By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; August 16, 2022
Editor’s Note: Mr. Selden acknowledges the original contribution to part of this article by Evan Stair, President, Passenger Rail Oklahoma and Kansas. ‒ Corridorrail.com Editor
The summer of 2022 will go down in the records of rail passenger service as the year when the national system of intercity passenger services operated by Amtrak reached a low ebb of systemwide failure, at the same time abounding in irony.
As travel rebounded strongly from the COVID epidemic, airlines struggled to handle surges of traffic, the cruise industry rebounded strongly, rental cars were difficult to find and expensive when you could, and hotel prices were at eye-popping highs, Amtrak failed completely. Several routes remained suspended entirely, trains ran with consists so short that it was a wonder they ran at all (the Seattle section of the Empire Builder ran with a single coach and a single sleeper; the Southwest Chief had but a single sleeper; the Texas Eagle in its entirety carried four cars—two coaches, a single sleeper, and a food service car; and several major trains operated with no Sightseer Lounge car).
Amtrak annulled several trips outright on extremely short notice, including round trips of the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder. On several occasions, sold-out sleeping cars were canceled out from under passengers, also on short notice, and passengers who could be reached were offered involuntary downgrades to coach; re-booking in sleeping cars on adjacent travel days were rare due to other trips’ sleepers also being sold out. This cost Amtrak large amounts of lost revenue, as sleeping car fares in peak periods can be as high as ten times the coach fare on the same train.
While all this was happening, aerial reconnaissance at the Beech Grove shops outside Indianapolis, Indiana revealed scores of Superliners and other nominally roadworthy single level cars, and many locomotives, sitting in the weeds gathering dust rather than revenue.
Seeping car passengers on eastern trains continued to suffer Amtrak’s pathetic airline “meals” while coach passengers are still banned from dining cars everywhere.
But Amtrak’s executives were busy in one specific area: they conspired to reward themselves with more than $2 million in “performance bonuses” awarded mid-summer as their business cratered. (New York Times – Amtrak Rewarded Executives With Six-Figure Bonuses as Rail Service Struggled.) This is an astonishing affront in a company that loses more than two billion dollars every year.
Passengers ‒ the victims of management’s incompetence and antipathy ‒ reacted. Social media platforms simmered with anger all summer as the tragi-comedy of Amtrak unfolded, and passengers shared stories of trips ruined. Patrons shared experiences of being bumped from sleeping accommodations to coach with little notice, even after booking months in advance. Others have spoken of trains annulled altogether.
Amtrak meets subsequent complaints with vouchers. These vouchers amount to invitations for the same unacceptable service on a future trip, the final insult and irony as passengers swear off train travel altogether in the aftermath.
This is all happening as Amtrak has failed over the past year-and-a-half to hire sufficient numbers of replacement maintenance and onboard crews. This has manifested in an acute backlog of equipment idling in Amtrak’s Beech Grove, Indiana yard, some since the summer of 2020.
Is this the nature of the labor pool? Or is this foot-dragging a result of misplaced priorities within Amtrak’s executive ranks? (Consider last month, Amtrak celebrated service expansion in the northeast [Progressive Railroading Magazine – Amtrak opens ticket sales for Ethan Allen Express service to NYC], services that on a good day carry busload quantities of passengers on short trips of 100-200 miles.)
Recall in the summer of 2020, despite warnings from former Amtrak CEOs David Gunn and Thomas Downs, Amtrak mothballed equipment and furloughed employees. This occurred just as patronage on inter-regional trains, but not the short corridor trains, began to recover from earlier pandemic declines. Messers. Gunn and Downs warned that it would be far harder to restore service once employees had dispersed into new jobs, and equipment needed to be maintained.
Many of these furloughed employees found other employment when they became concerned they would not be brought back. This exacerbated layoffs and early retirements from before the pandemic during Richard Anderson’s tenure as Amtrak CEO (2018-2020).
Rumors are now spreading about new service reductions coming this fall. Trains such as the Empire Builder, the City of New Orleans and the Southwest Chief could drop below Congressionally mandated daily service frequency. Yes, federal law now mandates a minimum of once a day service on all inter-regional routes that had that level of service before the COVID epidemic.
Recall this past February, after restoring daily frequencies in the Spring of 2021 on most inter-regional routes, Amtrak once again reduced frequencies on long distance trains to just five times a week and cancelled the Silver Meteor in its entirety. Some services across the nation have yet to be restored (Trains Magazine – Silver Meteor return, daily Crescent and City of New Orleans postponed again). This neglect violates federal law.
Section 7101 of the American Rescue Plan Act provides as follows:
SEC. 7101. GRANTS TO THE NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION. …
(b) NATIONAL NETWORK APPROPRIATION. — In addition to amounts otherwise available, there is appropriated for fiscal year 2021, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, $729,611,840, to remain available until September 30, 2024, for grants as authorized under section 11101(b) of the FAST Act (Public Law 114–94) to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.
(c) LONG DISTANCE SERVICE RESTORATION AND EMPLOYEE RECALLS. — Not less than $165,926,000 of the aggregate amounts made available under subsections (a) and (b) shall be for use by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to—
1. restore, not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the frequency of rail service on long-distance routes (as defined in section 24102 of title 49, United States Code) that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation reduced the frequency of on or after July 1, 2020, and continue to operate such service at such frequency; and
2. recall and manage employees furloughed on or after October 1, 2020, as a result of efforts to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.
A growing number of rail supporters believe we are witnessing unprecedented Amtrak incompetence, malfeasance, or both with the present Board of Directors and executive staff. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearings are necessary to hold management of Amtrak to account for their lawless and inept handling of the national network.
About the author:
Andrew Selden of Minneapolis, Minnesota is President of United Rail Passenger Alliance and Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. Mr. Selden is a retired nationally known franchise law attorney and is the author of a book and numerous scholarly articles on the subject.
In a 1998 Amtrak Board of Directors vote, Mr. Selden lost out to George Warrington to become the new CEO of Amtrak.
In January 1986 Trains Magazine published Mr. Selden’s article “How to get Amtrak out of the woods.” Editor David P. Morgan labeled Mr. Selden “The dean of pro-passenger Amtrak critics.”
The biographical information for Mr. Selden accompanying the 1986 article said, “Andrew C. Selden … graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1971… A lifelong railroad enthusiast (a painting of the running gear of a streamlined NYC 4-6-4 hangs on an office wall), he became seriously concerned with Amtrak’s future after the 1979 route cutbacks of the Carter Administration. … Selden has taken issue with Amtrak accounting procedures and management/marketing strategies in numerous privately circulated white papers. His “The High Cost of Amtrak Accounting,” a three-part analysis co-authored with. Dr. E.P. Hamilton III, a Texas professional engineer, appeared in the August/September, October, and November 1984 issues of Passenger Train Journal, and elicited a feature-length response by Amtrak Vice President-Corporate Planning and Development Timothy P. Gardner in February 1986 PTJ. Selden gratefully acknowledges the technical assistance of the Surface Transportation Systems Institute, Nordberg-Herzog & Associates, Inc. and The Balcones Group in preparation of this (1986) article for Trains.”