Amtrak's new look

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, December 18, 2014

You won’t have the same old Amtrak to kick around anymore, starting as soon as tomorrow. That’s when the first 18 Viewliner baggage cars arrive in Hialeah, Fla., near the Miami Airport, for inspection and acceptance. Hialeah is where the single-level long-distance car fleet is maintained. The baggage cars were built by the Spanish company CAF USA in Elmira Heights, N.Y., and are making their way down the East Coast as I write this. CSX Transportation has the special train P93718 scheduled to leave Washington Union Station  at 9:05 p.m. tonight, passing Charleston S.C., at 6:05 a.m. Friday, Savannah 7:50 a.m., Jacksonville 10 a.m. and Orlando 1 p.m. The special train, with specially painted P42 locomotive 42 on the front and Amtrak business cars 10001 and 10000 on the rear out of Washington, makes quite a sight.

Back to this subject in a minute, because there’s bigger news to report: Amtrak is downsizing practically every one of its long-distance trains, between January 12 and February 28 and in some instances longer. This is what railroads routinely did in pre-Amtrak days, in those times of the year when business drops off.

Several people have sent me the preliminary changes, and of course it’s subject to change and even cancellation. But here is the plan, as of last week:

Southwest Chief and California Zephyr: Each train loses its baggage car, crew sleeper, and one of the two full coaches; baggage will be handled in the combination baggage-coach. The new lineup will be two sleepers, diner, Sightseer Lounge, baggage-coach and coach. From March 1 to April 15 the baggage and crew sleeper return to the Zephyr but the coach stays off.

Empire Builder: Loses one of the two Seattle sleepers and the Seattle baggage-coach; the Portland section is unchanged.

Coast Starlight: The crew sleeper, one of three sleeping cars, the Pacific Parlour lounge and two of the four coaches get a rest through February. The Pacific Parlour and one of the coaches return starting March 1. The crew sleeper is back April 1. The former consist presumably is in place starting April 16.

Capitol Limited: It becomes a five-car train through February, minus the baggage car, crew sleeper, lounge and one of two full coaches. The new lineup will be two sleepers, Cross Country Cafe (diner-lounge), baggage-coach and coach.

Crescent, Silver Star and Silver Meteor: Each single-level train drops one of its four coaches.

Lake Shore Limited: Both the Boston and New York section drop an Amfleet coach, leaving the Boston part with one and the New York section with three.

Cardinal: Instead of three Amfleet II coaches, it will make do with two.

Palmetto: One of its four coaches gets a rest. Possibly the same fate awaits the Pennsylvanian.

No changes are planned for the City of New Orleans, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle.

This seems to me to be a good idea. It saves crew costs, equipment maintenance costs, allows preventative maintenance to be performed (according to Vice President of Operations D. J. Stadtler), and inconveniences few customers. Those trains losing their crew sleepers this winter will find six or seven sleeping car rooms blocked from sale, for use by on-board staff. My luck will probably be to try riding each of these trains and find no space available.

As for the Viewliner deliveries, about time! The 130-car order was placed in mid-2010 and initial deliveries were scheduled more than two years ago. And at that, the baggage cars are by far the easiest to build. The full order: 25 sleeping cars, 25 dining cars, 10 baggage-dormitories, and 70 baggage cars.

I can’t wait to see the new diners. I’ve eaten several times in the prototype Viewliner diner, 8400, and loved its ambience. The second, high bank of windows gives it an airy, bistro-like feel. Maybe the food even tasted better.

So after a long spell of nothing seeming to change in the look and feel of long-distance trains, things are about to happen. My wish list for Amtrak in 2015 has only two elements: A big shot of capital for the Northeast Corridor to begin to modernize, because so much begs to be done but so little happens, and a really honest accounting of NEC operating costs, because I am convinced (but cannot prove) that the rest of the system is paying for a lot of the Corridor’s costs. Interestingly, the Amtrak reauthorization legislation that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved this year tried to do both of these things. I expect it to be reintroduced in the new Congress and approved. It’s not the ideal solution, which would be for the NEC infrastructure to be separately managed and accounted for, but it’s all we presently have. — Fred W. Frailey

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