Posts Tagged ‘on transportation’

Grand Plan Could be a House of Cards

January 28, 2020

Amtrak has yet to release its grand plan of urban oriented corridors with multiple daily frequencies but has dropped hints in recent months about what it will look like.

The most recent hint came in a legislative hearing in Kansas. A senior Amtrak public affairs executive indicated the passenger carrier will seek millions, if not billions, from Congress to help states pay for the capital and operating costs of the new services Amtrak would like to provide.

That would include extending the Heartland Flyer into Kansas and creating a new route between Atlanta and Nashville.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson has said there are numerous unserved and underserved urban pairings, many of them in the South and West, which could be part of this new network.

But he has yet to release an actual map of those routes.

In advance of the release of the Amtrak plan, which is expected to be part of the carrier’s proposal for a surface transportation bill Congress is expected to take up later this year, the carrier has apparently launched a public relations tour of states that would benefit from it.

The strategy appears to be to seek political support among members of Congress from those states.

So why do I keep thinking it’s all a pipe dream?

There is no assurance Congress will approve the funding Amtrak is banking on to help pay for its urban corridor network.

That’s critical because in the Kansas legislative committee hearing an Amtrak official acknowledged that the cost of starting these new routes is more than states are going to be willing to pay.

But consider also some recent developments in places where states are already funding corridor service, have funded it in the past or where funding for new service is close to becoming reality.

In Missouri the state transportation director told lawmakers the Show Me State is in arrears in paying for the twice daily Missouri River Runner service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has suggested increasing funding for Amtrak service, but one lawmaker suggested instead the legislature rethink funding Amtrak at all.

Although Anderson cited Chicago-Indianapolis as an example last year of the “new look Amtrak” when testifying before a congressional committee, the Indiana legislature declined to continue funding the Hoosier State between the two cities and it ended after its last trips on June 30, 2019.

In Virginia, the news of late has focused on a plan to expand Amtrak service as part of an ambitious $3.7 billion project.

But in the southwestern corner of the state efforts by officials in Bristol to get Amtrak service extended to their city have stalled in part because host railroad Norfolk Southern walked away from the negotiations.

A proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, has encountered opposition from within Alabama.

The governor declined to support that state’s share of funding for the service even though the neighboring states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to provide funding to match a federal grant.

The service may be doomed if the Mobile City Council votes today against a resolution to approve $3 million in local funding for operating expenses of the route for three years.

It may be that funding will materialize in Alabama. NS will come back to the table in Virginia and the Missouri legislature will agree to provide the funding MoDOT wants.

Yet one of the Missouri lawmakers who is skeptical about continued funding of Amtrak summed up what all of these cases have in common when he said budgeting is about setting priorities.

No one would disagree with that but there is wide disagreement about whether passenger rail is or should be one of those priorities.

If Amtrak’s still-to-be released plan is to succeed, it will hinge on getting buy in Congress, state legislatures and host railroads.

In some instances, states will be asked to make a financial commitment for something they’ve never funded before.

There are sure to be some who will argue that limited public dollars are better spend on other priorities such as education, public health, public safety and highways.

I’ve long wondered if the urban corridors concept being pushed by Anderson and others at Amtrak is a ploy for something else.

It might be discontinuing long-distance trains or finding source of funding that can be used to collect “overhead” costs that go toward other Amtrak priorities.

There is a popular theory in some rail passengers circles that the national network is being used to prop up the Northeast Corridor so Amtrak can continue the fiction that it is profitable.

Anderson and the Amtrak board of directors might sincerely believe they can talk Congress into giving them the money that a Kansas legislative committee was told about recently.

And if those funds fail to materialize?

The urban corridors network will fall like a house of cards. Yet I’m not sure it wasn’t always a house of cards anyway.

The $25,000 Question: Was Amtrak Doing the Right Thing or Trying to Avoid Answering Tough Questions?

January 28, 2020

It didn’t take Amtrak long to back pedal away from an effort to charge a group of passengers, half of them using wheel chairs, a $25,000 service fee added atop tickets that normally cost $16 per person.

Actually, it might be more accurate to say the passenger carrier turned tail and ran away from the fee once it began receiving national attention that turned up the political heat to an unbearable level.

As is typical in these situations, Amtrak sought to spin it by framing it as a wrongful application of policy.

If the heat gets high enough, blame a rank and file employee for making a mistake. You might even call it an honest one. Then you apologize.

Yet there is much we don’t know and may never know about what led to this fee.

Amtrak may have appeared in the end to have done the right thing, but let’s not overlook that it reversed course in part to seek to avoid having to answer some tough questions, including why the fee was so high in the first place.

To recap the facts of the situation, a group of 10 members of Access Living, a Chicago disabilities group, wanted to travel together aboard a Lincoln Service train from Chicago to Normal, Illinois, to attend a conference.

Half of the group would be traveling in wheelchairs. It is not that Amtrak can’t accommodate those in wheelchairs, but it is not set up to handle large groups of wheelchair passengers who wish to travel together in the same car.

Each Amtrak coach has space for just one wheelchair. That means that the group had to be spread out over multiple coaches or seats needed to be removed to enable then to be seated in the same car.

The Chicago group has traveled via Amtrak before and the passenger carrier removed seats to accommodate them.

It is unclear how much above the regular fare the wheelchair passengers had to pay for those past trips.

One news account quoted a member of the group as saying they paid a few hundred more while another account quoted an Amtrak employee as saying the carrier absorbed the cost of removing the seats.

The group contacted Amtrak group sales last month to buy tickets and was told by a sales agent that a new policy meant they would have to pay a fee to have seats removed to accommodate additional wheelchairs in the same car.

The fee was an eye popping $25,000. When the group protested, the sales agent wrote back to say it was in line with the carrier’s policy pertaining to reconfiguring a rail car.

“With the removal of seats, it can be quite costly,” the agent wrote.

The group then turned to the news media. Initially, Amtrak stood behind the fee, telling National Public Radio it has a policy of adding “an additional fee when any group requires reconfiguration of our rail cars.”

Amtrak also suggested the group split up with some members riding one train and others riding another operating three hours later.

That stance lasted a day or two. Not only did the story get picked up by other news media it also drew the ire of Illinois U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth who described the fee as outrageous.

Duckworth is not just another senator. She lost both of her legs after the U.S. Army helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq was shot down.

She uses a wheelchair and has taken a great interest in legislation affecting the rights of the disabled.

Duckworth also is the ranking minority party member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on transportation.

After she demanded a meeting with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, Amtrak lawyers contacted an attorney for Access Living and offered a deal.

The carrier would remove seats, drop the fee and even offer a buy one get one deal.

The group accepted the offer. Amtrak later said it was dropping the policy that led to the $25,000 fee in the first place.

“After further review, Amtrak has determined to suspend the policy in question,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari doing his best impersonation of a referee in the National Football League.

“It was never meant to be applied to this situation. And we apologize for the mistake.”

A news story noted that Magliari spoke shortly after protesters gathered outside an Amtrak station in Illinois and chanted, “We will ride.”

The story seemed to have a happy ending with the group making the trip on Jan. 22 to the conference aboard Amtrak.

Adam Ballard, an Access Living transportation policy analyst, said everything went smoothly.

“Everyone got on the train really great,” he told NPR. “We were treated like kings and queens. There was extra staff to help with bags and work the wheelchair lifts.

“And they had extra staff on the train to attend to our every need. So it was not the typical Amtrak ride.”

Of course it wasn’t. It is no surprise that Amtrak decided to bend over backwards in an effort to save face. That is the substance of good public relations.

It also was an attempt to make the situation and its attending bad publicity go away.

It will, but will anyone in a position of authority ever demand that Amtrak provide a detailed bill showing why it costs $25,000 to remove a handful of seats from an Amfleet or Horizon coach?

There are fees that are designed to enhance revenue and there are fees that are designed to discourage certain customer behavior.

The $30 that airlines charge to check a bag on a flight is an example of the former. People grumble about it but they either pay it or take as much as they can aboard with them stow it in the overhead bins or under the seat ahead of them.

However, the $25,000 fee Amtrak wanted to impose on Access Living sure seemed like discouragement. It came across as the type of exorbitant fee someone dreamed up knowing a group such as Access Living couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it.

It not as though Amtrak would have to hire additional personnel to remove the seats. That task would be done by regular employees.

How long does it take to unbolt seats and put them aside on a shop floor? Amtrak would have you believe it’s a very complex and expensive task.

Amtrak is not unique in saying that something is expensive without having to prove it.

Companies of all kinds routinely engage in this behavior to pressure their customers to behave in ways favorable to the company.

What Amtrak doesn’t want to admit is that it wanted to force Access Living to do things its way because it didn’t want to remove the seats.

It either saw removing seats as a hassle and/or it could lead to lost revenue.

Under ordinary circumstances, if a group of 10 disembarks at Normal the seats they occupied from Chicago become available for sale to new passengers boarding in Normal or some other station downstream.

But the chances of selling that space to other wheelchair users probably were slim. It could be days before that space gets back into revenue service.

Amtrak CEO Anderson has been aggressive about cost cutting and revenue enhancement. He has his agenda of trying to do what he can to make Amtrak’s finances look better, which he sees as a bargaining chip to talk Congress into giving Amtrak more money.

The carrier has a lot of decaying infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor that needs to be replaced and that won’t come cheap. It also wants billions to finance its new urban corridor oriented network.

Although Anderson tries to run Amtrak like a private company, the passenger carrier can’t survive without public funding. That creates the perception in the minds of many that it is a public agency.

It didn’t help that the way the $25,000 fee came across in the news media and on social media was that of a heartless organization trying to bully a small group of handicapped citizens into submission.

That’s not how Amtrak would explain it but at some point high-ranking executives at the carrier, perhaps including Anderson himself, concluded that they couldn’t win this public relations battle. So Amtrak went into high gear damage control.

It is tempting to suggest that poor management at Amtrak led to this situation. There may be some truth to that given Anderson’s desire to squeeze every nickel and pick up every dime.

Some middle level manager should have recognized that if a $25,000 fee being imposed on wheelchair users went viral that Amtrak would suffer a great big black eye.

But middle level managers are not always courageous enough to put their jobs on the line. Some would rather curry favor with the managers above them by being all in on company policy.

As those who initially dealt with Access Living probably saw it, the group might protest but in the end would capitulate.

More often than not when Amtrak pulls the rules on its passengers they have no viable recourse. They don’t know how to get their plight publicized on NPR or gain the attention of a powerful policy maker.

But someone at Access Living is media savvy and Amtrak apparently didn’t take that possibility into account.

These types of situations will continue to occur so long as those whose job it is to enforce rules and policies lack authority to make exceptions when discretion is called for and/or lack the foresight to be able to see the consequences of how the company’s behavior could be seen by others if they find out about it.

It is unclear what the episode involving Access Living means long term for passengers with disabilities traveling as a group.

As one member of Access Living commented to a reporter, getting around can be pretty tough for those in wheelchairs even in the best of circumstances.

Underlying this story is that Amtrak wanted the Access Living travel party to change its behavior to fit Amtrak’s needs rather than Amtrak doing all it reasonably could to meet the group’s needs.

Most people traveling together would like to sit together. It wasn’t as though the Access Living members showed up one morning at Union Station and demanded accommodations on the next train out.

They contacted Amtrak weeks before they planned to travel in recognition of the fact that it takes time to arrange accommodations for a group of wheelchair passengers.

An overarching issue that Amtrak probably would like to dodge for now is what obligation it has to accommodate those with disabilities. That is not necessarily an easy question to answer because at some point it becomes a matter of character.

Amtrak is not insensitive to the needs of those with disabilities. It has been reconfiguring its stations in recent years to better accommodate passengers with disabilities and has taken other steps to be helpful to them.

But a fault line lies where the carrier has to forgo revenue and incur an expense in order to accommodate those with disabilities as they wish to be accommodated.

Amtrak said it suspended its policy which is not necessarily the same thing as repealing it.

The suspension might buy time to let things die down or to rethink and revise the original policy.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak management sees what happened with Access Living as a fluke and goes about doing business as usual or a sign that it needs to make some hard policy choices that come with price tags it doesn’t want to pay but must to avoid a similar PR train wreck down the track.

The Tennessee Passenger Expansion Waltz: A Serious Proposal or Just a Talking Point for Public Consumption?

January 18, 2020

The news this past week that an Amtrak executive spoke to a Tennessee legislative transportation committee is being seen by some as the first tangible step that Amtrak is moving to seek to implement a vision that CEO Richard Anderson has been articulating for more than a year.

Anderson and Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner have spoken in interviews and occasional appearances about transforming Amtrak’s route network to one more focused on corridor service between urban centers, particularly growing metropolitan areas.

They repeatedly have hammered home the point that many of the nation’s fastest growing cities are unserved by Amtrak or underserved by trains arriving at inconvenient hours.

Such talk has alarmed many rail passenger advocates who see is as code language that means dismantling the carrier’s long-distance routes.

Indeed Anderson and Gardner have been bad mouthing long-distance trains, saying they lose money and could be restructured into the type of corridor services they have described in principle.

Amtrak’s aborted efforts to truncate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief by creating a bus bridge between western Kansas and Albuquerque is often cited as Exhibit A of Anderson’s plan to kill long-distance passenger trains aside from one or two “experiential trains.”

Waltzing in Tennessee

The appearance of Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, at a meeting of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee was significant for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, it was the first time Amtrak has named a specific route that fits the criteria that Anderson and Gardner have been talking up.

That route would link Atlanta and Nashville, but Lang also talked about extending a pair of Midwest corridor trains to Memphis.

Second, it offered concrete proof that Amtrak expects state and local governments to pay for its vision of the future of rail passenger travel.

It is not clear why Amtrak chose Tennessee as the opening act for what promises to be lengthy process.

Perhaps Amtrak has quietly sounded out other states on their interest in ponying up money for new rail passenger service and we just haven’t heard about it.

Or perhaps Amtrak projects the Tennessee routes as among the most likely to succeed.

The news reports out of the Volunteer State generally portrayed a favorable reception to Amtrak’s proposals with some legislators speaking well of the prospect of rail passenger service where none exists now.

Atlanta and Nashville have never been linked by Amtrak and Tennessee’s capitol has been off the Amtrak route network since the Floridian makes its final trips between Chicago and Florida in early October 1979.

Amtrak probably viewed its road show in Nashville as a first step. It might also have been seeking to gauge the interest of Tennessee lawmakers in funding the service.

An Amtrak spokesman and CSX executive said as much.

“We are also talking to current state partners regarding how additional frequencies might be implemented,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari to Trains magazine.

“This is the first we’re seeing of this,” CSX State Government and Community Affairs VP Jane Covington said during the committee hearing.

Covington said it was her understanding that Amtrak was trying “to simply gauge the state’s interest.”

Whatever the case, nothing is imminent and there is no assurance that the routes discussed will ever operate.

There are numerous hurdles the service needs to clear starting with the willingness of Tennessee legislators to spend the money to underwrite the operating losses of the trains, which have been estimated at $3 million annually.

State and local governments also will likely be asked to advance money for capital expenditures on such things as stations.

Warning Shots Fired

Other players in the process will also play a role in whether the trains operate.

Chief among them is would-be host railroad CSX.

CSX’s Covington fired a warning shot across the bow in saying, “introducing passenger trains to heavily used freight lines will be a complex, costly process.

“And I understand that you guys are hearing from your constituents about the crowded roads, and you’re obviously looking for solutions to that. But we want to make sure you do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t backfire and divert freight off the rails and onto the highways.”

That’s another way of saying that CSX will demand some very expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to host the trains.

More than likely the price tag for those projects will be more than state lawmakers are willing to pay for a service that Amtrak said will lose money.

Another player will be the Illinois Department of Transportation, which funds the trains now operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, that Amtrak has proposed extending to Memphis.

Amtrak spokesman Magliari said it would be relatively easy to have the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini serve Memphis because Amtrak already has crews based in Carbondale who operate the City of New Orleans on host railroad Canadian National between Carbondale and Memphis.

But what looks easy or even possible on paper may not be so in practice. IDOT will want assurance that its interests won’t be harmed in any rescheduling of the trains.

An unknown about the additional service to Memphis is whether the state of Kentucky would be willing to help fund trains that run through their state.

Looming in the background is the Sept. 30 expiration of the current surface transportation act that authorizes Amtrak funding among other things.

No one in Congress has yet released to the public a draft surface transportation bill and details about what those drafts will ultimately contain have been scarce.

“It’s going to take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to redo the surface transportation bill,” said Amtrak’s Lang in the legislature hearing.

He reiterated the rhetoric that Anderson and Gardner have been using in suggesting that without a restructuring of its route network Amtrak will wither away.

“We think this presents us an opportunity to really transform the company,” Lang said.

Magliari echoed that theme in his interview with Trains when he said the passenger carrier is engaging in outreach efforts to enlist future support from states now underserved by outlining what routes might be viable.

History Lessons

At the time that Amtrak began in May 1971, the only intercity passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta was the former Georgian of the Louisville & Nashville.

That train operated with single coach between St. Louis and Atlanta and had a travel time of seven hours between Nashville and Atlanta.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Florida route served Nashville but not via Atlanta.

The planners who set up Amtrak’s initial route network considered operating between Nashville and Atlanta but declined to do so due to difficult operating conditions, including a top speed of 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta.

Another complication was that Amtrak would need to build a station in Georgia’s capitol city.

The Floridian was one of Amtrak’s most troubled trains and then Amtrak President Paul Resitrup said in 1977 that its future was hopeless unless it could be routeded via Atlanta.

In April 1978 Amtrak announced a preliminary plan to route the Floridian via Atlanta, but it fell apart when L&N refused to host the train, citing freight train congestion.

The Southern Railway demanded $20 million in track improvements as its price for hosting the Floridian to Atlanta.

The Floridian never made it to Atlanta before its 1979 discontinuance.

In October 1989 Congress directed Amtrak to study resuming service between Chicago and Florida via Atlanta.

That plan has the support of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a conference at which then Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. said the train would only become reality with financial support from the states along the route.

That never materialized and opposition from CSX and Norfolk Southern torpedoed a demonstration route during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Claytor was involved in another effort to revive passenger service to Atlanta in the early 2000s.

That proposal was to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville from Louisville and a test train ran over the route in December 2001.

Amtrak told CSX it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal over the 181-mile route once owned by L&N and used by the Floridian.

Claytor told a congressional committee he was bending over backwards and making every effort to get passenger service to Nashville.

Apparently Claytor couldn’t bend far enough or do enough because Amtrak still hasn’t returned to Nashville.

Political Strategy

All involved have been careful to emphasize that the proposed Nashville-Atlanta service is still in the idea stage.

Much needs to happen to make this train a reality and a best case scenario is it will be four to five years – or more – before the Music City Peach or whatever name it is given appears in the Amtrak timetable.

You have to wonder just how serious Amtrak is about its vision of bringing frequent daylight service to unserved or underserved corridors linking growing metropolitan areas.

Lang said this week in Nashville, “Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all.”

Those make for good talking points, but Amtrak management must know based on its experience in working with host railroads how obstinate and demanding they can be.

It also must know that asking states for money is one thing but getting it is another. Remember the Hoosier State?

The Rail Passengers Association commented on its website on Friday, “CSX is required by law to host Amtrak trains, but has the ability to price state DOTs and Amtrak out of the market if it so chooses.”

RPA, Amtrak and anyone who has paid any attention at all to the behavior of Amtrak’s host railroads knows how they have wielded that power on multiple occasions.

Rail passenger advocates by nature must put on an optimistic face so RPA also said this about Tennessee service expansion proposal: “State officials will have to act accordingly, and work to bring all stakeholder groups onboard.”

That is much easier said than done particularly given that Tennessee has never funded Amtrak service and it is not know how committed state policy makers are to seeing through what Amtrak has proposed.

Has any else noticed that no one is talking about whether the Nashville-Atlanta service will need funding from Georgia, another state that has never funded Amtrak service?

This is not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy and going into this process the odds are stacked against the prospect.

Amtrak’s top management probably has convinced itself that it really can have the type of network that Anderson and Gardner keep harping about.

But are they serious? Or is this just another talking point to be used to strategic advantage to provide political cover as management goes about scuttling the long-distance trains?

Amtrak could offer its plan to, say, carve up the route of the Capitol Limited into a Chicago-Pittsburgh service funded by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When that funding fails to materialize, Amtrak can say it tried to “save” service to those states but their elected lawmakers declined to pay for it.

Don’t blame us, go talk to the folks in Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield because they’re the ones who made the decision.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak is actually going to release a master plan that spells out what specific new services it envisions.

That plan, if is exists, will look impressive and get a lot of people excited just as the Amtrak road show in Tennessee did this week.

But I can’t help but wonder if it will be just another plan that winds up sitting in a drawer somewhere as Amtrak shrinks to a company with service in the Northeast and a few other state-supported corridors.

So What Did Mr. Anderson Mean?

December 11, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently gave an interview to the Here and Now program on National Public Radio and a railroad passenger group found in his remarks a commitment toward preserving rail service to all of America and not just a few coastal urban corridors.

As the Rail Passengers Association sees it, Anderson indicated he recognizes Amtrak has a legal obligation to offer a national network.

When rail passenger advocates use the term “national network” they are talking about long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson has been outspoken in the past year that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are money losers and suggested the future of intercity rail passenger is short corridors linking urban areas.

He has hinted that Amtrak wants to eliminate some of those long-distance runners by chopping up their routes into corridors.

An NPR reporter said asked Anderson why if the long-distance trains are the money losers he says they are why that the carrier doesn’t say they are no longer a part of Amtrak’s core business and eliminated them.

Anderson responded this way: “Well, no, that wouldn’t be appropriate for Amtrak because we have a statutory responsibility to provide intercity travel. We also have a statutory responsibility to minimize losses and run this like a business. So we’re at an intersection of both a really important public-policy role and the responsibility to be very good stewards. So, we have to have good answers for rural communities. So we take that challenge.”

But was Anderson saying what RPA claims that he said?

Anderson indeed said Amtrak has a legal obligation to provide rail passenger service but that doesn’t necessarily mean he said that includes long-distance trains.

He said Amtrak needs to have good answers for rural communities, but didn’t say what those will be.

What constitutes a “national network” is a murky concept. There are vast swaths of the United States that lack intercity rail passenger service and haven’t had it for decades.

Amtrak has never served South Dakota. Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, have been off the Amtrak map for 40 years.

Does a national network mean that all 50 states and all principal cities must be served?

Some rail advocates might answer in the affirmative, but that doesn’t mean it is likely to happen.

RPA wants to see Amtrak receive a separate source of funding to grow its network.

The organization rightly fears the corridor services that Anderson is fond of promoting will come at the expense of long-distance routes.

The rail passenger advocacy group said a separate funding source for new Amtrak routes is gaining support in Congress and within Amtrak itself, but it remains to be seen if that materializes.

There have been many proposals over the years for dedicated funding sources for Amtrak, but none of ever made it into law.

Instead Amtrak funding continues to be the annual appropriations granted by Congress that are subject to the vicissitudes of which way the political winds are blowing at the time.

RPA claims Anderson’s response during the NPR program is a subtle but important change from his earlier rhetoric.

The advocacy group is correct in asserting that Anderson’s comment about the need to minimize Amtrak’s losses and run the passenger like a business speaks to a tension between operating a tight ship and the mission of serving communities that are unprofitable.

Getting to where RPA and other rail passengers advocates want to be is a long game that will still be playing out long after Anderson has left his post.

There may be some support in Congress for the type of expansive rail passenger network that advocates want to see – including a mixture of corridor services and long-distance trains – but there remains considerable opposition to it as well.

That opposition is not just in Washington but also in the headquarters of every Amtrak host railroad.

Even if Anderson’s rhetoric has undergone a subtle change, I have yet to see evidence, including in his comments made during the NPR interview that he has changed his mind about the role of long-distance passenger trains in America.

Perhaps Anderson has learned intercity rail passenger service is politically different than airline service provided by for-profit companies and his comments reflect that.

That doesn’t mean that he has come around to the viewpoint that all long-distance trains need to be kept in place in order to maintain a national network that meets the transportation needs of rural America. What constitutes the latter is subject to wide differences in interpretation.

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.

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.

Hoosier State Down to its Last Strike

March 6, 2019

To use a baseball analogy, Amtrak’s Hoosier State is down to its last strike.

The quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train has swung and missed twice now, first when Indiana Gov. Eric Holmcomb declined to seek continued funding for the train in his budget proposal and, second, when the lower house of the Indiana General Assembly also rejected continued funding.

The House actually voted against Hoosier State funding twice. A House committee declined to reinstate the funding to Holcomb’s proposed budget and then the full House voted against an amendment to add the funding back.

Now the hopes to continue the train go to the Senate which, in theory, could restore the funding. But it would then have to get through a conference committee.

Much of the political support for continued Hoosier State funding has come from Lafayette and West Lafayette.

Those two cities along with Tippecanoe County and the cities of Crawfordsville and Rensselaer collectively contribute $500,000 a year. The state’s share for the Hoosier State is $3 million annually.

The train’s supporters in Lafayette knew that keeping state funding going was a long shot once the governor deleted it from his budget.

“We’ve been working and we knew were going to have to keep working,” Arvid Olson head of Greater Lafayette Commerce’s transportation committee, told the Lafayette Journal & Courier shortly after a House committee declined to reinstate funding for the train.

Olson acknowledged that the train’s ridership isn’t where its supporters would like it to be and, so-so ridership was one reason that Holcomb gave for ending the funding.

“We’re not flailing,” Olson said. “We’re just making the case that the Hoosier State is an important economic development piece for our community. And if it goes away, it’s going to be very expensive, if not impossible, to get back.”

Indeed it will be. But it won’t be impossible.

The Hoosier State has a long, colorful and at times troubling history.

It began on Oct. 1, 1980, as demonstration project mandated by Congress at the behest of former  Indiana Senator Birch Bayh.

Bayh had slipped an amendment into the 1979 Amtrak Reorganization Act directing Amtrak to launch a Chicago-Indianapolis route.

No small part of the rational for the amendment was to give Amtrak a dedicated train to ferry equipment to and from the Beech Grove shops.

The same law that gave birth to the Hoosier State had also made possible the discontinuance of Amtrak’s last train to serve Indianapolis, the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

From Day One the Hoosier State has been hindered by a slow and circuitous route.

None of the traditional passenger routes between Chicago and Indianapolis were intact when the Hoosier State was launched. Things have not improved since then.

The Hoosier State might have folded in the 1980s because, then-Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor, told Congress in March 1984, it failed to meet the Congressionally-mandated loss per mile and passenger-mile-to-train mile criteria.

But operating the Hoosier State was cheaper for Amtrak than paying Conrail to ferry equipment to and from Beech Grove.

The Hoosier State became a quad-weekly train on April 27, 1986, when the Chicago-New York Cardinal was rerouted between Chicago and Cincinnati via Indianapolis.

Then as now, the Hoosier State, which had been renamed Cardinal at the time that it became quad weekly, ran on the days the tri-weekly Cardinal did not run between Chicago and Indianapolis.

Restoration of the Hoosier State name and daily operation began on Oct. 25, 1987.

An Amtrak budget crunch in 1995 led to the Hoosier State reverting on June 11, 1995, to tri-weekly operation.

That resulted in no rail service from Indianapolis to Chicago on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and no rail service from Chicago to Indy on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Amtrak said it only kept the Hoosier State in order to ferry equipment to and from Beech Grove.

After Amtrak decided not to discontinue the Cardinal between Chicago and Cincinnati as part of its September 1995 route restructuring, it discontinued the Hoosier State instead.

The state of Indiana declined to provide funding to keep the Hoosier State going, a decision made by then-Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, the son of the man whose efforts had been key in creating the Hoosier State.

Amtrak created a Chicago-Beech Grove “hospital train” to ferry equipment, but it often received unfavorable dispatching from the host railroads and crews often outlawed.

Using the Cardinal to ferry equipment between Chicago and Indianapolis also proved to be unsatisfactory because of delays incurred in switching cars at Indianapolis Union Station.

Amtrak reinstated the Hoosier State as a tri-weekly train on July 19, 1998, operating on days that the Cardinal did not run between Chicago and Indianapolis.

On Dec. 17, 1999, the Hoosier State was extended to Jeffersonville, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, in a bid to build mail and express business. It was renamed Kentucky Cardinal.

The move was part of Amtrak’s ill-fated Network Growth Strategy that sought to make the passenger railroad financially self-sufficient through head-end business.

That didn’t pan out as hoped and in January 2003 Amtrak said it would end the Kentucky Cardinal in July because of low ridership, high financial costs and the failure of head-end traffic to develop.

However, Amtrak returned the Hoosier State name and operated the train between Chicago and Indianapolis on the Cardinal’s off days.

And that was where things stood until 2015 when a proviso of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement took effect that required states to fund Amtrak trains operating less than 750 miles.

It was not a sure thing that Indiana would approve funding to keep the Hoosier State but a deal was worked out with the Indiana Department of Transportation and online communities chipping in funding.

The train was turned over to a private company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, although Amtrak operating personnel actually operated the trains under contract.

Under IP stewardship, the Hoosier State had full-service dining in a full-wide dome car. IP actively sought to market the service.

In late January 2017 Iowa Pacific said it would cease operating the Hoosier State after the state rebuffed its request for more money. Amtrak took over the Hoosier State on March 1.

Funding of the Hoosier State is assured through June 30, 2019, and INDOT has said that it will discuss with Amtrak when the train is to be discontinued.

It’s possible that some last-ditch plan to save the train might materialize.
Amtrak will have to ferry equipment from Beech Grove on the Cardinal or in hospital trains. As the carrier discovered several years ago, those can be less than ideal from an operations standpoint.

Then again Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently hinted that Beech Grove may not remain an Amtrak repair shop forever.

In announcing that he was cutting Hoosier State funding, Gov. Holcomb said the train “hasn’t performed as originally billed.”

Primarily he meant that ridership has been disappointing. Patronage in fiscal year 2018 fell 5.5 percent, from 29,504 in 2017 to 27,876 in 2018.

In fiscal year 2014 the Hoosier State carried 33,930 passengers, which means that ridership has fallen 21.7 percent over five fiscal years.

Rail passenger advocates have pointed out – correctly – that ridership would improve if the Hoosier State has a faster travel time. Amtrak has said the same thing.

But getting there won’t be inexpensive and it’s unlikely that Indiana will agree to contribute capital funding toward that end.

Legislators may not understand the ins and outs of why the Hoosier State is so slow. Nor do they care about such things. They only see the falling patronage and wonder why spend limited public funds on a service that is losing ridership.

Olson of the Lafayette chamber of commerce understands that. State lawmakers are under pressure to increase funding for such priorities as the Department of Child Services and education.

“People, we’re finding, are sympathetic,” Olson said. “At the same time, everyone’s approaching this realistically.

“This falls below those things, even though it has value. The governor set the bar high on this. “We haven’t cleared the bar, yet. Can we clear the bar? I think we can. This [is] maybe one of those things we appreciate only after it’s gone.”

If Coal Can Move in the Cold Why Can’t Passengers?

February 6, 2019

Amtrak has caught flak in recent years for canceling trains during winter weather.

Whatever happened to passenger trains being able to barrel through snow or other winter weather?

As Jim Matthews sees it, Amtrak’s winter cancellations are being prompted by changes in how railroads operate.

Writing on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Mathews said it comes down to the reluctance of railroads to spend money.

“Railroads today are hyper-focused on operating ratios and holding lots of resources and manpower in reserve to keep the trains running in unusual conditions breaks that formula,” the president of RPA wrote.

That means fewer maintenance crews available to send out for such things as frozen switches and rails breaks.

“When something breaks in the cold, those gangs have to travel longer just to reach the problem area and they’re spread more thinly than ever before,” Mathews wrote.

He noted that back in the day railroads sometimes hired “casual labor” to help shovel snow.

But in today’s more highly regulated environment that might expose a railroad to liability issues not to mention bad press and social media that didn’t exist in the past.

“And in this age of social media, that’s all Amtrak needs: Someone live-tweeting a rare cold-related tragedy,” Mathews wrote.

When temperatures plunge well below zero there are legitimate safety concerns for workers who have to assemble and maintain trains at terminals.

Cold weather also can play havoc with operating conditions.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magilari was quoted in a news story about the spate of recent cancellations of trains serving Chicago as saying Amtrak feared its trains would get stuck in heavy freight traffic and be unable to get around slow moving trains ahead. He attributed that to the tendency of the host railroads to fleet their freight trains.

Although Magliari didn’t say it in so many words, I wonder if pressure from host railroads prods Amtrak to scale back operations when the weather turns bad.

Yet that doesn’t explain why in the Northeast Corridor Amtrak has curtailed service during winter storms that in the past railroads would have just operated right through.

Amtrak management has increasingly become risk averse. The best way to avoid a worst case scenario is to stay out of a position in which a number of factors could combine to cause one to happen.

It might be unlikely that a train will get stuck for hours with no heat or food, but it could happen. You can avoid such a catastrophe by keeping trains in their terminals until the storm blows over.

Better to have people sitting at home because they couldn’t travel than having to deal with a station full of people with nowhere to go because they missed their connection due to their train running hours late.

Better to rebook passengers or, maybe, refund their money than to have to answer to a horde of social media reports about passengers stranded in subzero weather.

There also are logistical headaches that Amtrak has to take into account, such as getting new crews to a train halted because the previous crew ran afoul of the federal hours of service law. These are not always easy problems to resolve so why risk them in the first place.

The interests of Amtrak management do not always align with the interests of those who pay money to Amtrak to provide them transportation. That is not unique to Amtrak. It’s true of every organization that does business with the public.

I live in an apartment building with a view of the two busiest railroads mainlines in Cleveland.

During the most recent bout of sub-zero weather I stayed inside as much as I could.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that freight traffic on those CSX and Norfolk Southern lines next to my building seemed to be business as usual.

It does make you wonder why if railroads can move coal, manifest freight, tank cars and double-stacked containers despite the realities of severe winter weather why can’t Amtrak move passengers.