Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Empire Builder’

Amtrak’s Transformation at Work in the Midwest

August 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not optimistic about that.

Advertisements

Advocates Working to Save, Promote Trains

August 1, 2018

Motivated by fears that Amtrak is laying the groundwork to eviscerate its long-distance trains network, some rail passengers advocates are going to battle to save their favorite train.

Mark Meyer, a member of the Rail Passengers Association created a website to advocate on behalf of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Such efforts long predate the appointment of Richard Anderson as CEO of Amtrak.

Back in the 1990s passengers advocates established The Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization to fight efforts to discontinue the Chicago-San Antonio train.

Since 2011, ColoRail has been fighting on behalf of the Southwest Chief.

Jim Souby, president of ColoRail, told Trains magazine that these grassroots efforts can be critical to saving service.

“These local folks have the ears of their legislature and congressional leaders and that makes all the difference,” Souby said.

Websites created by groups advocating on behalf of specific trains also are used to promote them by trying to drum up patronage along the route.

Meyer told Trains that he created his website because does not believe Amtrak is doing enough to market the Empire Builder.

He plans to spotlight every town served by the Builder as well as provide a history of the train and ways for people to connect with members of Congress to let them know how important the train is to them.
“Someone needs to promote the (long-distance trains) and explain what they do and why they’re needed,” Meyer said.

The TEMPO website has long done the same thing.

Dr. William Pollard of Conway, Arkansas, said every passenger who sees the website and decides to ride the train is a potential advocate for the Texas Eagle and other long-distance trains.

A veteran of many battles for Amtrak funding, Conway said most of those fights have been with Congress. But now advocates find themselves fighting Amtrak itself.

Taking Breakfast Orders

June 23, 2018

An Amtrak server writes the breakfast orders of passengers as the Empire Builder makes it way west through North Dakota.

During this May 2014 trip, No. 7 was detouring via the former Great Northern Surrey cutoff due to traffic congestion on the train’s regular route via Grand Forks.

The Surrey cutoff was the route used by GN’s Empire Builder in pre-Amtrak days.

During the days of the original Empire Builder passengers would have written their orders on the check and server would tear off the top copy and take it to the kitchen.

No One Home in Havre to Meet Builder

June 23, 2018

In announcing plans to eliminate 18 station agent positions, Amtrak said that all of the affected stations would have a caretaker who would open and close the waiting room at train time.

But the Empire Builder recently arrived in Havre, Montana, but the waiting room was closed and locked.

That prompted a protest from Havre Mayor Tim Solomon who said he has regularly received complaints from community members and travelers about the lack of a ticket office in the norther Montana city.

Solomon said he has not yet been able to talk with Amtrak but wants them to know the changes are not working.

Thus far Amtrak has held firm on closing all of the ticket offices that it said that it would.

Amtrak Says Montana Ticket Office Closings are Final

June 8, 2018

Amtrak has told a Montana senator that the closing of ticket offices in Havre and Shelby is final.

In a letter to Jon Tester, Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen J. Gardner said the Havre ticket agents have lost their jobs.

Gardner said in the letter that most Amtrak passengers purchase tickets online and over the phone nationwide and that the passenger carrier is eliminating ticket agents at stations averaging fewer than 40 passengers a day.

Tester’s press secretary, Marnée Banks, said the senator is continuing to look at what can be done to save the ticket offices.

The letter from Gardner also reiterated a comment he made to a congressional committee that Amtrak at this time has no plans of reducing the frequency of operation of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which is Montana’s only Amtrak train.

“Amtrak must remain mindful of our congressional directive . . . to minimize government subsidies,” Gardner said. “We estimate that removing full-time agents from these two stations with fewer than 40 passengers will save approximately $200,000.”

Money saved from closing ticket offices will be redirected toward the national network capital investments and other improvements, Gardner said.

Gardner said 6 percent of ticket sales are made through traditional ticket agents at stations nationwide.

“Of nearly 10,000 customers boarding at (the Havre and Shelby) stations in Montana so far this fiscal year, we believe that only 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively, purchase tickets though the stations agents and of these approximately 2,300 passengers, only 14 percent and 16 percent, respectively, paid with cash,” Gardner said.

However, former Amtrak Havre ticket agent Leslie Shelton said during a meeting of the Havre City Council that she and a co-worker started in April tracking ticket sales in Havre and found that seven out of 10 passengers purchased their tickets from the ticket agents, with a large number of them being purchased with cash.

Both Havre and Shelby offered checked baggage service, which also ended with the closing of the ticket offices.

Gardner said in his letter that the onboard crew will offer any necessary baggage assistance for passengers whether they are boarding or disembarking from the train.

Amtrak has hired caretakers at both stations who will open and close the waiting room around train time and keep it clean.

Montana Lawmakers Want Ticket Offices Kept

June 2, 2018

Montana’s Congressional delegation is protesting the closing of Amtrak ticket offices in Havre and Shelby.

Both cities are served by the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder and are among 15 offices being closed during May and June.

Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines along with Rep. Greg Gianforte criticized the actions and called on Amtrak to reverse that decision.

In Shelby and Havre, Amtrak plans to hire caretakers to open and close the station waiting room at train time. The caretakers will also be responsible for keeping the waiting rooms clean.

The Havre office was to close on June 1 while the Shelby office is set to be shuttered on June 3.

Portage Platform Being Repaved

June 1, 2018

Canadian Pacific is resurfacing the Amtrak boarding platform in Portage, Wisconsin, which will affect boarding of the Empire Builder in that city.

As part of the project, which extends through June 30, workers will also be conducting tie work on the adjacent tracks.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said passengers will need to exit the station shelter and walk to the far east end of the platform to board their train.

Passengers are also urged to use caution when walking and driving in this area as portions of it are active construction zones.

Taking Dinner Orders on No. 7

May 25, 2018

An Amtrak server takes dinner orders from a table in the dining car of Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder as it cruises through Wisconsin.

It is May 2014 and the train and this is the first meal to be served in the diner after leaving Chicago more than an hour late due to waiting for connecting passengers from a tardy inbound Lake Shore Limited.

In fact, I would have dinner with one of those passengers during the dinner hour. I even recall ordering the steak dinner, one of the few times I’ve ordered it when dining in an Amtrak dining car.

Red Wing Station Gets New Roof

May 14, 2018

The Amtrak station in Red Wing, Minnesota, is getting a repaired roof after it was damaged by hail.

Workers are replacing the red tin shingles that were damaged. Eventually, the entire roof will receive new shingles.

The depot is also home to the Red Wing Arts Association and the Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Red Wing is served by the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

 

Empire Builder Subject to Delay

May 7, 2018

Track work being performed by Canadian Pacific in Wisconsin is expected to delay the Empire Builder through Oct. 3.

Train No. 8 will be held up to 60 minutes between Winona and La Crosse, departing no earlier than 11:47 a.m.

Train No. 8 will operate on a later schedule through to Chicago and passengers are advised to check Amtrak.com for the latest schedule times.

In a service advisory said that although delays of up to an hour are expected, the delay could be less at individual stations because trains can make up time.

The advisory recommended that passengers check the status of their train at Amtrak.com, with Amtrak mobile apps, speaking with station personnel or calling 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245).

Amtrak also offers text or email delay alerts when booking a reservation.