A critique of the Amtrak Tri-weekly Everywhere National Network Plan

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A critique of the Amtrak Tri-weekly Everywhere National Network Plan
Posted by Carl Fowler on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 12:28 PM
Amtrak's excuses for its incredibly tone-def Tri-weekly Long Haul plan just got deeply undermined in an interview for Railway Age. They try to justify this idiocy by claiming long-distance ridership is down 70%. Earlier they said it was 85%, but more to the point, they admit corridor demand dropped 95%. So of course they target their strongest business line!
 
And we know from on the scene reports that long-haul consists are returning to normal. The EMPIRE BUILDER, SOUTHWEST CHIEF and CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR are at least on many dates in this group. Of course Amtrak is selling only 50% of its coach seats for now--but the bottom line is ridership is already rebounding.
 
The Flynn/Anderson/Garden/Coscia plan is to make the already marginalized national network so infrequent that they will able--in the fairly short term--to declaim how tragic it is that ridership has so deeply dropped, and thus these routes must finally end.
 
But of course would be riders in many cases won't even be able to make connections at Amtrak "Hubs" if they wanted to. If you live in Florida and want to connect at New York to the soon to be tri-weekly LAKESHORE for Erie, PA, it will only be theoretically possible three times per week and then only using the SILVER METEOR. But if the METEOR is seriously late into New York you are likely out of luck for days, indeed without a 2-3 day stay in New York. On the days the SILVER STAR covers the Florida-New York route it will never connect to the LSL, due to its always late-evening arrival times at New York.
 
Of course Amtrak knows this. Tri-weekly nationwide is a formula for chaos. You're on the CZ planning to connect to the LAKESHORE at Chicago--but it's a bad day on the CZ and the connection fails. Now you are trapped in Chicago for at least 48 hours and possibly for 72 (2-3 days) before the next tri-weekly LAKESHORE runs.
 
As we noted earlier Amtrak knows this won't work because they tried it repeatedly in earlier years and it never produced either the promised operational savings nor the needed preserved revenue. I posted a fine analysis of this by Ross Capon that is still up on most Amtrak Facebook pages on June 6. But here's another well done summary of this issue courtesy of my colleague Matt Melzer at the RPA.
 
This summarizes the results of the "less than daily" debacle which followed the Mercer Consultants Report in 1994-96. I can personally attest to the chaos that followed. My company, Rail Travel Center, had to reschedule and rebook virtually all of our western USA tours during this period and then to make it even worse, Amtrak changed the days the tri-weekly DESERT WIND and quad-weekly CZ ran a second time--forcing us to do it again! Understandably not a few clients cancelled their tours. Matt's summary follows:
 
"In response to Mercer’s recommendations, Amtrak closed 4 routes, truncated 6 routes, and reduced the frequency of service on 11 additional routes, primarily from daily to three to four times per week, during fiscal year 1995. Amtrak also introduced the Piedmont route (between Raleigh and Charlotte), supported by North Carolina, and the Mount Baker International train (between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada), supported by Washington State.
 
These route and service changes resulted in a 13-percent reduction in the total miles that Amtrak trains traveled from fiscal year 1994 to fiscal year 1996 and $54 million in cost savings in fiscal year 1995. However, during fiscal year 1996, Amtrak’s overall ridership dropped by 1.1 million passengers, or 5 percent, and anticipated reductions in operating costs were not realized on routes with reduced frequency of service. Amtrak officials told us that these problems occurred because (1) while passengers affected by frequency reductions generally adjusted their travel plans to conform with Amtrak’s more limited service in 1995, this rider behavior did not continue into 1996; (2) management did not cut costs as much as planned; and (3) less-than-daily service caused less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems."
 
Here's a link to the Railway Age article.https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/intercity/amtrak-slashing-service-will-it-be-permanent/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=15846
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Posted by BaltACD on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 5:45 PM

Nominally - Penn Central before Amtrak tactics.  Make it so horrible and ineffective that you kill any possible demand for service.

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Posted by GERALD L MCFARLANE JR on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 7:25 PM

Here's another way to look at it, by making the changes effective October 1, which is the beginning of the next Federal fiscal year they are giving Congress a chance ro appropriate enough money to continue daily service after that date.  There's enough lead time between now and then for travel to rebound sufficiently that they'll have enough passenger volume to sustain daily service in the LD corridors.  Now that's a very optimisitic viewpoint, but it is conceivable..except for the part of Congress appropriating enough money in next years Budget, unless someone realizes that to jump start the economy we'll have to exceed prior year spending levels in ALL departments.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Thursday, June 18, 2020 9:09 AM

Also, it is kind of a shake down for the states.   On State Corridors where the LD trains run by eliminating the LD frequency on the specific state corridor, Amtrak can charge the state a larger portion of the Corridor costs (since their is no Federally subsidized run on a specific day) and hence bring in more money that way.    I suspect this might be the larger goal as well.   Reduce Amtraks state corridor contribution by reducing the LD train foot print.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Friday, June 19, 2020 9:17 AM

BaltACD
Nominally - Penn Central before Amtrak tactics.  Make it so horrible and ineffective that you kill any possible demand for service.

Except in this case Congress is a business partner and starting to push back.   We'll see if this ever comes about.   Congress made the statement that the current microwave meal service on LD trains is unacceptable and will change.   Time will tell if that is just talk or there is a future change in plans.

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Posted by Overmod on Friday, June 19, 2020 10:05 AM

CMStPnP
Congress made the statement that the current microwave meal service on LD trains is unacceptable and will change.   Time will tell if that is just talk or there is a future change in plans.

This is more of the 'Anderson strategy' regarding how you use child-psychology techniques on a Congress that passed a strict full-profitability mandate on Amtrak 5 years ago.  If "Congress"critters don't like how the profitability is being achieved, they can either emend the mandate or carefully specify what Amtrak can or must do differently.

A reduction to tri-weekly speaks very specifically -- at least it does to me -- of careful political gaming.  Amtrak staff is almost certainly aware of the problems coordinating triweekly service on connecting routes ... and problems with trains being chronically late even with the freight reductions attributable to COVID-19.  I see this as a kind of political theatre: "See?  We're cutting costs to fit the revenue reduction caused by things like shelter-in-place and reluctance of much of 'our clientele' to travel [I'd have trouble saying with a straight face it's a result of social distancing concerns].  So if you don't want the scale back 'and all that implies' ... change the conditions of the mandate or else acknowledge that we shouldn't cut all services back as proposed."

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Posted by York1 on Friday, June 19, 2020 10:48 AM

CMStPnP
Except in this case Congress is a business partner and starting to push back.   We'll see if this ever comes about.   Congress made the statement that the current microwave meal service on LD trains is unacceptable and will change.   Time will tell if that is just talk or there is a future change in plans.

 

You're right. 

Anderson gets the blame, but he was only doing what Congress demanded in the first place.  Congress was the group that ruled that the dining costs had to break even by the end of 2020.

If changes are going to be made, Congress is the one in charge of those changes.

York1 John       

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Posted by daveklepper on Friday, June 19, 2020 11:09 AM

All who advocate any continuance of long-distance USA passenger serfvice should write Congresspersons and Senators stating the simple fact that

No outsourcing and break even and decent meals as a package is an impossibility.

For meals to be decent, they either have to be part of a large meal provider's  business, meaning either Amtrak enters the stationary restaurant busines with take-out and home delivery, or the meals must be outsourced.

Otherwise, the meals must be subsidized to be decent.

That is a simple fact.  And here is no denying the physics and econmics of the situation.

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Posted by charlie hebdo on Friday, June 19, 2020 11:18 AM

Lost again the discussion is a pertinent fact.  Who uses the Amtrak LD sleepers and dining car?  People with the financial means to pay for unsubsized "decent" meals and sleeping accommodations are,  for the overwhelming part,  those users.  I see no rational reason why that component should be subsidized by taxpayers.  Subsidize the running of the train but not these extras. 

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Posted by BaltACD on Friday, June 19, 2020 6:55 PM

The face of Congress may change in November to installed in January 2021.

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Posted by charlie hebdo on Friday, June 19, 2020 7:30 PM

BaltACD

The face of Congress may change in November to installed in January 2021.

 

I wonder who those demanding subsidized sleepers with free,  quality dining will vote for in November? 

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Posted by Gramp on Friday, June 19, 2020 10:38 PM

A thought. The reporting says Amtrak isn't touching the AutoTrain, that it's holding its own. I can see that the AT could be looked on as being safer. 
(Friends coming back here to Wisconsin from Florida this Spring have told me they've driven straight through because they didn't trust staying in a hotel en route). 
Now if Amtrak would take some sleepers, a diner, and a lounge car from its to be laid up LD trains along with some autocarriers, run them reliably overnight from the southwest Chicago outskirts to a little east of Dallas (no intermediate station stops, no big city terminals). I know I would use it. I would prefer not to fly now. It's too far to drive the distance comfortably in one day. There's a lot of population in Texas and Northern Illinois/Wisconsin/Michigan with community of interest between the two regions. 

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Posted by daveklepper on Saturday, June 20, 2020 3:45 PM

I agree that meal service should at least brake even, and outsourcing is essential for this to happen.  My station restaurant scheme is probably the best solution.

I agree that the incremental cost of sleepers should be covere by fares, and their populatiry indicates that this is certainlyl possible on at least some routes.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Monday, June 22, 2020 12:26 PM

charlie hebdo
I wonder who those demanding subsidized sleepers with free,  quality dining will vote for in November? 

Personally I have never voted for a candidate based on Amtrak anything.    In my view for two reasons.    I feel Amtrak is a local (state by state) vs National issue.   I could care less if the LD trains are all discontinued.    However, I do agree with Anderson that there is a way to run them right and some of them could be far less money losers or might even break even or better if run correctly.    I am willing to pay much more for sleeper space with a much enhanced product and my feeling is that Amtrak is giving away sleeper space at bargain basement prices now, only because it does not have the corresponding service or perks that it should.

The Anderson split of Dining Car for sleeping car passengers only and Lounge snack bar for coach passengers makes absolute sense to me as a method of differentiating first and second class more (ie: future price jump comming for sleeper).   Problem is the Superliners were designed as making rail travel affordable to the masses and the few perks they used to have have been stripped by earlier Amtrak managements.    They definitely need a new sleeping car design with a lot more perks in order to charge more.   Specifically more space for a Deluxe Bedroom which is rather crampt right now and more features to go with that bedroom.

Now what I find interesting is the recent modification of the sleeper I rode to Chicago recently where they put in more first floor luggage space and removed the Family room (I believe it was the Family Room).    Rather interesting as it implies the baggage car and checked baggage might be next to go and potentially offered as a add-on via red caps carrying your luggage to your sleeping car?   Smart move if that is next.

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Posted by blue streak 1 on Monday, June 22, 2020 11:05 PM

It certainly appears that Amtrak wants to  kill LD travel..Why not have the Meteor make the Tampa RT on its days when the star does not run ?  Tampa has more passengers to / from there to SE  Florida than are carried whole number from Atlanta .

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