Posts Tagged ‘Roger Harris’

Expanding Capacity and Dining Car Service Moving at Slow Pace, Amtrak Officials Say

September 24, 2021

Top Amtrak executives gave a glimpse of Amtrak’s near-term future this week during a meeting of the Rail Passengers Association and many rail advocates are likely to frustrated and encouraged at the same time by what they heard.

On the positive side, Amtrak is moving to make dining car meals available to passengers other than just those holding sleeper class tickets. It is even working toward upgrading dining car meals on eastern long distance trains.

Yet it will take some time before coach passengers anywhere will be able to buy dining car meals.

Also expected to take time will be increasing capacity on long-distance trains because the cars needed to do that are in storage and Amtrak needs to bolster its mechanical work force before those cars can be put back into revenue service.

Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, Roger Harris, said the passenger carrier is still seeking “to get the service right” before opening dining car meals to coach passengers.

A first step in that direction will be taken in October when business passengers aboard the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight will be able to buy dining car meals.

Harris cited a litany of factors for moving slowly to open up dining car meals to more passengers.

He said many on-board crew members have returned from furloughs imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and Amtrak doesn’t want to overwhelm them with such tasks as collecting cash and overseeing COVID restrictions.

“Our intention all along was to get to a point where we could offer it to coach customers,” Harris said.

He described the Coast Starlight move as a trial run to see how it plays out.

“The idea is to start small and work through the issues that we inevitably will encounter by opening up the dining car to more customers,” Harris said. “Then if the test is successful, we will roll it out to additional markets.”

As for the eastern trains, Harris said Amtrak is consulting with a food vendor who has worked with the passenger carrier to enhance meals served on Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor.

The vender is working with Amtrak “with a lot of menu items to find out what will work well within the constraints of single-level dining cars.” Harris said.

Harris acknowledged that many passengers riding eastern long-distance trains have complained about repetitive food offerings.

Starting in June 2018 Amtrak began moving away from full-service dining cars on eastern long-distance trains in favor of food prepared off the trains and reheated onboard.

That service eventually evolved to one bowl entrees with a few side items.

“By trying to offer different types of foods that are more appealing we think we can substantially upgrade the food offerings on the East Coast,” Harris said.

“We’re also looking at putting on new types of ovens and other kitchen equipment to be more creative in the types of food offerings we have.”

Amtrak initially chose its western long-distance trains for upgraded dining car service because it had the ability to restore employees on those trains and dining is such a critical part of the experience,” Harris said. “We wanted to live up to the expectations of our customers there.”

However, the return of full-service dining has yet to come to the Texas Eagle, in part because of equipment shortages that also have limited capacity of long distance trains.

Harris acknowledged that equipment shortages stem from decisions made last year about how much equipment to put in storage and how many mechanical jobs to cut.

At present, the Coast Starlight is the only Superliner-equipped long-distance trains with a coach devoted to business class.

Those passengers receive a free bottle of water and an “onboard credit for food and beverage purchases.”

Both the Eagle and the Capitol Limited have been operating for the past several months without a Sightseer Lounge car.

“Eighteen months ago we had to decide how much fleet we were going to be able to run and how much money we were going to spend on overhauls and how many employees we thought would be able to work on the equipment because we didn’t have enough demand to justify keeping the system running at historical levels and we didn’t think we would have enough money from Congress at that point,” Harris said.

“So what you see running on the system is all the equipment we have available,” he said.

He said some employees took early retirement, resulting in a reduced mechanical staff.

“We have to re-recruit for some of those [positions]; there is this unintended effect, but at this point unavoidable where we have to work through this backlog to get back to what was once our historic fleet availability, and that will take some time.”

He indicated that Amtrak is likely to be working through the winter to get transition sleepers back in service so that rooms now being taken by crew members can be sold to the public.

Also speaking to the RPA conference was Executive Vice President-Major Program Delivery Laura Mason.

She said the Amtrak would be able to step up replacement of aging equipment now used in the national network if Congress approves an infrastructure bill now pending in the House.

The bill has also received Senate approval. Of late, the infrastructure bill has been hindered by political wrangling in the House.

Even without the infusion of capital funding Amtrak hopes to get from the infrastructure bill, Harris said the carrier has been slowly replacing its fleet over the past five years with new Acela trainsets, new Viewliner cars and Venture cars being built by Siemens for use in state-funded corridor services.

Amtrak also has chosen Siemens to build replacement cars for Amfleet equipment used in the Northeast Corridor.

“This is not something Amtrak really has a deep bench on, in terms of doing procurements, so we really need to tackle these sequentially. So, there’s some elements of the Amfleet replacements that we need to wrap up still from that procurement, and then we will begin to have the capacity to work on the long-distance procurement,” Harris said.

Mason said Amtrak is “laying the groundwork to receive the substantial infusion of federal funding” contained in the infrastructure bill.

 “With the state of our infrastructure today and the funding that we have hopefully coming towards us with the infrastructure bill, we need to be able to build up the capacity to do multiple billion dollar programs, to have just not one focus but many,” she said.

 “We have $40 billion of planned critical infrastructure, facility and fleet investments that we need to turn into a reality.”

Mason also said Amtrak faces the challenge of recruiting future workers.

 “One of the big challenges to the industry is how do we get people excited and involved?” she said. “We need to recruit at all levels; I think entry-level is very important, but also mid-level.

“We need to bring in people from different industries and help them see the rewards that come from working in rail. That you can do well by doing good, and also that you can have a tremendous positive impact.

“I talk about this when I go out recruiting, about the impact. Do you want to affect tens of thousands of people a day? Hundreds of thousands? Millions of people a year? You can do that in transportation.”

She said Amtrak might need to appeal to younger would-be employees by tying the transportation industry to climate change.

“I say: Make it your day job; come work in rail. If you want to combat climate change, help be part of the solution of making rail and carbon neutral transportation an option for everybody,” Mason said.

Yes, They Might be Out to Get Them

June 17, 2020

The service cuts that Amtrak plans to make on Oct. 1 remind me of the old phrase “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

In the rail passenger advocacy and railfan communities – they are not necessarily the same thing even if there is some overlap – there long have been paranoid types who think Amtrak, Congress, the Department of Transportation, the highway lobby, conservative think tanks and goodness knows who else is out to kill the long-distance passenger train.

Those fears are not necessarily unfounded because there are a lot of people in government and in the transportation field who believe long-distance passenger trains long ago outlived their purpose.

Chat lists are ablaze with talk about this being the beginning of the apocalypse of the long-distance passenger train after a memo written by Amtrak vice president Roger Harris to employees was leaked.

Harris wrote in the memo that most long-distance trains will be reduced to tri-weekly operation on Oct. 1, the first day of federal fiscal year 2021. The exception is the Silver Meteor, which will operate quad weekly. The Auto Train will continue to operate daily.

The memo contends that Amtrak remains “committed” to the national network and as ridership recovers from sharp drops triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic recession that the intercity passenger carrier will restore daily service to the long-distance trains, possibly by next summer.

Harris framed the move as saving money and a political necessity, saying Congress will not continue to fund Amtrak if trains are running largely empty as they have in the past couple of months.

He probably fears – correctly by the way – that as Amtrak funding is debated in Congress that photographs and videos of near empty coaches will begin showing up regularly in some media channels along with talk of a colossal waste of public money.

Some have questioned whether Amtrak’s real motivation is to drive down ridership, run up losses and then point to those as justification for eliminating the long distance trains.

There is some reason to think this could be about to play out. Former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson was outspoken in his disdain for the long-distance network even as he talked about retaining some “experiential” service that he never got around to defining.

Another Amtrak vice president, Stephen Gardner, also has been critical of long-distance trains, describing them as relics of another era.

Anderson and Gardner, and perhaps Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia, favored a different Amtrak made up of corridor services between urban areas, particularly in the South and West.

Before the pandemic began, Amtrak had done spade work in seeking to interest state legislators in supporting Amtrak’s plans to ask Congress for a pot of money to be used to seed the development of these corridors.

Amtrak would front the initial capital costs and help underwrite operating losses for a few years before the states would be expected to pay for the services in the same way that states pay for corridor services today.

But the pandemic and the recession changed everything.

There are some who believe the announcement of plans to operate most long-distance trains on tri-weekly schedules is a political ploy to prod Congress into giving Amtrak an additional $1.4 billion for FY2021 on top of what the carrier has already requested.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn said in a May 25 letter to Congress that long distance trains would operate less than daily even with the additional $1.4 billion and would be “at risk” without it.

The Rail Passengers Association has been sending out emails to its members since the Harris memo leaked asking them to demand that Congress approve the additional $1.4 billion and mandate that long-distance trains now operating daily continue to do so.

I wrote in an earlier post that getting that extra $1.4 billion is going to be tough for Amtrak to pull off during a recession when Congress is inundated with requests for money from suffering organizations and government entities asking their Uncle Sam to help them survive.

If anything, Amtrak might be denied the supplemental appropriation and forced to take an across-the-board cut in FY2021 funding as legislators talk about the need for “sacrifices for the greater good.”

State governments are already cutting spending for their next fiscal years and such programs as education are seeing funding cuts.

Some states that now fund Amtrak corridor services have reduced their spending on them.

It remains to be seen how the politics of the appropriations process will play out this summer during a presidential election year.

Congress often fails to approve a budget before the current one expires and keeps the government running through continuing resolutions that effectively maintain the status quo for a few weeks while negotiations continue.

Long-distance trains have continued to operate daily because Amtrak received emergency aid last spring. That money runs out in late September.

At this point it is difficult to see how the long-distance trains will survive the summer unscathed no matter how many letters, phone calls, texts, emails, social media posts or op ed columns that passenger train advocates create.

At some point it might get down to a choice of tri-weekly service or service suspensions.

In theory the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans was “suspended” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It has yet to return and probably won’t now except as maybe a state-funded service over a portion of its route.

Amtrak’s long-distance trains have survived so many budget battles over the past 49 years that it could be easy to think they will always be there because they always have been.

Maybe this will turn out to be like every other battle and the trains will somehow survive intact. And maybe there is something about this go around that is different from all of those other struggles to save the long-distance trains.

Amtrak to Cut Long Distance Service on Oct. 1

June 16, 2020

Amtrak told its employees on Monday that all long-distance trains except for the Auto Train will operate on less than daily schedules starting Oct. 1.

The carrier also said that service in the Northeast Corridor and state-funded corridor services will continue to operate at greatly reduced levels through during fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The message indicated that Amtrak will watch unspecified performance metrics with the idea of restoring daily service as demand warrants, possibly by summer 2021.

Amtrak has not released details of the service cuts including what days that trains would operate. Nor has it released information on the service metrics that it will be monitoring.

For example, it is unclear if the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited will be scheduled to operate on the same days or different days between Chicago and Cleveland.

The memo to employees was written by Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president, chief marketing and revenue service officer.

Harris said the Silver Meteor is expected to operate four days a week between New York and Miami while the Silver Star would run tri-weekly.

The memo indicated those trains would be scheduled so that their common stations would receive daily service.

The Meteor appears to be the only long-distance train being eyed for quad-weekly service. All other long-distance trains will operate tri-weekly.

However, operations of two trains that already operate tri-weekly, the Chicago-New York Cardinal and the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited, will be unchanged.

Amtrak has apparently dropped an idea floated by President William Flynn in a late May a letter to Congress of combining the Palmetto (New York-Savannah, Georgia), Silver Meteor and Silver Star.

The Auto Train, which operates between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, will continue to operate daily.

The Harris memo said the service reductions are being made in an effort to save $150 million  during a time of expected low ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic recession that has depressed travel demand.

Harris also argued that Amtrak’s operating loss has been more than $500 million on long-distance services.

Those losses, though, are under Amtrak’s fully allocated costs accounting method whose accuracy has been criticized by rail passenger supporters.

When pressed for details about the service reduction plans, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said in a prepared statement that the carrier is still in the planning stages and can’t answer most questions yet about what service will look like starting Oct. 1.

Her statement said Amtrak expects during the next fiscal year to operate 32 percent fewer frequencies on the Northeast Corridor and 24 percent fewer state-supported services.

The service cuts were blasted by Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “Chopping back to triweekly will mute any demand signal before it gets to management,” he said in a statement. “The long-distance services remain essential to the hundreds of small communities across the United States with fewer options than Philadelphia or Boston or New York.”

Mathews said Amtrak’s two worst-performing trains are the Cardinal and Sunset Limited, which operate tri-weekly, and predicted Amtrak’s plans to operate less than daily service on long distance routes will result in a dramatic decline in ridership.

“Moreover, Amtrak may be setting itself up for failure by losing operating slots on host railroads, losing employees it will need to restore service, and possibly losing the rolling stock as well,” he said.

Ross Capon, who headed the then-named National Association of Railroad Passengers recalled that Amtrak went through a similar phase in 1995 during another era of budget austerity.

“Experience from the 1990s shows that Amtrak’s plan to run the entire long-distance network less than daily will not achieve promised savings,” Capon told Trains magazine. “It also will inhibit the return of ridership Amtrak says is prerequisite for service restoration.

Capon called on Congress to grant Amtrak the additional $1.4 billion it is seeking on top of its regular appropriation for FY2021 with the proviso that long-distance trains now operating daily continue to do so.

Amtrak has reported that although ridership and revenue remain down due to the pandemic and recession, long-distance ticket revenues rose 71 percent from $6.8 million to $11.6 million, between April and May.

In the Northeast Corridor, revenue rose about 60 percent from $1.5 million to $2.4 million, and state supported trains generated less than a 50 percent increase, from $2.3 million in April to $3.5 million in May.

The Harris memo to employees opened with a statement that Amtrak remains committed to operating a national network but “we need to be smart about how we deliver our service in this market environment.”

Harris said Congress is unlikely to support Amtrak indefinitely if it continues to operate mostly empty trains.

“We need to demonstrate that we are using our resources efficiently and responsibly,” he wrote.

The memo stated Amtrak ridership is down as much as 95 percent on a year-over-year basis.

Although it continues to rise, “it is going to take a long time to return to normal.”

Harris said the demand for long distance service is down by 70 percent and Amtrak expects systemwide ridership in FY2021to be 50 percent of what it was in 2019.

As did Flynn in his May letter to Congress, Harris said Amtrak said the potential for a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall could further reduce ridership.

Amtrak Pausing Guest Rewards Deadlines

April 7, 2020

Amtrak has extended some deadlines for members of its Amtrak rewards frequent traveler program.

An email message sent to members by Amtrak’s Roger Harris, the chief marketing and revenue officer, said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the carrier is pausing the expiration dates of coupons that members might have in their accounts to Sept. 25.

It is likewise pausing use it or lose it expiration dates to redeem points that come up in the next few months to Sept. 25.

Harris said Amtrak is evaluating potential adjustments for 2021 tier qualification and will be announcing information about that as details are confirmed.

The notice said that change fees are being waived for new or existing reservations made before May 31 and this includes reservations made with frequent traveler points.

Amtrak To Change Fare Rules on March 1

February 24, 2020

Amtrak plans to make some of its most popular discounted tickets non-changeable and non-refundable on March 1.

The changes to the terms of the “saver” tickets mirror the rules applied to discounted airline fares.

Amtrak also plans to tighten the rules on standard fare tickets at the same time.

Currently, passengers buying “saver” tickets have some flexibility to change their travel plans and to get a refund if they cancel their trip.

Amtrak Executive Vice President Roger Harris, who is the carrier’s chief marketing and revenue officer, said tightening the rules for discounted tickets is a trade-off that will allow the railroad to make “the very lowest fares even lower.”

But no longer will passengers be able to get refunds for discounted tickets. “In other words, once you buy it, you use it or you lose it,” Harris said.

The changes in the fare rules had been expected after Business Insider last December published a leaked internal Amtrak memo describing plans for fare restrictions.

This isn’t the first time that Amtrak has cracked down on refunds and cancellations.

The carrier two years began imposing a 25 percent cancellation penalty.

Ticket change penalties are standard in the airline industry and in 2018 the airlines raked in $2.7 billion in reservation-change and cancellation.

Amtrak expected to gain $10 million dollars a year from the rule changes.

The new fare rules that become effective next month will affect “saver” and “value” tickets by establishing a 24-hour window for passengers to change their travel plans once ticketed.

After 24 hours, the ticket will become nonrefundable, and no changes or upgrades will be allowed.

Currently rules allow discounted tickets to be changed at any time before departure subject to a 25 percent cancellation fee.

Standard and value fares will come with a 25 percent penalty for cancellations or a 15 percent penalty for changes made within two weeks of departure, unless the passenger is changing or upgrading the reservation on the same train or day as the original reservation.

Standard fares currently are fully refundable if canceled eight days or more before departure. If canceled less than eight days before departure, the 25 percent cancellation fee applies.

Flexible, business and Acela First-Class Premium tickets are still refundable up to the moment of departures and changes can be made at any time.

Amtrak said that in the wake of its fare rule changes it will promote even more discounted fares for travel aboard its Acela and long-distance trains.

One area in which Amtrak continues to distinguish itself from the airlines is with add-on fees.

The carrier said it has no plans to charge passenger fees for baggage.

But Harris said that doesn’t mean it will never impose such fees.

“Frankly, we should review it,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to be like an airline that suddenly says give me $30 for your bag. I don’t think that’s the value proposition that we offer.”

Amtrak allows passengers two personal items and two carry-ons, plus two checked bags free.