Private Car Owner Defends Amtrak Policy Changes

In the wake of recent Amtrak policy changes that all but banned special and charter movements and a policy review pertaining to the carriage of private rail cars, reports have surfaced that bad behavior by private rail car owners is one underlying issue motivating Amtrak.

Now a private car owner has come forward to contend that there is some truth to those reports.

Bennett Levin, who owns former Pennsylvania Railroad office car No. 120 and two E8A locomotives painted in a PRR livery, told Trains magazine that the trade groups representing the interests of private rail car owners and operators have failed to address that.

“Things have spiraled out of control. Neither of the private varnish organizations have taken positive steps to address these issues, so now Amtrak has said, ‘Enough,’ ” Levin said. “What Amtrak has done is not draconian. It is prudent.”

Saying the issue of safety is paramount, Levin accused the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and the Rail Passenger Car Alliance of doing a poor job of self-policing their members and instilling a culture of safety first.

That brought a retort from both groups, which issued a joint statement denying the assertions.

RPCA President W. Roger Fuehring, and AAPRCO President Robert G. Donnelley said their groups each have safety committees that have provided safety manuals to members.

Furthermore, there have been no incidents or accidents that have been reportable to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The two group presidents noted that they have denied membership to car owners who have a poor safety record and that not all private car owners are members of AAPRCO or RPCA.

“Both organizations have investigated and taken action on the occasional violations of our membership,” the statement said.

The groups also took issue with Levin’s call for rail car owners and railfans to curtail contacting elected officials to urge them to take action in response to the Amtrak policy changes.

Levin argued in a letter to the National Railway Historical Society that such lobbying may do more harm than good.

“I would urge everyone who claims to have an interest in this matter, from those who own the equipment to those who stand trackside and record its passing for history, to use reason and restraint, and not add fuel to an already raging fire being fed by ineptness, poor judgment, and short sightedness,” Levin wrote in the letter addressed to NRHS President Al Weber.

Levin told Trains that the reaction of rail car owners and railfans is ill-timed and nearing “hysteria.”

In their joint statement, the presidents of AAPRCO and RPCA said the lobbying has been in response to a policy change that caught many by surprise, particularly in its severity.

“[I]t is not surprising that some tourist railroad organizations, charterers, private car owners, and car owner associations have sought help from their legislators in view of the fact that Amtrak is a government approved monopoly receiving aid from the legislature,” the statement said.

“Despite the extreme hardship that the policy entailed, we continue to respect and understand that, with new leadership, Amtrak is analyzing and reviewing all aspects of train operations. In light of the most recent developments, we have asked formally to meet with Amtrak’s President and CEO, Richard Anderson, in order to see how we can be better partners and support Amtrak where it would be beneficial to both parties.”

The two groups have made suggestions to Amtrak as to how to streamline the process of adding and removing private cars from Amtrak trains, particularly at intermediate stations.

Amtrak’s policy toward special movements and charters allows for exceptions in narrowly defined circumstances.

An Amtrak representative told Trains that the carrier’s policy in regards to hauling private cars continues to evolve and should be announced in the near future.

However, in its communications with rail cars owners, Amtrak has signaled that it wants to restrict the number of trains and routes that carry private cars and limit carriage on others to certain days of the week.

Amtrak also has indicated that it wants to primarily move cars from endpoint to endpoint and avoid adding and removing cars at intermediate stations with scheduled dwell times of less than 30 minutes.

For his part, Levin believes the policy changes pertaining to private cars and special movements is “a matter to be thoroughly considered in the context of the railroad’s regular operations.”

Levin said he fears that Congressional intervention may result in “something far worse than a decrease in the frequency of private passenger car trips on the national rail network.”

In their statement, AAPRCO and RPCA cited some of the hardships that private car owners have endured.

This has included cars stored in formerly permitted locations being “frozen in place” and cars already en route being forced to change their schedules at significantly higher costs.

“Cars on the California Zephyr, for example, were not allowed to transfer to the Coast Starlight and were forced to return to Chicago,” the statement said.

Because the Amtrak policy change in regards to special moves was effective immediately, the groups said this resulted in major costs of disruption.

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