Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak Capitol Limited’

The Next Train is Probably Never

May 12, 2018

Until November 1990, Amtrak served Canton, Ohio, with four trains a day.

Passengers could board the Broadway Limited for New York or Chicago and the Capitol Limited for Washington and Chicago.

But Conrail wanted Amtrak to assume all costs of maintaining a portion of the former Pennsylvania Railroad route used by the trains near Gary, Indiana, which Conrail said it no longer used or needed.

Amtrak balked at that and after a few years of disputing the matter it agreed to reroute both trains.

That left Canton without intercity rail passenger service for the first time in more than a century.

I made this image of the former Amtrak boarding platform in Canton on July 10, 2008.

At the time, the modular station Amtrak had built in the 1970s to serve Canton still stood, but had been re-purposed as a restaurant and that was closed at the time of my visit.

It is probably a matter of time before Norfolk Southern removes the platforms and remains of the PRR umbrella shed.

There is no realistic proposal for Amtrak to return to Canton. The tracks are in good condition as far west as Crestline, Ohio, but beyond there the rails are not maintained to passenger standards.

More than likely, the last passenger has boarded a train from this platform.

Advertisements

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.

How Amtrak Framed Dining Changes to Employees

April 23, 2018

The way that Amtrak portrayed to its employees its plans to eliminate preparation of meals onboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited differs slightly from how it framed the change in its news release and service advisory.

For example, Amtrak told its employees that the plan to offer sleeping car passengers pre-packaged cold meals is temporary.

But that doesn’t mean that on-board food preparation is coming back.

Eventually, Amtrak told its employees, sleeping car passengers will able to “pre-order/pre-select meal options prior to departure.”

The memo sent to employees also said that the passenger carrier expects to save $3.4 million a year “some of which will be reinvested in the product.”

Another goal of removing full dining service aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore the Amtrak memo said is “less waste and providing a more contemporary food service model and product (with in room service) for our premium passengers.”

The memo also clarified in a way that the news release did not that Amtrak plans to devote a lounge car for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers where they can consume their meals.

Coach passengers will not be allowed to use this lounge, which will have an Amtrak attendant on duty but there will be no table service.  Table seating will be on a first-come basis.

The pre-packaged meals that Amtrak will serve passengers will come with condiments, napkins and cutlery.

“If a customer finds something missing from their package, needs another beverage or needs assistance moving from their bedroom or roomette to another car on the train – the sleeper car attendant or other employees can provide assistance,” the memo said.

As for staffing, the memo said each train will have an onboard food and beverage staff of two with one lead service attendant in each car.

Although sleeping car passengers will have the option of eating in their rooms, the Amtrak memo indicated that this is “subject to refinement as we move forward.”

As Amtrak framed the change for its employees, “this change will contribute to improved financial performance and more contemporary service delivery on these overnight routes between the East Coast and Chicago.”

The memo suggests that the meal program on both trains will be reviewed after the summer travel season.

During the summer the consist of the Capitol Limited will be two coaches, a baggage-coach, two sleepers, one lounge car for sleeping car passengers, one sightseer café/lounge (Superliner I or II), a transition dorm and a baggage car.

The Lake Shore Limited will operate with six coaches, two baggage cars, three sleepers, one lounge for sleeping car passengers (one of the new CAF cars) and one café/lounge car (Amfleet I split club).

The café/lounge includes 18 business class seats, the standard Amfleet café module and 24 booth seats.

Sleeping car attendants will make reservations for sleeping car passengers for meals in much the same way that they do today in the dining car.

Meal service hours will be the same as they are now: Breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The attendant in the sleeping car lounge will be on duty between 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. except for allotted breaks. This lounge will be available for passenger use for the duration of the journey.

Amtrak to End Full-Service Dining on Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited in Favor of Cole Meal Service

April 20, 2018

Amtrak is ending full-service dining car service on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

In a news release posted on its website, the passenger carrier said that effective June 1 it will begin offering sleeping car passengers on the two trains what it termed “contemporary and fresh dining choices.”

That means cold meals delivered to the passenger’s room or consumed at a table in a lounge car.

Trains magazine said Amtrak did not respond to question about whether hot meals would be offered on either train, but a separate service advisory indicated that café car fare will continue to be available, some of which is heated in a microwave oven.

The news release said the service is intended to replace traditional dining-car service.

Meals will be delivered to the trains just before they depart their end terminals. The cost of these meals will continue to be included in the ticket price of a sleeping car room.

Among the mean choices, the news release, said are chilled beef tenderloin, vegan wrap, chicken Caesar salad and turkey club sandwich.

Breakfast options will include assorted breakfast breads with butter, cream cheese and strawberry jam; Greek yogurt and sliced seasonal fresh fruit.

A Kosher meal will be available with advanced notice.

Passengers will receive unlimited soft beverages; a complimentary serving of beer, wine or a mixed drink; and an amenity kit.

Previously, sleeping car passengers wanting an alcoholic beverage had to pay for it.

“Our continued success depends on increasing customer satisfaction while becoming more efficient,” said Bob Dorsch, Amtrak’s vice president of its long distance service line, said in the news release.

The service advisory said that after boarding, sleeping car attendants will continue the standard procedure of asking passengers to select a preferred time for dining with reservations available in 15-minute increments.

Tables in sleeper lounge and café/lounge cars will be first come, first serve for seating and there will be no at-table dining service.

Sleeping car passengers will also be offered complimentary morning coffee, chilled water and juices, in-room meal service, turn-down service for their beds, and shower facilities.

They will be provided pre-boarding privileges and same-day access to lounges, such as Club Acela in the Northeast Corridor and the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago.

Business class passengers on the Lake Shore Limited will be offered a la carte purchases from café/lounge menu, an alcoholic beverage and unlimited soft beverages, and a complimentary comfort kit.

Amtrak said coach passengers may purchase on a limited basis the pre-packaged meals served to sleeping car passengers. The existing café car menu will continue to be available to all passengers.

The news release also quoted Dorsch as saying, the meal service will continue to be refined and Amtrak looks forward to hearing from its customers about it.

What it all adds up to is that Amtrak is looking to cut costs by eliminating onboard kitchen staff and servers, and offering airline style meals that are provided by a catering company.

Trains magazine quoted the Rail Passengers Association as saying that the change reflects outside directives to the passenger carrier.

“It’s important to remember that this is simply an outcropping of the congressional mandate to eliminate losses on food and beverage service,” said James A. Zumwalt, director of policy research at RPA.

Zumwalt said the new meal policy “contradicts other successful models such as in the cruise industry, and proves unpopular with passengers. The mandate prevents best practices and should be removed.”

Passing in Harpers Ferry

March 8, 2018

Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited has completed its station work in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and is headed for its next stop in Martinsburg.

On the other track an eastbound CSX manifest freight is about to reach the station.

Project Manager Being Sought for Elyria Station Project

January 18, 2018

Commissioners in Lorain County, Ohio, are seeking proposals for a construction manager of the long stalled plan to create a new platform in Elyria for Amtrak passengers.

The platform will be located in the former New York Central passenger station, which serves as a public transportation center for local buses.

County Administrator Jim Cordes expects the proposal will go to bid soon.

“It’s been progressing along fairly slowly, but it’s been progressing,” Cordes said. “We’re at the point now where I’m bringing a project manager to get ready to build something.”

Amtrak currently uses a shelter at 410 East River Street. A modular station at that site was destroyed by fire in 2013.

The existing station also has limited accessibility for those with disabilities and Amtrak must use Track No. 2 of the Chicago Line of Norfolk Southern.

The new platform, which is expected to cost between $8 million and $10 million, will feature a bridge spanning the two NS tracks.

It also will include elevators and stairways to provide access to two partially enclosed platforms for passengers.

Lorain County will pay 5 percent to 8 percent of the project cost, with the rest of the money coming from federal, state and Amtrak funding.

Cordes said no start of construction date has yet been set, but expects that to change once the project had been awarded.

He said although work on the project has been slow, it never was in danger of ending. Much of the slow pace was due to reviews of the proposal by the county, NS and Amtrak.

“We’d exchange paperwork, then there’d be tweaks, more paperwork and then more tweaks,” Cordes said. “It was easy to lose focus. It had been a slow project to begin with, and the complicated relationships made it even more so.”

Elyria is service by Amtrak’s Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited and Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

Ready for You This Morning

January 5, 2018

It is morning in the dining car of the westbound Capitol Limited. The train is somewhere in Indiana as you arrive in the dining car in anticipation of having a hot breakfast.

Although the car is nearly full, there are a few seats available. You sit down and the menu is laid out for you on the table. You look it over and tell the server what you want.

In days of old, you would have written your order on a check. That was the way it was in the early days of Amtrak, but now the dining car is run much like a regular restaurant, albeit one that is moving along at nearly 80 miles per hour.

In due time your breakfast arrives and you dig in. No matter how many times you’ve done this before aboard a dining car, it never seems to get old.

Heritage In Harpers Ferry

January 4, 2018

Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited is coming to a stop in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on July 16, 2014.

On the point is the Phase IV heritage locomotive wearing a livery that was relatively short-lived on Amtrak in its original incarnation.

The locomotive is not the only heritage to be seen on this train. The baggage car is from the Heritage fleet, having served for decades.

Since this image was made, Amtrak has placed in service its Viewliner baggage cars and most of the heritage baggage cars have been retired.

But the oldest thing in this image is the former Baltimore & Ohio passenger station next to the tracks.  It opened in 1889. Today it is used by the National Park Service and also used by Maryland Area Rail Commuter trains from Washington.