Tracking Rail News . . . November 5th, 2009
PHOTOS . . . and Commentary by Russ Jackson
. . . November, 2009.
. . . An important observation by RailPAC Sacramento Director, Marcia Johnston:
On October 16 I stopped at the Davis Amtrak station to check out the southbound Coast Starlight, which was on time. It sat for some time, and I saw the station agent run into the station to pull out the manual wheelchair lift. There was one person attempting to board with an oversized wheelchair. The present long distance cars cannot board this type of vehicle, and neither can the manual wheelchair lift. The rider couldn’t be boarded unless a regular size wheelchair was utilized. When the person and a companion left she was observed crying. Her companion explained that the train was the only option and that they could not afford to fly, as the cost was too great.
I was later informed that Operations called the agent to discuss the situation. This whole scenario took approximately 30 minutes to resolve and the train to get underway. I observed a California Northern freight train and two Capitols waiting in line before I left, with traffic all backed up on the Corridor. I expect this wheelchair/disabled issue is going to get serious as time goes on, and I hope Amtrak won’t be subject to lawsuits! There is also the problem with able-bodied riders with luggage and packages, laptops, etc, on the Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquins taking up the downstairs seating meant for seniors/disabled. Some conductors do announce that seats downstairs are only for seniors/ disabled and as that other riders go upstairs, but other conductors do not. Sometimes the senior has to press the issue with the offending passenger or has to send a companion to track down the conductor.
. . . On Time Performance Reports. Results for the fiscal year 2008-09, which ended September 30, the long distance trains OTP showed a huge improvement over last year. Trains 1-2 the Sunset Limited 82%; 3-4 the Southwest Chief 87%; 5-6 the California Zephyr 65%; 7-8 the Empire Builder 77%; 11-14 the Coast Starlight 88%; and the Texas Eagle 83.7%. Most improvement can be attributed to the decline in freight traffic on the railroads, but Amtrak kept them running and times improving all summer! Now, schedules for both the Zephyr and Sunset-Eagle have been shortened. Since October 1 that OTP trend has continued and, believe it or not, the first half of October found the 14 Sunset Limiteds on time at end points, and having to wait for time at many intermediate stations, 100% of the time! Despite an early snowfall in the West, Zephyr #6 arrived in Denver on time each day, and #5 arrived into Sacramento less than an hour late each day. RailPAC member Ralph James up in Blue Canyon reported the Zephyr had adapted to the new schedule, which puts #5 back on its original schedule. The Coast Starlight was early into Sacramento and LAUS every day, and Amtrak reports the Starlight ridership increased 22.3 percent. Of course the year before it was hit with the 15-week closure due to that slide in Oregon that caused a large decrease, but at least we know the passengers are coming back.
Amtrak total ridership declined during FY 08-09, but still remains high. Just think of what it could be when the economy recovers! Is Amtrak ready for that? It doesn’t look like it. Growth is not on the agenda there as we all know. It didn’t hurt to have CEO Boardman riding in business car Beech Grove on #11, but we need to see more action on improvements using all that money they acquired this year. Maybe of lesser importance, on October 2, ex-GM&O private car Patron Tequila Express owned by actor Dan Akroyd was on #11. (shown here at Los Angeles Union Station on Train Day, 2009, Steve Friedman photo)
BTW, Amtrak’s OTP can be compared favorably to all the major airlines! Now let’s get that overused equipment back in order, and an order for new long distance equipment that is desperately needed.
. . . Amtrak Menus change. In this month’s employee newsletter, Amtrak Ink, new menu items for the western long distance trains were announced, introducing more regional flavors. Breakfasts will see the return of sausage patties and smoked bacon, and roasted Yukon gold and red-skinned potatoes will replace the hash browns. A vegetarian spinach quiche, griddled sourdough sandwich, and quesadillas will be new to the Chef’s Breakfast Special category, with more omelet selections and healthy choices. Lunch will add a new chipotle black bean veggie burger, salads, and Chef’s specials. Dinner will include some new vegetarian pasta selections and the introduction of two new steak cuts, as well as new Chef’s regional Specials. Dessert choices have been upgraded. That’s great and certainly something to look forward to, but, if service isn’t up to par it will blunt the impact. RailPAC VP South James Smith called from his Southwest Chief train recently to report that his train had left Los Angeles with only two persons working upstairs in the dining car, and that Amtrak had assigned it that way. It wasn’t because of a no-show. If there aren’t enough workers to handle the food service diners are delayed, as he was, from being seated on the reserved times. Just another irritant, but important to travelers. Mr. Smith also reported there were only two coaches in that consist, and for a while new riders had to be in the lounge car until a seat opened up for them. Poor planning? Probably. Finally, the daily Sunset Limited situation. Not now, but ever? Stay tuned again, and again. What does it take to make a decision?