Commentary By Russ Jackson; October 19, 2019
Editor’s Note: Russ Jackson is the distinguished retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review. – Editor, corridorrail.com
What a summer Amtrak had! While every summer, winter, spring and fall, have been adventures in survival for America’s “national” passenger railroad, this summer of 2019 was an adventure in speculation as to what the current Amtrak administration was going to do about the long distance trains that cross “flyover country” and serve the population therein with very popular transportation alternatives. You readers all know that, and so does this writer who continues to pour out commentaries with provocative headlines like appear above. So, you ask, what’s new? Well, I’ll try to not be redundant when this summer saw an outpouring of articles about the changes ahead for these trains that have been published not only in the railfan press, but have been picked up by local newspapers, radio and TV stations, as something that made a good story and affected the area where they serve as news outlets. Amtrak’s announcement of the changes that would take place in the Dining Cars in the east starting October 1 went viral…that is, nationwide. Good publicity you say! Yes and No. Perhaps it convinced potential riders that they should ride “while they can,” as the inference was that the “experience” of eating on board might be going away.
What was really being said, of course, was the dining “experience” was changing for riders East of the Mississippi River on trains that travel one overnight on their routes. I hasten to say that the Superliner Dining Cars that ply the rails West of the Mississippi and travel two nights are NOT affected. And I hasten to add, YET. That’s the rub as we go into the new Amtrak Fiscal Year, the word ‘YET’ remains viable. Chances are readers of this article already know what those changes are but if you don’t I recommend you read almost anything that has appeared under the subject line of “Amtrak Food.” AND, I strongly suggest you read the fine articles by Andrew Selden, Dick Spotswood, and the other contributors to Railway Age, Trains, Passenger Train Journal, etc., that outline the huge mistake that Amtrak has embarked upon regarding its Food and Beverage future and the financial outlook of the railroad. Writer Graham Rapier writing for Business Insider said after his coast-to-coast trip, “A custom-cooked steak on an Amtrak train seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t.”
If the plan, as many of us fear, is to slowly, inch-by-inch diminish the quality of the passenger experience on board the trains it isn’t working yet. By all counts passenger loads on the western long distance trains are high, and the passengers are happy with their experience. A recent traveler who rode just from Barstow, CA, to Lamy, NM, (try that by air) had “many complements for staff in the dining room” when his Southwest Chief encountered a day-long delay due to a BNSF freight train derailment east of Flagstaff, “great morale builders” and his sleeping car attendant was “full of energy and enthusiasm.” This despite a bus bridge from Flagstaff to Albuquerque. Does Amtrak administration ever think about this aspect of their on board service? The food is important, and the current Superliner Diner menus are quite acceptable for the infrequent traveler even though mostly unchanged this fall.
All this leads us to speculate as to what Amtrak thinks is its future, which has now been formally stated as being with the Millennials. What about those of us who want to continue to ride and are older than dirt, to coin a phrase. By that, I mean anyone over 50. I’m a geezer at the top end of that scale after 50, but I look at fellow passengers on the long distance trains and NOT everyone riding is in “our” age group. A recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Sterile, Efficient Life of a Millennial,” by 26 year old Reineford Staffer, summed it up: “I’d love a dining car on the train…Or any chance to slow down.” Sometime just look at the Virtual Railfan sites and see who is boarding the Southwest Chief at Flagstaff or LaPlata and you will see a wide range of ages of folks who have chosen to ride, many in the Sleeping Cars, but also in the Coaches. Andrew Selden rode the Empire Builder #7 MSP to SEA: “It was completely full–four coaches and four and a half sleepers–with 350 +/- on board at any moment, and heavy turnover all across the line. I swear I did not see ANY passengers, including me, who fit (CEO) Anderson’s fantasy description. I DID see a lot of people USING the train to get somewhere. Anderson, of course, wouldn’t know that because he’s never ridden one of these western trains to get somewhere.”
So, what can we fearfully expect in the coming year? If I’m wrong I’ll lead the celebration, but Amtrak has now declared that all the Food & Beverage changes they have just made are destined to save them $2 million a year, or just $1 in every $3,450 based on the Amtrak budget. If that $2 million amount turns out to be correct (good grief, how can it not be, what with their accounting system being what it is) the next step will be to “convince” everyone that they can save a whopping amount more if they diminish the western long distance trains dining “experience” to the equivalent of what the eastern trains are doing. And, for that matter, the idea of getting rid of “unprofitable” trains may already be in the works. Have you seen the Amtrak list of western trains that they are touting as “keepers”? Notice which one is always missing from that list? You guessed it, the Sunset Limited. I know there is a grassroots organization working with local station stop communities along the Sunset Route to build support for retention of this service. I urge them to HURRY. Time is running out!
Yes, I’ve left out the continuing problem of On Time Performance. While the freight railroads and Amtrak debate who is at fault, we know it’s “all of them.” If there’s any solution, a realistic solution that is, please come forward and convince those responsible for train operations that it can be done. End of report for this time…so, until next time this writer says “keep riding, keep eating, and enjoy the experience.” And, stay alert to what might happen next as Amtrak continues to cut and is not interested in GROWTH as a way out of their problems. Leave the dining “experience” alone on the western trains!