Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Inter-American’

Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

October 16, 2020

It might be hard to believe today but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing losses high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared to the early 1950s and revenue having fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with an automat car containing vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers.

In return NARP agreed not to protest moving the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the day that Amtrak began in 1971, it inhered tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting much like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by removing from most trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of food prepared off the train.

Amtrak has sought to frame the move to tri-weekly service as temporary and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less than daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less than daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago every day, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was later extended north to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago. At various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 via a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on certain days when travel demand is less, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have advocated strenuously against Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan argued in a Progressive Railway essay headlined “farewell, long-distance trains?” that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s plans disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less than daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less than daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.”

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily but also eliminated the Pioneer between Salt Lake City and Seattle and Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service.

Whether any or even all of the trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process and how Amtrak management responds to it.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.

Amtrak Studies Austin-San Antonio Service

January 10, 2017

Amtrak has agreed to study launching a commuter rail service between San Antonio and Austin, Texas, that would ease highway congestion between the two cities.

Amtrak logoTexas Public Radio reported that officials in the two cities turned to Amtrak after a regional rail commuter plan known as the Lone Star Rail project collapsed.

At the request of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Amtrak is studying ridership and revenue potential and how much it would cost to upgrade the Union Pacific line between the two cities, which are 80 miles apart.

The goal would be to offer a service that could average 90 miles per hour and duplicate what Lone Star Rail would have provided.

That would be a train leaving every 30 minutes during peak travel times. The service would begin in South San Antonio and terminate at Georgetown outside of Austin.

Much of this route is now served by Amtrak’s Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Transportation officials say the commute on Interstate 35 between the two cities take two and a half hours.

The Amtrak study is expected to be completed by the middle of 2017.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor said the study is projected to cost $100,000 on the study.  Capital for track improvement and operations would come mostly from private investors.

If financing can be lined up, the service could be implemented in three to five years.

San Antonio leaders are also eyeing another rail service that would link their city with Monterrey, Mexico, via Laredo, Texas.

The concept is for high-speed rail that would operate at a top speed of 250 miles per hour making the trip in two hours.

Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar insists that the proposal is not just a pipe dream. He said he’s met with Mexican officials, federal and state transportation officials, and private investors who would consider financing the project.

“You connect San Antonio’s large population, Laredo and, of course, Monterrey with 4.5 million individuals,” Cuellar said. “Entities like Sea World (in San Antonio), when I talk to them they’re all excited, because that means potentially a new base of customers.”

Amtrak once linked San Antonio and Laredoe with its Chicago-Laredo Inter-American. which was discontinued south of San Antonio on Oct. 1, 1981, and renamed the Eagle between San Antonio and Chicago.

One Day at High Noon in Springfield, Illinois

December 15, 2016

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The technical quality of this image isn’t great but it is one of the few photographs that I have of an SDP40F taken trackside leading a train.

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Looking south from the fireman’s side of Amtrak SPD40F No. 613 in Springfield, Illinois.

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The control stand of an Amtrak SDP40F.

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Engineer Dean Elliot awaits a highball to depart Springfield, Illinois, with Amtrak train No. 21 in June 1977.

It is almost high noon in June 1977 in Springfield, Illinois. I’m standing near the Illinois Central Gulf tracks (former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) tracks awaiting the arrival of Amtrak’s westbound Inter-American from Chicago to Laredo, Texas.

I don’t recall if No. 21 was late or on time, but even if the former, it was not excessively tardy.

Leading No. 21 was SDP40F No. 613. I made a single photograph of it sitting in the station with its train.

The image isn’t that good, a product of harsh light, improper exposure and the fact that I scanned it from a color negative that is almost 40 years old.

I wanted to photograph the Inter-American because it still ran with SDP40F locomotives and those have always been a favorite of mine.

The engineer of the train spotted me and waved. On impulse I asked him if I could come up into the cab.

He said “yes” and up I went and got the other three images  you see with this post.

I would later learn that the engineer was Dean Elliot and that he is now deceased. He was a railroader’s railroader and I can only imagine the stories he would have had to tell about life on the road.

But there was no time for that. I only had enough time to grab a few shots before the conductor gave No. 21 a highball to leave Springfield. I thanked the crew and climbed down.

And off they went to St. Louis where a Missouri Pacific crew would take over to pilot the Inter-American on its continuing journey to Laredo.

Today, Nos. 21 and 22 are named the Texas Eagle and operate between Chicago and San Antonio.

The Inter-American in Springfield

September 23, 2016

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It is a cloudy day in March 1977. The long, bitter winter has finally receded and operations at Amtrak have returned to normal after several trains were annulled for a few weeks due to a shortage of workable equipment.

I’m in Springfield, Illinois, where I lived for two years in the middle 1970s. I’ve returned to visit friends and made a mental note to take my new camera to the Amtrak station to photograph the Inter-American, which arrived in late morning southbound.

At the time, the I-A operated between Chicago and Lardeo, Texas, three days a week although it was a daily operation between Chicago and Fort Worth, Texas.

The I-A, which today is known as the Texas Eagle, has an interesting history that included fights with Missouri Pacific over dispatching and train speeds, and a struggle with a Texas congressman over his desire to see the I-A interchange cars with the Mexican Railways.

Eventually Amtrak worked out its differences with MoPac, but the interchange with the Aztec Eagle never came to be. In time, the route was shortened to Chicago-San Antonio.

At the time that I made this photograph of No. 21 in Springfield, the Inter-American was in the midst of the aforementioned disputes and it had only been about a month since it had resumed operating the length of its route after being canceled south of St. Louis during the harsh winter of 1977 that sidelined a third of Amtrak’s long-distance fleet assigned to Chicago-based trains.

And it had been less than five months since the northern terminus of the I-A had been extended to Chicago from St. Louis.

Nos. 21 and 22 were operating with a pair of SDP40F locomotives, although by the time I saw the I-A in June 1977, the motive power assignment has been reduced to one locomotive.

The SDP40F locomotives and steam-heated equipment would not last much longer. On August 8, 1977, the consist was reduced to two Amfleet coaches and a cafe car. Equipment assignments such as this would become a thing of the past.

 

View From the Cab in Springfield

August 31, 2016

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It was already warm as I waited in late morning on a Sunday in June 1977 for the arrival of the westbound Inter-American in Springfield, Illinois. No. 21 was still being pulled by SDP40F locomotives photographing that was my primary objective.

I don’t recall if the train was late or on time. It arrived behind a single locomotive and stopped. After getting an external photo that didn’t turn out all that well, I asked the engineer if I could come up to photograph inside the cab.

He was an older gentlemen who probably ranked high on the seniority list. At the time, he was an Illinois Central Gulf employee but would have begun his career with the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio or maybe even the Chicago & Alton.

This is one of three images that I made inside the cab. The view is looking southward toward St. Louis from the fireman’s side.

That is the East Adams Street crossing directly ahead. Beyond that is East Monroe Street and then the tracks cross over East Capitol Avenue on a bridge.

Much has changed since this image was made 39 years ago. The ex-GM&O tracks are now owned by Union Pacific and there is just one track now through downtown Springfield.

The Inter-American is now the Texas Eagle and no longer operates south of San Antonio to Neuvo Laredo, Texas, as it did in 1977.

The SDP40F motive power was replaced with F40PH locomotives and Amfleet equipment about two months after my visit.

Officials want to remove these tracks and reroute Amtrak to another path that has far fewer grade crossings.

Like so many other photographs made many years ago, this one is full of reminders of how things have changed as well as how they haven’t.