Posts Tagged ‘Richard Anderson’

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.

Anderson May Be Leaving Amtrak in 2020

January 3, 2020

Buried in a recent Wall Street Journal article about the challenges that Amtrak faces in 2020 was for some a potential bit of good news.

The president and CEO that many rail passenger advocates love to hate, Richard Anderson, may be leaving the company this year.

The article said Anderson’s potential departure is among the challenges Amtrak is facing this year.

Although no details were provided in the Journal article, Anderson is reported to have a three-year contract that expires this year.

Anderson, 64, a former Delta Air Lines CEO, came to Amtrak in June 2017 and for several months served as co-CEO along with the now retired Charles “Wick” Moorman.

Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia would not comment to the Journal about Anderson’s potential departure other than to say the passengers carrier “takes succession planning very seriously, and its ability to attract world-class CEOs also brings with it the responsibility to assure there’s continued leadership at that level.”

Whether Anderson continues to lead Amtrak through and past 2020 may not matter if the carrier continues on its current path of emphasizing the pursuit of profitability or at least break-even operation.

Amtrak has touted its fiscal year 2019 operating loss of $29.8 million as the best financial performance in Amtrak’s nearly 50-year history.

Anderson has repeatedly spoke of breaking even in 2020, although it should be noted Amtrak counts its federal funding as revenue.

The Journal article noted that some members of Congress have been critical of Amtrak’s financial strategies, saying the carrier’s overall service has suffered.

Although Anderson doesn’t give many interviews, in those that he has, including with the Journal, he has spoken about shoring up Amtrak finances as a way to gain credibility in Congress so it can ask for and receive millions if not billions of new money for capital projects, including replacement of aging tunnels and other infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak’s future will be a major topic of conversation in Washington this year because Congress may act on a new multiyear highway bill that is expected to include reauthorization of the federal grant programs that fund Amtrak.

The reauthorization, which would replace the current FAST Act, may contain policy directives that govern Amtrak’s operations.

The FAST Act expires in 2020. It is a five-year surface transportation law that funds road, rail and transit programs.

The Journal article noted that some Capitol Hill observes are skeptical that Congress will be able to agree on a new transportation bill during a presidential election year.

They base that on the reality that raising the gasoline tax will be part of that discussion and many lawmakers are loath to do that.

The federal gasoline tax funds most highway construction and has not increased since 1993.

Anderson and senior vice president Stephen Gardner, who may be Anderson’s replacement if he steps down, have articulated a vision in which Amtrak downgrades long-distance routes in favor of shorter corridor services between major population centers.

Although Anderson has spoken about retaining some long-distance routes as experiential services, he has also indicated that the passenger carrier may seek congressional approval this year to experiment with restructuring at least one long-distance route.

In an interview with the Journal, Amtrak Chairman Coscia sought to frame the changes Amtrak is eyeing as a way to provide better service to underserved regions.

“What we’re after here is the person who lives in Atlanta or Charlotte, who doesn’t have train service,” Mr. Coscia said. “The person who has to wake up at 3 in the morning in Cleveland to take a train.”

Amtrak management has yet to formally release a plan for doing that although Anderson has hinted that in advance of congressional action on a new Amtrak authorization the passenger carrier will release more specific details about its plans.

Leaked Memo Suggests Amtrak May Impose Restrictions in Effort to Boost Fare Revenue on Cheapest Tickets

December 14, 2019

A news report on Friday cited a leaked Amtrak internal memorandum that listed changes the passenger carrier is considering making in early 2020 to boost revenue.

These include making its lowest fares nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Other fares would be subject to a 25 percent cancellation fee and a 15 percent change fee within 14 days of travel.

The changes are similar to those that have been standard in the airline industry for several years.

A report by Business Insider, a website specializing in American business and financial news, said Amtrak is taking another page out of the airline revenue playbook by seeking to increase ancillary revenue and create more fare segmentation.

Airlines earn ancillary revenue by charging fees for such things as seat assignments and checked baggage.

The Business Insider report framed the proposed changes as part of an ongoing drive by Amtrak to turn a profit for the first time in its 48 year history.

The changes could come as soon as January although no change fees for tickets are currently shown in Amtrak’s published fare guide.

The memorandum proposed making Amtrak’s saver fares nonrefundable and nonchangeable 24 hours after purchase.

Under Amtrak’s current policies, saver fares are fully refundable up to eight days before departure. Holders of the fare can cancel their trips and receive a voucher worth 75 percent of the fare paid.

“Value” fares would be subject to a 25 percent cancellation fee and 15 percent change fee within 14 days of departure.

Amtrak does not currently impose change fees for value fares.

The Business Insider account noted that Amtrak President Richard Anderson is a former airline CEO and that several of the rail passenger carrier’s top executives also worked in the airline industry.

The report said Anderson earlier this year has said that small changes in fare structures have already helped Amtrak increase revenue.

“Pricing and revenue management was thought of like some department over in another building and we didn’t pay much attention to it,” Anderson said in September. “We’ve been able to bring some commercial instincts in and make some basic investments in revenue management technology. Nothing fancy, just basic, good, RM [revenue management] practices.”

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.

Senators Demand Amtrak End Forced Arbitration

December 4, 2019

Pressure is growing on Amtrak to eliminate a requirement that passengers submit to arbitration rather than filing lawsuits to resolve disputes with the passenger carrier.

Thirteen U.S. senators have written to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to ask that the arbitration clause be removed from the contract of carriage that passengers agree to when buying tickets even if most of them are unlikely to know that.

The senators, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), told Anderson in the letter that the arbitration policy “is gravely imperiling traveling Americans’ access to justice and public accountability.”

The letter said the arbitration agreement is “particularly disturbing due to its broadness of scope,” which includes personal injury claims and wrongful death. It would also eliminate potential class-action suits.

In response Anderson rejected the request, saying that arbitration expedites the resolution of disputes at lower cost.

Amtrak quietly imposed the arbitration requirement last January.

“Agreements to arbitrate are desirable precisely because they trade the procedures of federal courts for the simplicity, informality, and expedition of arbitration,” Anderson said.

He said money saved resolving disputes through arbitration instead of in court “can then be spent in safety programs and other passenger service and care programs.”

Blumenthal said Anderson’s response was to be expected. “They say it costs less, it’s quicker, but the rights of plaintiffs are vastly undercut,” Blumenthal said.

The Connecticut senator has introduced legislation to invalidate all forced-arbitration agreements.

Durbin Introduces Bill to Allow Amtrak to Sue Railroads

November 23, 2019

A U.S. senator from Illinois has introduced legislation that would permit Amtrak to sue freight railroads to enforce its statutory preference.

Senator Richard Durbin said in news release that he introduced the bill because of chronic delays incurred by Amtrak’s trains operating on Canadian National-owned tracks between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

The news release did not provide details as to what standards would be used to justify a lawsuit by Amtrak against a host railroad.

“By empowering Amtrak to hold the freight railroads accountable when they don’t follow the law, we can improve Amtrak on-time performance and save taxpayer dollars,” Durbin said in a statement. “For too long, we’ve seen on-time performance decline as a result of freight interference. The people of Illinois — and Amtrak riders nationwide — deserve assurance that they can arrive at their destination in a safe and timely manner.”

Amtrak President Richard Anderson has recently increased his criticism of host railroads and is calling for a legally-binding enforcement mechanism.

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.

House Committee Gets Earful about Amtrak Practices

November 14, 2019

A House committee that held a hearing to consider the future of Amtrak got an earful from witnesses who were critical of the passenger carrier’s practices.

But Amtrak’s host railroads also came under fire for poor dispatching of passenger trains in the hearing held by the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

That led committee chairman Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) to observe that most witnesses seemed to favor giving Amtrak a right of action in dealing with its host railroads to force them to provide better dispatching so that trains are not habitually late.

Among those appearing before the committee were Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, representatives of three railroad labor unions, the president of the Rail Passengers Association, an Oregon state legislator, and a California corridor operator.

“The bottom line is we need [on-time performance] standards and metrics completed by the FRA with a real enforcement mechanism and we need a private right of action because freight railroad delays are our biggest single threat,” Anderson said.

Anderson said Amtrak could grow its national network if it could partner with its host railroads and co-invest to rebuild tracks for higher speeds while removing congestion bottlenecks.

“If you allow us to operate at 125 mph in a 100-mile zone, you’ll take a lot of cars off the highway,” Anderson said.

Amtrak’s onboard service was a frequent topic addressed during the hearing.

Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) was critical of crowded lounge cars on the Coast Starlight since Amtrak removed from service the Pacific Parlour car on the Seattle-Los Angeles run.

He also told Anderson that Amtrak is at risk of losing its high-end passengers because of changes in onboard food and beverage services.

RPA head Jim Mathews said comments his organization has received from Millennial age passengers is, “the idea of sitting at a table with no tablecloth, a plastic bag, and plastic trash, is not what they were looking for and certainly not what they paid for.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) called Amtrak meals “paper sack food” and strongly disagreed with Anderson’s contention that it changed food and beverage service in response to market survey data

Anderson had said Amtrak doesn’t make changes based on anecdotes.

“That wasn’t true,” said Cohen, adding that he hopes Amtrak executive will “consider the humanity, the romance, and the appeal of train travel with food, and not do it like Delta Airlines that took all the meals away.

“I hope you don’t continue that on Amtrak,” Cohen said.

RPA head Jim Mathews held up what he termed a “survival pack” that he takes with him while traveling on long-distance trains.

It included duct tape, plastic and wooden shims (to stop rattles), Velcro (to hold curtains together), hand sanitizer, and a power strip.

“Everyone has their own version of this,” he said.

Anderson said Amtrak is replacing the P42DC locomotives that pull long-distance trains with new Charger locomotives and it is taking other steps to improve service.

This includes replacing pillows and bedding in the sleepers, and refurbishing Superliner II coaches at the Beech Grove Heavy Maintenance Facility near Indianapolis.

San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Stacey Mortenson expressed frustration with Amtrak’s lack of information about why it makes changes, saying her agency often can’t get a rational explanation of why Amtrak has made those changes.

She compared that with working with Herzog, the company that operates the Altamont Commuter Express.

“We are able to work with Herzog but have no control over what it costs to maintain our own equipment with Amtrak,” she said.

Mortenson said part of the problem is Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act allows Amtrak to hide what it considers proprietary information while pushing costs on the states to “treat everybody the same.”

House Committee to Discuss Amtrak Today

November 13, 2019

Amtrak’s future will be discussed today in a hearing being conducted by the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

Witnesses appearing before the committee are expected to express their concerns about how Amtrak’s management is doing business.

This includes changes in food and beverage service that have been made in the past year aboard overnight eastern long-distance trains, removal of ticket agents at some stations, the stated desire of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to transform long distance routes into disconnected short corridors, and Amtrak’s imposition of mandatory arbitration in lieu of the ability to sue the carrier following catastrophic events such as derailments.

Anderson is scheduled to speak to the committee at the hearing that begins at 10 a.m. and be live streamed online.

A statement released by subcommittee chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-Illinois) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said the hearing will review recent Amtrak service changes and ponder the needs of the carrier “to sustain and strengthen its existing network.”

Among the witnesses who have been reported as scheduled to testify before the committee are Oregon state legislator Nancy Nathanson, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Stacey Mortenson, Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department Secretary-Treasurer Greg Regan, Transportation Communications Union National Vice President Jack Dinsdale, and Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Division Illinois Director Bob Guy.

Anderson Repeats Familiar Themes at Conference

September 20, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson made a rare public appearance this week but didn’t say much that he hasn’t’ said before in appearance before Congress and in interviews with select media outlets.

Richard Anderson

Speaking to the Skift Global 2019 Travel Industry Conference, Anderson reiterated that Amtrak wants to emphasize service in corridors that airlines have all but abandoned.

Anderson also contended that Amtrak will break even in the next 12 months.

Amtrak needs to garner a greater share of the travel market in short-haul markets, Anderson said, naming Chicago-Milwaukee as one example.

Such markets are unprofitable for airlines said Anderson, who worked for 25 years in the airline industry including stints as CEO of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines.

Amtrak expects to increase its share of short-haul travel markets as millennials expand urban centers.

“As these urban corridors densify, and all the millennials move to cities and don’t own cars, we gradually take over more and more of the market share from airlines,” Anderson said. “By 2050, there’s not going to be a choice unless you want to sit in long car delays because you can’t put more lanes on I-95.”

Anderson said rail travel accounts for 75 percent of the air/rail travel market between Washington and New York.

Already, Anderson said, 95 percent of Amtrak’s ridership travel about 250 miles.

As for long-distance trains, Anderson continued to describe them as “experiential.”

He said Amtrak may in the future operate between five to 10 such experiential trains that will be similar in nature to VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, which operates on a less than daily schedule between Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Although some supporters of long-distance trains have cited their role in linking small communities, Anderson described that as a political concern and said the “$150 per passenger subsidy” per passengers of such trains as the Empire Builder is contrary to Amtrak’s current business model.

During his appearance Anderson also said compliance with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act is essential for passenger growth.

He said the design of the next-generation Acela Express equipment will have doorways that will help mobility-challenged travelers get from car to car.

Anderson continued to push for Amtrak receiving a greater share of transportation funding in order to meet its infrastructure needs.

Those needs include replacing the Portal Bridge on the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey and improving tunnels in New York and Baltimore on the NEC.

Noting that its Thruway bus network generates $100 million in revenue, Anderson said it will continue to play an important role in bringing underserved parts of the country with no train service into the Amtrak network.

Anderson said a yield management system has ensured more diverse fares and promotions to increase fare revenues.

Don’t look for Amtrak to be selling tickets anytime soon on online travel agencies.

Anderson said the struggles of the hotel sector in doing that offers a cautionary tale of what he doesn’t want Amtrak to do.

“We don’t need those distribution channels unless they make sense for us economically,” Anderson said. “We control 85 percent of our distribution, and we want to control that. The hotels gave their brands up, and now they want to claw them back, because you’re not controlling the brand and its display in the marketplace.”

Anderson also sees what is happening overseas with rail travel as a blueprint for Amtrak.

“If you think about how intercity travel works in Europe or Japan, we’ll have to evolve to meet that model,” he said. “The densification in urban areas is going to dictate that Amtrak play an important road in short-haul transportation.”