U.S., Amtrak: Sabotage!? Why Are Southwest Chief And Other Train Consists Designed For Failure?

By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; September 7, 2021

Under federal (and many states’) law it is a crime, often a felony, to sabotage or tamper with railroad property with the intent to (or with reckless disregard towards) causing damage or injury to persons or property.

But apparently it is perfectly fine for management of a railroad to operate it in a manner that stifles its economic prospects and prevents growth. Pre-Amtrak, the management of a few railroads did just that to drive away passengers. The Southern Pacific famously took dining and café cars off the Sunset Limited and replaced them with vending machines. There was a story, possibly apocryphal, that the Soo Line furloughed its car cleaners. Other companies reportedly understaffed their booking offices to limit ticket sales. Milwaukee Road scheduled trains asymmetrically and at awkward times.

Keep in mind that during and (today) coming out of the COVID epidemic, the only Amtrak trains that people used and came back to in significant numbers were the inter-regional (“long distance”) trains, long despised by management. The short-distance corridor trains so mindlessly favored by management collapsed, and still have not recovered; ridership is still down well over 50% on all short corridor trains. Not so with long distance trains, from Auto-Train to the California Zephyr, which are running sold-out this summer (at least in sleepers), turning away frustrated prospective customers by the hundreds and leaving on the table huge amounts of uncollected fare revenue. This performance humiliates executives who constantly disparage the inter-regional routes.

An outside observer could easily conclude that Amtrak has begun a quiet campaign to discourage or even prevent use of its long distance train services in the inter-regional corridors, to cap sales and ridership, and stifle growth, with the ultimate intent of eliminating long-distance trains altogether. Management says with its actions and sometimes its words that these trains have no future, despite their stellar performance. And if this is not the case, how would it look any different if it were?

A case in point is the Southwest Chief (“SWC”), Trains 3 and 4, between Chicago and Los Angeles via Kansas City, Albuquerque and Flagstaff.

This summer, Amtrak has seen fit to operate the SWC with a minimalist consist of only two sleepers (one of which has six of its 14 Roomettes removed from inventory and used for crew accommodation), two coaches (one often a coach/baggage, with no downstairs seating), a diner (for sleeper passengers only), a lounge car, and a baggage car. This is a train that is structured to fail for the simple reason that even if it runs full every day it is so small a train that it cannot generate enough revenue to sustain itself.

Amtrak made clear five years ago that it wanted to be rid of the SWC. Blaming deteriorating track between La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico, Amtrak proposed to run a coach-only train from Chicago to western Kansas, with a 12-hour bus bridge to Albuquerque and a coach-only train between Albuquerque and Los Angeles. This western “Palmetto” farce might have generated bus-load levels of ridership, but it couldn’t have survived a year, and would then have been easy to discontinue altogether “because no one is using it.” And they were serious about it, even producing a formal timetable showing the “service” with the long bus-bridge in the middle. Only furious resistance by local advocates along the route (with only token support from NARP/RPA) persuaded congress to push back, eventually ordering Amtrak to maintain the train.

But Amtrak doesn’t take well to congressional oversight, particularly when it involves service outside of the NEC. Amtrak now appears to be maintaining the Chicago-LA route only in a begrudging manner cloaked in plausible deniability, but designed ultimately to cap ridership and revenue at a sufficiently low level as to justify eventual discontinuance.

Consider the tiny amount of revenue space on the SWC. One normal coach, plus a baggage-coach, provide only about 134 seats (depending upon the exact configuration of the cars used; and, two seats are taken by the one car attendant). But the number of passengers accommodated is less than that, because a western long distance train is functionally sold out at about a two-thirds load factor due to the large number of stops and the huge number of potential origin-destination city pairs on the line, which generate a large amount of turnover along the way. (The Empire Builder turns over every seat and every berth an average of 2½ times on every trip.) A seat that is vacant at any given point has been sold to a passenger boarding downline. If 90 coach passengers are on board the meager two coaches at any given point, the train is full — sold out.

Elderly and handicapped passengers, an important part of Amtrak’s customer base, who rely on using the lower-level seats in the Superliner coach are especially harmed because the unnecessary use of a coach-baggage car (when the train also carries a normal baggage car) cuts the available number of such seats in half on every trip. “Attention seniors: Your business is not welcome here.”

A similar calculus applies in the sleepers. Six out of 14 Roomettes are removed from inventory in one car to accommodate crew (four dining car employees, one lounge car attendant, and the sleeping car attendant). That leaves only about 1½ sleepers worth of space — just 10 Bedrooms and 21 Roomettes — available for sale to passengers. Sleepers have less turnover and longer average trips than coaches, but are also functionally sold out at about a 70% load factor. (For comparison, the Empire Builder normally offers 15 Bedrooms and 47 Roomettes each trip on a route serving a smaller population than does the SWC.)

No train with as little revenue space as the Chief offers has any hope of covering its costs. On a recent trip on the Empire Builder, we observed that sell-out conditions on the train suggested that an additional coach and sleeper could easily have been filled with paying passengers. That train had 3½ sleepers (counting overflow Roomettes in the crew dorm car) and three coaches, and we know from independent analysis that the Empire Builder route generates about $15-20 million a year in free cash flow for Amtrak. But with so little revenue space, the Chief simply is incapable of doing that.

And don’t think that the top managers at Amtrak don’t know exactly what they are doing when they run impossibly short consists on the Chief. They might claim that the train attracts only that much traffic, but even if that were true (it isn’t), the correct response would be to fire the sales and marketing staff and replace them with people who believe in and can sell the company’s product.

And the sabotage of the Chief goes deeper still.

The marshalling order of the train reflects a subtle but calculated effort to run off the highest-revenue passengers. The Chief carries its sleepers at the front of the train, coupled directly to the locomotives, and trails a new CAF-built baggage car at the rear. This arrangement guarantees that sleeping car passengers will get to hear the engine’s horn all night at very close range, and that diesel exhaust fumes will enter the lead sleeper. That is a “never again” experience for many customers.

The correct marshalling order for the Chief is to place the baggage car behind the locomotives, then a crew dorm car (adding to each train’s inventory its 8 surplus Roomettes to the five freed up by moving crew out of revenue space in the sleepers, thus adding 13 more Roomettes for sale each trip), then three coaches, lounge, diner and sleepers at the rear. Anyone who travels by train would agree that a longer walk between the sleepers and the terminal at Chicago is a good trade-off for avoiding diesel exhaust fumes and listening to the train’s horn all night.

And, when was the last time you saw an ad for the Chief in any media?

Amtrak is likely to get away with its sabotage of the Chief. Few will notice or understand the implications of a ridiculously short train, incorrectly assembled, and not marketed, on a transcontinental route. Congress is less likely to intervene than with a crude attempt to kill the route outright like Amtrak tried before.

Not just the Chief is at risk from Amtrak’s sabotage. The Empire Builder, Amtrak’s most successful single train, ran with only one coach and one sleeping car on the Seattle Section through June 30th. The second Seattle sleeper didn’t re-appear until July 1, and the customary second coach never appeared this year. A transcontinental train with just one coach and one sleeper is doomed. But that is Amtrak’s not-so-subtle way of undermining its strongest trains, in its decades-long effort to abandon its inter-regional services in favor of disconnected short corridor trains.

Even the heretofore untouchable Auto Train has been shorted sleepers this summer, just as demand surged when vacationers discovered that rental cars weren’t to be had in Florida and turned to Amtrak. Amtrak turned them away.

The Texas Eagle, connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas and San Antonio, with through service three days a week to El Paso, Tucson and Southern California, runs as a four–car train. That is beyond comprehension.

A study by Passenger Rail Kansas/Oklahoma’s Evan Stair in late July showed that the California Zephyr (Chicago-Oakland via Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno, a train usually second only to the Empire Builder as Amtrak’s best-performing train) also was consistently selling out its sleeping car space in just two sleepers, even at sky-high prices. Bedrooms Chicago-California were priced at more than $2,200 in the handful of cases when one was available, and Roomettes at a breathtaking $1,100. They were sold out on nearly every trip July-September. Amtrak added zero capacity to the train.

The Zephyr operated this summer with only two sleepers and two coaches, but did have a crew dorm car, adding a net 13 Roomettes to its salable inventory on each trip. Like the Chief, the second coach was often a coach-baggage, while the train also carried a standard baggage car, eliminating half of the lower-level senior/handicap seating.

Under these circumstances, any rational management would do everything possible to add Superliner sleeping cars (and a coach) to all of these trains. But Amtrak was too busy buying new corridor trains and new Acela II high speed trains, to replace old trains that few are riding, at a combined cost of $7 billion taxpayer dollars, to add so much as a single stored Superliner from the dead line at Beech Grove to any sold out inter-regional route. And, Amtrak still refuses to order new cars to replace, and supplement, the 40-year-old Superliners. The plain implication is:  why order new cars for routes you plan to eliminate?

The effort to run off the highest-revenue passengers also extends to quietly downgrading the travel experience for passengers. Three years ago, Amtrak abruptly cancelled the highly popular Pacific Parlour Car (a sleeping car-only lounge and diner) on the Coast Starlight. This year, Amtrak removed the unstaffed, but still popular and heavily-used, Sightseer Lounge cars from trains such as the Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans and Texas Eagle.

Amtrak quietly removed route timetables even from its website. Popular Route Guides are gone, too.

Amtrak continues to serve “TV dinners” to high-revenue sleeping car passengers on eastern trains, and to deny coach passengers access to meals in the dining cars on every train. (Coach passengers typically are on board an inter-regional train over three to five meal periods.)

This inversion of commercial priorities can reflect only one thing — a deliberate effort to sabotage the nation’s highest-performing, inter-regional, routes, to set them up to fail. The inter-regional trains are still Amtrak’s biggest (by output and intercity ridership) and most commercially successful (by market share and load factor) business segment (so far). Whether they can survive management’s active hostility and distorted priorities is an open question.

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