Monthly Archives

April 2006

Reports

Coast Rail Coordinating Committee

Reported by Paul Dyson — For the benefit of new readers, the CRCC exists to coordinate activities of the various regional governments who are attempting to expand rail passenger service on the coast route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The meeting was rather poorly attended, Pete Rodgers of SLOCOG, Mike Powers of SBCAG, Eric Schatmeier, Caltrans Rail, Noelia Chapa and Issy Rodriguez from the City of Soledad, Christina Watson from TAMC (Monterey County) Liz O’Donohue from Amtrak and myself. Pete Rodgers does an outstanding job of putting the minutes and agenda package together.

Key issues discussed at the meeting were:

  1. The need for resolutions of support from member agencies and interested parties calling for an allocation of state funds for capital and operating needs for a start up of the “Coast Daylight” in 2007.
  2. Meeting with Union Pacific to discuss capacity issues, and specifically the results of the capacity analysis requested by Union Pacific. I quote from the UP’s Jerry Wilmoth’s statements as reported by Pete Rodgers:
    • UP resources are thin and there is reluctance to put any time or money on the Coast Route work unless funding is forthcoming.
    • Wilmoth does not believe the projects listed are necessarily the right choices.
    • UP believes that once funding is available it would be good to run the model again.
    • Is Caltrain agreeable to running the train up the Peninsula?

    UP also raised concern about the effects of inflation on construction costs, but did say that probably one more train would not have too much impact but additional trains would.

  3. Liz O’Donohue gave her usual professional summary of funding activities at the federal level, an update on new equipment procurement and a ridership and revenue update. The Lott/Lautenberg Bill, S1516, is still alive and represents one of the best prospects for funding California projects, as it offers federal funds with state matching 20%. Since California already has a state rail program with funding in place we are best placed to take early advantage of this program. Caltrans Rail should soon complete their updating of the specifications for the new Surfliner/California car, drawing on the operating and customer experience of the existing fleet. When I asked about the 41 Amfleet I cars (19 cafe cars and 22 coaches)in dead storage at Bear Shops in Wilmington, Delaware that could be used to augment service here in the West, and for Santa Barbara service particularly, she replied that the condition is being assessed. She thought that they were being considered for new service in Illinois.
  4. Eric Schatmeier of Caltrans Rail reported on the expansion of rail bus services including a new night bus between Oakland/San Francisco and Santa Barbara to connect with first and last trains. Unfortunately these buses are still restricted to passengers whose journeys include a rail component.

The following addendum was written by RailPAC Director, Dennis Story, from Santa Barbara (dstory@railpac.org):

On 4/20 Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) voted to go forward with a three quarter cent transportation sales tax, which will replace the current half cent tax that sunsets at the end of ’09.

If passed in November by the two thirds required, it would give $126M to a commuter rail service between Camarillo and Goleta. If UP needs capacity, there’s money in this for sidings, along with station upgrades, etc.

There is a commuter rail study due out (from IBI) next month in the Northern Corridor LOSSAN Plan that will be used to do the Uniform Transit Application (UTA) that will start the planning process for the commuter service.

It is incumbent upon all rail supporters to see that our county turns the corner on transportation and follows through on rail as they do on roads. It would mark a major change in transportation planning, and something our leaders don’t quite know how to deal with. Anything that hasn’t been done before can cause anxiety, but I’m confident that with a little encouragement it can be accomplished.

Reports

Riding The Sunset Limited With Amtrak’s Food Service

Trip report for April 7, 8, 9, 2006, By James Smith, RailPAC VP South.

(NOTE: Mr. Smith writes this as a veteran train rider, not in his official RailPAC capacity. The opinions are his, not necessarily those of RailPAC.)

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, trains 1 and 2, have not had a good on time performance for years. Now, they are saddled with, call it whatever you want, a downgraded food service mandated by Amtrak management. Some have written excuses for what has happened, but I challenge anyone to ride that train or any of the other similarly downgraded trains (all but the Empire Builder will be so by the end of May) and say what you experience is good for the future of the company. I have to wonder whether this isn’t an attempt to end long distance first class service once and for all, not because of the unfortunate Congressional mandate but because it would make things simpler for Amtrak management. It’s bad. Very bad.

My seven year old grandson and I boarded #2 at Los Angeles Union Station on Friday, April 7. The train departed almost on time. My grandson was riding as far as Palm Springs where his other grandparents would meet him, and I went overnight to El Paso, Texas. He loved his trip. What I am reporting on here is primarily about the food quality I experienced, and a little about safety and scheduling. The train was delayed, according to the current situation with the Union Pacific, but only had big delays in California, and mostly around the railroad’s Colton yard even though we were delayed at various times east of there including having to wait for four freight trains to pass us out near the Salton Sea.. The travel through Arizona and New Mexico went smoothly. The return trip on #1 to LAUS was four hours late on Sunday.

Comments are pouring from everywhere about the food quality. If you haven’t read it, there was a major article in the April 8 Wall Street Journal, titled, “Removable Feast: The Last Steak on Amtrak.” Be sure to also read the Special Report on what Amtrak should be doing to enhance food service revenue on www.railpac.org. While some have been excusing what Amtrak has done on these trains, I challenge somebody to try it, then defend it. I did, and can’t. I would not now recommend anyone ride a long distance train in first class, except on #7/8.

The food is bad. I had two dinners and two breakfasts on this trip. On the dinner meals my beef choice was Salisbury steak, and I can tell you its quality was that of a bad TV dinner: rubbery. For breakfast I tried the cheese omelette, which just stuck together. The omelette is the only egg choice (no fresh egg selections), and includes a sausage choice of links or a patty which tasted like it was prepared the night before, potatoes which were ok, and black beans. This breakfast item just cannot compare with a similar breakfast I’ve had on the San Joaquins, which was very good and much fresher.

A lady across from me at the breakfast table said the only thing this food is good for “is getting air out of your stomach.” How’s that for being direct? She didn’t want the sausage links after seeing mine. A gentleman across from me said, “No bacon and eggs?” and when told no, added, “I’m from the South. No grits?” This is a train that goes into the heart of the South, and grits are an important menu item to folks there. Did Amtrak think of that? A couple who were Amtrak savvy, loudly said, “Who made up this menu?”

A family on #1 had the other beef entree, and had to wait 40 minutes for their meals. There was only one waitress in addition to the steward; the diner was about 3/4 full. Because of furloughs to other employees, the young waiters and stewards are gone and only the ones with high seniority are left to do the heavy work and long hours. While attendants in the other cars can help out, it leaves their passengers without assistance, which is a safety issue. My sleeping car attendant had additional responsibility in the sleeper section of the transition car. I noted also, that there is no Sightseer Lounge car on the Sunset, a coach car has been converted to a snack bar on the lower level, but the seats upstairs are not available for revenue service! Only six crowded seats are on the lower service level. I heard that management is saying that the Lounge cars are in Beech Grove for maintenance, but there are three sitting in the Los Angeles yard and I’ve have heard there are others sitting unused in Chicago. The crew on this train cannot be blamed, as they worked very hard to live up to whatever expectations they could. I passed the new train “Manager,” (whom I saw only one other time on my trip when he came in the diner to get food) and replied when he asked me, that it was “the worst food I’ve ever had” on a train. A crewman was heard after I went by, saying, “guess he didn’t like our five star menu.”

For the life of me I cannot justify spending hundreds of dollars for first class accommodations and then come back saying anything positive now. I cannot excuse something that is just “bad.” To you readers I say, take a train, eat 6 meals and then tell me you like it. If you do, you have a bad appetite system or are lying. I’m not looking for “fancy,” I’ve ridden Amtrak too much to have that expectation. The plastic plates are ok, I could live with them, but paper cups for beverages? Just not appropriate. I heard no positive comments. I’m not alone feeling this way, the lady across from me said people are getting off the train in San Antonio, going to the nearby Denny’s, and bringing food back to the train. The serving hours on board have been extended, and that’s great, but I question whether travelers really want to reserve a breakfast time when they don’t know when they’ll get up. The reservation system seems to be working all right, though. They’ve had time to iron out most of the problems with this new system, so unfortunately what remains is what will remain.

I have to wonder if Graham Claytor was still Amtrak CEO if he would have stood still for this kind of meddling by the Congress and if he wouldn’t have killed this service downgrade before management could have it hit the rails. The bottom line on this current Amtrak food service is this: Once sleeper revenue dries up they can get rid of them. I dare Amtrak management, which must have devised this business without ever having ridden out there, and others who make excuses for them, to get on board and then make the same excuses. You can only defend what is right. This food service is wrong. Where is the Amtrak Board? Have any of them ridden (anonymously) and sampled it? My gut feeling is if someone gives you a mandate to do something and it’s wrong, then fight it or it is going to destroy your business. To excuse it makes you a part of the problem. This is not good for rail travelers. It’s bad. It will have a negative effect of revenue.

Yes, I will continue to travel by train, as it is the best way to go, but until sanity returns to the food service I will have a hearty meal before I depart Los Angeles and wait to have another meal at my destination. Am I writing to Amtrak about this situation? You better believe it! Your comments would be appreciated.

Reports

SCAG Maglev Task Force

Reported by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President — This is the first of these meetings that I have attended and so some of these observations may be old news to many of you.

Although the Task Force is meant to focus on the core line from West Los Angeles to Ontario Airport, the majority of those attending the meeting were from Anaheim and South Eastern cities not along the line of route. Because Orange County voters have rejected an airport at El Toro, northern OC cities, especially Anaheim, are desperate to find means of moving passengers to and from airports. Anaheim is especially anxious to protect its tourist and convention business. The OC reps called for further studies for a link along the 57 to join the Ontario line. Continue Reading

Issues

What Amtrak Should Be Doing to Improve its Food Service Revenue

SPECIAL REPORT — Food and beverage service on Amtrak doesn’t have to be something akin to a national shame. It has the potential to be pleasant, profitable, and nourishing. It has the potential to be good, rather than a necessity begrudgingly dished out by a common carrier with no ambition for good passenger service.

There is a myth in railroading, that dining cars and the food service business are perpetual money losers. This is analogous to an urban myth that just won’t go away. Some will quickly say that even the private, pre-Amtrak passenger railroads didn’t make money on dining cars. Harrumph. Railroads have been manipulating financial numbers for over a century and a half to suit their needs, and dining car numbers were no exception. Back in the dark old days of the 1960s, at the end of private passenger rail service as we historically knew it, dining cars were shown to be money losers simply as a tool to get rid of them and in turn ultimately get rid of the trains they served.

If you want to talk about dining cars today, do so with an open mind to real financial numbers that go beyond the ghastly horror that is known as Amtrak financial accounting. Look at real numbers with real potential.

The United States House of Representatives Amtrak Working Group released its report to the House transportation committee this week (which will receive in-depth reporting in the next issue of This Week at Amtrak), and asked such questions as “When Amtrak is losing more than $80 million/year on its food and beverage service, why was/is it so difficult for the corporation to provide basic cost and expense data concerning those operations, as promised at the June 9, 2005 Rail Subcommittee hearing?”

One can’t help but be led to the conclusion that Amtrak has based its decisions on the future of morally admirable meals on Amtrak trains on bad numbers generated by bad accounting and reporting.

As reported in the March 15th edition (number 13) of TWA, Amtrak’s internal documents show all food and beverage services, including dining, cafe, and lounge cars, show a gross profit before labor, but after all other costs are included. And, we also know Amtrak probably doesn’t know true costs of the labor when it is applied to food and beverage services. So, therefore, Amtrak claims a huge loss on dining, cafe, and lounge car services when there is still a definite mystery to this claim.

Here are some ways Amtrak, even with its current dismal accounting practices, can improve dining, cafe and lounge car services financially without permanently resorting to the heartbreak of Diner Lite.

  • The simplest way to increase sales is promote the service to those onboard Amtrak trains. Some simple steps Amtrak has taken in the past should be used systemwide, such as sample seatback menus in coaches. When passengers know what to expect, they are more likely to try the dining car versus grabbing the equivalent of a fast food meal in the lounge car. When this was tried back in the 90s on the Crescent, round trip sales for the dining car often went up as much as $2,000 per trip. That was $2,000 in revenue (with no increased labor costs) for an investment of less than $50 in printing costs per trip; not a bad return on investment.
  • Pre-sell more dining car food before passengers board their train. This concept has served cruise lines well for decades, with all main meals included in the cost of travel. Amtrak is doing this now for sleeping car passengers (a wish move made years ago) and it can do it with coach passengers, too. Coach passengers could be given a choice of regular coach or premium coach, which would include all meals, just as the sleeping car passengers enjoy. Once the money has been collected at the point of sale for travel, Amtrak wouldn’t care if the coach passengers ate the meals or not; it has the predictable revenue. Now, every time a coach passenger boards a train, it’s a complete gamble whether or not they will choose to patronize the dining car. By having their decision in advance, costs – and (gasp!) profits – are better controlled and more predictable.
  • Offering “early bird” meals at dinner time is a popular concept that has been proven a winner for decades in retirement areas. Senior citizens, which make up a large part of Amtrak’s clientele, often prefer smaller meals served earlier in the dinner cycle (usually beginning at 5 P.M.). The same holds true with families traveling with small children. These meals offered can be something easy for the chef to prepare (referred to as single dish meals, such as beef stew) that can be dealt with while completing preparations for the full evening dinner service. Early bird meals are sold at a reduced price, but because of smaller portions and less complication for preparation, are still profitable. These meals, which offer a passenger more choices, can be prepared without any additional labor costs.
  • Keep the dining car open longer hours, preferably in a 24-hour basis, as was done in highly successful experiments on the Sunset Limited in 1999 and 2000. Dining cars are the single most expensive piece of equipment on a train, including the locomotive, yet they are also the most under-utilized equipment, too. Continuously operated dining cars can be operated with only two more crew members, both of which quickly pay for themselves with improved operating efficiencies and higher revenues. The passengers like the system because when traveling on vacation, they can eat when they choose, rather than having to conform to some regimented schedule. Crews like the schedule because work is more evenly spaced and there are less peak rush times (and, during every experimental trip, tips dramatically increased for each table server, too).Because trains are 24-hour operations serving major stations at any point on the clock, passengers want the availability of meals when entraining and before detraining. There are no downside aspects to this concept.
  • Amtrak has long maintained that except for sleeping car passengers, coach passengers may only use the dining car for full meal service; anyone wanting less must be relegated to standing in line in the lounge car. This silliness excludes many coach passengers who may enjoy a cup of coffee and high priced piece of pie late in the afternoon, or a bedtime snack late at night. Almost to the point of class snobbery, this practice excludes many passengers from paying money for services which cost little to provide and bring in high revenue.
  • Because of Amtrak’s regimented seating arrangements and the need to feed people in a set period of time that is convenient for the crew more than passengers, Amtrak is missing huge income from the sale of before-meal alcoholic beverages. The concept of a quiet drink at the table before dinner is served is completely lost on Amtrak. Those drinks cost almost nothing to serve and cost passengers a fortune; all revenue which is now lost. In addition, there is no time for high income breakfast mimosas, or other early morning eye openers. During later evening hours, the dining car with lights dimmed is much more conducive to a quiet drink and conversation than the lounge car. Again, revenue lost that costs little to generate.
  • Most sleeping car passengers don’t realize Amtrak has always provided room service for those wishing to dine in their rooms. Beyond the ability for sleeping car attendants to bring full meals, there are also opportunities for snacks, desserts, and alcoholic beverages to be served frequently in sleeping car accommodations, too. The service of all of these items can accrue revenue to the dining car. Even the most mundane of medium priced hotels often offer room service. Amtrak is not making the most of its labor costs of sleeping car attendants by not promoting this service.
  • One of the signature services of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star was the afternoon orange juice service in the dining car. Since these were the railroad’s two primary Florida service trains, this daily ritual was thought to enhance the ambience of the trains for passengers bound for the Sunshine State. Amtrak has this same ability on all of its long distance trains to offer a “high tea” service in the afternoon. This could take many forms, including a wine and cheese offering as has been done on some trains, a real tea service with tea and biscuits, or a coffee and cake service. Whatever form it takes, it can generate extra income for the dining car without incurring extra labor costs.

There are other ways not mentioned above that clever people can introduce to increase dining, cafe, and lounge car service, all of which can produce higher income with either no or only modest costs increases. The basic idea is to find ways to take an existing overhead, and generate more revenue from the overhead, not merely squeeze more costs out of the overhead. A regimen of only cutting costs with compensating for better or equal services is doomed to failure.

While a certain segment of the traveling public prefers no-frills motels along with no-frills airlines, this is not the majority of the traveling public. It has been proven in credible studies time and again that when people are traveling, they are willing to spend reasonable amounts of money for comfortable vacation experiences that includes good food service.

It’s important to distinguish good food service from fine dining food service. Even though the cruise lines would like their passengers to believe they are experiencing traditional fine dining by definition, they often are not on the middle and lower priced cruise lines. Amtrak does not have to strive for a fine dining experience, but rather what is called in the hospitality industry a casual dining or family dining experience. This includes reliable table service, an acceptable choice of items on a freshly prepared menu, and a reasonable price.

Amtrak passengers on a train do have a choice when it comes to dining: they can either take it, or leave it. That’s about it. Passengers are often captive on a long distance train anywhere from two to 24 hours, and some trains up to two or three days. Not having morally admirable food choices negates all of aspects of train travel which may be considered positive experiences.

The bottom line is an economic one: good food service means happier passengers, which means more return trips and good word of mouth advertising. It’s a known fact that when there is a food service failure (whether intentional or unintentional) there is an overall failure. Americans like to eat, and we like to eat well. Whatever we choose to eat at home or in our work routines is often far different from what we choose to eat when traveling. Cruise lines, which are in their second golden era now, figured this out a long time ago, and have prospered because of their wisdom. Amtrak hasn’t come to the same obvious conclusion, and continues to suffer as a consequence.

Commentary

Take the Train to Catch Your Plane!

By RailPAC Director and Review Editor Noel T. Braymer — Major airports generate lots of traffic. LAX alone averages over 160,000 passengers a day. Airports are also major employment centers, with many airport employees commuting to the airport every day. Further, airports are commercial centers with many businesses that want to be close to the airport. Traffic congestion is common around airports, and parking at most airports is expensive and hard to find. Airports are often second “downtowns” in their region. Caltrans Rail Division has been getting many letters for years asking about connections to California airports via Amtrak trains. Caltrans has on their web page an extensive list of the transit connections between rail stations and California airports at www.amtrakcalifornia.com/airports/access.htm.

The reality is that few people are now using trains to go to the airports in California. While it is possible, it is not very convenient in many cases and often requires several transfers. Yet this is easy to change. An example of this is the new FlyAway bus service between LAUS and LAX. A short walk from the platforms at LAUS, passengers can catch a direct FlyAway bus to the airport which drops them off at their terminal. There is room for luggage under the passenger compartment, so you don’t have to sit on your bags. At $3.00 one-way the bus saves time and money over parking at or near the airport. What is exciting about this new service is that its success could lead to new rail/air connection from other stations and to other airports. It could also lead in the future to direct rail service to LAX and other airports.

How much you must walk, particularly with luggage, is a major factor in choosing how to get to the airport. Even the strongest person soon wearies walking up steps carrying bags. This is compounded when forced to get in and out of vehicles and climb stairs when forced to make transfers. In Europe there are many examples of direct rail service at major airports. Often you can check your bags and confirm your flight at a train station when going to the airport. It may be some time before we get to that level of service.

LAX isn’t expanding their FlyAway bus service out of the kindness of their heart; it’s being done to settle a lawsuit. Los Angeles needs to reduce traffic to LAX and encourage passengers to use other airports. The cities around LAX and the local residents rose up in opposition to proposals to expand LAX because of noise, traffic and air pollution. Simply moving traffic to other locations is no solution. More buses is not a long term solution. LAX is swamped with shuttle vans and buses already. Every car rental, hotel, off-site parking lot and airport shuttle service has its own vehicles, which at LAX and other airports are often at near gridlock.

Simply parking cars outside the airport and busing or using a “people mover” to the airport does little to reduce traffic or air pollution around the airport. Rail can pick up people closer to their homes and reduce traffic in the entire region-not just around the airport and for trips to the airport. Inside the airport there will be a need for better connection at the airport to rail. Running a transit bus to the airport doesn’t meet the needs of a person with luggage or a tight connection to make. Increasingly airports have “people movers” to deal with the traffic congestion inside the terminal areas. Planning will be needed to insure there is a seamless connection to all terminals to regional rail and rail transit. The situation at SFO is an example of what not to do.

Much of the air traffic at major airports is with small planes going very short distances. For example, many of the flights from San Diego are going to Los Angeles. Using rail as a “connecting flight” (for which it is used in Europe) is possible and would be a more efficient use of limited airspace and airport use. Rail is the solution to many of the problems facing California and future airport service. Starting with simple, modest improvements we can expand rail’s role while making travel more convenient, less polluting, and less wasteful of resources.

(For other commentaries by Mr. Braymer on this subject see the Archives section of this website.)

Commentary

Grade Separation Projects a High Priority

By RailPAC President Paul Dyson — I’m writing this on 24th of February on a typical news day; an attack on a Saudi Refinery, controversy over a toll road route through a state park, and Burbank is the sixth sootiest city in the US. Everyday there are reminders of the wrong direction of our transportation priorities. Everyday there seem to be new battles to fight, all too many of them re-argued actions against the paving over of more of California.

With so much to do and limited resources, where should RailPAC concentrate its energy, and get the best return on investment of our time? We are after all a volunteer group and rely on you, our members, to write letters and e-mails, to educate and persuade. I believe there are a few critical areas where, if we concentrate our resources, we can have some real impact in the coming months. Here are my thoughts on one of them: Grade Separation Funding.

At first glance this may seem to be one of those important but subsidiary topics. Yes, we believe in separating rail from road at busy intersections, but this is not our primary campaign. Why then do I think it’s a critical issue? Take a look at one current “passenger rail” investment and I think you’ll see why.

LOSSAN Projects: Los Angeles to Fullerton Third Main Track. The LOSSAN project list includes the provision of a third main track between Hobart Yard and Fullerton to accommodate the growing number of commuter, intercity and freight trains on that route: so far so good. In November of 2005 this project was budgeted at $383 million. But where exactly is this money going and who are the beneficiaries? Of the total $383 millions, no less than $257 millions will be spent on 4 grade separation projects! These are needed under today’s highway and traffic volumes, and will be essential when the third track is in place. But the benefits are spread well beyond rail passengers. My list includes:

  1. Automobile Users. Significant time and fuel savings for motorists at these crossing.
  2. Bus Users. A number of bus routes use the crossings in question. Delays will be eliminated, making the service more reliable and attractive to riders, and reducing operating costs and fuel consumption.
  3. Public Safety: Other than the Glendale terrorist act (deliberate derailment of a passenger train) the majority of fatalities and injuries at grade crossings are incurred by motorists and pedestrians.
  4. Air Quality: The whole community benefits from the elimination of idling of diesel and gasoline engines for long periods at grade crossings.
  5. Rail Passengers: Some improvement to safety and reduction of delays due to automobile or pedestrian accidents.
  6. Freight Railroads: Greater safety and fewer delays.

As you can see the benefits of grade separation projects are widespread, and to some degree benefit all members of society. We should also be aware that rail critics use the total cost of “rail” projects as a propaganda weapon against us, citing what they believe is a poor “rate of return”. By instituting a fairer system of funding for grade separations we end up with a truer cost of rail infrastructure improvements and a better understanding of the benefits of rail passenger expansion on a comparative cost basis.

On the anniversary of the Glendale wreck Representative Dario Frommer has proposed a $500 million bond issue to be devoted to grade separations. While this is a positive step in acknowledging the lack of past funding for this need it doesn’t address my concerns outlined above, namely that will represent more money spent on “rail” without recognizing that this is a multi-faceted issue.

It seems to me that the funding should not come exclusively from rail budgets but also from highways, air quality and public safety funds. We need an entirely new funding mechanism that acknowledges the multiple benefits of grade separations. We need a consistent source of money that will remove a large percentage of the busiest crossings over the next ten years. The “Grade Separation Trust Fund” will receive contributions from Highway, Rail, Air Quality, Homeland Security and local sources and be administered and distributed by Caltrans based on a risk assessment formula. I’d suggest a 20% contribution from passenger rail.

I hope that RailPAC members will take up this cause. In the case of the LOSSAN triple track project, if this formula existed, the “passenger rail” cost of this upgrade would be more like $125 million instead of $383 million. That would leave us with an additional $257 million to invest in other projects. Imagine the impact of this throughout the state. This is definitely a battle worth fighting.