Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Capitol Limited’

Amtrak Workers Contend Jobs in Jeopardy

October 12, 2018

The union representing Amtrak food service workers believes that as many as 1,700 of its members may lose their jobs if Amtrak outsources its food service to a contractor.

Some of the union workers protested that prospect during a rally outside New York’s Penn Station this week.

Transport Workers Union International President John Samuelsen said Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson is “engaged in a slash-and-burn management plan.”

The approximately 100 Amtrak workers also decried Amtrak’s replacement of full-service dining aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited with boxed meals, most of them served cold.

Amtrak acknowledged in a statement that it has cut 14 chef positions, but that all those affected who wanted another position with Amtrak were able to get one.

The Amtrak statement also contended that the change in meal service aboard the Lake Shore and Capitol has been well received by passengers.

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Florence to Disrupt Amtrak’s Cardinal, NS and CSX

September 12, 2018

The approach of Hurricane Florence has prompted Amtrak to announce a host of cancellations, including one affecting Ohio.

Most Amtrak service in the southeastern United States will not operate between Sept. 12 and Sept. 16.

The Cardinal will operate between Chicago and Indianapolis between Sept. 13 and 16. That will leave Cincinnati without Amtrak service during that period.

Operations of the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are unaffected for now. Likewise, the Pennsylvanian will also continue to operate.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said it is waiving service charges for passengers seeking to modify their reservations but should contact Amtrak’s reservation center at 800-USA-RAIL.

The pending arrival of Florence also has prompted CSX and Norfolk Southern to curtail their service.

NS will temporarily close its Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters due to an evacuation order being issued by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

NS told its shippers that its intermodal customer service team will unavailable by phone during the evacuation.

The railroad has ceased accepting intermodal shipments destined for Norfolk area terminals. Although other intermodal facilities were scheduled to maintain normal hours, gate and terminal closures may occur as Florence nears landfall.

CSX put into place its Hurricane Action Plan, which includes protecting equipment in the storm’s projected path and preparing areas that could be affected.

It advised customers to expect delays for any shipments traveling through the Interstate 95 corridor and that it has halted rail service to and from Portsmouth, Virginia.

A terminal in Charleston, South Carolina, will also close and remain closed throughout the storm.

Amtrak’s Transformation at Work in the Midwest

August 13, 2018

Last week Amtrak touted improvements it has made in its Midwest corridor network, including schedule adjustments to allow for more intra-Midwest connections and implementing student discount fares.

But in Amtrak’s statements was a hint that there might be another agenda at work.

It may be that Amtrak was doing nothing more than trying to get some marketing mileage from a series of relatively small steps. Yet if you view what was announced in a larger context you might see a transformation at work.

Throughout 2018, Amtrak has taken or talked about implementing actions that passenger advocates fear are designed or will weaken the carrier’s long-distance network.

In early June Amtrak yanked the full-service dining cars from the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Last spring it sharply restricted the carriage of privately-owned passenger cars and all but eliminated special moves and charter trains.

Amtrak has talked about creating a bus bridge for its Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dodge City, Kansas, rather than continue to operate over a BNSF segment in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico that lacks positive train control and over much of which Amtrak is the sole user and thus responsible for the maintenance costs of the rails.

The carrier also has changed its booking practices to make it more difficult for tour operators to book large blocks of sleeping car rooms.

A Trains magazine columnist wrote last week that he’s been told of Amtrak plans to remove chefs from the dining cars of the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

The columnist said he’s heard from passengers who’ve ridden long-distance trains lately that complimentary juice in sleeping cars is gone and coffee is being limited to one half-pot per day.

Fewer towels and bottles of water are being distributed to sleeping car passengers.

An amendment sponsored by Ohio senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown to force Amtrak to reopen ticket offices closed in a cost-cutting binge last spring was quietly removed from a transportation funding bill recently approved by the Senate.

Some passenger advocate see these and other moves as part of a larger plot to make long-distance trains unattractive so ridership will fall and management can make the case that the need for these trains isn’t there anymore.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has reportedly told state department of transportation officials that the carrier has studied chopping up long-distance routes into a series of corridors, each of them less than 750 miles in length.

That would force the states to fund those routes under the terms of a 2008 law that requires states to fund corridor routes that Amtrak had previously underwritten.

Those plans are not expected to be implemented immediately, but perhaps Amtrak management is just biding its time.

What does this have to do with the announcement about improvements to Midwest connectivity?

If Amtrak is seeking to re-invent itself as a provider of short- and medium-distance corridors it needs to show that it is developing a network of them.

Most people probably think of the Midwest corridors as ways to link cities in their state with Chicago.

Yes, some travelers connect in Chicago to other Amtrak trains, including the long-distance trains, but how many people think about getting on in Milwaukee and going to Detroit or St. Louis?

Well they might think about it and some do it every day, but Amtrak hasn’t always made such connections convenient. Some layovers last for hours.

The schedule changes made this summer are designed to address that, at least on paper, or in Amtrak’s case on pixels given that paper timetables are a thing of the past.

Amtrak touted its “new” schedules, noting that you can travel between Milwaukee and Detroit twice daily, and Milwaukee and St. Louis three times daily. Of course that means changing trains in Chicago.

To be sure, Amtrak gave a nod to the long-distance trains, noting that in making the departure of northbound Hiawatha train No. 333 from Chicago to Milwaukee later, it enabled connections from long-distance trains from the East Coast.

As for the student discount, it is 15 percent and designed for Midwest travel. Amtrak also plans to soon allow bicycles aboard the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.

When the new Siemens Charger locomotives went into service on Midwest corridor trains, they came with the tagline “Amtrak Midwest.”

Those locomotives were purchased by the states underwriting Amtrak’s Midwest corridor routes. Those same states are also underwriting development of new passenger cars to be assigned to the Midwest corridor routes.

It is getting to the point where Amtrak is becoming a middleman of Midwest corridor routes, offering a station and maintenance facility in Chicago; operating, service and marketing support; and a brand.

For now, the state-funded corridors combined with the long-distance trains provide intercity rail passenger service to many regions of the Midwest, including to such states as Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio that do not currently fund Amtrak service.

That might well change if Amtrak follows through on its proposals to chop up the long-distance routes into state-funded corridors. Would Ohio step up to help pay for, say, a Chicago-Toledo, Chicago-Cleveland or Chicago-Pittsburgh  route in lieu of the Capitol Limited?

Would Iowa agree to fund a Chicago-Omaha train in lieu of the California Zephyr?

Would Minnesota agree to fund a Chicago-Minneapolis/St. Paul train in lieu of the Empire Builder? What about Chicago-Fargo, North Dakota, with funding from Minnesota and North Dakota?

I’m not optimistic about that.

Amtrak Still Tweaking Dining Service

August 1, 2018

Amtrak continues to tweak its “fresh and contemporary” dining aboard two Eastern long-distance trains, this time making a few changes to the lone breakfast offering.

Trains magazine reported that breakfast now has a low-fat yogurt parfait instead of vanilla Greek yogurt, and no longer offers banana pecan breakfast bread or a Kind-brand dark chocolate, nut, and sea salt bar.

Aside from the yogurt parfait, sleeping car passengers aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited receive a blueberry muffin is sealed in a plastic dish, slicked seasonal fresh fruit and a Kashi bar.

Since mid-July, Amtrak has been offering one hot-meal option, a beef short rib, which replaced the chilled grilled beef tenderloin salad.”

It is served with a plastic-packaged salad and a jar of salted caramel cheese cake

The entrée is described by Amtrak as a “slow braised beef short rib with polenta and mixed baby vegetables in a red wine and beer sauce.”

A Trains correspondent who rode No. 30 from Chicago to Washington recently described it as resembling a round mound of gravy-covered meat with sauce that mixes with the vegetables and polenta in a black plastic bowl.

The “fresh and contemporary” dining service replaced full service dining on June 1.

As part of the change, a dining car was designed as a lounge for sleeping car passengers only.

The Capitol Limited had had a Cross Country Café that served full meals and sold café car fare.

The café lead service attendant has been moved from the Cross Country Café to the lower level of the adjacent Sightseer Lounge.

There is no table service in the sleeping car lounge and Trains observed that the car can become noisy and relatively uninviting when passengers sitting by themselves begin carrying on conversations with people at other tables.   

When the eastbound Capitol Limited is delayed, Amtrak doesn’t serve lunch to sleeping car passengers.

The carrier’s policy is that if No. 30 is more than four hours late sleeping car passengers are entitled to snack packs of cheese and crackers.

Meals will be put aboard only  if the train is running six or more hours late. Those meals are ordered from a restaurant such as Chick-fil-A.

The Trains correspondent connected in Washington to the Crescent, which still has full-service dining.

However, he noted that the menu was dated September 2017, indicating that Amtrak apparently did not change its dining car offerings in the spring as it normally does.

The correspondent said his dinner roll was warm and the chipotle sauce accompanying the perfectly-cooked salmon was excellent.

Hot Choice Added to ‘Fresh and Contemporary’

July 15, 2018

Amtrak has added a hot-meal choice to its lunch and dinner “menu” for sleeping car passengers aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

New is a slow-braised beef short rib in a red wine and beer sauce that an attendant will warm for patrons.

It replaces the chilled grilled beef tenderloin salad. Other items will continue to be served cold including the vegan wrap, chicken Caesar salad, and antipasto plate.

There is still only one item available at breakfast and it includes fruit, a muffin, a Greek yogurt parfait, and breakfast bars.

Amtrak removed its full-serving dining service from both trains on June 1 in favor of what it euphemistically described as “fresh and contemporary” dining service.

Passengers can eat the boxed meals in their rooms or in a dining car that serves as a lounge for sleeping car passengers only.

New Meal Service Getting Mixed Reviews

July 7, 2018

Reports are beginning to circulate online about the “fresh and contemporary” meal service being offered by Amtrak on its Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited.

The cold meal service replaced full service dining on both trains on June 1, resulting in at least 30 Amtrak onboard service employees losing their jobs.

One poster on a railroad chat list described the meal offerings as not as bad as some might have thought they would be.

A similar report said that passengers have engaged in extensive trading of food items from their selection, which comes as a package for dinner and lunch.

Some also have commented about how much packaging each meal requires and how that has strained the storage space in the dining cars now turned sleeping car lounges.

The meals are served in a green bag that passengers are allowed to keep.

After eating, passengers must take their waste, separate it and then place it in large cardboard containers lined with plastic garbage bags.

The boxes the meals are served in are being billed as environmentally friendly.

A note in the boxes says “the balsa wood for these boxes is salvaged from tree stumps leftover [sic] from sustainable logging — so no trees are ever harvested or cut down for this product. No chemicals … harmful toxins. No worrying.”

Passengers get one option for breakfast, the Amtrak Breakfast Bistro Box, which comes with a generous serving of fresh fruit, most of which is melon, banana bread, a blueberry muffin, Greek yogurt topped with organic granola in a parfait, a Kashi honey almond flax chewy granola bar, and a Kind-brand dark chocolate nut and sea salt bar.

The dinner/lunch offerings include chilled grilled beef tenderloin salad, chicken Caesar salads, an antipasto plate (processed meat, olives, pickles, and beans); a vegan wrap (with marinated eggplant, vegetables, and hummus); and a children’s turkey and cheese sandwich plate (with orange segments, a string cheese stick and a coloring book).

All except the vegan wrap and child’s meal also come with salted caramel cheesecake.

Passengers receive unlimited complimentary soft drinks and one complimentary alcoholic beverage.

The diner-sleeping car passenger lounge where the meals are serviced has one Amtrak attendant handing out the meals.

That attendant also fills drink orders and wipes down tables after passengers leave.

There is no linen, silverware, or even paper tablecloths and plastic utensils. One commentator said this has resulted in the dining cars having a sterile appearance.

One lesser commented about aspect of the service change was the institution of giving passengers a complementary Gilbert and Soames toiletry kit that includes shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, body wash, soap, a beauty kit (with nail file, Q-Tips, and bobby pins), a sewing kit, and shower cap.

The showers in the sleeper also now offer flat sandals with pop-up attachments for toes and ankles.

Amtrak Says Hot Food Coming Back to 2 Trains

June 7, 2018

Hot food will be coming back to the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, although Amtrak did not say when that will be.

The change is unlikely to mean a restoration of the full dining service that was removed from both trains on June 1.

In statement made to Trains magazine, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said, “We are undertaking changes on the dining service to provide higher quality food with a modern service pattern that allows people to order what they want and have it provided when they want.”

Magliari said this means that passengers can dine in a communal way or eat their meals with a modicum of privacy in their sleeping car rooms.

“We’re putting the decision-making into our customer’s hands, versus dictating to our customers how they have to accept their food,” Magliari said in the statement.

Magliari said the hot meal service on the trains will begin after Amtrak receives feedback from passengers to understand their preferences.

Flooding Disrupts Capitol Limited

June 5, 2018

Flooding over the weekend caused Amtrak to operate the Capitol Limited only between Chicago and Pittsburgh with passengers sent by bus between Pittsburgh and Washington.

The flooding occurred on CSX tracks between Cumberland, Maryland, and Martinsburg, West Virginia, with the most severe flooding occurring near Great Cacapon, West Virginia.

Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg reported that about 2 inches of rain fell between Saturday and Monday.

Heavy rain occurring over the previous two weeks had already left the ground saturated and streams nearly overflowing.

The eastbound Capitol Limited that left Chicago on Saturday evening was the first train to be effected, terminating in Cumberland on Sunday morning.

Amtrak deadheaded its consist to Pittsburgh where it left later that night for Chicago.

No. 30 which left Chicago Sunday night terminated in Pittsburgh.

Amtrak Unions Want Dining Cars Back

June 2, 2018

Labor unions representing Amtrak workers say changes in dining service aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are threatening jobs and pensions as well as annoying passengers.

The unions want Amtrak to reinstate full dining-car service on the both trains, which serve northern Ohio.

The dining changes, which became effective on June 1, involve providing cold meals to sleeping car passengers.

Amtrak executives have characterized the cost-cutting changes as experimental and pledged to provide at least one hot entrée at a future time.

The executives told the Rail Passengers Association that Amtrak is studying making improvements system-wide food service improvements.

The Amtrak Service Workers Council, however, is not impressed.

“We pledge to do everything in our power to preserve these jobs and the unique Amtrak dining experience,” the council said in a statement.

The council said that seven chefs have been furloughed and given a little more than a week to make a major life decision, meaning moving to Chicago or Seattle in order to continue working for Amtrak.

Some of them have 30 years of service and live on the East Coast.

“Therefore, it is certain that closing dining cars on these routes will have immediate and ripple effects on Amtrak workers across the country, not only those employed on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited lines.

The union group also took aim at how Amtrak sought to frame the change, issuing a news release and making statements characterizng the changes as providing “fresh and contemporary” meal service.

The council said the new meal service is nothing more than a cold snack in a cardboard box being delivered to passengers in their rooms.

“Riders are paying close to $1,000 a ticket, only to be fed yogurt and sandwiches? We have been told by our members that passengers already are expressing their dissatisfaction with the upcoming service and meal plan changes,” the council said.

“Our members are on the frontlines, and they know that passengers view the current dining service as part of the experience of riding a train through the country along a long-distance route.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari declined to comment on the council’s statement other than to say the pre-packaged meals are not limited to the examples cited in the council’s statement.

Amtrak expects to save $3 million annual by eliminating full-service dining cars from the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

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.