Archive for the ‘On Transportation’ Category

50 Years Later RFK Funeral Train Memories Remain

June 8, 2018

In June 1968 I was entering my sophomore year of high school and had begun to follow current events in newspapers and on television.

I was a teenager and enjoyed “sleeping in” on summer weekdays rather than having to get up and get ready to go to school.

I was lying in bed on June 5 when I learned the news about the shooting of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president and had just won the California primary.

I heard my father tell my mother about the shooting as he walked down the hall outside my bedroom while going to eat breakfast in the dining room before leaving for work.

He had heard it on the radio as he got ready that morning.

Three days later, a Saturday, we spent the day watching the live TV coverage of RFK’s funeral mass and the train that took his body from New York to Washington.

We watched because history was being made in a year that had already made a lot of it, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

I also watched because I wanted to see the train. At the time I was only a distant railroad enthusiast.

I could see Illinois Central passenger trains from my backyard across farm fields, but they were a mile away.

I would try to get a closer look at those trains using a toy telescope I had bought years earlier during a visit to Niagara Falls, but it could only do so much.

Seldom did I get to see passenger trains up close unless we happened to be stopped for one at a grade crossing. I rarely got to ride a train.

I had read about passenger trains in newspapers and magazines, but most of that news involved the efforts of the railroads to discontinue their passenger trains.

Some of my memories of the RFK funeral train remain as vivid as if they were made five days ago rather than 50 years ago.

I remember that it left New York late and kept getting later as it ran southward.

I remember watching people descending the stairs at New York’s Penn Station to board the train.

There were many celebrities in the crowd and I specifically remembered that the Smothers Brothers, a pair of TV comedians, were among them.

I remember how crowds lined the tracks and some people were killed when struck by another train.

When the funeral train emerged from the Hudson River tunnel and headed across New Jersey, it was shown live from an airplane or helicopter.

I remember the two GG1 locomotives had Penn Central heralds. A TV announcer said the engineer was of Irish descent.

There were occasional glimpses of the train as it passed through stations. At one of them, a CBS crew member threw off film that was promptly developed and shown on the air.

I relished seeing the passengers sitting in the coaches while a reporter – it might have been Harry Reasoner – described the scene aboard the train.

My memory bank also remembers a report about someone being electrocuted or seriously injured after touching a live overhead wire while standing on a rail car.

And there was a report about conflict between Penn Central officials and the Kennedy family over the handling of the train, including the fact that it was taking twice as long to get to Washington as had been expected.

The burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was held in darkness and I watched that, too, just as I had watched the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York more than eight hours earlier.

So what does all of this mean today? Probably not much. My memories are little different than those of millions of others who followed the news that day although it is unlikely that most of them were as interested in the train as I was.

My memories of the RFK funeral train receded into a far corner of my mind. I had not thought about it in quite some time until getting an email message from fellow Akron Railroad Club member Paul Woodring asking for my help in finding a list of the train’s consist.

Paul had been researching that thinking that perhaps one of the cars now owned by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad might have been used by the RFK funeral train. That turned out not to be the case.

There have been a number of 50-year retrospectives about the RFK funeral train, including two photo exhibits. At least one book has been published about it.

Yet the anniversary has all but escaped the railfan world.

In the retrospectives I’ve seen or read the train has been of secondary importance to the fact that nearly 2 million people were trackside to get a fleeting glimpse of something they considered to be larger than themselves.

They came from all walks of life but most were ordinary working class people. There was unity of purpose that seems to have been lost today. Or has it?

Most of those still alive who saw the train the train probably remember little about it. They were not interested then or now in such things as how many cars it had or the details about those cars.

They would not have noticed that Kennedy’s casket was carried in Penn Central business car 120 and that the car in front of the 120 was still lettered for the New York Central, one of the two railroads that had merged four months earlier to form Penn Central.

As a railroad enthusiast and historian who has expended many hours trying to dig up what many would consider esoteric facts, I understand what motivates such quests.

There is a sense of purpose in trying to piece together forgotten history in order to tell a story.

There is a place in that story for such details as the history of the specific passenger cars that were marshaled together to make up the train even if the larger interest in that information is quite limited.

What is more important is the context in which the train operated and why millions waited for hours on a hot, steamy day to see a train pass by in a matter of a few seconds.

For most of those trackside and the others who watched the events from afar on television, it was a story about collective loss, including a loss of hope.

Some losses stick with you even if they are seldom in the front of your mind at any given time.

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Joe Boardman: Saint or Sinner?

May 26, 2018

Former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman received a lot of favorable reviews for a letter he recently wrote to public officials across the country criticizing the Amtrak board of directors and CEO Richard Anderson for what Boardman believes is a strategy designed to dismantle the carrier’s network of long-distance trains.

Typical of the applause was a column written by veteran transportation writer Don Phillips who lauded Boardman for shining a light into a dark place.

“Boardman may be shining such a bright light on Anderson that, combined with growing protests by organized rail groups, Anderson could very well fail,” Phillips wrote.

The column published in Railway Age concluded with Phillips saying he was proud of Boardman and called on rail passenger supporters to send Boardman’s remarks to members of Congress.

M.E. Singer, a principal at Marketing Rail Ltd. in Chicago, had a different take.

It isn’t that Singer disagrees with the substance of Boardman’s fear that Amtrak is maneuvering to eviscerate the long-distance trains, but rather that Boardman is being hypocritical.

Singer argued in his own Railway Age column that it was Boardman and the same board of directors under whom Anderson is serving who left Amtrak in a state of disrepair.

Singer contends that during the Boardman administration the carrier’s best managers were encouraged to take buyouts “during multiple reorganizations that only depleted vital institutional knowledge.”

Although Boardman accused Amtrak of a lack of transparency, Singer said Amtrak also worked in secrecy during the Boardman administration.

“In reality, Boardman barely provided lip service to the long-distance routes, as evidenced by the lack of any pro formas to Congress to factually detail the number of passengers turned away, and loss of revenues, due to the lack of space on those trains; and to identify the need for more equipment to expand frequencies and to meet new route opportunities,” Singer wrote.

Singer contends Amtrak’s board and top management has a “singularly focused” commitment to serve their political patrons of the Northeast Corridor at the expense of the national system.

“What apparently puzzles Boardman is how quickly his inner circle turned their loyalty to the new CEO, Richard Anderson, continuing to focus on ensuring their own survival by placating a very conflicted Board,” Singer wrote.

Neither Singer nor Phillips favors ending the long-distance passenger trains.

Phillips has long argued that the Northeast Corridor is not profitable as Amtrak and many policy makers and public opinion leaders say that it is.

Singer wants Amtrak to be redefined so that it serves all interests, including the national system.

So what should we make of Joe Boardman? Is is a saint or a sinner?

Phillips noted that when Boardman stepped down as president of Amtrak, he had nothing but negative things to say about him, but refrained from writing a column blasting Boardman.

Singer and Phillips are correct in their own way about Boardman. Singer correctly noted that under Boardman Amtrak demanded that the states served by the Southwest Chief on a segment of BNSF track in western Kansas, southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico pay for upgrading the track after the railroad said it would downgrade it to a top speed of 30 mph.

The states landed federal grants and coughed up their own funding to match money contributed by BNSF and Amtrak.

Had Amtrak not recently said it wouldn’t match the latest federal grant obtained by Colfax County, New Mexico, to continue rebuilding the route of the Chief, Boardman might not have spoken up.

Boardman probably considers it part of his legacy that he negotiated a pact with BNSF to maintain the route for 10 years if the states and Amtrak paid most of the money to rebuild it. Now that legacy is coming undone.

In short, Boardman might be less concerned with the national network than he is with his legacy even though he claimed to have told the Amtrak board that the most important trains to the passenger carrier are the long-distance trains.

The fate of the long-distance trains will be settled in Congress through a political process.

An aroused citizenry or the appearance of one will be critical in keeping all, some or most of those trains operating for now.

I’m reminded of an old saying: Your friend is your enemy; your enemy is your friend.

As a former Amtrak president, Boardman’s word will get immediate attention and carry some weight.

Boardman may not have been the best friend of long-distance during his time at Amtrak, but he might turn out to be a good friend of those trains right now.

 

Efforts to Save Ticket Offices Will Fail

May 14, 2018

The outcry in some places following the news that Amtrak plans to close 15 ticket offices nationwide between now and late June took me back about 40 years to when the carrier planned to close its ticket office in my hometown in Illinois.

I was a young reporter for the newspaper in Mattoon, Illinois, when I got a phone call one day from one of the Amtrak ticket agents assigned to that city’s station telling me about the plans to not only close the ticket office, but the station itself.

Mattoon is a stop on the former Illinois Central between Chicago and New Orleans and the station there once housed various railroad offices. But all of those had closed by the time I got that phone call.

In Mattoon, as in countless other cities, Amtrak was the sole user of a station that was a relic of another era and had more space than the passenger carrier would ever need.

The plan in Mattoon was to build an “Amshack” at the north end of the Illinois Central Gulf yard next to the only grade crossing in town on the ICG’s Chicago-New Orleans mainline.

The agent had spoken to me on what reporters call “deep background” but the public might know as “off the record.”

I took the news tip and ran with it, calling Amtrak’s PR person in Chicago and getting confirmation that, yes, indeed, my information was correct.

The story I wrote for the newspaper prompted city officials to protest the move. I wrote subsequent stories about meetings, phone calls and letter writing campaigns and in the end Amtrak backed down.

An Amtrak official claimed that business had improved in Mattoon, but I suspect there was more to it than that. Political pressure can be a powerful thing in motivating Amtrak’s behavior.

Also, I found during my journalism career that organizations seldom like to acknowledge the so-called power of the press.

The Amtrak ticket office in Mattoon remained open for several more years and I got to know all three agents who worked there. They were a valuable source of information about Amtrak.

I moved on in my career in 1983 and a few years later Amtrak closed the Mattoon ticket office. There is no correlation between my leaving the ticket office closing.

Organizations have a way of doing sooner or later what they want to do.

The Mattoon ticket office was not the first to close on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans route.

Offices at Kankakee, Rantoul and Effingham, to name a few, had closed before Mattoon’s did.

Today, the only intermediate ticket offices still open on the former Mainline of Mid-America are in Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, Memphis, Jackson and Hammond. The latter, though, is among those slated to close by late June.

Officials in some of the 15 cities where Amtrak ticket agents are set to be pulled are waging campaigns not unlike the one that played out in Mattoon many years ago.

None of those efforts is going to ultimately succeed.

It will be difficult to prevail in the face of Amtrak’s argument that nine of every 10 tickets are sold online. Who needs a ticket agent?

I also wonder how many political officials will take seriously some of the arguments being made by those rail passenger advocates trying to save the ticket offices.

Sure, letters will be written, resolutions passed and phone calls made. But in the end the offices are going to close because it’s tough to thwart the religion of cost cutting.

Amtrak is closing these offices to save money. It is not part of a plot by a former airline CEO to kill long-distance trains as some rail advocates are contending even if other moves Amtrak is making seemingly point in that direction.

Amtrak has been closing ticket offices for decades and the majority of stations served by long-distance trains do not have a ticket office and haven’t had one for many years.

Whatever political pressure that officials might bring against Amtrak to keep the ticket offices open will fade quickly in the face of the “nine of every 10” ticket sales argument and assurances by Amtrak officials that a caretaker will keep the station waiting room open at train time, keep it clean, and assist passengers.

The latter is significant because if there is one group of people who need assistance it is the elderly and physically challenged.

But I wonder how long it will be until the caretakers that Amtrak says it is hiring at the 15 stations losing their agents will themselves face the budget knife.

In Amtrak’s ideal world a unit of local government or a developer owns the stations it serves at intermediate points and underwrites most of the cost of maintaining that facility.

Otherwise, Amtrak will put up a bus shelter-type facility that receives minimal, if any, maintenance.

I understand why some are protesting the removing of ticket agents because there is something of value being lost. It is just that those who need or benefit from that are a small minority of Amtrak passengers.

Mattoon may have lost its ticket agent back in the late 1980s, but it kept its station. The city eventually bought it and spent millions to restore it.

Today it houses the Coles County Historical Society and an Amtrak waiting room.

I’ve passed through that station dozens of times over the past 20 years after traveling to Mattoon by train to visit my Dad.

I’ve never seen evidence that not having a ticket agent has depressed ridership from Mattoon.

If you need to know where the train is, you can call Amtrak Julie on your cellphone. If you have a Smartphone, you can even go to the Amtrak website and see for yourself where the train is at any given moment.

Mattoon learned to live without an Amtrak agent as have hundreds of other places. So will 15 other cities that are about to have the same experience.

Oh What Might Have Been

May 12, 2018

Were they serious? If so, imagine the possibilities. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the governor of Ohio and a host of elected officials standing in front of Terminal Tower to announce it would be the second Amazon headquarters.

The announcement would feature grand pronouncements about what a great thing it was for public transportation in Greater Cleveland.

But it’s all a moot point because Amazon did not consider Cleveland’s bid for the second headquarters worth pursuing.

As described in the post above, Cleveland proposed that Amazon locate the headquarters in Terminal Tower, the hub of the four rail lines of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

The bid offered Amazon employees a 25 percent discount on RTA fares and promised to “accelerate” plans to expand RTA rail line mileage from 37 to 111 miles by 2029.

Cleveland officials must have thought that would entice Amazon because access to public transportation was among the criteria that Amazon valued.

It wasn’t the only requirement and maybe Cleveland came up short on other things. But Amazon might have examined the RTA rail expansion closely and asked the same question I did.

It is unclear how the RTA rail line expansions would have been paid for, but probably through a mix of federal, state and local funding.

It would have been money falling from heaven out of wallets that have long been closed or barely open to public transportation in Ohio.

Cleveland RTA faces a tough future. Ohio minimally funds public transportation and the state’s public transit agencies are coping with the loss of a tax they once counted on for revenue.

RTA has a long deferred maintenance backlog that will cost millions to work down with funding to tackle all of it nowhere in sight.

This includes replacing the worn out Breda cars used on the Blue, Green and Waterfront lines. Some believe those lines are in jeopardy of closing in a few years because of the lack of operable equipment.

RTA also relies on a sales tax in Cuyahoga County that has not increased since it was implemented.

It is difficult to imagine RTA undertaking an expansion of its existing rail lines when preserving the status quo is already a challenge.

The information released thus far about the RTA rail expansion in the failed Amazon bid has been sketchy.

It is not clear whether it involved extending existing RTA rail routes or using railroad right of ways such as the former Erie Railroad line that is still in place to Aurora to create new routes.

There once was a proposal to launch commuter rail service on the former Erie, which until January 1977 hosted Cleveland-Youngstown commuter trains.

But that met strong opposition in far suburbs from people who fear all sorts of things ranging from diminished property values to criminals riding trains to their town to commit crimes.

Had Cleveland officials announced their plan to expand RTA rail lines it would have been met with a chorus from the suburbs of “let’s rebuild the roads instead of laying rails. If Amazon employees don’t want to drive like we do, they can take a bus or they can carpool.”

Maybe the sheer size of the Amazon proposal would have been enough to overcome such opposition, given that Amazon was dangling the prospect of 50,000 well-paying high tech jobs, $5 billion in construction and 250,000 indirect jobs. Economic development on that scale doesn’t come along often.

Even so, the forces that have kept public transportation in check in Northeast Ohio will not be defeated easily. There is too much at stake in maintaining the existing power structure.

I recently learned that when Randall Park Mall was being developed in the early 1970s that developer Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. offered to help pay to extend the Blue Line along Warrensville Road to the site. But the proposal went nowhere.

A similar idea to extend the Blue Line about 10 years ago also has languished.

It might have been one of the RTA rail expansions cited in the Cleveland bid for Amazon.

Randall Park Mall has since been razed and the site is now being developed as an Amazon distribution center.

Oh the possibilities of what might have been: Amazon to Amazon by rail in Cleveland.

Making Sense of Amtrak’s Anderson

May 10, 2018

To paraphrase a well-known remark made by Marc Anthony in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, I come not to bury or praise Richard Anderson but to explain him.

Since taking the sole helm of Amtrak last January Anderson has become public enemy No. 1 among some railfans and passenger train advocates.

In short order he triggered intense anger by approving such changes as ending everyday discount fare programs, banning most special and charter movements, restricting operations of private rail passenger cars while sharply raising handling fees, threatening to suspend service on routes that do not meet the federal positive train control installation deadline later this year, and ending full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

It is a common belief among his critics that Anderson doesn’t understand railroads because he came from the airline industry.

There may be some truth to that. It is probably true that Anderson does not view intercity rail passenger service in the same manner that many railfans and passenger train supporters do.

It also may be true that Anderson is overseeing a movement toward ending long-distance passenger trains that would leave vast swaths of the country without intercity passenger rail.

That doesn’t mean Anderson knows nothing about intercity passenger rail and its role in the nation’s transportation network as some of his critics would have you believe.

He is just not as convinced as many passenger train advocates that America needs 1950s style streamliners with full-service dining cars, sleepers and lounges.

Having spent much of his career in the airline industry, Anderson came to Amtrak with well-formed ideas about transportation that he would have expressed during his interview with the Amtrak board of directors.

During that interview he no doubt was asked to lay out his vision for Amtrak. He would not have been hired had that vision been incompatible with the board’s own views of Amtrak’s purpose and future.

Anderson may, indeed, have an air travel bias, which would not be surprising given his airline industry background.

He knows most long-distance travel in America is by air. Few business executives travel long distance by rail and most Americans who are not rail enthusiasts rarely, if ever, do so either.

If Anderson has a “bias” against long-distance intercity passenger trains, he would not be the first person in the transportation world to have that.

You can go back to the 1960s when Alfred Perlman of the New York Central acted as though long-distance trains were expensive dinosaurs to be removed.

Stuart Saunders of Penn Central infamy also declared that any rail passenger service beyond 500 miles was dead. So did a lot of other railroad CEOs.

Since Amtrak began in 1971 the U.S. Department of Transportation has ranged from outright hostile to benign indifference to Amtrak’s national route network.

What Amtrak appears poised to do under Anderson’s stewardship to the long-distance trains is not unlike the vision that Norman Mineta had when he was Secretary of Transportation.

Mineta pushed the corridor concept and said that long-distance trains should not stop at stations in states that do not help to underwrite the costs of those trains.

That vision did not prevail, but it is part of a long history of antagonism toward long-distance trains.

For that matter, Amtrak management itself has tolerated long-distance trains, but not since the 1970s has a new long-distance route been created.

There is much that we don’t know yet about Anderson’s views toward transportation and the role that intercity rail has to play even if he has been dropping hints about it.

Anderson said at a conference in California of passenger rail officials that Amtrak’s best marketing prospects lie in corridor services of no more than 400 miles served by DMU equipment.

During that same conference, he also was said to have emphasized the high financial losses of long-distance trains and that he must follow the law in making Amtrak a more efficient operation.

During his apprenticeship as co-CEO of Amtrak with Charles “Wick” Moorman, Anderson would have been schooled on the political realities that Amtrak faces, including why the long-distance trains remain in place decades after some believed their usefulness as transportation had expired.

Moorman would have pointed out that these trains continue to run because of long-standing political support. But maybe Anderson already knew that. Remember, Anderson is not necessarily a transportation neophyte.

Of late Anderson has come under fire from former Amtrak President Joesph Boardman, who has accused Anderson and the Amtrak board of launching a campaign to eviscerate long-distance trains.

In an interview with Trains magazine Boardman told an anecdote of how he responded when asked by the board to name Amtrak’s most important train.

“I told them it was all of the long distance trains. Did that ever make it out into the rail community? No, because it wasn’t my job to (do that),” he said.

Maybe Boardman should have made it his job. And that brings me to what may be Anderson’s most significant shortcoming.

Boardman hinted at that when he wrote in an email to public officials across the country that “Amtrak is not really a ‘private business,’ it is a “state owned enterprise.”

It may be that Amtrak was set up in 1970 as a for-profit company and ostensibly it is expected to cover its operating expenses from the fare box.

But in practice Amtrak is more like a government agency, a reality that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a case involving a dispute over the efforts by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to establish on-time train standards that Amtrak could use to hold its host railroads accountable for excessive delays.

The head of a government agency does not have the luxury of thinking and acting like a Fortune 500 CEO if he or she wants to be successful.

Yet that is what Anderson has been doing by playing defense rather than offense.

Anderson has done little thus far to share his vision of Amtrak’s future with the public, let alone the constituencies that have lone manned the bulwarks to provide political support when Amtrak funding was threatened.

Boardman touched on this in his email when he said Amtrak “has begun to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing.”

What Amtrak is doing, Boardman believes, is transforming Amtrak out of the long-distance passenger train business without saying upfront that that is the objective.

If so, it is because Anderson and the board that hired him have beliefs about transportation that are at odds with those held by many rail passenger advocates who don’t want to see Amtrak change much.

Rail passenger advocates have legitimate beliefs and visions, even if they are not always well-grounded in solid economic understanding. But so does Anderson and Amtrak’s board.

Anderson and his critics would agree that Amtrak is in the transportation business, but they have different views as to how that is to be pursued. It has nothing to do with lack of understanding of “railroading.” It has everything to do with ineffectively trying to sell that.

As Political Winds Blow, Long-Distance Trains Go

April 25, 2018

As a general rule I don’t put much stock in opinions on railroad chat lists that “predict” the imminent demise of Amtrak’s fleet of long-distance trains.

Such predictions have been made for decades and yet long-distance trains have survived.

Yes, some have fallen by the wayside over the years, most notably in 1979 and 1995. But numerous efforts to kill off all long-distance trains have fallen short.

With the planned discontinuance of full-service dining cars on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited the prophets of doom are at it again.

But then I read a column by William C. Vantuono, the editor of Railway Age, in which he said he thinks the dining changes being made on the Capitol and Lake Shore are part of a plan to shut down the Amtrak national network and leave only the Northeast Corridor, Midwest corridor trains, California corridor trains and other state-supported services.

Vantuono is not one to make dire predictions, but I took notice when he wrote, “I’ve been hearing about internal plans within Amtrak to discontinue long-distance trains. The best way to do that, of course, is to make the service so unpalatable that people stop riding them. Are we looking at a veiled attempt to drive passengers away? I believe we are.”

But then I read the rest of his column and noticed that he had qualified his “prediction” by saying “maybe, maybe not.”

I later received an email from a friend who sent a link to meeting notes of a presentation in which Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson reportedly said to an audience of 150 passenger rail officials that he wanted to kill the long-distance trains and only operate corridor service of 400 miles or less with DMU equipment.

But when I read those notes I found the rail passenger advocate who took them said, “I noted that he (Anderson) did not specifically say that the long-distance trains would go, only that corridors are the future.”

Finally, I read Trains columnist Fred Frailey’s view that Anderson won’t try to scuttle the long-distance trains this year.

“If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump couldn’t axe them, why would Richard Anderson even try?” Frailey wrote.

The fact is no one knows the future of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson may believe that corridors provide the best marketing opportunities for intercity rail service, but neither he nor Amtrak’s board of directors are free agents in overseeing a company that depends on public money to pay its operating and capital expenses.

Amtrak is, has always been and always will be a political creature subject to decisions made by Congress and, to a lesser extent, state legislatures.

Congress has acted to kill some long-distance trains over the years and has acted to save them in others.

That said there may be good reason to believe that long-distance trains might be on slippery rails.

Anderson told Congress earlier this year that Amtrak won’t operate on routes that fail to meet the federal mandate that positive train control be installed by the end of this year. He also suggested Amtrak might not use routes that aren’t required to have PTC.

Much of this probably is political posturing. At the time of his testimony Anderson was still smarting from the Cascades and Silver Star crashes, which might have been avoided had PTC been in operation.

Yet some segments of long-distance routes either might not meet the PTC deadline. Is Amtrak going to chop up those routes?

Another potential threat is that the equipment devoted to long-distance service is wearing out. Will Amtrak seek to replace it?

Amtrak has rarely shown much, if any, interest in creating additional long-distance routes or expanding service on the long-distance routes it does operate.

Various Amtrak presidents probably have viewed the long-distance network, skeletal as it might be, as insurance for widespread political support.

In his talk to the passenger train officials, Anderson repeatedly said he must follow the law, meaning Passenger Rail Reform & Investment Act of 2015, saying it requires Amtrak to operate at lower cost and more efficiently.

In particular this applies to food and beverage service and an Amtrak inspector general’s report of seven years ago found that the lion’s share of losses on that could be attributed to the long-distance trains.

Anderson and perhaps the Amtrak board of directors might see long-distance trains as a hindrance to their ability to cut costs and operate more efficiently. They also might see the long-distance trains as dinosaurs.

Amtrak will turn 50 in three years. A half century is a long time for any one company to operate with essentially the same business model.

But most companies are not as subject to political pressure as Amtrak. As the political climates goes, so goes the future of long-distance trains or, for that matter, any intercity passenger trains.

Changes in Amtrak Meal Service is Not Good News

April 24, 2018

Part of the experience for me of riding Amtrak to Chicago is having breakfast in the dining car.

I’ve had some good meals in Amtrak diners over the years and some interesting conversations with my table mates as the Indiana countryside rolled past.

Now Amtrak plans to end full-service dining aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited on June 1 in favor of pre-packaged cold meals for sleeping car passengers that they will eat in their room or at a table in a lounge car devoted exclusively to sleeping car passengers.

Coach passengers will have to make do with whatever cafe car offerings are available although Amtrak says it will sell the meals sleeping car passengers receive to coach passengers on a limited basis.

This downgrade in meal service will be most noticeable at breakfast, which will be no better than that of a Super 8 motel, dominated by carbohydrates with some fruit and yogurt available. No eggs, no bacon, no sausage, no pancakes or French toast, no potatoes, no vegetables and no table service. There won’t even be cereal.

It is particularly galling to see the Amtrak news release frame the meal policy change as an improvement in meal service, using words such as “fresh” and “contemporary.”

That is pure public relations and marketing balderdash. The changes Amtrak is making are all about cutting costs, not enhancing the travel by train experience.

Driving these changes is a 2019 deadline Amtrak faces under federal law to eliminate losses on food and beverage service.

Long before there was an Amtrak there were railroad dining cars that operated at a loss.

An article published in Trains magazine in the 1950s likened a dining car to an inefficient restaurant. Dining cars just don’t have enough volume of business to cover their expenses.

The only time that railroad dining cars paid their way was during World War II when the railroads handled an extremely high volume of traffic.

For the most part, railroads viewed dining cars as loss leaders and branding devices designed to lure passengers, particularly those who were affluent. Some railroad executives thought their image with shippers hinged on how they perceived a railroad’s passenger service.

This image of a 1950s streamliner and all of its trappings has stuck in the minds of some railroad passenger advocates as though it is a command from above that long-distance trains must have dining cars that serve full-course meals prepared on-board by gourmet chefs.

Amtrak’s dining service has gone through all manner of changes over the years, some good and some downright horrible as management sought to rein in costs while preserving at least a semblance of the eating aboard a train tradition. Now the current Amtrak management seems determined to blow up long-distance trains dining.

Perhaps another underlying factor is that the cost of eating in Amtrak dining cars has ballooned to the point where few coach passengers are willing or able to pay the prices.

On the current Capitol Limited menu, the least expensive breakfast entree is scrambled eggs, potatoes and a croissant ($8.50). If you want bacon or sausage that will be another $3.50.

An omelet with vegetable and cheese filling, along with the potatoes and croissant, costs $13.75. A stack of three pancakes costs $10.50 and doesn’t come with anything else.

At dinner, the least expensive of the seven entrees is vegetarian pasta at $16.50. If you want a salad that will be another $3.50.

Four of the entrees cost more than $20. The most expensive is the land and sea combo ($39). It comes with a flat iron steak and a seafood cake of crab, shrimp and scallops. A salad is not included but you get a potato (or rice pilaf) and a vegetable. Desserts range from $2.75 to $7.50.

If you want to enjoy an adult beverage with your meal, a cocktail costs $7.50, a single serving of wine is $7, and a beer costs between $6 and $7.50. It means you could spend upwards of $70 for dinner for one person including the tip.

Many of those who patronize Amtrak’s full service dining cars are sleeping car passengers who have “paid” for their meal in their sleeping car fare, which itself is not cheap.

For example, a Superliner roomette on the Capitol Limited from Cleveland to Chicago on April 25 is priced at $225. By contrast a coach seat is $73. A Viewliner roomette on the Lake Shore Limited is $181 and a coach seat is $58.

Some of those “fresh” and “contemporary” meals that Amtrak plans to serve sleeping car passengers might be tasty. But I can’t image too many folks who shelled out hundreds of dollars for a sleeping car ticket will be satisfied with a continental breakfast.

They want something hot and substantial. Dining cars on long-distance trains don’t need to be gourmet restaurants. Something approximating a Bob Evans restaurant would be sufficient.

If ever there was a need for a combination of technology and creative thinking to make this happen, now is that time.

What Amtrak plans to implement on June 1 on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited is far from that.

NS Lawsuit is About Playing for Rules, Not Money

April 14, 2018

Norfolk Southern fired a warning shot last week that it wanted all of its operating employees to hear.

It filed a lawsuit against two crew members who were operating a train in Georgetown, Kentucky, last March that collided with another NS train.

The suit, filed in a federal district court, alleges that the engineer and conductor were negligent in their operation of their train.

When I read about the lawsuit I was reminded of something I learned in an introduction of the legal system class during my undergraduate days. “You can’t get blood from a turnip,” said professor Charles Hollister.

As any trial lawyer knows, winning a judgment is one thing, collecting it can be quite another.

The lawyers in the NS legal department know this. Even if they prevail in the suit against the two crew members, NS lawyers know the company will see very little, if any, of the judgment.

Class 1 railroad operating employees may be paid well, but they don’t have the resources to be able to cover the cost of the damage that NS sustained in that head-on crash.

The defendant crew members might be able to escape the judgment by seeking bankruptcy protection.

NS is not seeking to win money even if that is the ostensible purpose of the suit. Rather, it is playing for rules.

Railroad managers more often than not believe the cause of a major incident that causes property damage, injuries or fatalities is the “fault” of one or more railroad operating employees.

Employees, their unions and even some regulators take a broader view of the cause of incidents.

They look at working conditions, conflicting directives of management, and organizational deficiencies as also playing a role in causation.

A report of the NS lawsuit by Trains magazine indicated that the crew that was sued by NS ran a stop signal.

The magazine reported an unnamed source with railroad operating experience as saying that it used to be that running through stop indication resulted in a 30-day suspension but now it leads to automatic termination.

The fired crew members through their union have a right to appeal that through an arbitration process. Sometimes employees get their jobs back, depending on the facts of the case.

A friend who worked as a Class 1 locomotive engineer says it is easy to get fired on the railroad but hard to stay fired. It is that reality that NS is seeking to change or at least title the scales more to management’s advantage.

NS might not even expect this case to go to trial. Perhaps it will offer to drop the lawsuit if the crew members agree not to go to arbitration and/or agree not to work for NS again.

A union official quoted by Trains correctly expressed doubt as to whether the railroad could win the case. Lawsuits such as this are uncommon and few, if any, railroad employees could afford the judgment NS is seeking.

But NS sees something of greater value at stake. The union official interviewed by Trains said that the lawsuit sets a precedent. Yes, it does, and NS wants its employees to know that.

NS is not necessarily going to sue every employee who is involved in a collision or derailment.

It probably chose this case because it sees the facts as in its favor because it has hard evidence to show a clear violation of company rules.

Ensuring that operating crews follow the rules all of the time regardless of circumstances is what NS is seeking to achieve, even if it means filing a suit seeking money it knows it won’t ever collect.

They Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling. Well, Maybe Not

March 31, 2018

The sky is falling, the sky is falling.

Or so some railroad enthusiasts would have you believe in the wake of a report that Amtrak has decided to ban charters and special moves.

The policy change was announced by Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson in a memo to employees that was leaked to Trains magazine and also posted on railfan chat lists.

In tandem with that, owners of private passenger cars are reporting that Amtrak has been rejecting many requests to move passenger cars.

This particularly has affected car owners who store their cars in the middle of a route because Amtrak has decreed that it will not accept a private car at a station in which the scheduled dwell time is less than 30 minutes.

The implications of this policy change are, indeed, ominous.

It means that such longstanding traditions as the fall New River Train in West Virginia will end.

It means no more Amtrak fall foliage, railfan or rare mileage specials.

It means mainline steam moves are in jeopardy because they operate in cooperation with Amtrak and its liability insurance and use private passenger cars ferried by Amtrak.

It means private car owners who have sunk thousands of dollars into making and/or keeping their cars Amtrak compatible have few, if any, options to run their cars. Seeing a private passenger car or two on the back of an Amtrak train will become an even rarer sight.

Two groups representing private car owners, the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, and the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance have urged their members to contact public officials and opinion leaders to protest the policy change.

It is unclear how much effect that lobbying will have. Owning and operating a private railroad car is a rich man’s game.

Because they tend to be affluent, private car owners might have better political connections than the typical railroad enthusiast or passenger train advocate.

But it is unlikely that public officials will view the Amtrak policy change as a pressing matter of public interest.

Some might see it as rich boys throwing a tantrum because they can’t play with their toys.

Some passenger advocates have applauded Amtrak, which has sought to frame the change as an effort to improve the on-time performance of its trains.

Anderson’s memo referenced trains being delayed due to switching cars and described special moves as a distraction.

He also suggested that specials and hauling private cars hasn’t been all that profitable, but the memo was clumsily worded on this point.

When he wrote that the moves “failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins,” I wonder if he really meant “failed to cover their fully allocated costs.”

The latter was a term railroads used a lot in the 1960s when they wanted to discontinue passenger trains. Using that standard could make a train appear to be losing far more money than the “above the rail” standard which meant that a train earned enough revenue to cover its direct costs.

Some of what Anderson said in his memo few people would dispute. Who would be opposed to Amtrak running on time, operating safely, having clean passenger cars, providing friendly service and offering “great customer-facing technology?” Anderson would have you believe that running special trains are hindering Amtrak’s efforts to do those things.

There is likely more behind this policy change even if Anderson’s memo hints at what that might be when it speaks of focusing on Amtrak’s core mission.

Amid all of the chaff that I read on railfan chat list about the policy change was a thoughtful observation by someone who has seen Anderson use this playbook before.

The poster contended that when Anderson was CEO of Northwest Airlines, it was struggling financially and he discontinued most of the charter flights.

Northwest was devoting seven aircraft to this service, which accommodated professional sports teams among others. Anderson apparently feared that the liability if one of those charters had a catastrophe might wreck the airline.

But the move didn’t turn out to be permanent. After Anderson felt he had sufficiently turned things around the charters returned.

Northwest was later acquired by Delta Air Line, which Anderson also headed. Today Delta is one of the most prominent operators of charter flights for professional sports teams.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, are a regular customer as are many NBA teams.

So the Amtrak policy change might not be permanent, although you never know. One of the first moves that former Amtrak president David Gunn made after taking office was to get the passenger carrier out of the business of hauling mail and express.

Gunn used some of the same arguments that Anderson made to justify banning special moves and charters.

That was more than a decade ago and Amtrak trains still don’t carry any mail. It sold its fleet of express cars.

Anderson may have philosophical reasons for banning special move, believing that Amtrak needs to do more to focus on its core mission.

Yet it is not clear if ending special moves was even his idea. He might have heard from field-level supervisors who have always disliked having to do something that is a non-standard operation.

And Anderson must answer to a board of directors and we don’t know what “direction” they have given him.

There is some thought that Class 1 railroads will follow Amtrak’s lead and impose even more stringent standards on the movement of passenger cars and passenger trains.

We’ve seen how the Wheeling & Lake Erie has banned all excursion trains and with a few limited exceptions won’t move passenger cars in ferry moves.

But I’m reminded of something that W&LE chief Larry Parsons said when I interviewed him for an article I did several years ago for Trains magazine.

The Wheeling had just lost some iron ore traffic and in asking him about it I used the word “forever” as in the business was lost forever.

Parsons responded that “forever is a very long time.”

Management changes and so do situations. People change their minds about how they view things. Some have described the Amtrak policy change as a work in progress and we haven’t heard the last word on the new policy.

Anderson’s memo left an opening for some special moves if they meet the railroad’s strategic goals. Those can be defined broadly or defined narrowly.

We are entering an era in which special moves and mainline steam will be rarer than they are now. But not necessarily nonexistent. Forever is, after all, a very long time.

Surprised, Not Surprised at Indy Light Rail Ban Repeal Failure

March 14, 2018

I was surprised that a bill to repeal an Indiana law banning the spending of public money on a light rail system in Indianapolis sailed through the House of Representatives of the Hoosier State and not surprised that it died in the Senate.

Like all large urban areas, Indianapolis is surrounded by affluent suburbs that like being associated with the core city’s cultural and entertainment offerings but want to distance themselves from its crime and social pathologies.

Representing those suburbs are conservative and mostly Republican lawmakers who tend not to favor very much public transportation.

They are amendable to certain boutique public transportation such as transporting the elderly to medical appointments, but oppose large-scale regional public transportation initiatives.

In 2014 they flexed their muscles by adopting the light rail ban as part of a mass transit funding agreement that gave Indianapolis and surrounding counties the ability to raise income taxes for public transit by means of a ballot initiative.

Then Amazon put Indianapolis on its list of 20 finalists for its second headquarters.

The finalists were chosen from 238 applicants chasing the $5 billion project that Amazon has said will result in 50,000 well-paying jobs.

That gave Rep. Justin Moed, an Indianapolis Democrat, an opening.

One criterion that Amazon wants is access to good public transportation. That is not a strong suit of Indianapolis or, for that matter, Columbus, which also made the list of Amazon finalists.

Neither city has a rail public transportation system or even a shovel-ready plan. Moed apparently thought Amazon might notice the light rail ban in Indiana law.

The House overwhelmingly approved his bill repealing the ban but then Senate Republicans decided not to vote on the bill.

News accounts cited a proposed amendment by Senator Mike Delph, a Carmel Republican, which would have required Indianapolis to prove that public transit money isn’t needed to fill potholes.

That was a ruse to kill the bill. Delph doesn’t care about potholes on Indianapolis streets except those he drives over to get to and from the Statehouse.

Carmel is located in a cluster of affluent suburbs in Hamilton County northeast of Indianapolis. It’s the same region that made news last year when the mayor of Fishers proposed abandoning a former Nickel Plate Road branch line that in recent years had hosted the Indiana Fairtrain run by the Indiana Transportation Museum.

The mayor wants to convert the railroad right of way into a hiking and biking trail.

Many who live in such affluent places are not opposed to railroads per se. They just want them to run somewhere else.

They also have the education, the money and the political clout to do something about their NIMBY views.

The effort to repeal the light rail ban in Indianapolis reminded me of a comment I once heard about why efforts to transform the former Erie railroad line from Cleveland to Aurora into commuter rail have languished.

“Trains run both ways,” he said. Some who live in suburbs far from urban centers fear that criminals and other socially undesirable types will ride the trains to their pristine suburbs and cause all sorts of mischief and criminal activity.

However, the reasons why lawmakers from suburban and rural areas look askance at public transportation, particularly rail transit, are multifaceted.

Transportation is not something that legislators talk about much other than, maybe, highway development.

Yes, there is an anti-rail bias at work with some saying rail transportation is the technology and transportation mode of your grandparents.

Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, told The Indianapolis Star that light rail “feels like it’s just going to be a dinosaur technology in the very near future.”

Long, who denied that the proposed Delph amendment killed the light rail repeal bill, also said any light rail project was likely to be a boondoggle. By that he meant that it would require continuous public funding of its operating costs.

That goes to the heart of much of the conservative opposition to public transportation, including funding of intercity rail service. They don’t like spending public money in an open-ended manner on things they believe are not the responsibility of government at any level.

Being proponents of small government, they do not believe, generally, that public funding should not be used to pay operating expenses for any transportation endeavor.

In their view those who use transportation should shoulder all of its operating expenses whether it is a train, plane, bus or livery car.

Yet many conservatives in Florida fiercely fought against Brightline, a privately funded intercity rail service that uses tracks owned by a private freight carrier.

So the opposition is rooted in something other than ideology about the role of government in public affairs. There are some underlying prejudices at work that rail opponents don’t want to discuss.

Many conservative lawmakers are highly sympathetic to the highway lobby. They recognize there is only so much money to be had for transportation spending and don’t want any of that money diverted toward other modes of transportation.

Indiana Senate President Long insisted to reporters that the opposition in the Senate GOP caucus to the light rail ban repeal was not partisan.

There is some truth to that. The Senate sponsor of the light rail repeal ban was a Republican who is the chairman of the Marion County Republican party. Indianapolis is located in Marion County.

The interests of Marion County and its surrounding counties don’t always coincide. Merritt also has clashed with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, over the condition of Indy’s streets.

The GOP caucus was split on the light rail ban repeal didn’t want to bare that in a public fight. Majority parties these days don’t like to have to depend on votes from the minority party in their chamber to win approval of legislation.

Yet another complication was that Marion County voters had approved a 2016 public transit ballot initiative to create three bus rapid transit routes, not unlike the BRT route in Cleveland connecting downtown with University Circle via Euclid Avenue.

There is some thought that many voters favored the initiative because its backers said the money would not be used for light rail.

Lifting the light rail ban had some support in the business community. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said the city needs all mass transit options on the table if it is to attract major new employers such as Amazon.

Even if the light rail ban had been lifted, there was no assurance that a light rail line would have been developed.

Fights such as the one that recently played out in Indianapolis have occurred in every city in the country where rail transit has been proposed.

Rail transit proponents have won a few skirmishes and seen streetcar and light rail lines develop in some seemingly unlikely places.

Yet the United States remains a highway oriented transportation culture and there are few signs that that is about to change. The opposition to rail transit and expansive regional public transportation is too entrenched.