By Russell Jackson, Highland Village, Texas, Guest Commentator; January 23, 2022
The Texas Eagle is buried in the secondary of the hierarchy of the endangered species of passenger transportation, Amtrak’s long distance trains. For decades the Eagle has run daily between Chicago and San Antonio, then on three trips two cars continue to/from West Texas, southern New Mexico and Arizona to Los Angeles.
That through service quite often is more successful than the Sunset Limited that carries it. The Eagle was saved from elimination once through the work of former Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Why has Amtrak ignored and downgraded this train more than it has done to other long distance trains that serve “flyover country”? It’s because Amtrak management wants to.
Despite the mandate contained in the new Infrastructure bill to run these long distance trains daily, in January 2022 the Texas Eagle has been reduced to five days a week departures from both Chicago and San Antonio, as have all the other western trains. Will Amtrak management restore daily service to these trains? They blame lack of available trained personnel and the Covid crisis as “reasons” for these reductions. Can we trust them to recognize when the crisis has ended? Mr. Congressman, will you find out?
Someone said, “Life is like eating Artichokes, you have to get through so much to get so little.” Now we can get down to the business of what the Texas Eagle means, because right now you get so little of it. The Eagle is a vital part of the transportation picture in Texas and its potential for growth is enormous, which would come with no additional required Texas money.
Right now, the train runs with only four (4) Superliner cars. Gone are the full service dining car, Sightseer Lounge, one sleeping car, and a checked baggage car with its companion transition sleeper/crew dorm car. One sleeping car, a coach, one coach-baggage, and a “Diner-Lounge” car now are “the overnight train” between San Antonio and Chicago. Crew members inhabit five of the revenue roomettes in the sleeper and there are fewer coach seats available for sale downstairs because of the baggage section. If that isn’t telling Texas what it deserves, what would? A group called TEMPO was involved in promoting and helping to manage it, but Amtrak management abolished that group. Why was the Texas Eagle downgraded like this? Mr. Congressman, will you find out?
A recent report by a respected rail advocate about his round trip between Chicago and Dallas found, as this writer has on our recent trips between Ft. Worth, Tucson and Los Angeles, that onboard crews were doing their jobs at a higher level than had been true some years ago. Most of them like their jobs and want to continue working as long as possible; January “ridership,” normally a down time on all intercity transportation, was busy: 80% full in the available roomettes; the expensive full bedrooms were mostly occupied; coaches were 50% between St. Louis and Chicago, but less than that to Dallas. We have always found many riders south of Ft. Worth to Austin and San Antonio, with most going on to West Texas and beyond.
“The supper and breakfast experience was sad,” the rail writer reported about his January trip on the Eagle. The so-called “Flexible” dining (make that “TV Dinner”) experience continues. Fortunately, for sleeping car riders going past San Antonio the “Traditional” dining car cuisine is available in the Sunset Limited’s full service diner. All Amtrak coach passengers continue to have to either bring their own food or buy the limited offerings in the “Lounge” cars but must eat at their seats. Why is the long cherished “nothing could be finer than dinner in the diner” idea almost dead on the Texas Eagle? There is only one over-worked attendant who must prepare and hand out the TV dinners as well as wait on the coach passenger customers. Why is this situation continuing with Amtrak management’s full approval? Even Amtrak’s apologist support organization says “Good food makes better friends.” Mr. Congressman, will you find out?
Are the small communities in Texas entitled to a good transportation system they can rely on? Of course! Think of the folks in Alpine, where the Sunset Limited stops three times a week in each direction on its route between Los Angeles and New Orleans, but which offers a wide range of destinations with Texas Eagle connections up to Chicago, Ft. Worth to Oklahoma, at New Orleans, and the trains going out of Los Angeles. Those riders consider the train as important as riders in small communities do along the routes of the other long distance trains out here in “flyover country.” Will Amtrak realize how important these trains are to their important statistic of revenue passenger miles that show how valuable they are vs. the hugely expensive money-losing Northeast Corridor? Mr. Congressman, will you find out?
Amtrak has had many problems this winter, most of which could have been mitigated by management competence in the months prior to the cold months. Advocate Paul Wilson said, “They failed to keep sufficient personnel on hand to assure reliable operations, to keep sufficient rolling stock on hand in good repair, and to provide for sufficient onboard food service that’s available for all passengers on all trains.” Most important, when the capacity of a train is nearing sold-out status early enough, they fail to add cars that would enhance revenue.
In March we have reservations on the Texas Eagle from Ft. Worth to Tucson. I made that reservation in December. In January I have checked several times and found sleeping car space is sold out through March! No additional revenue space has been added, which is a deliberate attempt by Amtrak management to keep the Texas Eagle “in its place.” In the words of advocate Andrew Selden, “Has anybody thought to ask where Amtrak spent the $4 billion in extra Covid relief funding over the last two years? We know now it sure wasn’t ‘wasted’ on holding onto operating staff or equipment upkeep.” Isn’t it the job of the Congress to find out? Mr. Congressman, will you find out?
Texas Congressional District 26 is represented by the Hon. Michael Burgess, MD. In my communications with his office I have always found a responsive attitude. While Amtrak’s presence in District 26 is only the Heartland Flyer that doesn’t stop here, I will send this to him and emphasize that national Amtrak management and its Board of Directors must change to recognize the importance of not just the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, but the entire long distance service here in “flyover country.” Mr. Congressman, I know you have much on your plate these days, but I want you and your colleagues to take a hard look at Amtrak and let me know what you find! I don’t want the Texas Eagle to be an Artichoke.