Archive for the ‘Commentaries’ Category

Another Glimpse Into the World of Richard Anderson

November 21, 2019

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

It’s a small examination yet a revealing one.

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

OK, so you probably already knew that, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of the Rabbits

November 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime watch out for the rabbits.

Take a Ride on the Amtrak Spin Train

September 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Ocean View also made appearances on special Amtrak moves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, the Amtrak experience would be rather mundane.

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

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

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

July 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky Me That I Picked the Wrong Day to Travel

July 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.