 1980s and watching that station’s Solari board in action while hearing the station public address announcer give train boarding announcements every few minutes.

Except in Chicago, even the large Midwestern union terminals have never had the level of train service that continues to exist in the NEC, particularly if you take the existence of commuter trains into account.

The retirement of Amtrak’s last Solari board might have gone largely unnoticed beyond a news story or two but for the efforts of a Philadelphia congressman who made an issue of its removal.

Online petitions imploring Amtrak to keep the board drew 2,500 signatures.

A Philly company chimed in to say it could design a digital train board for 30th Street that would approximate the look and sound of a flip-flap board.

Nonetheless, I would not be surprised if the passion many have for a digital flip-flap board cools off as those clamoring for it move on to other concerns.

The news media outlets that kept this story alive will move on to other stories. The loss of a tradition made for good copy for a while, but not indefinitely.

Amtrak has been noncommittal about a digital flip-flap board for 30th Street and it might quietly tell the company offering to build it one “thanks, but no thanks.”

The digital board in Philadelphia won’t have the same character of a flip-flap board, but the trains continue to run as they always have and passengers are finding their trains just fine.

If Coal Can Move in the Cold Why Can’t Passengers?

February 6, 2019

Amtrak has caught flak in recent years for canceling trains during winter weather.

Whatever happened to passenger trains being able to barrel through snow or other winter weather?

As Jim Matthews sees it, Amtrak’s winter cancellations are being prompted by changes in how railroads operate.

Writing on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Mathews said it comes down to the reluctance of railroads to spend money.

“Railroads today are hyper-focused on operating ratios and holding lots of resources and manpower in reserve to keep the trains running in unusual conditions breaks that formula,” the president of RPA wrote.

That means fewer maintenance crews available to send out for such things as frozen switches and rails breaks.

“When something breaks in the cold, those gangs have to travel longer just to reach the problem area and they’re spread more thinly than ever before,” Mathews wrote.

He noted that back in the day railroads sometimes hired “casual labor” to help shovel snow.

But in today’s more highly regulated environment that might expose a railroad to liability issues not to mention bad press and social media that didn’t exist in the past.

“And in this age of social media, that’s all Amtrak needs: Someone live-tweeting a rare cold-related tragedy,” Mathews wrote.

When temperatures plunge well below zero there are legitimate safety concerns for workers who have to assemble and maintain trains at terminals.

Cold weather also can play havoc with operating conditions.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilari was quoted in a news story about the spate of recent cancellations of trains serving Chicago as saying Amtrak feared its trains would get stuck in heavy freight traffic and be unable to get around slow moving trains ahead. He attributed that to the tendency of the host railroads to fleet their freight trains.

Although Magliari didn’t say it in so many words, I wonder if pressure from host railroads prods Amtrak to scale back operations when the weather turns bad.

Yet that doesn’t explain why in the Northeast Corridor Amtrak has curtailed service during winter storms that in the past railroads would have just operated right through.

Amtrak management has increasingly become risk averse. The best way to avoid a worst case scenario is to stay out of a position in which a number of factors could combine to cause one to happen.

It might be unlikely that a train will get stuck for hours with no heat or food, but it could happen. You can avoid such a catastrophe by keeping trains in their terminals until the storm blows over.

Better to have people sitting at home because they couldn’t travel than having to deal with a station full of people with nowhere to go because they missed their connection due to their train running hours late.

Better to rebook passengers or, maybe, refund their money than to have to answer to a horde of social media reports about passengers stranded in subzero weather.

There also are logistical headaches that Amtrak has to take into account, such as getting new crews to a train halted because the previous crew ran afoul of the federal hours of service law. These are not always easy problems to resolve so why risk them in the first place.

The interests of Amtrak management do not always align with the interests of those who pay money to Amtrak to provide them transportation. That is not unique to Amtrak. It’s true of every organization that does business with the public.

I live in an apartment building with a view of the two busiest railroads mainlines in Cleveland.

During the most recent bout of sub-zero weather I stayed inside as much as I could.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that freight traffic on those CSX and Norfolk Southern lines next to my building seemed to be business as usual.

It does make you wonder why if railroads can move coal, manifest freight, tank cars and double-stacked containers despite the realities of severe winter weather why can’t Amtrak move passengers.