AMTRAK Long Distance trains at 40 And, what they still need is more cars!

Comments by Russ Jackson

That was then: Forty years is a long time. In this report let’s first take a look at where the western long distance trains started for Amtrak, and then look at today. Charting will be for two trains that were in the Amtrak official timetable #1 for May 1, 1971, which was quickly replaced with a new one on July 12. (this copy is from the author’s collection of all Amtrak national timetables to date). Then the May, 1991 national timetable which was in effect when this writer became editor of RailPAC’s Western Rail Passenger Review, and then we do a comparison of those past schedules with the 40th anniversary 2011 national system timetable which is available now at all Amtrak staffed stations.

Trains 1 and 2, the Sunset Limited. We all know what the problem with this train has been and continues to be: Tri-weekly (also said as tri-weakly) service from day 1, thanks to the inherited schedule from the Southern Pacific, and it continues to run today with nearly full loads despite the very bad schedule.
1971 Dp NOrl 1:00 PM; Dp Phx 10:50 PM; Ar LA 7:30 AM Su,W,F 44.5 hrs
1991 Dp NOrl 2:15 PM; Dp Phx 10:31 PM; Ar LA 7:00 AM M,W,F 42.75 hrs
2011 Dp NOrl 11:55 AM; Dp Mar 11:57 PM; Ar LA 8:30 AM Su,W,F 44.5 hrs *

1971 Dp LA 10:00 PM; Dp Phx 8:10 AM; Ar NOrl 8:00 PM Su,Tu,Th 44 hrs
1991 Dp LA 10:50 PM; Dp Phx 7:20 AM; Ar NOrl 7:50 PM Su,Tu,Th 43 hrs
2011 Dp LA 3:00 PM; Dp Mar 10:38 PM; Ar NOrl 2:55 PM Su,Tu,F 48 hrs *
*NOTE: In 2011 the trains do not go through Phoenix, a major city now without train service, and there are generous amounts of built-in recovery times throughout the route. In 1971 the schedule called for Yuma to Tucson via Phoenix to be 6 hours; in 1991 6 1/2 hours; in 2011 4 3/4 hours via Maricopa. If Phoenix were still on the schedule an hour and a half would have to be added to the 2011 schedule.

Trains 3 and 4, the Southwest Chief. In 1971 timetable #1 this train had numbers 17 and 18 and was named “Super Chief-El Capitan,” continuing its inherited Santa Fe tradition.
1971 Dp Chi 6:30 PM; Ar LA 9:00 AM; daily 40.5 hrs *
1991 Dp Chi 5:00 PM; Ar LA 8:10 AM; daily 41.25 hrs
2011 Dp Chi 3:00 PM; Ar LA 8:15 AM; daily 43 hrs

1971 Dp LA 7:30 PM; Ar Chi 1:30 PM; daily 42 hrs *
1991 Dp LA 8:30 PM; Ar Chi 3:50 PM; daily 42.25 hrs
2011 Dp LA 6:15 PM; Ar Chi 3:15 PM; daily 45 hrs
* NOTE: In 1971 the train did not go via Topeka, KS, which adds one hour to the schedule.

While running times and scheduled departures have remained fairly consistent for these trains, for others it has been all over the map. Several interesting changes from 1971: then the Coast Starlight was the first west coast train to travel from Seattle to, first, San Diego. It ran tri-weekly north of Oakland and from Los Angeles to San Diego, but daily from Oakland to Los Angeles. In 1971 there were only two daily round trip San Diegans between Los Angeles and San Diego, no San Joaquins, and no Capitols. Originally, the California Zephyr was scheduled to travel its current route, but when the D&RGW railroad decided to opt out of Amtrak it ran via Wyoming and operated daily from Chicago to Denver but tri-weekly between Denver and Oakland. The Empire Builder did not have a Portland section, and crossed the Cascades in Washington going via Yakima instead of Wenatchee. All this was accomplished using low level cars and locomotives that were 20 years old and operating crews they inherited from the freight railroads.

This is now: In the July, 2011 issue of Trains magazine, writer Bob Johnston has written a review of Amtrak’s past, dividing its history into five sections, and comparing “then” to “now.” For example, section one, “Wake-up call,” says “Then: equipment had to be ordered and funded.” Sadly, “Now: equipment has to be ordered and funded.” While that is important for all parts of the system, including the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has neglected its long distance trains badly. In his presentation to the RailPAC-NARP meeting in March, 2011, Minnesota’s Andrew C. Selden said, “Amtrak has made no significant investment in its long distance services in 20 years, and now plans only to replace its Superliner I cars, not to grow its long distance fleet or network.” Mr. Selden’s comments and data explaining all this were published in the May-June issue of the RailPAC newsletter.

On May 17, 2011, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, “You are not going to cut costs far enough on the long-distance trains to make (them) profitable.” This statement came after Amtrak’s West Coast Superintendent, William Duggan, spoke to the RailPAC meeting, revealing (with a power point visual) that “Sleeping car ticket revenue makes a positive contribution to Amtrak’s bottom line.” That is what RailPAC, URPA, and most objective long distance train advocates have been saying for too many years, but Amtrak has not been willing to fund additional cars that will contribute positively to that bottom line, instead choosing to invest only in corridor trains that are paid for by the states (except in the NEC). Mr. Selden says, “Amtrak is turning away boatloads of money for want of new capacity.” As RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, says, “More cars on the (existing) trains means more revenue and smaller deficits. The true deficit is in management, not dollars.”

So, we can all agree that adding additional high-revenue cars to existing trains, those that will run every day (including the daily Sunset Limited eventually), is where Amtrak should be concentrating its efforts, right? RailPAC’s Noel Braymer suggests, “How about private financing (safe-harbor leasing) with a business plan to pay for them with increased revenues? With California about to order new bi-level cars how about Amtrak getting an ‘add-on’ to that order for new hulls at least.”

We must add a caution written by Mr. Selden to us that it “will take hundreds of new cars–effectively deployed in high revenue services–to get to break-even. But, local wisdom in St. Paul is that there never will be a fourth sleeper on the Builder because the diner is swamped as it is and they couldn’t feed another carload of passengers. Personal observation is that they’re right. The diner in mid-summer (i.e., for the four peak months) is dreadful in terms of regimentation and rushed service, and stress on an understaffed crew.” After a trip on the Empire Builder, where he is a National Park Service volunteer in the Rails-Trails program narrating the trip between Minneapolis and Wisconsin Dells, Mr. Selden wrote that “All three sleepers were all but sold out on both trains and would be sold out west of Minneapolis. Coaches were about 2/3 occupied so statistically sold-out due to down-line sales.” And this on a train that has had many on-time problems this winter and spring. RailPAC VP South James Smith returned from a round trip on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago and reported the same sold-out condition in May, before the official travel season begins. People want to ride…something must be done for these western trains besides just replacing cars one-for-one if Amtrak really wants to grow financially and calm the criticism thrown at them. Or do they?
Russ Jackson, a retired California college instructor, was a RailPAC officer and editor, and is VP of the United Rail Passenger Alliance now living near Dallas, Texas.

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