Tracking the News: December 2008

. . . PHOTOS and Commentary by Russ Jackson

. . . December, 2008. Dare I say “what a month” again? What else can you say about a month that saw the election of a new direction for our country and presumably for passenger rail transportation, and the approval of many rail initiatives including RailPAC-supported high speed rail in California. The same month saw gasoline prices falling faster than the stock market and the economy, with corresponding implications for continued high ridership on commuter and light rail trains.

Top that off with the non-surprise resignation of Amtrak President/CEO Alex Kummant, the appointment of Chief Operating Officer William Crosbie as “Acting President,”
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then on November 25 the appointment of FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman (photo above) to serve as a permanent-temporary President/CEO.

Mr. Kummant was at the helm of Amtrak for only two years, but he is not missed by many in the same way David Gunn was. According to writer Don Phillips on TRAINS magazine’s news wire, “Kummant agreed to walk away and not bring the clash (with Board Chair Donna McLean over debt restructuring) before Congress in exchange for being allowed to characterize the departure as a resignation, not a firing.” Rail supporter Paul Weyrich wrote on 11/24 that “Amtrak officials are zipped up like a third-grader’s snowsuit,” and that “a major personality conflict between Mr. Kummant and the board began in Seattle, WA, when they believed he talked down to them, and then it deteriorated all summer.”

Mr. Crosbie has been at Amtrak 6 years, and many people have not “warmed up” to him including many rail advocates, but in his letter to employees after his short promotion Mr. Crosbie told employees they must continue , “delivering on-time performance where we control it, equipment that is clean and reliable, and service that makes passengers feel welcome and comfortable.” How can you argue with that? A Question, though: “where we control it” means what? Only the NEC? In the official statement from Amtrak after Mr. Boardman was given the permanent-temporaray Presidency, Board Chairman Donna McLean said, “In an attempt to maintain the momentum at Amtrak, while finding a permanent CEO candidate, the board has appointed Mr. Boardman for one year, but will conduct a search in the coming months for a permanent CEO.” Mr. Boardman, who came to the FRA in 2005, said he “was humbled that the board selected me to lead the company, on an interim basis, at this very exciting time.” What we found interesting was this from Mr. Boardman: “In my view, a national intercity, interconnected passenger rail service is critically important for the mobility and energy independence of the U.S.” Does that mean the “corridors only” philosophy will change? We will remember his statement.

Speaking of OTP, as we usually do, this time we start with a look at the OT arrivals for some airlines in September: Northwest 89.51%; Southwest 89.03; Delta 84.44; US Air 84.12; American 81.49%; and United 79.83%. I know the travel circumstances are different from Amtrak, but if all the trains could get to that level (Amtrak in September was 71%) the traveling public would be much happier. Now let’s look at Amtrak’s Texas Eagle. In the past month the daily train has been very late only once! All the other days train 21 has been early at Dallas, and on the few days it was late, less than an hour. Now that’s great, compared to last year’s 16.8% endpoint on time for both 21 and 22 combined.
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On November 19 this writer observed Eagle #21 (shown next to an arriving DART light rail train) had arrived at Dallas Union Station at 11:15, 45 minutes early, and was waiting until its scheduled departure of 12:20 to Ft. Worth.
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That day there was (front to back) (only) one locomotive, a Transition Sleeper, a full Sleeping Car, a Diner-Lounge, Sightseer Lounge, and three Coaches. At FTW it is serviced and does not depart south to San Antonio until 2:40 PM, which means it was in the “Metroplex” 3 1/2 hours to travel 30 miles.

On days like 11/19, at San Antonio the two “through” cars from the Eagle to the westbound Sunset Limited are pulled off: the Sleeping car with a full load of passengers bound for El Paso, Tucson, and the West Coast is removed and connected to the last Coach, both of which will be added to the Sunset consist when it arrives during the night. They used to carry that Sleeping Car on the back end, which kept several switching moves from being necessary, but no longer.
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The crews are not happy with the Diner-Lounge (shown paired with the Sightseer Lounge car), as there isn’t much room, and they have “heard” that the Lounge car will be removed just as the very busy Holiday season approaches. The three workers from the Diner-Lounge get off the train in Austin to get fully rested before boarding #22 the next morning for the trip “home,” meaning no food service to/from San Antonio. Is Amtrak really saving money on this train with these actions?

Members of the RailPAC Board were out traveling on Amtrak trains in October: Richard Silver and Dick Spotswood were among the lucky riders on one of the rerouted Coast Starlights across the Tehachapis and up the Valley on the ex-SP Union Pacific route. Bruce Jenkins and Bill Kerby rode round trip on the California Zephyr to Denver, drove down to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic narrow gauge line out of Chama, NM, and went to Durango to ride the Durango & Silverton, visiting many scenic ancient Indian sites along the way. They report they had some of the best Zephyr crews they’ve seen, but, “The Superliners are getting very old and beat up. Food on the diner was acceptable, but plastic plates are a big disappointment. And, we were ‘mooned’ through Red Rock Canyon; even fishermen are doing that now.” Mr. Jenkins lived in Grand Junction, CO, as a boy, and the depot where his mother worked is still being restored. James Smith continued to pile up mileage, riding the Southwest Chief to Chicago, changing to the Capitol Limited to DC, and rode the Silver service to Florida before returning on the same routes. Mr. Smith commented on the Diner-Lounge cars, agreeing there is not enough space in them, and said about these “Cross-Country Cafes” that run on the Capitol Limited, the City of New Orleans, and the Texas Eagle, “If it’s your first experience riding the trains it is probably ok because you don’t know what it should be. It’s not ok if you’ve been in a regular Diner.”

Bob Manning took a break from his efforts to improve service to the Coachella Valley by taking his wife round trip on the Coast Starlight, the Cascade to Vancouver, VIA’s Canadian to Winnipeg, and then transfer to the VIA train to Churchill up on Hudson Bay, all of which they thoroughly enjoyed! He reports the service on the Starlight was very good, but “it’s the same menu all the time!” After returning Mr. Manning rode the Sunset Limited from Palm Springs to Los Angeles on November 10, which arrived early at LAUS at 9:30! That train had 3 Coaches, but only one Coach attendant, which “is just not acceptable.” We all agree. All of these RailPAC gentlemen probably rode more Amtrak long distance trains in one month than Amtrak’s high level management has ridden in the past two years. Just think what Amtrak could learn if they were interested enough to ask.

This writer wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! This column also appears monthly in the Western Rail Passenger Review. Thanks for reading it!

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