Editor’s Note: The following commentary is provided by the venerable retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review. – Corridorrail.com Editor
By Russ Jackson; January 27, 2020
Here we go again! Yes, we were off on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle in January for our winter trip to Southern California, wondering all the way how much if anything changed since our trip last summer. You will be happy to know the answer to that is “not much, if anything.” That’s good, and that’s sad in many ways. The good is the quality of the experience, as we reported to Amtrak on its trip evaluation form, is still excellent due largely to the high competence of the on board service crews that are assigned not only to the Texas Eagle, but also to the Sunset Limited that the Eagle connects with in San Antonio. While some employees are more energetic than others, the days of complaints about the crews are over, at least for us. The complaints we have are with the no-growth policies of Amtrak’s administration, its lack of recognition of the value of the long distance trains to its bottom line and its future, and its seeming lack of competence in working with the host railroads in the West in getting the guaranteed preference for access that is required by law.
You’ve heard about the bad on time performance of the trains lately, but our trains, 421 and 422, ran pretty much on time, which was a huge improvement over last summer. That is not always the case with Amtrak on UP in South Texas. Recently two Sunset Limiteds were delayed up to 5 hours in just the area around Del Rio, Texas, due to “freight interference.” In our case, the only delay westbound was at tiny flag stop Sanderson, Texas, where there was a medical emergency that required calling for an ambulance. That was interesting, in that Terrell County is one of the least populated in the state, with only two towns making the map. But, the ambulance showed up, the folks were taken care of, and we were released in just over a half hour. On the eastbound trip, there was one encounter with a very long UP freight that required us, not it, to wait in a siding. On the BNSF portion south of Cleburne we had to wait for the passage of a very slow moving short freight train for about the same time before arriving back in Ft. Worth. We were lucky, remembering our having to ride a bus from San Antonio to Ft. Worth due to UP incompetence last summer. Our 421 attendant told us the number of passengers in the two Texas Eagle through-cars was at 80% of capacity, and the Sunset Limited Sleeping car was the same. Eastbound train 422 was somewhat less, as we were the only occupants of an Eagle deluxe bedroom leaving LAUS, and only two others were booked along the way. There was only one Coach car on the Sunset Limited, rather than two we have seen in the past. Our Sleeping car on 421 had the new LED lighting in it, in its hallways, and it was “one of the cleanest cars I’ve ever had,” according to our attendant.
Have you been to Los Angeles Union Station lately? We noticed the on-going work to make the place look better, and they are succeeding in doing so. Lighting, the track canopies, the patios, etc. look great and with the new seating arrangement in the waiting room that requires passengers to have a ticket in order to wait there. The absence of homeless squatters is duly noted. The return of the Traxx Restaurant was not only noted, but patronized by us along with three veterans of our RailPAC group that extends back up to 40 years: Noel Braymer, Paul Dyson, and James Smith. The meal was excellent, the choices are fewer but very enticing, the service was very good, and the prices are reasonable! Welcome back, Traxx! We found the Metropolitan Lounge to be a popular location for first class travelers, just as we have in the past. Procedures for holding baggage up there vary from employee to employee, but it is the place to be before departing LAUS on a long distance train.
Now let’s go on board the trains and discuss their food service. You knew I’d get there eventually. I can make a flat statement that the food and the service on board our trains were excellent with no fear of contradiction. We were on board for 8 meals total. You may remember my saying in the past that my favorite is the Angus cheeseburger, and it still is. The flat iron steak was done just as I like it, but with a plastic knife it was more difficult to cut. Last year we had regular steak knives, so did those disappear? The fresh-made breakfast pancakes were superb! What had changed since last summer was the “At Your Seat” meal choice for Coach passengers is no longer available. On our western train the LSA in the Dining Car came on the PA after lunch to offer his five leftover Baked Chilaquiles ($13.50 list) for $10 each, so passengers would not have to buy from the “Burrito Lady” at the El Paso station. He sold all of them, but it didn’t appear to affect the sales at the El Paso station, including to many of the crew. After dinner he offered four leftover roasted chicken dinners ($18.50) and sold all of them at a reduced price presumably to Coach passengers. Was he supposed to do that? We commend that LSA for his ingenuity that brought in some additional revenue and reduced wasted food disposal at the end of the trip! Anyway, it is a pleasure to report to you that the quality of the on board dining experience on the western Amtrak long distance trains remains not only high but is something for Amtrak to advertise and be proud of. Why aren’t they doing that? Yes, I am leading up to contrasting Amtrak’s “Traditional Dining” with what is going on with Amtrak’s eastern long distance trains and their “Contemporary Dining” debacle.
In December Andrew Selden, who we all have known as the “Dean of Amtrak Critics” for many years, rode the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited from Massachusetts to Chicago, then transferred to the Empire Builder to return home in Minnesota. In an article titled, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” published by Railway Age, we discovered the truth of what that eastern experience is for first class passengers on those trains. Selden said, “There is absolutely nothing ‘First Class’ in ‘Contemporary Dining.’ Lavishing free food and adult beverages on the expense account swells commuting to New York in First Class on a 90-minute trip on Acela, while trashing the meal service for the highest fare-paying passengers embarked upon days-long trips on the interregional trains, emphasizes just how far out of touch with the actual business of the company the leadership is. They have everything backwards.” Is it designed to drive off first class passengers? That might work. For example, on his trip Mr. Selden and his wife sampled two meals and provided Railway Age with photos of them. Mrs. Selden called her meals, “Frozen TV dinners. Mine was dry and flavorless.” The shrimp, rice and sausage offering had so much pepper it it she couldn’t finish it. It was borderline inedible. Passengers who don’t require room service are required to go to the food service car (not really a dining car anymore, even though they are using the brand new Dining Cars back there) to get their reserved box. The Selden’s LSA told them most passengers “prefer to eat in this car and only a few in their rooms.” Amtrak says they are pursuing “Millennials” with this new service, but the LSA said those people “Don’t ride in Sleepers,” and are therefore not eligible to participate in the “contemporary” dining her car offers. Selden noted, with an accompanying photo, that at 7:15 PM on their Lake Shore Limited they were the only people in the Dining Car at that very important time for dining. If you watch the westbound Southwest Chief arrive at LaPlata, Missouri, on Virtual Railfan video you will see its full Dining Car pass by and it is very busy at about the same time. Head in the sand time at Amtrak. And you are stuck with it for now. “By contrast,” the Seldens report, “dinner the next night on the Empire Builder was delightful, the car heavily used, and we enjoyed a pleasant conversation with the strangers with whom we shared the table. It was a completely different universe from 49/449.”
Have you noticed that Fred Frailey has retired from writing his monthly commentary for Trains Magazine? I will miss reading Fred’s words every month, just as I do Don Phillips, even though I didn’t always agree with what they said. Both will continue writing; Fred will be doing occasional pieces for Trains, Don is now with Passenger Train Journal, and that’s good news. Meanwhile, Bob Johnston continues to do good writing about passenger trains for Trains. In the January issue of that magazine Johnston discussed load factors, something dear to our hearts out here in the west where at times it is impossible to get a reservation because the train you want is sold out. Johnston points out the “Flexibility to add cars to long distance trains, if demand warrants, was further reduced when 18 Superliner coaches were leased to California to expand business class on Pacific Surfliner trains. Today there isn’t enough reserved space for passengers joinng at Albuquerque, despite efforts to assign specific seats from inside the station.” Have you seen the crowds of passengers turned over at LaPlayta, MO, on every train and at Flagstaff, AZ?… in “flyover country.” To its credit, Amtrak expanded consists during December into early January with one or two extra sleeping cars and coaches on the western trains except the Texas Eagle. Do you agree that with better marketing extra cars could be filled year round, yielding high extra revenue from each train? Of course! More head in the sand time “up there” at Amtrak.
Were you as pleased as I was that Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and his fellow Senators along the route of the Southwest Chief were instrumental in keeping the train the way it is supposed to be, traveling its full traditional route? We commend the groups in those states along that route who brought those Senators into the picture, and got Senator Moran to lead the charge. Now we must look at what Amtrak CEO Anderson has been saying about the rest of the long distance trains. Have you noticed that when he lists the ones he would consider retaining that the Sunset Limited is not one of them? That has not escaped the notice of the employees on that train. A group has been formed out of California and Arizona to encourage the elected officials in those states, and in New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, to be interested in preserving this historic, needed service. We wish them similar success!
Recently I wrote a letter that I hope to mail soon, (after that Impeachment thing is over). See if you agree:
Dear Senator ____________:The Amtrak CEO, Richard Anderson, is about to embarrass you and your state. Anderson’s recent statements regarding the Sunset Limited, his 100-year old national system train that goes tri-weekly between New Orleans and Los Angeles through your state, put it in his sights for either elimination or making it totally unacceptable as transportation for thousands of travelers across its route. The same situation occurred along another Amtrak route recently, and it took the leadership of Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to successfully bring Kansas and the other affected states’ Senators together in order to continue operation of the Amtrak Southwest Chief that serves thousands of riders across the middle of “flyover country.” I am calling on you to avoid the embarrassment of the discontinuance of the Sunset Limited…by taking the lead as Senator Moran did, and to get the train daily which will sharply increase its revenue. Sincerely, Russ Jackson