Posts Tagged ‘Rail Passengers Association’

Ultimately, It Comes Down to Control and Self Interest

August 10, 2021

I ran across a pair of columns last week that help illuminate why expanding rail passenger service in the United States is so challenging and happens so infrequently.

One piece was written by Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association and appeared on that organization’s website.

The other was written by a Union Pacific vice president and appeared on the website of Railway Age although it originally appeared on the UP website.

Mathews was in part writing in response to a recent U.S. Surface Transportation Board decision that established a timeline in a case Amtrak brought seeking to prod CSX and Norfolk Southern into allowing intercity passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, to begin next year.

The proposed service has been in the works for five years and funding is in place for capital improvements and operating expenses.

But Amtrak and the host railroads – CSX in particular – have been unable to reach agreement on what infrastructure improvements are needed.

Mathews pointed out that CSX has demanded work that would cost 19.5 times what a Federal Railroad Administration study estimated was needed.

Mathews doesn’t think NS or CSX have been negotiating in good faith, saying there is ample data available to move ahead on the Gulf Coast service, including infrastructure improvements.

“What are CSX and N-S really after in their long-standing opposition to the Gulf Coast restoration?” Mathews asked, perhaps rhetorically.

He believes the host railroads are demanding study after study until they can finally get a result “that gives them cover to stop the restoration.”

There is likely some truth to that. It’s a strategy Class 1 railroads have used before to stymie new passenger service or expansion of existing service.

If you drag the process out long enough those wanting the service might get discouraged and go away.

A subset of that strategy is demanding expensive infrastructure work that is too costly for Amtrak or a transportation agency to afford. It is all a way of getting to “no” without saying it as such.

And that brings me to the column by Wes Lujan, assistant vice president of external relations at Union Pacific.

He begins by contending UP is not hostile to Amtrak and other entities seeking to use UP rails for expanded service on existing passenger routes or creating new service on freight-only routes.

Lujan argues that UP has worked with Amtrak and state agencies in California and Illinois on projects that enabled expanded and faster passenger service and will continue to do so.

But Lujan said Union Pacific is put off by how Amtrak and others are demanding access to UP rails by announcing those plans and then bringing political pressure on the railroad to agree to them.

He cited the Amtrak Connect US plan announced earlier this year of 39 new routes to be implemented over the next 15 years at an estimated cost of $75 billion.

That plan, Lujan wrote, was created in conjunction with state transportation agencies but not in consultation with the railroads that would host those trains.

“Instead of a unilateral push to expand passenger service, it would be transformational if we faced these challenges collaboratively, as partners with passenger agencies and with a common understanding that the U.S. freight rail network is a dynamic system that moves the physical goods that drive the American economy,” Lujan wrote.

To boil down Lujan’s argument to its essence, if you want new or expanded passenger service be prepared to pay for it. That means funding infrastructure improvements “and (emphasis in original) provid[ing] more reasonable compensation for access to host railroads.”

I would not take everything that either Mathews or Lujan wrote at face value. At the same time each has shown how each side comes at rail passenger expansion from different perspectives that hinder the creation of the partnerships that Lujan espouses.

To have a partnership you need to have willing partners who are committed to working through their differences to reach an agreed upon end goal.

There must be some incentive for both parties to work toward that end goal, and it helps when there is more balance in the relationship than is typically the case when Amtrak or some agency wants new rail passenger service.

Mathews wants more of what Lujan opposes: Using political pressure and the power of government, specifically the STB, to force railroads to be more cooperative in allowing passenger rail expansion and seeing to it that those trains operate on time.

Host railroads, though, see little in it for them in allowing passenger trains to use their rails.

Their purpose is hauling freight, not passengers. It is not realistic to expect freight railroads to respond to every proposal for passenger trains on their rails with a response of “that’s a great idea; let’s sit down and figure out how we can make it work.”

It may be that the partnerships that Lujan cited are more the exception than the rule.

They occurred in states with a long history of paying to fund passenger service and its capital expenses. Those states also have agencies that have a history of working with Amtrak and its host railroads and understand that it takes time and money to get to “yes.”

Many, although not all, of the routes in the Amtrak Connect US plans are in places where state governments have not funded intercity rail passenger service and which lack agencies with experience in overseeing and managing rail passenger service.

Railroads are accustomed to working with state transportation departments on public-private capital projects. But they see something in it for them in those projects.

Those also tend to be one-off projects that do not involve an on-going commitment to paying for such things as operating expenses as is typically the case with intercity passenger rail.

I doubt that Mathews would disagree with Lujan’s assertion that passenger rail development works best when you have a partnership of the willing.

It is just that Mathews is not convinced that railroads are all that willing to establish those partnerships to host new and additional passenger trains. These partnerships are far more difficult to establish than Lujan is willing to admit.

Ultimately, it comes down to control. Like anyone else, railroads don’t like being told what to do with their property and don’t want to be forced into doing something they don’t see as being in their interests or something they simply believe is not necessary.

Transformational? Probably Not

August 4, 2021

Although the bipartisan infrastructure bill now being debated by the Senate contains an infusion of new funding for rail passenger service, it is not necessarily the “transformational” development that rail passenger advocates have long sought.

Writing last week on the website of the Rail Passengers Association, Jim Mathews, the president of the group formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said the bill provides meaningful and sustained increases in passenger rail funding, yet doesn’t have nearly enough funding to provide for a wide-ranging expansion of Amtrak routes and services.

But 24 hours later, RPA’s Sean Jeans-Gail, RPA’s vice president of policy and government affairs, wrote a post saying that the views expressed in Mathews’ earlier post had been a little too pessimistic and that the infrastructure plan could be transformational.

When RPA and other rail passenger advocates use the word “transformational” they are talking about a vision in which the nation’s intercity rail passenger network is much greater than it is now. By that they mean doubled, tripled and maybe quadrupled.

It is difficult to say because advocates tend to speak in general terms about Amtrak expansion.

Amtrak has laid out its own transformational vision in its Amtrak Connect US plan that calls for a network of 39 new corridor services by 2035.

Individual rail passenger advocates, though, tend to have their own visions and dreams, some of which would involve several new long-distance routes plus an expansion of the number of trains on existing long-distance routes. Amtrak is not calling for additional long-distance routes.

Whatever your vision for expanding intercity rail passenger service might be, it won’t happen without a massive infusion of public money.

The infrastructure plan now before the Senate would allocate $66 million for passenger rail.

But most of that money would be used on Amtrak’s existing network, leaving just $32 billion for additional passenger rail funding.

 “While this bill would count as the biggest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation, it is far below what was originally envisioned by the White House,” Mathews wrote.

He was referring to the $74 billion originally proposed by President Joseph Biden for new passenger rail projects in his American Jobs Act proposal.

What RPA and other passenger advocates really want is the $110 billion in the House-approved INVEST Act that would be spent on passenger rail.

The Senate infrastructure bill combines figures from what had been two separate pieces of legislation, one of which is the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021.

That bill, which contained $34.2 billion for passenger rail, was approved earlier by the Senate Commerce Committee.

If you combine what is available for passenger rail in the infrastructure bill with the Transportation Investment Act figures, Jeans-Gail wrote, you get a passenger rail investment of $102 billion over the next five years, which he called a “transformational” figure.

Maybe, but read the fine print. The only funding that is guaranteed by the infrastructure bill is the $66 billion of the original bi-partisan infrastructure plan.

The rest of the funding is subject to approval through the congressional appropriations process.

“There’s no assurance that the additional $36 billion in investment will ever fully materialize,” Jeans-Gail wrote. “This creates uncertainty in how the guaranteed funds would be used, hindering the ability of states and Amtrak to effectively execute multi-year capitalization plans.”

So what will that $66 billion be used for? Primarily to fund capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and the national network, and buy new equipment for the national network.

Some of the funding is devoted toward establishing new services, although Mathews suggested it might only be enough for one or two routes.

The RPA posts have suggested that money could be used to restore discontinued routes, extend existing service and add additional frequencies on existing routes.

In his post, Mathews said there remains hope that the House will approve a more generous rail funding section of the infrastructure plan. Any differences would need to be worked out between the House and Senate.

He conceded that a higher level of rail funding could draw the opposition of those Republicans who have thus far supported the bi-partisan Senate infrastructure bill.

It seems unlikely the Senate will lie down and give in to everything that the House wants. There will be a give and take in reconciling the differing visions of each chamber.

Then again the infrastructure bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet, hasn’t been considered by the House and hasn’t been signed by the president. We are talking about proposals at this point not finished products.

The numbers may change in time, but the overall thrust of what the infrastructure bill will and won’t do is unlikely to change all that much.

That may result in something transformational or it might simply lead to incremental additions to the nation’s intercity rail passenger network with new equipment and improved infrastructure being used by the existing services.

If that turns out to be the case it would be a positive for America’s intercity rail passenger network. It just won’t lead to the fulfillment of most of the desires and dreams of many rail passenger advocates.

Full-Service Dining Expected Back on Amtrak Western Long Distance Trains

March 14, 2021

An Amtrak manager has told the Rail Passengers Association that full-service dining will return to six western long-distance trains once they resume daily operation in late May or early June.

Larry Chestler, who oversees Amtrak’s long distance trains, said the passenger carrier expects “something close to normal” this summer for sleeping car class bookings.

Chestler indicated that Amtrak wants to be able to offer a dining-car experience while tending to those who are anxious, fearful or do not desire the traditional communal dining experience that was common in dining cars before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a post on its website, RPA said Amtrak managers said the carrier is still developing plans for dining service restoration that may include “some new options targeting improved safety and improved meal quality.”

Since late last spring, Amtrak has offered its flexible dining model aboard all western long distance trains.

Initially begun in June 2018 aboard the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, the flexible dining model involves serving prepackaged meals to sleeping car passengers in either the dining car or in their rooms.

The model, which was initially known as contemporary dining, was later expanded to all eastern long distance trains.

It meant a more limited offering of menu items and no more onboard food preparation other than heating already cooked meals.

It was a cost-cutting measure for Amtrak because it reduced dining service from three or more positions to one.

Onboard Amtrak food service workers displaced by the practice on the western trains were moved to the extra board.

Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

October 12, 2020

It might be hard to believe but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared with the early 1950s. Revenue had fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers. In return NARP agreed not to protest switching the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the 1971 day that Amtrak began operations, it inherited tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule the length of its route under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by replacing on most long-distance trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of pre-prepared fare.

Amtrak has sought to frame tri-weekly service as a temporary measure and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines during the COVID-19 pandemic. The passenger carrier expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less-than-daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less-than-daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was extended to St. Louis and, eventually, to Chicago. Even then at various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 thanks to a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on days when travel demand is diminished, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have strenuously objected to Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan because they see it not as a rational response to plunging ridership and revenue but as an ominous harbinger of bad things to come for Amtrak’s national network.

Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan has argued in a series of essays posted on the Railway Age website that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s tri-weekly service plan disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less-than-daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less-than-daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily operation but also eliminated the Pioneer to Seattle, and Desert Wind to Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service. Whether any or even all of the long-distance trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation of long-distance trains or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how well the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.

RPA Makes its Case. Will it Matter?

September 14, 2020

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews last week laid out the case before a congressional committee against Amtrak’s plans to shift most of its long-distance trains to less than daily operation in October.

He testified before a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee holding an oversight hearing on Amtrak and the COVID-19 pandemic,

Last week I went inside the testimony of Amtrak William Flynn as to why Amtrak is reducing frequency of service on long-distance routes so today’s let’s go inside the counter arguments Mathews made.

First, Mathews argued Amtrak provides an essential service, particularly to communities lacking other public transportation options and to those facing cutbacks in airline service once CARES Act emergency funding for airlines expires after Sept. 30.

Mathews said Amtrak is most essential for the 62 million Americans living in “flyover territory” where a quarter of the population is veterans and another quarter is age 65 or older.

He said the pandemic has made Amtrak service more necessary for these Americans.

“Intercity rail plays an outsized role in these communities, with almost one-fifth of Amtrak’s passengers traveling to or from a rural station with no access to air service,” Mathews said.

“Long-distance trains, frequently used by senior citizens and passengers with mobility impairments, provide access to healthcare facilities that would otherwise be too expensive or difficult to reach.”

Second, Amtrak tried less-than-daily service in the 1990s and it resulted in a loss of 1.1 million passengers while failing to net the monetary savings that a consultant had projected.

Trains operating three times a week are less attractive because they may not operate when passengers want or need to travel. Connections between long-distance trains in Chicago will become difficult because they may only be available one or two days a week or not available at all.

Third, reducing long-distance service to three times a week will result in a loss of $2 billion in economic benefits.

“Rail corridors generate value by acting as economic engines in the communities they serve—through jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development,” he said.

Mathews relied on a model developed at the University of Southern Mississippi that concluded Amtrak’s long-distance trains, excluding the Auto Train, generate $4.7 billion in economic benefits.

He said this lost economic benefit could swell to $3.1 billion if long-distance trains operate tri-weekly for a year, which would dwarf the $150 million in savings from the tri-weekly service Amtrak plans to operate.

Mathews’ testify may have been, as he described it “forceful,” but is unlikely to move the needle much if at all.

Members of Congress are accustomed to being inundated with talking points from interest groups seeking a share of public money.

In this case, Mathews wants Congress to give Amtrak nearly $5 billion for federal fiscal year 2021, which would be more than double what the passenger carrier originally sought earlier this year.

There is a long line of folks who want Congress to give them emergency aid, including countless small business owners who are on the verge of being forced out of business for good due to the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.

Public funding of some government services faces cutbacks due to plummeting revenues.

Less-than-daily Amtrak service on a small number of routes looks minor by comparison.

In a post on the RPA website that followed Mathews’ appearance on Capitol Hill, RPA Vice President of Policy Sean Jeans-Gail decried a lack of urgency on the part of Congress to act to approve additional funding for Amtrak.

“It is abundantly clear that policymakers and the public have not internalized the threat to our national transportation network,” Jeans-Gail wrote.

That could be because they don’t see the same threat that RPA sees.

Congressional leaders have signaled that another round of pandemic emergency funding is unlikely before the November elections. If so, then Amtrak’s planned service reductions are likely to go into effect as scheduled.

The Senate has yet to act on spending bills for FY2021, which begins in less than three weeks.

This scenario has played out before and typically federal spending is kept going with one or more continuing resolutions.

All of this is subject to change but if it does it likely won’t come about because of what Mathews told a congressional committee. There are larger political forces that transcend Amtrak funding, which is a mere gain of sand on a very large beach.

Committee To Discuss Amtrak Service

September 9, 2020

A congressional committee will hear testimony today on Amtrak’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its plans to reduce frequency of service on most long-distance trains to three times a week.

The hearing is being held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

It is slated to start at 11 a.m. and will be carried live on the committee’s YouTube Channel.

Amtrak President William Flynn is expected to testify along with Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association.

RPA and other rail passenger advocates have opposed the plan to reduce the frequency of service of long-distance trains and Mathews told the group’s members in an email message this week that his testimony will seek to show that daily operation of those trains is good for the U.S. economy.

In the meantime, a report posted on a railfan chat list showed an Amtrak document that has downward projections of ridership in federal fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

Amtrak now expects ridership in the Northeast Corridor to be 34 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

The carrier projects that state-funded corridor ridership will be 41 percent of pre-pandemic levels and long-distance ridership will be 35 percent.

Amtrak said it will need $5 billion in operating support for the fiscal year and another $5 billion in capital funding for equipment purchases and debt service.

So What Did Mr. Anderson Mean?

December 11, 2019

Amtrak President Richard Anderson recently gave an interview to the Here and Now program on National Public Radio and a railroad passenger group found in his remarks a commitment toward preserving rail service to all of America and not just a few coastal urban corridors.

As the Rail Passengers Association sees it, Anderson indicated he recognizes Amtrak has a legal obligation to offer a national network.

When rail passenger advocates use the term “national network” they are talking about long-distance passenger trains.

Anderson has been outspoken in the past year that Amtrak’s long-distance trains are money losers and suggested the future of intercity rail passenger is short corridors linking urban areas.

He has hinted that Amtrak wants to eliminate some of those long-distance runners by chopping up their routes into corridors.

An NPR reporter said asked Anderson why if the long-distance trains are the money losers he says they are why that the carrier doesn’t say they are no longer a part of Amtrak’s core business and eliminated them.

Anderson responded this way: “Well, no, that wouldn’t be appropriate for Amtrak because we have a statutory responsibility to provide intercity travel. We also have a statutory responsibility to minimize losses and run this like a business. So we’re at an intersection of both a really important public-policy role and the responsibility to be very good stewards. So, we have to have good answers for rural communities. So we take that challenge.”

But was Anderson saying what RPA claims that he said?

Anderson indeed said Amtrak has a legal obligation to provide rail passenger service but that doesn’t necessarily mean he said that includes long-distance trains.

He said Amtrak needs to have good answers for rural communities, but didn’t say what those will be.

What constitutes a “national network” is a murky concept. There are vast swaths of the United States that lack intercity rail passenger service and haven’t had it for decades.

Amtrak has never served South Dakota. Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, have been off the Amtrak map for 40 years.

Does a national network mean that all 50 states and all principal cities must be served?

Some rail advocates might answer in the affirmative, but that doesn’t mean it is likely to happen.

RPA wants to see Amtrak receive a separate source of funding to grow its network.

The organization rightly fears the corridor services that Anderson is fond of promoting will come at the expense of long-distance routes.

The rail passenger advocacy group said a separate funding source for new Amtrak routes is gaining support in Congress and within Amtrak itself, but it remains to be seen if that materializes.

There have been many proposals over the years for dedicated funding sources for Amtrak, but none of ever made it into law.

Instead Amtrak funding continues to be the annual appropriations granted by Congress that are subject to the vicissitudes of which way the political winds are blowing at the time.

RPA claims Anderson’s response during the NPR program is a subtle but important change from his earlier rhetoric.

The advocacy group is correct in asserting that Anderson’s comment about the need to minimize Amtrak’s losses and run the passenger like a business speaks to a tension between operating a tight ship and the mission of serving communities that are unprofitable.

Getting to where RPA and other rail passengers advocates want to be is a long game that will still be playing out long after Anderson has left his post.

There may be some support in Congress for the type of expansive rail passenger network that advocates want to see – including a mixture of corridor services and long-distance trains – but there remains considerable opposition to it as well.

That opposition is not just in Washington but also in the headquarters of every Amtrak host railroad.

Even if Anderson’s rhetoric has undergone a subtle change, I have yet to see evidence, including in his comments made during the NPR interview that he has changed his mind about the role of long-distance passenger trains in America.

Perhaps Anderson has learned intercity rail passenger service is politically different than airline service provided by for-profit companies and his comments reflect that.

That doesn’t mean that he has come around to the viewpoint that all long-distance trains need to be kept in place in order to maintain a national network that meets the transportation needs of rural America. What constitutes the latter is subject to wide differences in interpretation.

Planned Auto Train Dining Service Changes May be Predictor of the Future of Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

July 22, 2019

The recent announcement by Amtrak of changes to on-board service aboard the Auto Train might be a blueprint for the “experiential” long-distance service that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has alluded to in public comments.

However, the upgrades that the carrier is making for sleeping car passengers on the Auto Train stand somewhat in stark contrast with what is happening with onboard service on other eastern long-distance trains.

In a news release, Amtrak said that starting in January Auto Train sleeping car passengers will receive complimentary wine with dinner as well as better linens and towels.

The release spoke of new dinner and breakfast menus, but it is not clear if that will involve food freshly prepared onboard or prepared off the train by a catering company.

The Auto Train announcement came about the same time that news broke that Amtrak plans to extend its “contemporary dining” program to its other eastern long-distance trains.

That program began aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018 and involves serving sleeping car passengers box meals in their rooms or in the dining car.

When “contemporary dining” began, Amtrak sought to sell it as an improvement in the sense that passengers received a complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals, would be able to eat when they wanted, and would have exclusive use of the dining car throughout their trip.

Initially, all of the sleeper class food aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore was served cold, but after a couple months one hot offering was added at dinner and breakfast.

The Auto Train announcement also referenced expanding sleeping car capacity during peak travel periods, but no such move was made for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Nor did Amtrak upgrade the linens and towels available for use by sleeping car passengers on those trains. Aside: those improved linens and towels may not be all that much. Amtrak is not about to become a high-end hotel.

Coach passengers aboard the Auto Train will be losing their complimentary dinner. Instead, Amtrak said it will expand the café car menu of meals, snacks and beverages. It also said it will have food truck vendors at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, that coach passengers can patronize.

That sounds like a 21st century version of the 19th century practice of passenger trains making meal stops at designated points.

Auto train coach passengers will receive a complimentary continental breakfast. That is more than coach passengers get on any other long-distance train.

Commenting on the Auto Train changes, the Rail Passengers Association noted that these changes are in line with the desire of Amtrak management to more clearly delineate travel classes. It also might be a scheme to delineate types of trains.

The Auto Train is unique among long-distance trains in not having intermediate stations. The clientele of the Auto Train is different in many ways from that of other long-distance trains and the more well-heeled among them might be the target audience Amtrak is seeking with the experiential trains.

I’ve long thought that Anderson might have in mind duplicating the Rocky Mountaineer or even VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, both of which attract a lot of affluent tour group travelers with disposable income to spend on experiences.

The Washington-Florida travel market has long been a strong one and is the only Amtrak long-distance market to have double daily service between endpoints even if those trains take different routes within North Carolina and South Carolina.

The implementation of “contemporary dining” on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited last year also represented a delineation between sleeper class and coach class in the sense that the latter are now limited to café car fare or bringing their own food with them aboard the train. But no food trucks.

In an analysis posted on its website last week, the RPA said Amtrak has hinted that the contemporary dining to be imposed on the Crescent and Silver Meteor, the only remaining eastern long-distance trains with full-service dining cars, will be different from that now available on the Capitol and Lake Shore. But RPA said it is not clear how or why it will be different.

“Meanwhile, problems with availability, choice and dietary restrictions have soured the perceptions of many repeat riders,” RPA wrote.

The rail passenger advocacy group acknowledged that Amtrak is trying to balance modern tastes and sensibilities within a long-distance ridership audience that includes large percentages of patrons who do not share those tastes and sensibilities.

RPA pointed out that one of its members wrote to say about “contemporary dining,” that “The food honestly is both better, tastier and more in line with how I eat when I am dieting like now and how my kids eat. Plus I like the dedicated lounge space in between meals.”

The latter comment reflects a facet of train travel that doesn’t get much attention.

If you are going to shell out the big bucks Amtrak demands for sleeper class, you want more than your own room and bed at night.

Amtrak argues that its surveys have found many passengers want less heavy meals and want to be able to eat when they choose rather that during fixed mealtimes.

Many passengers also don’t care for the community seating that has long been associated with eating in a railroad dining car. These passengers would rather not dine in the company of strangers.

Of course, RPA said, some passengers have found the food of “contemporary dining” to be terrible and even those who like the food have been put off by how it is presented.

That probably is an allusion to it coming in cardboard boxes and plastic containers, something that is being done because it is less costly and easier to manage.

In its analysis, the RPA said there are too few choices available with current “contemporary dining” fare, particularly with hot meal options.

“Members also tell us that kosher options are a problem, as are options for those with food allergies or sensitivities like gluten intolerance,” RPA wrote, “We’ve also heard from many of our members about entrees running out very early in the dining service.”

At the time that “contemporary dining” was launched, Amtrak said it would eventually allow coach passengers to purchase the meals made available to sleeper class passengers, but thus far that has not occurred.

Amtrak has said it is seeking to satisfy a Congressional mandate to cut its food and beverage deficit so the changes being made to the Auto Train and other eastern long-distance trains are being imposed with that in mind.

That means reducing the number of onboard employees involved in food and beverage service as well as trying to cut the cost of food and beverage acquisition.

The food trucks for coach passengers concept fits well into this framework because it shifts the risk onto an entrepreneur who probably is paying Amtrak a fee for the privilege of selling food trackside.

I wonder, by the way, what will happen when Amtrak begins getting complaints about food odors lingering in the air long after the food has been consumed.

Much of how Amtrak is framing these changes is akin to Michael Jackson’s fabled moonwalk in which he moves backwards while giving the illusion of moving forward.

Many railfans dislike “contemporary dining” but they are not necessarily representative of those who buy sleeper class tickets.

The sleeping customers are not necessarily looking for gourmet dining on wheels or trying to recreate the experience of traveling on the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, Twentieth Century Limited or the Capitol Limited during their heyday before Amtrak came along.

They want a good meal and friendly service that makes them feel that the hefty accommodation charge they paid was worth it.

Serving sleeper class passengers a complimentary alcoholic beverage and giving them exclusive use of a dining car turned lounge is fine, but can be negated by offering meals that too much resemble a school field trip box lunch.

RPA is correct in saying presentation is a problem here, but to get restaurant style presentation is labor intensive and reducing labor costs is one of Amtrak’s objectives.

Whatever shortcomings that “contemporary dining” may have, it could be worse.

Amtrak could borrow Southern Pacific’s playbook of providing food and beverage service from vending machines. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

RPA Hits Amtrak Accounting Practices

August 28, 2018

A rail passenger advocacy group is trying to put Amtrak’s accounting practices back into the spotlight.

The Rail Passengers Association released a white paper last week that concludes that how Amtrak measures and allocates its revenues and costs is “catastrophically flawed” and does the American public a disservice.

RPA is hardly the first critic of Amtrak’s accounting, which has come under fire for years by critics and policy makers.

In the RPA white paper, Amtrak’s bookkeeping practices are said to have four major flaws.

Amtrak is described as allocating costs in a way that inaccurately portrays the economics affecting each part of the system without reporting avoidable costs, as required by law.

It also omits all costs of capital consumption and uses imprecise or inadequate data.

“The upshot is that APT exaggerates the cost of operating the national passenger train system, overstates the costs of expanding it, and trivializes the effects of killing it, because it fails to consider the benefits accruing to the communities it serves,” the report concludes. “In short, it radically undercuts the ability of Congress and Amtrak to plan wisely.”

One practice singled out is allocation of track maintenance costs to routes that do not use the given tracks.

The report also said that some Acela equipment maintenance costs are allocated to non-Acela routes.

Amtrak is said to fail to determine each route’s fuel costs and to report reliable station cost data for stations that the carrier owns or maintains.

The carrier fails to accurately count commuter rail passengers using Amtrak-owned stations, thus overcharging the Amtrak trains that use them.

RPA said Amtrak’s accounting practices make the Northeast Corridor system appear less costly than it is while making long-distance trains appear to cost more than they do.

The funding needs of the Northeast Corridor greatly overshadow those of the rest of the system, where the majority of infrastructure costs are underwritten by Amtrak’s host railroads

This results in the false assumption that eliminating long-distance routes would substantially cut Amtrak’s public funding needs.

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.