Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak long distance trains’

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.

Boarding in Memphis

November 17, 2019

Passengers getting onto the northbound City of New Orleans board in Memphis, Tennessee.

It is 10:30 p.m. and Train No. 58 is running on time. It will depart in 10 minutes for Chicago and all scheduled intermediate stops.

New Amtrak VP to Oversee Long-Distance Services

October 13, 2019

On the same day that Amtrak implemented its flexible dining service aboard all overnight eastern long-distance trains it also welcomed aboard a new vice president to oversee long-distance service.

Larry Chestler took the job after a career in the airline industry, most recently in marketing at Sun County Airlines. He also work at MLT Vacations.

He told Trains magazine that he is still too new to the post to have a clear sense of the dynamics of the Amtrak rout network, including how contributes to peak travel demand.

“The role I’m stepping into as the commercial leader is take all of the elements and look at what [the trains] need to be more successful — whatever that definition is,” Chestler said.

“My team should have enough knowledge about the traffic use and customer base of (each) train and what its role is in the national network to be able to clearly advocate what it brings.”

That includes studying travelers taking a route endpoint to endpoint versus those who travel only on a segment of a route.

He described himself as “keenly interested” in studying connections to long-distance trains from corridor service trains.

Chestler had little train riding experience before taking the job. He said he had ridden Amtrak long-distance trains before, including the Coast Starlight.

He views pricing and inventory management as key to marketing the long-distance services.

Chestler also view his role as being an advocate for long distance routes. However, he said that focusing on long-distance services won’t be the only facet of his position.

He doesn’t see corridor services as competitors or rivals but partners.

Shortly after going to work at Amtrak Chestler rode the Cardinal from Chicago to Washington to observe how the carrier’s flexible dining service is playing out.

He spent the night in a business class eat that he admitted as a good experience but one in which he got little sleep.

But he told Trains “it was good for me to experience the product as the majority of our customers do, in a seat.”

Chestler also concluded that the flexible dining food service was well-received by passengers and “the onboard staff did a nice job delivering the product.”

House Committee Chair Holds Round Table Event to Reiterate His Support for Amtrak’s National Network

August 31, 2019

An Oregon congressman held a round table event in his home state this past week to drum up support for Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, reiterated at the event in Eugene, Oregon, his commitment to oppose efforts by the Trump administration to end funding for Amtrak’s national network.

Participants in the event included representatives of Union Pacific, Amtrak, the University of Oregon, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the governor’s office, and two state representatives.

Eugene is served by the state-funded Cascades Service, but also is a stop for the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight.

“I now chair the transportation committee,” DeFrazio said. “I will have to OK that. I will not be OK’ing the president killing the Coast Starlight.”

Flash Fare Sale Publicizes Return of CONO to NOLA

August 27, 2019

As a way of marking the restoration of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans to operation the full length of its route, the passenger carrier has launched a buy-one, get one fare sale.

Nos. 58 and 59 have been terminating and originating in Jackson, Mississippi, for much of the time since May when flooding closed the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April opened the spillway to prevent Mississippi River flooding in New Orleans.

Generally, when that happens, host railroad Canadian National bans Amtrak from using the spillway.

Also disrupting the operations of the City of New Orleans was CN track work, which for a week in late July and early August had the train operating two hours later than its normal schedule, and then originating and terminating in Memphis for another week.

CN and Amtrak have a standing agreement that trains can only deadhead with employees until the aging trestle on the spillway is rebuilt when the spillway is opened.

However, CN also denied Amtrak permission to use a wye to turn the train at Hammond, Louisiana, which is 50 miles closer to New Orleans.

During the track work and spillway opening passengers rode chartered buses between Jackson and New Orleans.

As for the fare sale, tickets must be purchased by Aug. 31 and travel completed by the end of September.

Trains magazine noted that the flash sale for the City was one of the few Amtrak has held that is route specific in recent years.

Similar sales have been nationwide aside from a those limited to the Auto Train or conducted in cooperation with states that fund Amtrak corridor routes.

The focus on the City of New Orleans is an effort to attract attention to the fact the train is once again serving both endpoint cities and to address a ridership drop during the months of schedule disruptions.

Trains said that sleeping car revenue had been flat for the first half of fiscal year 2019, but dropped by 16 percent in May, 29 percent in June, and 36 percent in July compared with the corresponding months of 2018.

The represented lost revenue represented of almost $500,000 for those three months.

“We knew we had to develop a plan to counter the idea that there were only buses south of Jackson,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The Southern Rail Commission has sought to help Amtrak publicize the fare sale by appearing in local news media reports in the South.

“It was important for us to get some earned media to publicize the sale,” Magliari said.

Amtrak awarded special recognition pins to on-board and station employees for their service during a difficult situation.

Amtrak Launches Sleeper BOGO Sale

June 5, 2019

Amtrak has announced a buy one, get one sale on sleeping car roomettes and bedrooms.

Tickets must be purchased between June 4 and 10 and travel must take place between Aug. 1, 2019, and March 21, 2020.

Amtrak said the fare is available on all trains with sleeping cars except the Auto Train.

The full fare adult and traveling companion must travel together on the same reservation.

Other terms and conditions include no changes to a trip itinerary once travel has begun and a 25 percent cancellation fee will be imposed on all cancellations.

Reservations must be canceled at least 15 days before travel and reservations canceled after that will receive a non-refundale eVoucher.

There are no blackout dates, but space may not be available on all trains at all times.

Committee Says Amtrak Ignoring Congressional Intent

June 4, 2019

A House appropriations committee has criticized Amtrak for ignoring congress intent on such matters as long-distance trains and station agents.

The committee overseeing the Fiscal year 2020 bill appropriating money for transportation and housing called on Amtrak to maintain a national long-distance network that improves transportation options for rural areas and serves stations staffed with station agents.

The Rail Passengers Association reported that the language was included in a report in advance of a mark-up session for the bill set for today (June 4).

In the report, the committee also took aim at what it termed foot dragging on grants by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The committee said that contrary to congressional direction DOT has set up new Amtrak grant conditions that would give the FRA too much influence over Amtrak’s capital spending decisions.

“[T]he Committee strongly reminds Amtrak that section 24701 of title 49, United States Code, requires Amtrak to operate a national passenger rail system. Further, the Committee directs Amtrak to seek any potential changes to the National Network through the reauthorization of the FAST Act, and urges Amtrak to ensure any such proposals also increase ridership in rural areas and improve service for long-distance customers.”

The report directs Amtrak to “conduct comprehensive outreach and consultation” with a range of stakeholders.

Lawmakers were apparently acting in response to reports that Amtrak wants to chop up long-distance routes into a series of short-haul corridors and/or discontinue service altogether on some routes.

The Trump administration in a budget proposal released earlier this year called for replacing long-distance trains with bus service.

“The Committee rejects this proposal and provides strong funding for Amtrak to continue to provide service through long-distance and state-supported routes.”

The administration has recommended a Restoration and Enhancement Grants program would be used to gut Amtrak’s national network in such a way as to make states pay for intercity passenger rail.

Amtrak has contended that it wants to increase service to under-served areas and start service in areas that now lack intercity rail passenger trains.

The House committee said this “could have unintended consequences for long-distance customers, especially in rural and small communities where passenger rail serves as an important mobility option and economic driver.”

In calling for Amtrak to do a better job of communicating with stakeholders, the committee raised concerns that the passenger carrier “continues to make and implement changes to operations and services without providing the public or its employees adequate time to understand proposed changes and provide feedback.”

It cited changes in rules pertaining to private railroad cars, station ticket agents, call centers, law enforcement, and food and beverage service.

The report calls for Amtrak to provide a station agent in each station that had a ticket agent position eliminated in fiscal year 2018.

It also expressed concerns with the way Amtrak has handled implementing and communicating its guidelines last year for private rail cars, saying the carrier “does not typically inform private car owners when a private car caused a delay to an Amtrak train.”

Long-Distance Trains Likely Safe Through FY2020

May 27, 2019

Amtrak has signaled to Congress that it may not support continuation of all current long-distance trains when it sends its proposed reauthorization proposal to Capitol Hill this fall.

In a letter to Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said the carrier plans to continue operating the existing long-distance network through fiscal year 2020.

However, Anderson said the carrier intends to have a conversation with Congress and its stakeholders regarding the future of its long-distance network.

Anderson said the carrier believes there is a future for “high-quality long-distance trains,” but it also believes that the size, nature and roles need to be reviewed.

He said Amtrak will include options and recommendations in its reauthorization proposal to improve the national network, including the long-distance routes.

Anderson was responding to a letter sent to him by eleven senators posing questions about the future of the national network.

Moran told the Kansas New Service that he expects Congress to use the annual appropriations process to mandate that Amtrak continue serving its existing long-distance routes.

But Moran cautioned that it will still need a fight.

“I need to make sure that Amtrak, its board of directors, its management has a commitment to long-term passenger services in places in the country in which it’s not probably ever going to be profitable,” he said,.

Moran said he will continue to hold all nominees to Amtrak’s board of directors until he gets assurances that the Southwest Chief will continue to operate over the length of its Chicago to Los Angeles route as is.

Bound for Miami

May 19, 2019

Amtrak’s Silver Meteor rushes past the Newark Liberty Airport station without even slowing down.

No. 97 is bound for Miami and assuming it doesn’t lose any significant time en route will be halting at its destination in more than 24 hours.

Amtrak Releases More 5-Year Plans

April 4, 2019

Amtrak recently released five additional medium-range plans pertaining to infrastructure, stations, transportation assets and service line.

Those plans, which have five-year time frames, compliment another five-year plan released previously pertaining to equipment.

Amtrak said the plans seek to provide an articulation of company goals for the next five years.

Each document uses a SWOT analyses (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) as part of the review.

The documents provide management’s thinking of the key issues facing Amtrak.

A review of the plans by Trains magazine concluded that although the plans contain much information, they also tend to reflect a bias by Amtrak management against long-distance passenger trains.

It cited as an example how the discussion of Amtrak service never mentions passenger miles and instead focuses on “subsidy per passenger” and the fact that long-distance routes sustained a $543.2 million operating loss.

Amtrak also views the long-distance trains as failing to meet the preferences of today’s travelers.