My big, bad new Amtrak

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, May 5, 2018

Richard Anderson wants Amtrak’s national network to better serve markets (i.e., not reach big cities in the dead of night) and to recover more of the costs. As a group, the long-distance trains, by Amtrak's accounting, racked up operating losses of $500 million in the fiscal year ending last September. You can almost bet he’s looking at ways to reshuffle the deck. I’ve been doing just that myself, and challenge you to do so, as well.

The challenge is this: How would you rearrange today’s long-distance network without adding more than 700 train miles per day (that’s the same as a 350-mile round trip, the distance from Cleveland to Chicago)? You can’t touch the Northeast Corridor trains or the state-supported services. And it is a challenge. I went into this with a bunch of ideas and had to temper them against reality, because to get something, you must give up something.

EAST. Eliminate the Lake Shore Limited (New York/Boston to Chicago), the Silver Star (New York to Tampa/Miami) and the triweekly Cardinal (New York to Chicago), and convert the Capitol Limited to single-level equipment. Use the equipment from these discontinued trains to run the Pennsylvanian from New York and the Capitol Limited from Washington as full-service trains (probably three sleeping cars apiece) and combine them between Pittsburgh and Chicago. Add two daytime round trips, one Buffalo-Chicago and the other Cleveland-Chicago, eastbound early morning and early afternoon from Chicago, and westbound early morning from Cleveland and late morning from Buffalo.

Reorient the Capitol’s bilevel, full-service equipment to run between Washington and Tampa on a modified Palmetto schedule, effecting a cross-platform connection with an NEC train at Washington. The train should depart Tampa very late evening and Washington early afternoon. Add a daylight round trip between Orlando and Miami via Tampa, originating southbound early morning and northbound early afternoon. Add a fourth or fifth sleeper and a fifth or sixth coach to the New York-Miami Silver Meteor. Start a second Washington-Charlottesville-Lynchburg round trip, south in the morning, north in the afternoon. Consider converting the City of New Orleans into separate daylight trains between Chicago-Memphis and Memphis-New Orleans, possibly parking the trains overnight in Memphis, so through passengers can disembark for an evening of ribs and blues.

WEST. Run the Sunset Limited daily between Chicago and Los Angeles via Fort Worth and Midland-Odessa. Institute a daylight train between New Orleans and San Antonio and a daily turnaround train between San Antonio and Fort Worth, connecting with the Sunset in Fort Worth. Add a daylight Chicago-St. Paul service to complement the Empire Builder. Run two trains each way between Chicago and Indianapolis. Resume service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, leaving twice daily, early morning and mid-afternoon each way.

WISH LIST. I made my changes using only a few of my extra 700 daily train miles. Missing is service up Florida’s eastern seaboard north of West Palm Beach; supposedly, Jacksonville-Miami is on Brightline’s agenda. New York-Pittsburgh needs a second daylight round trip. I like the idea of a second Washington-Charlotte, N.C., train, arriving and leaving DC at roughly the times of today’s Silver Star. The morning train from Chicago to West Quincy, Mo., and the evening return trip could haul a second train set, which would run separately between Galesburg and Omaha.

RATIONALE. Besides combining a few trains, I’ve also broken routes up to offer daytime departures and arrivals. Combining the Lake Shore and Capitol by reorienting New York-Chicago service via Pittsburgh, could conceivably halve the current combined deficit of $66 million. Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-Buffalo cries for daylight service at convenient times, and now they’ll have it. Running one classy train between DC and Tampa beats two crummy trains, one of which, the Palmetto, stops short of Florida purely for operating reasons. Between Charlottesville and Indianapolis, I’m not sure the Cardinal serves much purpose, love it as I do. In the west, a daily Sunset Limited between LA and Texas is a no-brainer, and routing it via Midland-Odessa rather than San Antonio could enable a two-night schedule. Until someone starts a high-speed railroad from LaLa Land to Lost Wages, why doesn’t Amtrak occupy this ground?

Good luck designing your own Big Bad Amtrak. Remember the rules.—Fred W. Frailey

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