Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

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.

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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.

Upon Further Review, it’s Incremental Change

January 18, 2019

Upon learning the details of Amtrak’s recent change in food service aboard two eastern long-distance trains I was disappointed at what I read but upon further review I was not surprised.

I had thought that the carrier might bring back some semblance of full dining car service to the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited with a contractor using its own employees. In short Amtrak would outsource its food and beverage service.

Instead, Amtrak will increase the selection of prepared meals made available to sleeping car passengers and include a hot breakfast offering.

It also will now provide one complimentary alcoholic beverage to passengers holding business class tickets aboard the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited as well as unlimited complimentary soft drinks. But business car travelers will not receive any meals in the price of their ticket.

In a statement, Amtrak described the changes as an evolution, but I’d describe them as incremental. They are an improvement, but only a slight one.

As expected, Amtrak continues to try to spin the food service operation on the Lake Shore and Capitol with terminology that doesn’t quite fit.

These include “deluxe breakfast choices” and “contemporary dining improvements.”

The carrier also used the term “their private dining car,” which turns out to mean that the new menu offerings are available only to sleeping car passengers. Coach passengers are unable to purchase these items from the café car.

The hot breakfast offering turns out to be a ham and cheese sandwich along with a few other miscellaneous offerings, including hard-boiled eggs. With advance notice, Amtrak will provide a Kosher meal.

Amtrak also framed the changes as being in response to passengers saying they wanted “high-quality food with good variety.”

There probably is some truth to that. At least in the railfan and railroad trade industry press, the contemporary dining” service has been widely criticized.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told Railway Age that the carrier is considering making for sale to coach passengers the items provided to sleeping car passengers.

Magliari also acknowledged that all of the food items on the expanded menu items are prepared off the train “with some heating, some plating and presenting taking place on these trains.”

The latest changes are at least the second time Amtrak has tweaked its contemporary dining service on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

An earlier change involved adding a hot entrée – a beef short rib – to the dinner and lunch menu.

In its report on the latest food service changes, Trains magazine said it  obtained an internal Amtrak company memo outlining the changes.

One sentence in the memo may be illustrative of management’s view of dining car service: “but customers should still bus and clean the tables they have used.”

In other words, food service aboard Amtrak is more akin to a school cafeteria than a sit-down restaurant.

Passengers will even use trays or plates to take their chosen continental breakfast choices to their table or sleeping car room.

This is designed to cut down on waste, including packaging waste and uneaten food. However, passengers will be able to take as many items as they like within reason.

Of course they can also ask their sleeping car attendant to fetch their meal and bring it to the passenger’s room.

As for outsourcing, that isn’t being done now and it remains to be seen if it will come about as I thought it might.

Amtrak’s unions have been staging public protests to accuse Amtrak of trying to eliminate their jobs.

There is reason to believe that is true. The move to “contemporary dining” resulted in a reduction in staff aboard the trains, notably the elimination of chef and waiter positions.

It may be that Amtrak won’t outsource dining service completely so long as labor contracts with the union onboard service employees exist.

But management no doubt has considered how much money it could save by going to labor provided by a contractor paying non-union employees less compensation and benefits than Amtrak provides its union workers.

It remains unclear if Amtrak management is seriously considering any scenario involving the return of food preparation aboard the eastern long-distance trains whether that is done by Amtrak’s own employees or those of a contractor.

I could see Amtrak management opting for a return to on-board preparation again if—and this is a big if—a contractor could do it for less cost than what Amtrak now pays for “contemporary dining.”

In the short and probably medium term, Amtrak might play around with different contractors to provide food items prepared off the train to see who provides the best value for the least cost.

It may only be a matter of time before that model is extended to the handful of trains with dining cars providing on-board meal preparation.

It’s The Turboliner Era All Over Again

January 16, 2019

I posted earlier this month about how the promised “high speeds” on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor have yet to materialize despite $1.95 million having been spent to rebuild the route to allow for 110-mile per hour operation.

Instead, the top speed for Lincoln Service trains and the Texas Eagle is 79 mph, which means that Chicago-St. Louis trains go no faster than, say, Chicago-Carbondale trains.

Trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor did travel 110 mph for a time in what Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilari later described as a demonstration project.

So when are higher speeds finally going to become routine for Lincoln Service trains?

The latest word from the Illinois Department of Transportation is that we might see 90 mph speeds this year.

But 110 mph? IDOT won’t go there anymore in predicting when that will happen.

The explanation being given for the delay is the positive train control system that will make higher speeds possible is still being tested.

There is probably a lot of truth to that given that PTC is a relatively new form of technology.

But even when the PTC is ready to go, it will hardly make the Chicago-St. Louis corridor a high-speed operation.

IDOT has said 90 mph speeds will shave 15 minutes off the travel time from the Windy City to the Gateway City.

That doesn’t like seem like much given how much money has been spent on this project.

But then again this was never intended to result in a high-speed rail project even if it might have been framed that way.

The term high-speed rail gets thrown out a lot in this country and when it does many people think of super trains such as the Japanese Shinkansen, the German ICE or maybe even Amtrak’s Acela Express.

Some of those overseas trains have taken on mythical stature in American minds and when I give presentations on transportation history I’m often asked when the United States will have such trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

My standard answer is not in your lifetime because there is too much political opposition and not enough money to make it happen.

Even in Europe where transportation policy makers look more favorable on intercity rail transportation it can take at least a decade to develop a new rail line.

It is hardly news that even in a best-case scenario the efforts to develop the Chicago-St. Louis were never going to result in a high-speed rail line the length of the corridor.

At best it could result in a corridor with high-speed rail in some places but many other places where even 79 mph would be a dramatic improvement.

There is slower going in the Chicago and St. Louis terminals, but also in en route cities such as Springfield where city officials have been talking about putting all of the rail lines into a single corridor for as long as I can remember.

Every so often I run across a news story reporting some progress in those efforts, but it has been incremental.

No one has come up with a viable plan to boost speeds in metropolitan Chicago and St. Louis, only through the corn and soybean fields of the hinterlands.

All of this reminds me of when Amtrak introduced French-built Turboliners to the Chicago-St. Louis corridor in October 1973.

They were capable of traveling 125 mph but couldn’t go any faster than – you guessed it – 79 mph on track then owned by the Illinois Central Gulf.

Super fast running, though, was not the point of introducing the Turboliners an Amtrak official confided to the late David P. Morgan, the editor of Trains magazine.

The purpose of the Turboliners was to show Amtrak was doing something to improve intercity rail passenger service other than making cosmetic changes to equipment that had been built before, during or shortly after World War II.

Come to think of it, the same could be said about the money spent to rebuild the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

It is a way of showing that something is being done to improve intercity rail service between two cities that if they were located in Europe or Asia would already have had frequent high-speed rail service.

Presumably, Amtrak and host railroad Union Pacific will get the kinks worked out and someday trains will cruise at 90 mph and, maybe, 110 mph.

The Turboliners would have been right at home there. But they were removed from service more than two decades ago and are now just a footnote in the history of a corridor still looking to become something better than what it has been since Amtrak started 47 years ago.

Amtrak’s Transformation at Work in the Midwest

August 13, 2018

Last week Amtrak touted improvements it has made in its Midwest corridor network, including schedule adjustments to allow for more intra-Midwest connections and implementing student discount fares.

But in Amtrak’s statements was a hint that there might be another agenda at work.

It may be that Amtrak was doing nothing more than trying to get some marketing mileage from a series of relatively small steps. Yet if you view what was announced in a larger context you might see a transformation at work.

Throughout 2018, Amtrak has taken or talked about implementing actions that passenger advocates fear are designed or will weaken the carrier’s long-distance network.

In early June Amtrak yanked the full-service dining cars from the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Last spring it sharply restricted the carriage of privately-owned passenger cars and all but eliminated special moves and charter trains.

Amtrak has talked about creating a bus bridge for its Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dodge City, Kansas, rather than continue to operate over a BNSF segment in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico that lacks positive train control and over much of which Amtrak is the sole user and thus responsible for the maintenance costs of the rails.

The carrier also has changed its booking practices to make it more difficult for tour operators to book large blocks of sleeping car rooms.

A Trains magazine columnist wrote last week that he’s been told of Amtrak plans to remove chefs from the dining cars of the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

The columnist said he’s heard from passengers who’ve ridden long-distance trains lately that complimentary juice in sleeping cars is gone and coffee is being limited to one half-pot per day.

Fewer towels and bottles of water are being distributed to sleeping car passengers.

An amendment sponsored by Ohio senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown to force Amtrak to reopen ticket offices closed in a cost-cutting binge last spring was quietly removed from a transportation funding bill recently approved by the Senate.

Some passenger advocate see these and other moves as part of a larger plot to make long-distance trains unattractive so ridership will fall and management can make the case that the need for these trains isn’t there anymore.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has reportedly told state department of transportation officials that the carrier has studied chopping up long-distance routes into a series of corridors, each of them less than 750 miles in length.

That would force the states to fund those routes under the terms of a 2008 law that requires states to fund corridor routes that Amtrak had previously underwritten.

Those plans are not expected to be implemented immediately, but perhaps Amtrak management is just biding its time.

What does this have to do with the announcement about improvements to Midwest connectivity?

If Amtrak is seeking to re-invent itself as a provider of short- and medium-distance corridors it needs to show that it is developing a network of them.

Most people probably think of the Midwest corridors as ways to link cities in their state with Chicago.

Yes, some travelers connect in Chicago to other Amtrak trains, including the long-distance trains, but how many people think about getting on in Milwaukee and going to Detroit or St. Louis?

Well they might think about it and some do it every day, but Amtrak hasn’t always made such connections convenient. Some layovers last for hours.

The schedule changes made this summer are designed to address that, at least on paper, or in Amtrak’s case on pixels given that paper timetables are a thing of the past.

Amtrak touted its “new” schedules, noting that you can travel between Milwaukee and Detroit twice daily, and Milwaukee and St. Louis three times daily. Of course that means changing trains in Chicago.

To be sure, Amtrak gave a nod to the long-distance trains, noting that in making the departure of northbound Hiawatha train No. 333 from Chicago to Milwaukee later, it enabled connections from long-distance trains from the East Coast.

As for the student discount, it is 15 percent and designed for Midwest travel. Amtrak also plans to soon allow bicycles aboard the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

When the new Siemens Charger locomotives went into service on Midwest corridor trains, they came with the tagline “Amtrak Midwest.”

Those locomotives were purchased by the states underwriting Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes. Those same states are also underwriting development of new passenger cars to be assigned to the Midwest corridor routes.

It is getting to the point where Amtrak is becoming a middleman of Midwest corridor routes, offering a station and maintenance facility in Chicago; operating, service and marketing support; and a brand.

For now, the state-funded corridors combined with the long-distance trains provide intercity rail passenger service to many regions of the Midwest, including to such states as Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio that do not currently fund Amtrak service.

That might well change if Amtrak follows through on its proposals to chop up the long-distance routes into state-funded corridors. Would Ohio step up to help pay for, say, a Chicago-Toledo, Chicago-Cleveland or Chicago-Pittsburgh  route in lieu of the Capitol Limited?

Would Iowa agree to fund a Chicago-Omaha train in lieu of the California Zephyr?

Would Minnesota agree to fund a Chicago-Minneapolis/St. Paul train in lieu of the Empire Builder? What about Chicago-Fargo, North Dakota, with funding from Minnesota and North Dakota?

I’m not optimistic about that.

Rail Consultant Upbraids Boardman

May 16, 2018

Former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman got a lot of favorable reviews for a letter he recently wrote to public officials across the country criticizing current Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson for what Boardman believes is are effort by him and the Amtrak board of directors to dismantle the carrier’s network of long-distance trains.

However, in a column published on the website of Railway Age, a railroad passenger consultant took Boardman to task, saying that he created the situation that current Amtrak management might be exploiting.

M.E. Singer, a principal at Marketing Rail Ltd. in Chicago, argues that it was Boardman and the same board of directors under whom Anderson is serving who left Amtrak in a state of disrepair after years as president and who created the movement to force states to pay to renovate the tracks used in parts of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico by the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

In his letter, Boardman had contended that current Amtrak management is drawing a line at the base of Raton Pass as an opening move to curtail long-distance trains.

Boardman was referencing a letter that Amtrak’s government affairs office sent to public officials along the route of the Chief stating that Amtrak would not match a federal grant obtained by Colfax County, New Mexico, to be used to help rebuild the route of the Southwest Chief in New Mexico until all of the parties have agreed on a comprehensive funding plan to complete renovation of the route.

During Boardman’s time at Amtrak, host railroad BNSF said it would no longer maintain the former Santa Fe route used by the Chief in western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico to passenger train standards because the freight carrier seldom used it.

The Amtrak letter noted that in some places Amtrak is the sole user of the line.

“Despite what Boardman said, the irrefutable facts clearly indicate the first attempt ever at shaking down states for funding passenger rail infrastructure (Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico) was designed and initiated on Boardman’s watch, with the support of the same Board of Directors and executive line of management who were in place when he made these decisions . . . ,” Singer wrote.

Singer charged in his column that during the Boardman administration at Amtrak the carrier’s best managers were encouraged to take buyouts “during multiple reorganizations that only depleted vital institutional knowledge.”

Although Boardman in his letter accused Amtrak of a lack of transparency, Singer said Amtrak also worked in secrecy during the Boardman administration.

“In reality, Boardman barely provided lip service to the long-distance routes, as evidenced by the lack of any pro formas to Congress to factually detail the number of passengers turned away, and loss of revenues, due to the lack of space on those trains; and to identify the need for more equipment to expand frequencies and to meet new route opportunities,” Singer wrote.

Singer contends Amtrak’s board of directors and its top management has a “singularly focused” commitment to serve their political patrons of the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the national system.

“What apparently puzzles Boardman is how quickly his inner circle turned their loyalty to the new CEO, Richard Anderson, continuing to focus on ensuring their own survival by placating a very conflicted Board,” Singer wrote.

Singer called for a redefinition of Amtrak to serve all interests, including the national system.

“In the end, what is critical to acknowledge is that given the vast amount of continuing infrastructure investment required for the NEC, the initial action to force those select states along the Southwest Chief route to pay tribute was abhorrently wrong. Now, that should be clearly acknowledged and corrected by federal grants and funds to maintain the national network,” Singer wrote.

Efforts to Save Ticket Offices Will Fail

May 12, 2018

The outcry in some places following the news that Amtrak plans to close 15 ticket offices nationwide between now and late June took me back about 40 years to when the carrier planned to close its ticket office in my hometown in Illinois.

I was a young reporter for the newspaper in Mattoon, Illinois, when I got a phone call from one of the Amtrak ticket agents assigned to that city’s station telling me about the plans to not only close the ticket office, but the station itself.

Mattoon is a stop on the former Illinois Central between Chicago and New Orleans and the station there once housed various railroad offices. But all of those had closed by the time I got that phone call.

In Mattoon, as in countless other cities, Amtrak was the sole user of a facility that was a relic of another era and had more space than the passenger carrier would ever need.

The plan in Mattoon was to build an “Amshack” at the north end of the Illinois Central Gulf yard next to the only grade crossing in town on the ICG’s Chicago-New Orleans mainline.

The agent had spoken to me on what reporters call “deep background” but the public might know as “off the record.”

I took the news tip and ran with it, calling Amtrak’s PR person in Chicago and getting confirmation that, yes, indeed, my information was correct.

The story I wrote for the newspaper prompted city officials to protest the move. I wrote subsequent stories about meetings, phone calls and letter writing campaigns and in the end Amtrak backed down.

An Amtrak official claimed that business had improved in Mattoon, but I suspect there was more to it than that. Political pressure can be a powerful thing in motivating Amtrak’s behavior.

Also, I found during my journalism career that organizations seldom like to acknowledge the so-called power of the press.

The Amtrak ticket office in Mattoon remained open for several more years and I got to know all three agents who worked there. They were a valuable source of information about Amtrak.

I moved on in my career in 1983 and a few years later Amtrak closed the Mattoon ticket office. No, there is no correlation between my leaving the ticket office closing.

Organizations have a way of doing sooner or later what they want to do.

The Mattoon ticket office was not the first to close on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans route.

Offices at Kankakee, Rantoul and Effingham, to name a few, had closed before Mattoon did.

Today, the only intermediate ticket offices still open on the former Mainline of Mid-America are in Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, Memphis, Jackson and Hammond. The latter, though, is among those slated to close by late June.

Officials in some of the 15 cities where Amtrak ticket agents are set to be pulled are waging campaigns not unlike the one that played out in Mattoon many years ago.

I predict that none of those efforts will ultimately succeed.

It will be difficult to prevail in the face of Amtrak’s argument that nine of every 10 tickets are sold online. Who needs a ticket agent?

I also wonder how many political officials will take seriously the arguments being made by some rail passenger advocates trying to save the ticket offices.

Sure, letters will be written, resolutions passed and phone calls made. But in the end the offices are going to close because it’s tough to thwart the religion of cost cutting.

Amtrak is closing these offices to save money. It is not part of a plot by a former airline CEO to kill long-distance trains as some rail advocates are contending.

Amtrak has been closing ticket offices for decades and the majority of stations served by long-distance trains do not have a ticket office and haven’t had one for many years.

Whatever political pressure that officials might bring against Amtrak to keep the ticket offices open will fade quickly in the face of the “nine of every 10” ticket sales argument and assurances by Amtrak officials that a caretaker will open the station waiting room at train time, keep it clean, and assist passengers.

The latter is significant because if there are people who may need assistance it is the elderly and physically challenged.

The closings may also cost 22 people their full-time jobs.

But I wonder how long it will be until the caretakers that Amtrak says it is hiring at the 15 stations losing their agents will themselves face the budget knife.

In Amtrak’s ideal world a unit of local government owns the stations it serves at intermediate points and underwrites most of the cost of maintaining them. All Amtrak does is stop there and impose certain minimum standards.

Otherwise, Amtrak will put up a bus shelter-type facility that receives minimal, if any, maintenance.

I understand the angst over loss of ticket agents because there is something of value being lost. It is just that those who need or benefit from that are a small minority of Amtrak passengers.

Mattoon may have lost its ticket agent back in the late 1980s, but it kept its station. The city eventually bought it and spent millions to restore it.

Today it houses the Coles County Historical Society and an Amtrak waiting room.

I’ve passed through that station dozens of times in the past 20 years while  traveling to and from Mattoon by train to visit my Dad.

I’ve never seen evidence that not having a ticket agent has depressed ridership in Mattoon.

If you need to know where the train is, you can call Amtrak Julie on your cellphone. If you have a Smartphone, you can even go to the Amtrak website and see for yourself where the train is at any given moment.

Mattoon learned to live without an Amtrak agent as have hundreds of other places. So will 15 other cities that are about to have the same experience.

Making Sense of Amtrak’s Anderson

May 10, 2018

To paraphrase a well-known remark made by Marc Anthony in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, I come not to bury or praise Richard Anderson but to explain him.

Since taking the sole helm of Amtrak last January Anderson has become public enemy No. 1 among some railfans and passenger train advocates.

In short order he triggered intense anger by approving such changes as ending everyday discount fare programs, banning most special and charter movements, restricting operations of private rail passenger cars while sharply raising handling fees, threatening to suspend service on routes that do not meet the federal positive train control installation deadline later this year, and ending full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

It is a common belief among his critics that Anderson doesn’t understand railroads because he came from the airline industry.

There may be some truth to that. It is probably true that Anderson does not view intercity rail passenger service in the same manner that many railfans and passenger train supporters do.

It also may be true that Anderson is overseeing a movement toward ending long-distance passenger trains that would leave vast swaths of the country without intercity passenger rail.

That doesn’t mean Anderson knows nothing about intercity passenger rail and its role in the nation’s transportation network as some of his critics would have you believe.

He is just not as convinced as many passenger train advocates that America needs 1950s style streamliners with full-service dining cars, sleepers and lounges.

Having spent much of his career in the airline industry, Anderson came to Amtrak with well-formed ideas about transportation that he would have expressed during his interview with the Amtrak board of directors.

During that interview he no doubt was asked to lay out his vision for Amtrak. He would not have been hired had that vision been incompatible with the board’s own views of Amtrak’s purpose and future.

Anderson may, indeed, have an air travel bias, which would not be surprising given his airline industry background.

He knows most long-distance travel in America is by air. Few business executives travel long distance by rail and most Americans who are not rail enthusiasts rarely, if ever, do so either.

If Anderson has a “bias” against long-distance intercity passenger trains, he would not be the first person in the transportation world to have that.

You can go back to the 1960s when Alfred Perlman of the New York Central acted as though long-distance trains were expensive dinosaurs to be removed.

Stuart Saunders of Penn Central infamy also declared that any rail passenger service beyond 500 miles was dead. So did a lot of other railroad CEOs.

Since Amtrak began in 1971 the U.S. Department of Transportation has ranged from outright hostile to benign indifference to Amtrak’s national route network.

What Amtrak appears poised to do under Anderson’s stewardship to the long-distance trains is not unlike the vision that Norman Mineta had when he was Secretary of Transportation.

Mineta pushed the corridor concept and said that long-distance trains should not stop at stations in states that do not help to underwrite the costs of those trains.

That vision did not prevail, but it is part of a long history of antagonism toward long-distance trains.

For that matter, Amtrak management itself has tolerated long-distance trains, but not since the 1970s has a new long-distance route been created.

There is much that we don’t know yet about Anderson’s views toward transportation and the role that intercity rail has to play even if he has been dropping hints about it.

Anderson said at a conference in California of passenger rail officials that Amtrak’s best marketing prospects lie in corridor services of no more than 400 miles served by DMU equipment.

During that same conference, he also was said to have emphasized the high financial losses of long-distance trains and that he must follow the law in making Amtrak a more efficient operation.

During his apprenticeship as co-CEO of Amtrak with Charles “Wick” Moorman, Anderson would have been schooled on the political realities that Amtrak faces, including why the long-distance trains remain in place decades after some believed their usefulness as transportation had expired.

Moorman would have pointed out that these trains continue to run because of long-standing political support. But maybe Anderson already knew that. Remember, Anderson is not necessarily a transportation neophyte.

Of late Anderson has come under fire from former Amtrak President Joesph Boardman, who has accused Anderson and the Amtrak board of launching a campaign to eviscerate long-distance trains.

In an interview with Trains magazine Boardman told an anecdote of how he responded when asked by the board to name Amtrak’s most important train.

“I told them it was all of the long distance trains. Did that ever make it out into the rail community? No, because it wasn’t my job to (do that),” he said.

Maybe Boardman should have made it his job. And that brings me to what may be Anderson’s most significant shortcoming.

Boardman hinted at that when he wrote in an email to public officials across the country that “Amtrak is not really a ‘private business,’ it is a “state owned enterprise.”

It may be that Amtrak was set up in 1970 as a for-profit company and ostensibly it is expected to cover its operating expenses from the fare box.

But in practice Amtrak is more like a government agency, a reality that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a case involving a dispute over the efforts by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time train standards that Amtrak could use to hold its host railroads accountable for excessive delays.

The head of a government agency does not have the luxury of thinking and acting like a Fortune 500 CEO if he or she wants to be successful.

Yet that is what Anderson has been doing by playing defense rather than offense.

Anderson has done little thus far to share his vision of Amtrak’s future with the public, let alone the constituencies that have lone manned the bulwarks to provide political support when Amtrak funding was threatened.

Boardman touched on this in his email when he said Amtrak “has begun to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing.”

What Amtrak is doing, Boardman believes, is transforming Amtrak out of the long-distance passenger train business without saying upfront that that is the objective.

If so, it is because Anderson and the board that hired him have beliefs about transportation that are at odds with those held by many rail passenger advocates who don’t want to see Amtrak change much.

Rail passenger advocates have legitimate beliefs and visions, even if they are not always well-grounded in solid economic understanding. But so does Anderson and Amtrak’s board.

Anderson and his critics would agree that Amtrak is in the transportation business, but they have different views as to how that is to be pursued. It has nothing to do with lack of understanding of “railroading.” It has everything to do with ineffectively trying to sell that.

As Political Winds Blow, Long Distance Trains Go

April 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amtrak Dining Changes are NOT Good News

April 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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