By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 17, 2021
The lowly, lonely baggage car. It’s either choking on diesel fumes right behind the locomotive or it’s the wagging tail of the train, rocking from side to side from last-car-of-the-train sway.
In good times it’s swept out every now and then; in the worst of times it’s swept out every few years. It has no climate control; the weather outside determines the temperature inside. Most likely all of the overhead lights work, but there’s no guarantee of that.
In these modern times a new generation of Viewliner baggage cars have taken to Amtrak’s rails. Most likely all of the side loading doors still easily work, but there is no guarantee. The new Viewliner baggage cars do feature special racks for transporting bicycles.
The baggage masters/assistant conductors/conductors who perform the lonely work in the baggage cars at station stops and terminals perform the same rituals every day. Baggage is taken aboard and carefully grouped for upcoming stations where it will be offloaded into the hands of local station agents or baggage handlers at larger stations.
In non-pandemic times the baggage car often is the vehicle for moving Amtrak Package Express shipments, from an oversize envelope to larger boxes weighing up to 50 pounds. Many baggage cars have had the solemn duty at some point of transporting human remains to a final destination.
Lesser-informed passenger railroad managers consider baggage cars to be a financial drain and a nuisance. They believe baggage cars lengthen station dwell time because of loading and unloading. They believe baggage cars add to the costs of operations because of car mile/car day maintenance costs. And, they believe passengers should limit themselves to a reasonable amount of baggage for traveling; after all, airlines discourage excess baggage, so why shouldn’t Amtrak?
Those folks really don’t understand the business they are in and the result is bad policies and bad outcomes.
In reality, baggage cars have been around since the earliest days of trains when passengers used a combination of carpet bags, heavy leather suitcases and steamer trunks for carrying their clothes and other possessions when traveling. Since even from the earliest days passenger train cars were designed for maximum efficiency in terms of per inch rather than per foot, the inexpensive, unheralded, often-needing-a-wash-inside-and-out baggage car has been a huge contributor to passenger trains. In order to provide a comfortable space, passenger cars could not/can not allocate a lot of space for baggage. Baggage carried onboard rides for free (although that may change [cringe]); baggage in the baggage car after a limit is reached rides for pay.
Baggage cars in actuality provide an amenity for passengers, and amenities are few and far between. Plus, the amenity of a baggage car generates revenue from excess baggage fees, from package express fees in non-pandemic times, and, in some cases, special carriage deals. On the southbound Coast Starlight at one time fresh flowers were loaded onto the baggage car in Salinas, California and shipped to Los Angeles. This required no extra station employees, no extra train and engine crew employees, and no extra equipment. It only required loading time in Salinas. Good revenue.
It’s important in an era where Amtrak managers are rewarded for saving budget money but not rewarded for bringing in new revenue to understand amenities such as baggage cars and the ability of passengers to check excess baggage is considered a good perk and welcomed by passengers. It’s all part of an overall package of what makes passenger train travel desirable.
The lonely, sometimes unloved baggage car. Instead of viewing it with scorn, it should be viewed – and maintained – with warmth and affection. It brings in revenue, provides a necessary buffer between locomotive exhaust fumes and diesel horns at grade crossings and passengers in the forward cars, or eliminates tail-end sway for the passengers in the last revenue car of the train. Either way, it’s not a necessary evil but a necessary amenity and valuable contributor to passenger train successes.