Amtrak's missed opportunities

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, August 17, 2013

 We’re accustomed to having Congress try to micromanage Amtrak. Witness the legislation introduced (but not enacted) this year by my fellow Republicans mandating an end to food-service losses and even mandating an end to food service. It’s all very frustrating, this petty and infantile interference. But sometimes Congress gets it right. Such was the case five years ago, in the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act. Section 210 of that law instructed Amtrak to examine all 15 long distance routes and think of opportunities to enhance the financial performance of those trains.

If you believe as I do that long distance trains are worthwhile, then the goal is a worthy one. Congress wanted Amtrak to think creatively. It didn’t specify what Amtrak was to dream up; that is properly the job of Amtrak management.

Amtrak’s staff dutifully studied each of the long distance services and came up with almost 30 major recommendations, which the board of directors approved. Then began implementation. And that’s when the process broke down.

Five years down the pike, my box score reads like this: eight opportunities implemented, 20 opportunities not implemented. I’ll get into why so many good ideas fell by the wayside in a bit. First, what got done and what did not?

Done: Reduce layovers in San Antonio, Tex., for Sunset Limited-Texas Eaglepassengers. Add regional dishes to dining car menus. Run a seasonal dome car on theCardinal. Add a fifth coach to the Silver Meteor during peak periods. Add thruway feeder busses in North Carolina to connect to the Meteor and Silver Star. Offer quick auto unloading (for a price) on the Auto Train. Implement a Customer Service Excellence Program on the California Zephyr (but please don’t get me started on how meal service is mismanaged on that train). Order new single-level cars to replace obsolete equipment.

Not done: Run the Sunset Limited and Cardinal daily instead of triweekly. Provide checked baggage service on the Cardinal at all manned stations. Run a longerCrescent north of Atlanta. Establish Thruway bus routes to feed the Crescent. Testhaving one attendant staff two Viewliner sleeping cars instead of one. Convert the Lake Shore Limited’s diner into a cashless club-diner that would offer coach passengers a better lounge menu. Increase the maximum size of the Auto Train from 50 to 55-57 cars. Convert the arcade space on the lower level of a Coast Starlight coach into business-class seating.  Add a fourth Superliner sleeping car and a separate lounge for sleeping car passengers to the popular Empire Builder. Reduce the generous seat pitch on Superliner coaches by four inches, to add four to six additional seats. Modify transition (crew) Superliner sleepers to add revenue rooms on the lower level.

Not done but in limbo: Establish Chicago-New York through service on theCapitol Limited and Pennsylvanian, via Pittsburgh. Dispatch the eastbound Lake Shore Limited from Chicago much earlier than the present 9:30 p.m. Add stops by long distance trains in Virginia. Add any number of Thruway bus services. Begin a palletized express service between Chicago and Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief.

My hunch is that most of the limbo list will some day be achieved. Holding up thru cars to New York on the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited is the lack of Viewliner sleepers. Plans are afoot to turn the Silver Meteor faster in New York and thereby free needed Viewliners, but that depends on getting CSX Transportation to approve new Meteor schedules. Earlier eastbound departures of the Lake Shore Limitedawait a rescheduling of the Capitol, and that has been held up by CSX as it enlarged tunnels along the Capitol route. Apparently the Thruway bus program is understaffed.

But what about that ambitious list of opportunities on the “not done” list. Achieving a daily Sunset Limited required Amtrak president Joe Boardman to wear down unwilling host railroad Union Pacific, and Boardman wouldn’t do it. With that idea killed, the staff didn’t pursue a daily Cardinal. Opportunities requiring capital investment — those added seats to Superliner coaches and added rooms to Superliner crew sleepers — were gunned down because Amtrak’s capital budget is thin to begin with and is sometimes used to pay operating costs. Perhaps Viewliner staffing changes upset a union. The connecting Thruway bus program suffers from the inattention of top management.

Indeed, you sense that this whole Section 210 process suffers from the indifference of top managers. Beyond that is the broader problem of getting anything done at Amtrak. The inertia of the staff toward change of any kind seems to increase by the day. That’s the tendency of all bureaucracies, and cutting through this resistance requires a lot of energy by executives and support for those reporting to them who try to get things done. Could it be the executives are simply exhausted?

Congress this year is trying to replace five-year-old PRIIA with new legislation. I hope they reinsert a section similar to 210. It would be a signal to Amtrak that Congress is serious about improving the financial profile of the long distance trains. As matters stand, Amtrak doesn’t appear to be all that serious, and so precisely the wrong signal is being sent.

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