By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 22, 2022
The making of and taking of a reservation is a promise by two parties to perform. When a reservation is made at a restaurant, in a movie theater, at a hotel, for an airline flight or train trip, the person making the reservation promises to show up and claim the reservation. This may include keeping a promise or actually purchasing a ticket or prepaying for an accommodation. The promise by the party accepting the reservation is whatever was reserved will be available at a given time on a given date. In a highly simplistic form, it’s a contract between two parties expected to be honored.
Then, there is Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak. Amtrak may accept a reservation, may issue a ticket after money has changed hands and make a promise a certain space will be available on a train on a certain date. But, at some point later will decide that it’s inconvenient for Amtrak and automatically change the reservation to perhaps another accommodation or train or just outright cancel the transaction with, as Amtrak is too famous for saying, “no alternative transportation provided.”
Amtrak President and CEO Stephen Gardner’s summer of 2022 in late April is already in turmoil.
In the last article in this space it was pointed out with Amtrak’s upcoming service changes that “consists are adjusted on several routes, reflecting lower expected car availability and OBS workforce limitations” which means a lot of reservations and paid tickets are not being honored and a lot of plans for passengers are changing.
A recent example is a departure of the Southwest Chief over the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. It appears one of the sleeping cars has been eliminated, and passengers are being moved into what space is available in the single remaining sleeping car.
Let that sink in for a moment: A Fourth of July departure – during the busiest travel season of the year – with prices for sleeping car space in the stratosphere, and a sleeping car is being eliminated because of perhaps an upcoming shortage of equipment or the availability of a car attendant. This is a decision being made over 60 days out from the departure date; in over two months a car cannot be prepped for service and an attendant found to staff that car?
What this amounts to is a cancerous failure of current management to forecast, plan and execute a simple function Amtrak has previously been doing for over half a century.
As said before in this space, this is either total management incompetence or deliberate sabotage of the long distance/inter-regional national network.
Also as said before, Amtrak STILL has a legal obligation under its original charter to operate a national system of trains including inter-regional routes beyond disconnected shorter corridors.
Other examples of Amtrak dysfunction for the summer of 2022 include (as previously reported) the Silver Meteor not operating until September even though the train had been sold on Amtrak’s website and multiple passengers had to be accommodated on other trains or were simply told no travel was available.
Amtrak apparently can’t run the Silver Meteor because it can’t find and teach enough employees to operate the train. The Meteor’s main crew base is Miami; the most heavily populated part of the third most populous state in the nation. Really? In the multiple millions of residents who live in or near South Florida Amtrak can’t find and train a handful of people to run the Silver Meteor?
The Crescent and the City of New Orleans had a slightly better fate: they are still operating five days a week, but anyone who made reservations for the anticipated daily operation are out of luck.
These are contracts made in good faith by passengers, but not honored.
Other summer of 2022 unpleasantries include the Crescent operating without a dining car; both sleeping car and coach passengers being fed out of a café car, similar to the Cardinal. The Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle continue to operate without a Sightseer lounge car, and with too-small, too-limited consists.
As an aside for a question which should be asked constantly, why is the Cardinal, which traverses some of the most stunning scenery east of the Mississippi River and serves major cities such as Cincinnati and Indianapolis, still operating only three days a week, and with a consist so small it’s constantly sold out in advance? What exactly is Amtrak management afraid of if this train at least becomes daily with a proper consist?
Because of the lack of daily (or, no trains) in some areas, even more so the infamous moniker of “you can’t get there from here” by Amtrak is even more in force. Even though Amtrak in the past few years has not been “connection friendly” for passengers wishing to travel over multiple routes on the same journey, the loss of many same-day connections this summer because of trains not operating makes Amtrak travel for some an impossibility.
How much already-banked revenue and good will is Amtrak happy to cancel?
The summer months will see some returning state-subsidized regional trains as well as some new short corridor trains, again paid for by states. But, wait … if Amtrak is so short of crews for the inter-regional trains, how can they find personnel to run these new frequencies and routes? Perhaps the answer is – as has always been true – that Amtrak can always find equipment and employees to do things they want to do, but never can seem to find the same resources for things outside forces ask them to do.
What is Stephen Gardner’s end goal? If it’s the elimination of the national inter-regional system by a death of a thousand cuts, the process is well underway. If the goal is to discourage as many passengers as possible through high prices, inferior service, lousy connections and rattle-trap equipment, then that process is well underway, too. If the goal is to simply keep Amtrak on a life-support system so there is an endless-available subsidy for the Northeast Corridor and a no-choice support of the nefarious Amtrak Connects new state-supported corridors scheme, then that process is moving along, too.
As long as Amtrak’s True Believers think that supporting Amtrak at any cost is worth it, today’s unsatisfactory and unacceptable conditions will continue. Until there is such a hue and cry raised, Congress will throw money at Amtrak, think they have done their job, and ignore how it is being spent.
More and more members of Congress must become personally invested in passenger trains. Of the 535 voting members of the House and Senate, how many of them have traveled on Amtrak other than to go to a congressional conference somewhere on or near the NEC? Have ANY of them taken a vacation trip on Amtrak? Have any of them – absent the current denizen of the White House – regularly used Amtrak and understand the overall utility of passenger train travel?
The freight railroads all maintain executive trains; most of them mimic pre-Amtrak premier trains or better, and they often in the past have hosted some members of Congress – and, more importantly their congressional staffs who actually do the basic work – and show them their railroad as it relates to whatever legislation they are concerned about.
It’s hard to remember a time when Amtrak has done this other than the rare demonstration train for a far-off proposed new route such as has recently taken place in Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But, don’t be fooled: it was the Kansas City Southern executive train which was used for this inspection trip; not Amtrak equipment.
Stephen Gardner’s summer of 2022 plans are not in the best interest of passengers; they reflect a management that is not only indifferent, but apparently hostile to growing a national system as defined and demanded in Amtrak’s charter document.
Plus, why are the unions representing Amtrak employees not squawking loudly about these trains not operating? It was their members laid off and then apparently either found other work outside of the industry or retired. That means fewer union members. More trains mean more professional, union staff in good paying jobs.
Someone needs to call a truce in the war on passengers. They mean no harm. They just want to enjoy the experience of convenient, comfortable, easy travel by train, as decreed by Congress over 50 years ago.