U.S., Commentary: Thoughts about Passenger Rail while sitting at home

Note: This commentary is provided by Russ Jackson, the venerable retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review. – corridorrail.com Editor

By Russ Jackson; April 9, 2020

Here it is:  April 9, 2020, and the whole country, as well as Amtrak and the transit providing agencies, waits to see what happens next.  All of us can and must hope that all is well with those who read this!  Everything is ok at our house so far.  Let’s see what’s going on that we can comment about.

Amtrak.  Congratulations to Amtrak for continuing to run trains during this epic time in our country’s history!  The NEC has cut back its frequencies, with only 10 daily trains including three of the north-south long distance trains which also now carry regional passengers.  All of the expensive-to-run Acelas were dropped because no one was asking to ride them.  Those passengers likely were work-at-home types who were doing just that. 

What we have been most impressed by is all the western long distance trains are still running, albeit with shorter consists.  Only the California Zephyr has had a disruption, because there were not enough qualified employees not under quarantine to run trains 5 and 6, so they were discontinued west of Denver. Otherwise the flag is still flying out here, and although the trains run with few passengers, at least the service is available to those who need it.  Bob Johnston, writing in Trains magazine this week reported that overall bookings are down 95%, with 98% down in the NEC, and state-supported service off 93%.  The long distance trains are down 87%, which also is an indicator of how much these trains are needed compared to the fickle corridors. 

There’s been more encouraging news at Amtrak, too, with the new CEO William J. Flynn taking over from the departing Richard Anderson.  While each new Amtrak CEO is an unknown quantity, the initial read on Flynn is he has many professional and personal qualifications that many of his 12 predecessors did not have.  For one thing, his family has vast experience in passenger and freight rail as working-level employees.  Plus, in Bob Johnston’s report of an hour-long “town hall” for employees held on Friday, April 3, his personality came through.  RailPAC’s veteran VP James Smith noted Flynn’s personal story as being very impressive, “I was 7 during the recession of 1960-1961,” Flynn said,  “Dad was a locomotive fireman on the New Haven and was furloughed for 5 or 6 months.  He took a job at the post office during the Christmas rush — I do remember that time.  So when I say our goal (at Amtrak today) is to have no involuntary furloughs, I mean it.” 

Regional providers.  Also encouraging has been the attempt by local agencies to continue service during this trying time.  In California service has been reduced and justifiably so.  BART is down to half hourly service on all lines and runs only from 5 am to 9 pm.  The Capitol Corridor now runs four round trips from Sacramento to San Jose and one from Sacramento to Emeryville, down from the 15 trips on a normal schedule.  San Joaquins have dropped two round trips.  The Surfliners and Metrolink are down to service only every two hours or so.  RailPAC’s Noel Braymer, editor of the weekly e-newsletter, rode on Saturday from LAX to Oceanside and said there were only 30 people on board at any time.  Here in Texas, DART, the TRE, TexRail, and the Denton County A-Train have all cut back, but are still running.  The latter runs hourly service in each direction on its 21 mile line, with a memory schedule from 6 am to 9 pm weekdays and a shorter schedule on Saturdays.  An A-Train conductor told us today he had only 6 passengers on board.

Comments.  Ah, you knew I had more to say than report the positive news.  For one thing, although the freight railroads are maintaining shipping of needed goods they continue to implement the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) that reduces operating expenses and capital investments.  The result is railroads like the Union Pacific are running fewer but much longer trains.  The effect of that on Amtrak can be seen along the Sunset Route between San Antonio and El Paso,Texas, where nearly every movement of Amtrak 1 and 2 is delayed anywhere from one to four or more hours because one or more freight trains have been dispatched on the single track where they are too long to fit into the few available passing tracks.  Plus, the UP is doing construction work, rebuilding the line.  The Sunset Limited is then stuck waiting for all the freight trains to pass.  I know, as I saw it happening on recent trips. 

We can only hope that the really qualified new Amtrak CEO, William J. Flynn, lives up to the glowing comments we have about him above.  By the time you read this he will be in office.  We hope that he dismisses the second in command he is inheriting, Stephen Gardner, who has been pushing Anderson’s agenda of cutbacks to minor items that make passenger train travel so attractive and the disastrous attacks on the long distance trains.  During the current emergency, on-board Dining cars are permitting seating at any open table, not jamming people into one booth if there is plenty of room in the car.  We hope that minor thing continues in the future plans.  Small item?  Yes, but to riders it is important and can be a decision point for coming back again.  We could make a big list of similar items, but other than mention that the menus should contain BLTs as we have suggested in the past we will wait to expound on other things for another time.  For one thing, though, we quote former Amtrak executive Brian Rosenwald (the “father” of the revamped Coast Starlight), who told Trains magazine, “Dining Car prices are completely bizarre…when you consider the Coach customer is the only one that is actually going to pay.”

We remind you, and Amtrak’s new administration, of some statistics that Andrew Selden published in the current issue of MinnARP News.  “The most important numbers from, and about, Amtrak from last year are these:  NEC 1.989, Regional (Corridor) 1.922, and Interregional (long distance)  2.450.  These are the number of annual revenue passenger miles (in billions) produced by Amrak’s three business units in FY’19.  The latter substantially out-produced the entire NEC and all the Regional corridors alike.”  One “rider” with a ticket from Irvine to San Juan Capistrano on a Surfliner counts the same as one “rider” from Los Angeles to Kansas City when “ridership” statistics are published, but the amount of revenue per rider to Amtrak is very different. 

So, what are you doing during the shutdown?  Yes, it’s hard to just sit at home when you want and need employment and a regular paycheck.  These days will surely pass; the question now is when and how much will be restored.  We wish all of you railroaders, railfans, and retirees well in the coming days.  One thing this retiree has “found,” is watching my collection of rail videos makes a great way to pass the time.  The other day I pulled out a great one, “Daylight…the most beautiful train in the world.”  It was on-camera narrated by actor Michael Gross, and featured one of our favorite people, the late Art Lloyd.  We miss Art, one of the best spokespersons passenger rail ever had.  The great scenery of the California Coast Route on the video is outstanding.  One day soon we will all be out riding again because we need to or want to.  Because of the actions that Amtrak has taken during this epidemic we are confident the magnificent long distance trains will continue…right, Mr. Flynn?

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