Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary

ATK, CEO, OTP, PTC, F&B, BLT, UP, etc. Challenges, challenges.

Commentary by Russ Jackson

Here we are in August, 2018.  What a summer it has been on the nerves of rail advocates!  Just how different has it been from August in 2008, 1998, 1988 or 1978?  Not much.  Each of the symbols in the title of this article are just as important to the future of rail passenger transportation as in any decade.

ATK.  That’s Amtrak, and here we are in the 5th decade where Amtrak has had the monopoly on rail passenger service in this country.  There have been many positives over the years, but there have been many criticisms that recur year after year and never seem to be “solved,” all of which would have contributed to making Amtrak thrive and possibly prevented the dire straits Amtrak has found itself in. Some advocate organizations have whitewashed the shortcomings, preferring to tout the fact that we have a national system of trains for us to ride, and to be too critical risks losing what we have.  Well, here we are in 2018 and what is the foremost problem facing us?  Right, it’s the highest risk of losing the national system than at any time in Amtrak’s history.  This writer congratulates RailPAC’s Paul Dyson, RPA’s Peter LeCody, the U.S. Senators from Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico plus Illinois and California, and the local community leaders along the route of Amtrak’s endangered Southwest Chief for the leadership they have shown to preserve that train, as well as those individuals and organizations in other states who have stood up and joined the fight on other issues from coast to coast.

CEO.  That ‘s Chief Executive Officer.  What we have now at Amtrak is a CEO who has come to the railroad with no railroad experience and brought with him executives who have executive experience, but no cultural background in passenger rail.  They are number crunchers, and while that is not totally disqualifying it is not enough for them to be entering a whole new experience without knowing what they were getting into.  Now they are finding out what “rail advocacy” means.  There is a whole industry of folks with memories of what rail passenger service was and should be, and are not afraid to speak up in its behalf.  There isn’t a similar national constituency that speaks for any other transportation mode.  The actions of the current Amtrak CEO this year have taken a toll on riders, company employees and their unions, and communities across the country.  What we now see in August is the “stand up for the national system” crowd is having a positive effect.  Have you noticed that Amtrak’s CEO has been very quiet for the last few weeks?  It “isn’t over until it’s over,” as Yogi used to say.  We can only hope CEO Richard Anderson hasn’t hunkered down waiting for the storm to pass before acting again.  Meanwhile, let’s detail some of the same old problems and see if he has been totally quiet.

PTC.  That’s Positive Train Control, the federally mandated system designed to prevent accidents on the railroads.  PTC is supposed to be implemented on all railroad owners by the end of 2018, and some are farther along in compliance than others.  Amtrak’s CEO is declaring this end of the year date as a mandate on him to preserve Amtrak service on any segment that Amtrak uses, and has threatened loss of service to any that are not compliant.  That includes the historic “Santa Fe” line across western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and northern New Mexico currently carrying the Southwest Chief and no freight trains south of LaJunta, CO.  Another smaller segment is the line between Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, that carries the Texas Eagle and the TRE commuter trains.  The TRE told NBC5 in Dallas in a long report that they are working on implementing PTC, but a “shortage of funds and required equipment” may cause them to not be ready until 2019.  What will Amtrak do in that case or the other similar short segments?  Is the Denver to Grand Junction CO California Zephyr line in similar jeopardy?  Is that the next national system train in jeopardy?

OTP.  That’s On Time Performance.  When in Amtrak’s history has that not been an issue?  Amtrak’s Anderson has said in effect that they are tired of pushing the freight railroads day after day about running the trains on time.  We are tired of it being an issue, but it is inevitable that as long as the passenger trains are running on the lines owned by the freight railroads that conflicts will occur.  The U.S. Senate has passed a measure “to analyze impact of Amtrak’s on-time performance.”  And it passed 99-0.  RailPAC’s Steve Roberts says, “OTP is a major driver of repeat ridership, hence ticket revenue and costs.  Improved OTP would improve a lot of metrics for rail service.  I think the lopsided vote is a testament to the heightened awareness as a result of the Southwest Chief situation.  Maybe there is method (planned or unplanned) behind the Amtrak madness.”  We await the results, but conflicts are bound to happen on any line at any time that are not preventable.

F&B.  That’s Food and Beverage.  One of the first challenges that Amtrak’s CEO thrust upon the riding public was removing the Pacific Parlour Cars from the Coast Starlight.  Rumors persist that Mr. Anderson discovered only one person in the car, who wondered why it was there, then he acted.  Maybe yes, maybe no, but the only “first class” service on the national system disappeared overnight.  Then he changed the meal service on two eastern national system trains, the Lake Shore and The Capitol, and substituted box meals while reducing “costs” by eliminating positions in the Dining cars on those trains.  The firestorm of protest is still being heard.  If we wanted box meals we can get them from Kentucky Chicken, we said,  Now one hot meal has returned as an option, but it still comes in a box.  Look on www.AmtrakFoodFacts.com,  click on a train and see what is offered.  Thankfully that regretable option has not spread to other national system trains.  Yet.  OH, WAIT A MINUTE.  As this is being written we are hearing that the same process is going to be instituted in the Texas Eagle Diner-Lounges in September!  OH OH.

BLT.  That, of course, is a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwhich, and this writer has called for the inclusion of such a self-descriptive item on Amtrak’s menus (with other similar highly recognized items) because it is so simple, inexpensive, and any rider can recognize it and want to go to the Dining car to buy it.  What we will look at next on this topic is some of the language that “fancies up” some Amtrak menu choices.  When you see “orzo, prosciutto, sopperssta, cannellini, arcadian, julienne, balsamic, quinoa, edamame” on the menu do you understand what is offered?  Many folks do not, and when they are told that it could also be called a high quality ham and cheese sandwich, well, then they understand.  Why do menu writers think they have to be so fancy?  Or, when they write that there is an “antipasto plate” and it contains “prosciutto, sopressata and smoked turkey, smoked Gruyere and aged Asiago cheese, artichoke hearts, stuffed olives, cornichons, grape tomatoes, cillengini and crisp Italkan bread sticks served with Colavita limonlio, cannellini bean salad and salted cheese cake” the only thing I hear is “cheese cake.”  Yum.  Oh, there is no longer any ice cream on menus.  And, where is the “mac and cheese” choice for everyone?  

UP.  Yes, the Union Pacific Railroad.  While the UP is only one of the freight railroads that Amtrak must deal with day by day, month by month, and year by year, the UP is one that can quickly accommodate GROWTH (this writer’s favorite epithet aimed at Amtrak and its non-growth policies), such as a daily Sunset Limited.  The UP’s CEO recently appeared at the National Press Club in Washington DC, and while he is a very articulate spokesperson for the industry and most of the hour interview pertained to PTC and other railroad issues, in the last five minutes questioners brought up Amtrak.  He explained that he intends to accommodate Amtrak trains on the system as long as he has to, BUT, he is not going to be receptive to any new trains.  We have seen that attitude from his predecessors and expect nothing less in the future, requiring a huge amount of effort on the part of Amtrak’s administration and the Congress.   Are they up to it?  Do they want to be?   The are more so now.  Let’s GROW!

Solutions to these challenges are required to make Amtrak a truly national system of high quality train experiences that will entice more riders, bring badly needed new equipment on line nationally, and through realistic marketing will make it possible for this writer and future generations of rail advocates to be proud to support what it can become.  Don’t laugh, that is a must-see outcome of this summer’s debacle too.  As Andrew Selden wrote in Railway Age recently, “A small part of the issue is that Amtrak’s senior managers foolishly misapprehend the character of its customers on long-distance trains as consisting of “discretionary,” “leisure” or “experiential” travelers. These customers, according to Amtrak’s strategy, seemingly also are “dispensable.” That view would be a rude surprise to management at Carnival (or a dozen other cruise ship operators), scores of tourist railroads (like the Durango & Silverton), or any of a dozen airlines that are growing as fast as they can finance new aircraft. All of these carriers are adding amenities, not subtracting them. They staff their stations, feed their customers, build their fleets, and haul away the money they make. But not Amtrak”.  Readers, you must keep on top of the story this summer, and most of you have.  Onward to GROWTH! 
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