During this past Thanksgiving holiday I had a privilege to a ride on the eastbound Roughwest Chief, from Los Angeles to Chicago… I’ve traveled on the Chief before, and it seemed to be fine. However, this past trip will probably be my last.
Let’s start with the ugly status of the Dining car removal from the Silver Star train, since it’s the hottest news. On January 28, just as this is being written, URPA learned that Amtrak employees were told the day before that the Star’s dining car is PERMANENTLY gone. As predicted here since this “experiment” was first announced last summer, there was no doubt it was going to be a permanent discontinuance.
Here we are, Christmastime 2015, and lo and behold the Amtrak long distance trains continue to roll and to some extent thrive despite the negative publicity that they are “money losers.” In recent posts this writer has talked about the positives that are being accomplished on the Coast Starlight, and the opposite effects that are creating heartburn on other trains like the east coast Silver Star which has lost its dining car. In this article we will look at the other western routes that operate in and out of Los Angeles headed east, and what the imminent retirement of CEO Joe Boardman can bring to the future.
Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson with Ralph James
Amtrak likes to tout its end points and the volume of traffic it gets between those departures and destinations on all of its routes, but while some passengers do that it is the intermediate station travel that fills up the trains. Can you imagine, as RailPAC President Paul Dyson says, if you could only travel between endpoints on the interstate highway system? Amtrak is usually surprised when someone wants to travel from, say, Paso Robles, CA, to Eugene, OR. They might not be able to collect as much money from that passenger, but they can still sell that seat on either side of those two locations. Here is an instance of that exact travel pair as reported to us by RailPAC member Ralph James. He recommended to a friend that he take the his Thanksgiving trip on the Coast Starlight from Paso Robles to Eugene. The friend was dreading the long drive. “With the necessary tinge of reservation,” Ralph says, “I suggested he look into Amtrak since his origin and destination were right at stops for the Starlight.” He did so, and sent Ralph a trip report of the first half of his trip, as an “assessment,” giving Amtrak numeric grades for what he experienced with comparisons to airline travel:
A well-informed source has told RailPAC that Pacific Parlour Car service will be missing from the Coast Starlight in the coming weeks because the FRA has some concerns about the glazing. Apparently one car has already been fixed and Amtrak is awaiting delivery of material for the rest of the fleet. Unfortunately we cannot offer a schedule of which dates may be affected but we’ll do our best to keep you informed.
As the Parlour Cars are cycled through the shops they will be temporarily replaced by Superliner lounge cars. We are assured there is no intent to end the service.
Napoleon used to say that he liked his generals to be lucky. Presumably he would not have employed the first CEOs of Metrolink, who suffered considerably from ill fortune, particularly the Glendale accident. But bad luck is only one small part of the picture that has brought about the near collapse of Metrolink. After 23 years in being, consider that: Metrolink’s daily patronage is a little over 40,000 trips, or 20,000 customers. The annual operating subsidy is about $6,000 per customer, soon to be increased by another $1,000 (see below), in a population base of about 15 million people.
Metrolink’s locomotive fleet has a high failure rate, and is being prematurely replaced with over $300 million of new locomotives, paid for by 1A High Speed Rail funds (!) and SCAQMD funds, the so-called Carl Moyer program. Metrolink’s peak hour oriented service pattern, with most locomotives enjoying a weekend off, allows for plenty of time for them to be properly maintained yet by their own admission key service and rebuild intervals have been ignored.
There are still severe operating constraints, limitations to capacity caused by lack of investment to remove bottlenecks. Operationally, small delays can expand to major disruption as trains wait for meets on single track sections. Key markets, such as between northern Los Angeles County and Orange County, cannot be addressed because of the time taken to reverse at LAUS.
Since the February Oxnard collision with a stray truck at a grade crossing there has been a cone of silence over the Rotem Cab Cars. At the SCRRA Board meeting of Friday 25th September 2015 the Board voted, with minimal public discussion, to authorize a lease of 40 freight locomotives for a year at a total net cost of $M19.125, or nearly $1,000 per customer. (Just before going to press this amount was increased to over $23M, but was referred back to the member agencies for their approval. They have to find the money.) These locomotives are to be placed on the train ahead of the cab car so that each train will have a Metrolink locomotive with only the HEP operative, the passenger cars including the cab car, and the freight locomotive providing the motive power. Such deliberations as there were, including any discussion as to where this extra money is to come from, was held in closed session under the rubric “anticipated litigation”. We await the NTSB decision on the results of the Oxnard accident, but has SCRRA been forewarned that the cab cars may be found to be inadequate protection for the engineer and passengers? Another theory is that this is a pretext for bringing in locomotives to make the trains more reliable as Metrolink’s own fleet is at a crisis point.
We await the NTSB report about Oxnard with interest. We also await the “anticipated litigation”. Who might sue whom? In the meanwhile operating people familiar with the situation are concerned about the additional difficulties these added locomotives might cause. In some instances, e.g. Lancaster, overnight train storage is so constrained that there is insufficient room to add a locomotive without reducing the number of cars, or storing one train elsewhere. This might require a deadhead move from Los Angeles, shortening trains, or the reduction of service. Furthermore, with two locomotives on each train, both requiring fuel and service, operations at the maintenance facilities become more complex and time consuming, with the likelihood of delays. There is also the issue of whether these freight locomotives, normally having a lower maximum speed, will be able to make passenger schedules.
To add insult to injury the Positive Train Control mandate has proven to be costly and technically complex to meet. I sometimes wonder if the politicians were told that the process would be no more than installing a “Garmin” in every cab, but clearly this is not the case. The area of the greatest long term concern is the turnaround time at terminals, especially LAUS. I have been told that 25 minutes is the minimum required to reverse a train, and indeed Amtrak now schedules 30 minute dwell time at LAUS for through Surfliner trains. The San Bernardino service seems to be the first to reflect this new reality. Billed as a “service enhancement” the number of peak hour morning trains is reduced from roughly 20 minute intervals to 30 minutes between L.A. bound trains.
The eastbound afternoon departures are similarly reduced, although there is at least a clockface rationale to the new offering. And when oh when will we get rid of this nonsense of trains that “may leave up to 5 minutes ahead of schedule”? As far as I know this absurdity is unique to Metrolink. Anyone know otherwise?
I’m hoping that the technical experts responsible for PTC will come up with a fix for this turnaround issue. With a captive fleet operating over limited track miles one would think that most of the data can be stored on board and all that would be required would be for the engineer to select a train number. Otherwise the possibility of adding service at LAUS must be almost zero until the run-through tracks are complete. In the meanwhile punctuality, whether caused by PTC problems, locomotive failures or other issues, has deteriorated. Today (10/2/15) I see 20, 30 and 45 minute delays on the Antelope Valley line. How long will the remaining customers stick with the service? Where do we go from here? We have to accept that Metrolink was built and implemented on the cheap. From the first day the system suffered from capacity constraints and bottlenecks that were an unfortunate fact of life in 1994, but by 2015 should have been fixed. These include the LAUS run through tracks, double track on the Ventura and Antelope Valley lines in the San Fernando Valley, the I-10 single track through Alhambra, and the BNSF Transcon from Redondo Junction to Fullerton and beyond. Instead of making incremental investments over time to permit more reliable and frequent service the counties, Los Angeles County in particular wasted two decades before Metro CEO Art Leahy initiated a program of investment. We are two to three years away from reaping the benefits from those expenditures.
Similarly we are at least two years from delivery of a significant number of the new EMD locomotives, and let’s hope that these units do not suffer from any reliability problems common with brand new equipment.
So how should Metrolink proceed during this 2 to 3 year period with the assets that are available? One of the alternatives suggested by the staff report on the proposed BNSF locomotive lease was to decline to increase the operating budget and not go ahead with the lease. Staff stated that this would result in a major reduction in trains run, up to 50%. As I commented to the Board, this alternative should be seriously considered.
Given the time taken to take delivery, prepare and deploy the BNSF locomotives, and given the ongoing issues with PTC, it may well be the most prudent action to curtail the current service to a level which can be reliably operated. With a Metrolink locomotive on each end of the train, additional cars could be added to the trains that do run, so that at least the number of seats available is not reduced by 50%. Furthermore the train sets that are available could work trains throughout the day, providing more travel opportunities.
Let’s take this a step further. What if service were abandoned completely on some lines with the remaining train sets deployed to all day service on a core system? This would most likely consist of the Antelope Valley, San Bernardino and IE-OC trains. A sensible bargain could be struck with the LOSSAN Board to contract for space on a reconfigured Surfliner service to provide basic commuter schedules on the Ventura and Orange County lines. Perhaps also NCTD could be induced to extend service from Oceanside to Fullerton.
This may seem like radical surgery. Indeed it is. Would the patient survive? There is a risk that Metrolink may lose the political support that it has if the daily passenger count goes down to 25,000 or less. On the other hand there would be considerable operating savings which should be devoted to locomotive maintenance and PTC installation and problem solving, as well as the ticket machines and revenue collection. By 2020 Metrolink will have a new fleet of locomotives, double track in the critical areas of the San Fernando Valley, LAUS run through tracks and other track improvements around the system, and PTC operating smoothly. That will be the time to relaunch the service, preferably with a new brand, to consist of all day, seven days a week through services between the Counties passing through Union Station, and providing cross platform transfers. By 2020 the local transit operators will have had time to plan connecting feeder buses and to integrate fare collection systems.
Can the SCRRA Board rise to the occasion and use this difficult period to take a bold step for the future? In 1994, after the Northridge earthquake, Metrolink seized the opportunity to prove that rail can be part of the solution to our mobility needs. Rather than band aid the present service and essentially continue the poor performance and mediocrity, let’s hope that there are those on the Board with the vision to turn Metrolink into true REGIONAL RAIL.
Every few weeks or so the Los Angeles Times publishes stories by Ralph Vartabedian which are highly speculative, thinly researched and critical of the California High Speed Rail Project. The worst time for the media is when the news is boring. So for as long as there has been stories, spinning a story has been common to create drama and attract attention. For this the Vartabedian’s sensational stories have been very successful. Here we see pack journalism at work, as other media outlets republish these Times stories and creates follow up stories on the same meme. This reminds me of when I’ve glanced at tabloid publications at the supermarket. I often see headlines proclaiming again that some famous person has only weeks to live. Yet many of these folks often are still very much alive years later.
The October 8, 2015 Los Angeles Times edition had the headline “California bullet train project is attracting interest — but not funding”.This story by Ralph Vartabedian implied that the companies planning to bid for work on the California High Speed Rail Project, had no wish to provide financing for the project. Yet central to the planning for this project is private financing. Yet it appears that in Mr. Vartabedian’s research, none of the potential bidders were asked directly about this in his story. Yet this question was brought up by Sacramento Bee reporter Ted Bizjak in his article “Siemens Aims to Make Sacramento a Hub for Bullet Train” of October 19, 2015. Mr. Bizjak reported “A recent request by the rail authority for private companies to declare their interest in partnering on the project and to offer ideas on how to build the system drew three dozen responses, including from Siemens, but none of the companies offered to bring in private financing, rail officials said. Michael Cahill, president of Siemens Industry Inc.’s mobility division, said his company didn’t propose private financing because the state’s request wasn’t specifically set up for a financial proposal. But, he said, Siemens could be interested in making a financing pitch at some point.”
The recent contacts and discussions with rail contractors and operators by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) may have already had an effect on the project. It is no secret that the operators of High Speed Rail services have wanted the initial service of High Speed Rail to serve Los Angeles from the start. Los Angeles is after the largest travel market in California and critical to ridership high enough to operate profitably. Yet current plans for the first segment of passenger service are from Merced to Burbank by 2022. Burbank is close but still 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Although not getting any media attention, it was recently discussed at the October Los Angeles Metro Board Meeting that the California High Speed Rail Authority had asked LA Metro to allow them to bring in High Speed Trains into Los Angeles Union Station by 2024, which is 5 years sooner than originally planned. Instead of using an underground station near LAUS as was being planned. The CHSRA now wants to bring their trains directly onto stations tracks in the middle of the station. This will be much cheaper than an underground station, quicker to build and have faster connections for passengers transferring by local trains and buses. The LA Metro Board approved the request to move directly into Union Station by the CHSRA.
The Los Angeles Times also had another recent Vartabedian story with the headline.”$68-billion California bullet train project likely to overshoot budget … Los Angeles Times–Oct 24, 2015“. This story assumes that the CHSRA is hiding costs that will sooner or later leave the taxpayer with massive debt. After the voters approved almost 10 billion dollars towards construction of High Speed Rail in late 2008, the estimated cost of the project did jumped from $32 Billion dollars to almost a $100 billion by 2011. It was at about this time that the Brown administration inherited the High Speed Rail Project. One of Governor Brown’s first acts was to appoint Dan Richard, his long time friend and adviser as Chair of the High Speed Rail Authority. Mr. Richard has done a great deal to turn the High Speed Rail Project around. One of his first challenges in 2011 was the 2012 Business Plan and getting the approval of the California High Speed Rail Peer Group which was created by the Legislature to advise it on High Speed Rail. This group is made up of experts in transportation, finance, construction, engineering and rail operations. This Group is made up of all unpaid volunteer professionals. The original Chair of this group was the widely respected Will Kempton, former head of Caltrans during the Schwarzenegger Administration. An original member of the Peer Review Group and current Chair is Louis Thompson. After a successful career at the Federal Rail Administration, he then moved to the World Bank to oversee rail development around the world. The Peer Review Group rejected the original CHSRA 2012 Business Plan. Under the direction of the Peer Review Group a largely rewritten Business Plan was adopted and is the basis of much of the current planning. The Peer Review Group was largely responsible for the current estimate of roughly $68 Billion dollars for the 520 route miles of High Speed Rail between Anaheim and San Francisco. Roughly half of this cost is to be paid with government funding and the rest privately financed to be serviced by revenues from the operation of High Speed Rail. Such Public,Private Partnerships are common around the world and are often used to build High Speed Rail. Future extensions to Sacramento and San Diego will depend on financing paid with revenue from the 520 miles of finished service.
Since the 2012 Business Plan, the High Speed Rail Authority has been able to stick to it’s original estimate of around $31 Billion dollars for the Initial 300 miles of construction between Merced and Burbank. This is almost all of the taxpayer’s money that is planned to be spent for California High Speed Rail. This is a fact usually ignored in the doomsday forecasts by High Speed Rail critics. Since the first major contracts have been signed and construction started, the bids so far have come in under budget.It is always difficult to estimate costs far into the future. But there are reasonable expectations that constructions costs shouldn’t spiral out of control in the near future. One of the major factors that in the last 40 to 50 years made long term cost estimates difficult has been inflation. But since 2008, despite many warnings to the contrary, inflation remains fairly low. In fact for many Central Banks the bigger fear remains the possibility of deflation. With this low level of inflation we continue to see historic low prime rates for borrowing money. This makes it a good time to borrow money at very low rates to build a great deal of major projects such as High Speed Rail. Another major driver of inflation is the cost of energy, particularly the cost of oil. Right now there is glut of oil. This is a result of lack of growing demand for oil around the world. We are also seeing renewable energy costs continue to go down, replacing the use of fossil fuels while keeping the cost of energy from rising.
Mr. Vartabedian can’t claim impartiality on the issue of California High Speed Rail. In one of his stories at the end of the 2014 Governor’s race he openly lamented that High Speed Rail hadn’t become a major political issue against Governor Brown. There has been a constant attempt by some Republican politicians to play partisan politics using the High Speed Rail project as a whipping boy. This hasn’t gotten these partisan politicians anywhere. Despite several calls to pass petitions to shut down the High Speed Rail Project, none have had enough signatures to even get on the ballot. The reality is that High Speed Rail is and always has been a non-partisan issue. Republican Governor Pete Wilson signed the legislation creating the California High Speed Rail Authority. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger placed the Prop 1A measure on the ballot in 2008 which gave voter approval for California High Speed Rail. Republican strongholds in the San Joaquin Valley such as Fresno, Merced and Visalia are major supporters of High Speed Rail. The same is true in conservative Palmdale. The California Chamber of Commerce supports High Speed Rail. The reason is simple, transportation is central to economic growth and local prosperity.
While there will always be uncertainties about the future, there rarely has been a better time to build than now. There are plenty of contractors looking for work and willing to bid low in efforts to find work. Energy costs and interest rates are at a historic low and major cost increases are not likely short of a major increase in demand. California is a big transportation market, and we need alternatives to the I-5 and 101 which will increasingly be subject to closures due to bad weather and traffic accidents. Many transportation experts around the world realize that California is a potential major High Speed Rail market. California is the key to major expansion of rail passenger service to most of the United States. Several countries are eager to see High Speed Rail service built in California and they want the contract for it. This will lead to one heck of a good deal from the competition for the final California High Speed Rail contract.
In a surprise move at the Los Angeles Metro Board Meeting on October 22, 2015, an agenda item was voted on and approved to make changes to the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project (SCRIP). Part of the change will coordinate SCRIP’s construction of run-through tracks at Union Station with the construction at the same time of a new concourse under the tracks at Union Station. Construction of both projects is expected to begin in 2017 through 2019 or so. This makes perfect sense. The surprising part of this agenda Item was the Metro Board also approved the construction of 2 platforms with 4 run-through tracks for the exclusive use for High Speed Trains at Los Angeles Union Station for use by 2024.
What is being planned for High Speed Rail at LAUS is for 2 of the most western platforms to be rebuilt for High Speed Rail which would include High Level Platforms which will be unusable by Metrolink or most Amtrak equipment in California. This will also include separate tracks from the rest of the station tracks for these 2 platforms which will be used exclusively for High Speed Passenger trains coming into and out of LAUS. The western platforms, the ones with the lowest numbers, are closest to what will be the light rail Blue Line from Long Beach to Azusa by 2024, the Red and Purple subway lines as well as a new bus station which will be alongside the future Blue Line platform. Talk about the best location. This will give High Speed Rail the shortest distance for transfers at LAUS from Metrorail, Metrolink, Amtrak and by bus.
Now the plans for run-through tracks at Union Station is to have 2 platforms with 4 tracks for High Speed Rail trains, 3 platforms and 6 tracks to be shared by Metrolink and Amtrak Surfliner trains and 2 platforms with 4 tracks which will remain stub-end tracks that can be used for long distance trains, equipment storage at the station and equipment displays. That makes 7 platforms and 14 tracks. The problem is although Union Station originally had 8 platforms and 16 tracks, where Platform 8 use to be is now used by a part of the LA Metro Headquarter’s building. Platform 1 is used by LA Metrorail for Light Rail service. So how to get 7 platforms with 14 tracks when you only have 6 platforms and 12 tracks available for intercity rail service?
On a LA Metro graphic for the October 22nd Board Meeting the final design for the SCRIP project shows Platforms 1, 2a, 3,4,5,6 and 7. When I went to school a long time ago that added up to 8 platforms. How did that happen? This graphic shows platform 2a next to platform 1 which is for Light Rail. What is being planned is to relocate the light rail tracks to the west at the station and build a new Platform 1. Platform 2a would in fact be a rebuilt Platform 1 which would be used along with Platform 2 for High Speed Rail trains.
In order to reach LAUS on the surface with High Speed Trains by 2024, it seems that the CAHSRA will likely also have to share and improve the tracks owned by Los Angeles County used by Metrolink’s Ventura County and Antelope Valley Lines at least as far as Burbank. If so, this will restrict the speeds on this track segment to “only” 110-120 miles per hour between Union Station and Bob Hope Airport. In the past all planning for High Speed Rail was for an all new straighter track alignment in and out of Union Station and a separate HSR station near Union Station. But sharing tracks and Union Station will save the CHSRA hundreds of millions of dollars and allow service to LAUS by 2024 and not 2029 as originally planned.
No doubt simplifying construction between Burbank and Los Angeles will allow more resources to be used for building a shorter tunnel between Burbank and Palmdale which will reduce the running times between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Could we also be seeing Los Angeles to Las Vegas High Speed Rail service by 2024?
It appears that in densely populated areas the CHSRA is looking to share more existing rights of way for some segments to reduce costs and avoid slow and costly environmental studies.This seems to be the case between Burbank to Los Angeles and on to Anaheim. Full double tracking and grade-separation or at the least upgraded grade level crossing barrier protection will be needed for high traffic levels and speeds up to 120 miles per hour. Similar shared track usage is planned between San Jose and San Francisco.
Can right of way sharing be used in other places to reduce costs and shorten construction time building more high speed service? Could we see use of existing rights of way for HSR in the San Gabriel Valley to the Inland Empire? This could be part of the route to San Diego on the I-15 freeway. Could this also be done using separate tracks between Merced and Sacramento to extend High Speed Rail from Merced to Sacramento?
This might be a good time to talk to the BNSF and UP about making deals to share rights of way.The railroads now are seeing a decline in traffic, particularly for coal and oil. The economy is also slowing down which is seen in declining freight traffic, particularly for the UP. The UP has been more cooperative in the last couple of years to California High Speed Rail construction than when Prop 1A passed in 2008 which started the High Speed Rail project. This cooperation can be seen in planning around Bakersfield to build a station and trackage alongside the UP right of way. This is more an acceptance of reality than enthusiasm on UP’s part.
Whenever a passenger is ready to travel by Amtrak, has a ticket in hand and is ready to go to the station to board the train the first anxiety is always whether the train will be on time or be running late (in many cases hours late). For this trip let’s get the on time performance out of the way by saying that Amtrak’s October 5 Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited we boarded in Ft. Worth was nearly on time all the way. There were no major delay incidents. Since it takes upwards of 45 to 50 minutes on a good travel day for us to reach the Ft. Worth station it was good to know the status, and while “Amtrak Julie” is the best source, so are Amtrak Status Maps and the other sources of information. We arrived at FTW just as the train was arriving from Dallas. Great timing. Bad track sections in Texas still need work, particularly Temple to Taylor.
This report will cover mostly the westbound trip. Veteran readers know this reporter and spouse have been traveling Amtrak long distance trains since 1971, traveled on the AT&SF before that, with reports like this one having appeared in RailPAC publications since 1990. Train travel is our preferred means of travel, for those of you first time readers, and while we don’t do it as often anymore, we enjoy seeing how Amtrak train travel changes or doesn’t change from trip to trip. Meeting interesting people on board is a pleasant experience, and on this trip we met a couple from Waco traveling on Amtrak for the first time and also going to Los Angeles.
On the Texas Eagle trains from Chicago, arrival in San Antonio is scheduled for approximately 10 PM. On our train a full sized Dining car replaced the usual Cafe-Diner. Off-season staffing is two employees upstairs and two downstairs in the galley. The LSA upstairs also waits tables. Only one half of the car was used, approximately the same size as the Cafe-Diner. When the call for dinner reservations came there were only going to be two seatings, at 5:00 and 5:30. When asked, the LSA crisply replied that there couldn’t be any after that “on days we go to San Antonio.” Perplexed, I did not continue the discussion. When we arrived for our 5:00 seating we were pleased to find us sitting across from the Waco folks, and were able to answer most of their questions. They were sharing a Roomette. We ordered dinner, and this writer swears the steak was the best one ever in all our trips. The service crew was excellent, but it still is curious why they thought they couldn’t have scheduled a few later seatings.
Usually on the Eagle there is conductor chatter on the PA, but this crew was nearly silent. Our sleeping car attendant was very cooperative and helpful. Our car, #32079, is one that has not been fully updated and has the old carpeted walls that now look quite shabby and dirty. One new touch is they now post the dining car and lounge car menus on the wall, which helped new travelers to make decisions before entering the Diner. Why did it take this long to do that simple “marketing” idea?
At breakfast on the Sunset Limited after leaving Del Rio, we found a new crew that was not quite as good as the one on the Eagle but still very competent. Breakfast was first-come-first-served, and the scrambled egg meals were excellent. Lunch and dinner would be by reservations, and there would be multiple seatings for both. We were pleased we could share breakfast with the Waco folks again, and anxiously awaited their comments about the long stay in San Antonio and the overnight ride west of SAS to Del Rio. When the Eagle cars are transferred to the Sunset Limited in SAS the noise and jolting can be quite annoying, and for those folks it definitely was, as the full speed travel and rough track nearly bounced them out of bed. They thought they might be able to upgrade to a Bedroom, after seeing ours, but changed their minds when told what it would cost.
The Eagle sleeper and coach are the last cars on the westbound Eagle and Sunset, but on the Eagle the diner is only steps away while on the Sunset in both directions the Eagle passengers must pass through three Coaches and the Lounge car to get there. For younger travelers that’s not a big deal, but older folks (ok, geezers) it can be a chore. There must be a better way to position the cars as they do on the eastbound train where out of San Antonio the Eagle sleeper is placed at the head end just behind the transition sleeper and just ahead of the Diner.
When we arrived in the Sunset’s Diner for lunch going west things fell apart quickly. We had neglected to tell the Waco folks when we were going, so we were seated at a table and waited for new folks to arrive to sit on the other side. A young couple from the Eagle Coach arrived, who had experienced what was quickly called the “rowdy car” overnight, and they were involved in a “spirited” (loud) discussion with all the crew. There are no crew members on board while the train waits for the Sunset connection in San Antonio, so the overnight stay in San Antonio had erupted into quite an uproar in their Coach, which they had joined into apparently, and there were accusations of theft and drunken behavior being shouted. This turn of events was not conducive to a pleasant lunch meal experience for us. The crew was not really helpful in calming things down, and we quickly left the car without finishing our cheeseburgers (the best thing on the menu by far). We chose not to go there for dinner, forfeiting that paid-for meal. Instead we ordered some snacks from the Lounge, which our attendant brought us. That in-car service is important, and all four attendants on our round trip cheerfully helped us. It seems these days that there is always one “rowdy car” on a train, but thankfully that was not the case on our return trip.
At Alpine, Texas, there was the usual “smoking” stop, as well as passenger boardings and a crew change. Out of curiosity we asked the new conductor standing on the platform (we had recovery time) if he thought there would be a daily train on this route instead of the tri-weekly as it is now. His laugh could have been heard in El Paso. “I’ve been here for 27 years,” he said, “I’ve heard it was going to happen all the time, with nothing happening.” That reply was not unexpected, of course. He went on, however, to say there is no equipment for daily service yet. That’s the company line and the employees are stuck with it.
The trip progressed nicely, without further major incidents, up to and including the early arrival at Los Angeles Union Station. Some Sunset Limiteds arrive as early as 4:30, but ours pulled in at 5:05. That has been a controversial situation, with Amtrak putting in writing that sleeping car passengers “are welcome to occupy their accommodations until 6:30.” Not so anymore. The crews are intent on going home, so Amtrak changed the rule by opening the Metropolitan Lounge at 5:00 in LAUS. We were told that we could take our time, but the trainset would be “going to the yard at5:30.” We had to wait until Hertz opened at 7:00, so we and the Waco folks trudged up to the Lounge.
Update: All this brings up the long distance service “experiment” taking place on the East Coast on the Silver Star, which has had its dining car removed and sleeping car fares reduced to see what the effect will be on ridership and revenues until January. NARP finally opposed this move, as did the rest of us, as it sets a dangerous precedent. NARP Chairman Bob Stewart reported that station agents have received many complaints, Lounge car attendants say they have had long lines for service, and some passengers reported they had purchased tickets at the old price but were not offered any adjustment. But, on the final day of the NARP annual fall meeting an Amtrak executive was asked how passengers on the Silver Star were responding to the no-dining-car experiment. He said it seemed clear that people were willing to give up dining car meals in exchange for lower fares. This writer has said all along that this is not an “experiment” but will be a permanent change as to do otherwise would mean Amtrak would have to admit they were wrong. In concrete? Oh, yes, and look for other long distance trains that only travel over one night to get the same treatment if this “experiment” is allowed to stand.
Andrew Selden writes that “The way Amtrak’s internal cost accounting works, it is impossible to know the results of this (Silver Star) ‘experiment’ in financial terms, because the financial results of everything they do are reported as allocations of category aggregates. Individual trains’ actual results are evaporated into averages and algorithms. Only months-later analysis of ridership on that one train reflecting re-purchase after a bad experience will show anything, and then only after those numbers have been normalized to the performance of similar trains with either normal or enhanced food service. Amtrak is too cheap to commission an expensive objective consumer survey.” Bye bye Dining Cars? Don’t be surprised.