Amtrak: What direction will you take?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, July 1, 2018

Half of 2018 has passed. In a normal year, Trains waits until late December to name our top railroad stories of the 12 months just passed. The top stories are the subject of staff discussion and debate. This time, I’m willing to say that at the end of the year Richard Anderson and the dramatic changes he’s making at Amtrak, barring any drastic change in his employment status, a major merger among Class I railroads, or something totally unexpected, will be the top story.

It has to have been a gut wrenching six months at Amtrak headquarters for any new CEO or staff members, whose tenures have been short or long. Two fatal wrecks. A high-profile grade crossing accident involving a Congressional special. The looming Dec. 31 Positive Train Control deadline, and Anderson’s pronouncement that he won’t run his trains on non-PTC compliant lines. The tug of war between corridors and long-distance trains, and in particular the reluctance to spend millions to upgrade the Southwest Chief route across Raton and Glorieta passes in New Mexico. The rapid stripping of station agents as online e-ticketing grows.  The quickly deteriorating reliability of the locomotive and passenger car fleet. A backlog of new dining cars that need to be put into service and a decision to eliminate hot foods and dining cars on some eastern routes. Retiring the Pacific Parlor cars on the Coast Starlight. How many major issues – some beyond the company’s control and others self-inflicted -- can one organization take on in a single year? That’s a big plate. I have to wonder if Anderson looks at himself in the mirror some mornings and asks, “Why in the world did I take this job?”

And that’s not all. He’s angered and alienated a significant part of the passenger train support base by cancelling and banning special charter trains that have been the only way most mainline excursion operators have been able to continue. Without Amtrak’s insurance and blessing, they cannot venture forth. Add in severe restrictions on private car moves, and there are not a lot of fans who are happy with Anderson’s Amtrak. Go on eBay and you’ll find “Fire Anderson, Save Amtrak” t-shirts available for sale.

With so many major issues on the table, I have to ask, what is the overarching priority at Amtrak? Safety? Saving money? Growing ridership? It’s not clear. One thing I know for certain: When the priority is everything, the priority is nothing. Pick a priority. Heck, Anderson could even communicate his vision to the troops and the public at large. I have to think that Amtrak’s Board of Directors has to be supportive of Anderson’s efforts either by encouraging his actions or at least tolerating them. One conversation that must be taking place at high levels is about the long-distance trains and the role they play. Are they transportation? Are they cruise trains? Are they hybrids? Anderson, the former airline executive, cannot see them as transportation, I do not believe. But as a business executive he surely knows that pulling dining car meals on eastern trains and eliminating one of the most fascinating and beautiful portions of the Chief means Amtrak is no cruise train. So, what is it?  

On the eve of Independence Day 2018, the direction at America’s railroad is unclear. With its trains wrapped in red, white, and blue, Amtrak is headed toward a new future that may become even more uncomfortable to those of us who can recall the last vestiges of privately-operated passenger trains. Amtrak’s leadership, employees, customers, supporters, and the railroad enthusiast community in general should all be discussing what’s around the next bend. A consensus on the future would be good. Amtrak may be far from perfect, but it’s still our train. Passenger trains are relevant in the 21st century. In my ideal world there would be more frequencies, consistent performance, great equipment.  I’d like to see an Amtrak with vision and trains that people want to ride.




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