Rolling back Amtrak's private car restrictions and special train ban won't be easy: Here's how to do it

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, April 2, 2018

Last week, Amtrak said it would no longer run special trains or charters and would severely restrict running private cars. The railroad said it was about profitability and time keeping and customer service. The change hits the 150 or so private cars (some place the figure closer to 250) that are still fit for the mainline, big steam locomotives that venture out once or twice a year on the main, and a handful of non-profits that utilize charter trains or tack private cars on Amtrak trains as part of their revenue mix (full disclosure here, my home non-profit, the North Carolina Transportation Museum & Foundation, is one of these groups).

Everyone that I know of who has a stake in this is taking some action to change the policy. They’re calling congressmen and women, mounting petition drives, and issuing policy statements about the economic impact of the change on their own organizations, their supporters, and their communities. Some are citing portions of a congressional act that encourages Amtrak to run special passenger trains. Some are blaming Amtrak for leaving money on the table. It’s made a lot of people deeply committed to railroading pretty mad.

I hope Amtrak President Richard Anderson listens and responds. Private cars are a great tradition and magnificent showpieces of American industrial and entrepreneurial history. Charter trains and specials are a splendid way to introduce railroading and train travel to a public that’s largely forgotten that railroads still exist. I love all of these trains, and I think they’re to the benefit of all for them to continue.

But I hope my friends in the private car business, in the non-profit world, and who run that handful of mainline steam locomotives will do more than just demand that Anderson bend to their wishes. I hope they’ll think about what they can do to make it in Amtrak’s best interests to run their private cars and special trains. Some specific ideas:

• They need to come in with a solemn pledge and a solid plan to police themselves and eliminate bad actors in the private car arena who scoff at safety rules. Yes, there are private car operators who’ve behaved badly, and they need to be sidelined.

• They need to make sure that Amtrak gets its due credit when they run a train under Amtrak insurance and with Amtrak crews and with that P42 diesel inserted in the train. (When was the last time you boarded a steam excursion that even whispered about Amtrak? Was there a sign that said the train was run by Amtrak?)

• They need to use the time they have with their passengers to help sell Amtrak’s regular trains, to generate repeat riders, and to incubate new supporters of passenger rail. Captive audiences are ripe for this sort of indoctrination.

Anderson has only been on the job for three months. I haven’t met him, and I don’t know him. What I hear about him and have seen so far is that he’s not bound to tradition. He’s interested in filling seats. Period. And the less trouble it is to fill those seats, the better.

He’s also got to be worried about diluting the company’s scarce resources. Amtrak is strained as it is to keep its regular trains running. His business side must be telling him to stay focused.

Basically, friends in PV, non-profit, and steam locomotive land, you need to come to the table with hat in hand, a warm smile, and most importantly, a better offer. Up the ante. Make it worthwhile to Mr. Anderson.

The last figure I heard was that Amtrak earned about $3.7 million in private car moves and special trains on an overall budget of $2.2 billion. That’s about .17 percent of the total budget. There’s a lot of effort that goes on behind the scenes to make that $3.7 million happen. They aren’t cheap or easy dollars to earn. You cannot provide enough money to make this attractive, so figure out something else.

Remember also, that our traditions may seem foreign and strange to someone who isn’t from Train World. When Anderson, a former airline CEO went to work as Amtrak’s new boss, I have a vision of his staff sitting him down to explain private cars. I can see them using an analogy that goes something like this: “From time to time, on our Washington-Chicago route, we carry a 1920s private car with a dozen people on it. It’s like tying a Jenny bi-plane to the back of a 777.” Then everyone ducks as the man spits his coffee across the room.

There’s a new boss at Amtrak. Any time there’s a new boss, all old bets are off. It’s time to renegotiate and sweeten the pot.

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