U.S.: Happy New Year Amtrak, here we go again … and remembering John Madden

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; January 5, 2022

The new year opens optimistically just as all the previous ones have for the past 50 years of Amtrak’s existence. Rail advocates have lived with the good and the mediocre and some bad these past five decades as we work and work to get Amtrak to do what it should be doing on its own. This 2022 year ahead is no exception.

We look at the great crews that run Amtrak’s long distance trains here, not to ignore the crews on the other trains, and see a dedicated group of people who do the day to day work of running the country’s invaluable western inter-regional trains. It’s rare that complaints are filed anymore about the quality of onboard service. For the most part these trains are reliable sources of transportation and must continue to be so to serve the public along its routes where they are needed!

Yes, the long distance trains are under scrutiny. More than that, they are under fire from Amtrak headquarters. Look at the “musical chairs” that have taken place since former CEO Joe Boardman retired. It’s quite likely the turmoil at Amtrak headquarters has been a result of finding out when Stephen Gardner would finally be installed as the CEO/President, and that has now been accomplished.

The fly boys are gone…and Gardner and Board Chairman Anthony Coscia are left. Coscia’s term has expired, but the Congress has not gotten around to a replacement. Through all of the turmoil, meanwhile, the Congress has thrown a pot full of money at Amtrak and given it a list of things it wants Amtrak to do with it. Amtrak, however, has its own ideas of what it will do with it and came up with the unrealistic list of 41 Corridors it wants to build over the next 15 to 20 years. Gardner has already told Congress it “might be 18 months before any significant work begins.” That includes upgrades to Northeast Corridor projects, tunnels, and proposed new corridors.

Many rail advocates are convinced the Coscia/Gardner goal is the elimination of those pesky long distance trains that just seem to always interfere with Amtrak’s real job: losing money on the Northeast Corridor and grabbing as much money from state legislatures as they can. Never mind that the long distance trains generate the most revenue passenger miles of the system. NEC: as one rail advocate said, “I thought it stood for ‘Never Enough Cash.'” Should there be a smiley face after that? Probably, but it is too true to laugh.

So, where did 2021 end and 2022 begin “out there” on the railroad that serves us in “flyover country”?  Well, according to Evan Stair of the great Kansas-Oklahoma group of rail advocates, the Southwest Chief WAS sold out for the last two weeks of December (and probably earlier), the busiest time of the year for travel outside Thanksgiving week and summers. SOLD OUT Coaches, Bedrooms, Roomettes, and the Family Bedrooms, on every train during that time. We must ask, when did Amtrak know that sellout happened? Was it early enough to add an additional Coach? An additional Sleeper? They threw away large chunks of revenue passenger miles by keeping the train consist the same as it had been since summer. The Texas Eagle, too, ran with the same consist of 4 (FOUR) cars throughout the Holidays and is still doing so in January.

Winter weather is always a challenge for any transportation provider. Look at the airline cancellations. Amtrak cancelled some trips across the New Years weekend, including one round trip for the California Zephyr (confirmed by Mike Jensen who runs the Ft. Morgan, Colorado camera each day). Whether it was because of the weather, Covid, and/or a lack of sufficient crews being available, is unknown. But, how long can Amtrak use the shortage of crews as an excuse? Although we have survived a threat of tri-weekly for all western long distance trains already this winter will it come up again?   

Andrew Selden rightfully called it “Sabotage.” When the two-coach consists of the Southwest Chief became standard Selden pointed out in writing and in his two association of rail passenger presentations in Arizona and Wisconsin, that there was no chance that the train could ever recover its costs without additional space to sell.

That can’t be because of lack of available Coaches. This writer observed one of the Chicago-Carbondale Illinois-sponsored trains with 7 (SEVEN) Superliner Coaches. When I noticed that another train on that route was on the rails at the same time that meant 14 (FOURTEEN) needed cars were tied up.

All Surfliner consists have a Superliner Coach, the Pere Marquette and the Heartland Flyer are all-Superliner consists. Where are the baggage cars and transition sleepers that should be on the Southwest Chief, releasing Roomettes for sale that now are occupied by crew?

As for personnel hiring, what’s happened to the jobs at Amtrak headquarters? In the Reservation Centers? When this writer called in December to make our next reservation I spoke to an agent in the Philadelphia center who said he had just returned from a two week vacation (!) and had found more people working there than when he left. That’s fine, and I hope those folks will stay and be happy working with passengers who are in their initial contact with Amtrak. The same for the new workers who are hired to be out on the railroad. Speaking of Reservation Centers, RailPAC vice president James Smith tells us that the center that was closed in Riverside, California, is still empty and Amtrak still owns it.  

John Madden . . . and Betty White. The last week of 2021 brought the sad news that both of these superstars had passed away. While Betty had nothing to do with Amtrak, at least as far as we know, we assume she rode trains early in her career of brilliant comedy performances that began in the late 1930s. It was her cheerfulness and optimistic look on life that endeared her to everyone.

The same can be said for John Madden, whose career in football, broadcasting, and video games was known to everyone. His enthusiasm for what he did was always there. On radio in the Bay Area at 7:15 in the morning on KCBS, fans and folks listened to hear what he had to say. As for Amtrak, Madden rode the long distance trains to game sites early in his broadcasting career. Crews were excited when they learned he would be onboard.

Eventually, the trains couldn’t take him everywhere he needed to go fast enough, and he made a deal with Greyhound to provide him with a vehicle and driver. John rode the highways of the country, stopping for such things as look at flowers along I-80 in Wyoming or stopping at Chuy’s Restaurant on I-10 in Van Horn, Texas, which still has a display of his visits. That place is now seen by travelers who come there to watch space launches!

What both of these personalities have in common, and the universal love for them, should be an inspiration to anyone wanting to be successful. Some corporate people have it, most don’t. You must believe in yourself, your product, and enthusiastically “sell it” to the world. John Legere did that with T-Mobile. Gene Skoropowski did it with the California Capitol Corridor. Brian Rosenwald did it with the Coast Starlight. How about it, Amtrak? Believe in ALL of your product enough to get out here and let the country know what you’ve got! Mr. Gardner, we’re looking for your example to lead the way.

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