U.S., Amtrak at 50: Then, and Now What?

Editor’s Note: Russ Jackson is the distinguished retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review, which he contributed to and guided for decades. As you will see below, his passenger train experience pre-dated Amtrak, and for more than forty years he has worked tirelessly for its improvement. When not advocating for better passenger trains, Mr. Jackson was a well-regarded educator instructing college students on the finer points of good mass communication. He was a professor of telecommunications at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He also enjoyed a career in radio broadcasting as a Tucson, Arizona radio personality in the 1950s and 1960s on several stations prior to moving into the academic world. He and C.J. Brown co-authored a 2014 book from Arcadia Publishing, Images of America, Tucson Radio. After many years in California, he and his wife currently reside in Texas near other family.

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; March 23, 2021

Amtrak actually has survived to be 50 years old. When it started, way back in 1971, there were skeptics who predicted it would be gone in five years. But, the American public liked what it saw and returned to the rails. Were you among them? I was, although I was not the rail advocate I became in later years.

When was your first trip on a passenger train? Was it on Amtrak? In my case it was on the New York, New Haven & Hartford, back in the late 1940s when we would travel back to our home state of Connecticut to visit family, and my grandmother took us on trips to New York on the Bankers Express from Meriden to see the “big city.”

It was the early 1960s when I rode again, taking the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited from Los Angeles twice; the first time was a great trip riding in the Observation car listening to actress Lurene Tuttle talk show business with her friends who were enroute to New Orleans, and the next morning having a big breakfast in the diner before arriving in Tucson.

The next year the disappointment set in when there was no observation car, no actors or actresses in sight, the coaches had uncomfortable seats, and the food was from an automat car. My train travel almost ended then; until 1967 when my bride convinced me we should take the Santa Fe’s El Capitan to Chicago when we traveled to see her family. The two night ride in coach was “comfortable,” and it was a high quality experience.

When 1971 came along Amtrak was born in a tempest. You know the story of how it came about and what happened in those early years, as it has been retold many times. We decided to “try it,” and returned to the Hi-Level train that became today’s Southwest Chief. It was a good experience, and we have continued to ride Amtrak frequently.

One memorable 1970s trip was returning to Los Angeles from a Bay Area meeting on the low-level Coast Starlight and going to the Lounge car to watch the W.C. Fields movie, “The Bank Dick.” I became a rail advocate in 1980, joining the CRC group that has been RailPAC since 1984 and been active ever since. We celebrate what we have experienced, but that does not mean we are free of offering criticism. I tell friends I’ve been “trying to get Amtrak to grow into what it should be” and continue plugging along to do so. Recently my RailPAC colleague, Noel Braymer, who joined up about the same time, said, “We have made lots of progress, but we’re still only half way to success.” Agree?

After 50 years, in 2021 Amtrak will be celebrating, we will be remembering, and we must ask where are we compared to 1971? Well, the long distance route structure is less than then, Amtrak owns the Northeast Corridor (which it didn’t in 1971), and several states have joined in to sponsor regional corridors.

The Amtrak onboard service has evolved into a professional staff dedicated to customer service, although it took years of hiring, firing, and training, to get there. Yes, Amtrak is three-headed now: the highly productive national interregional long distance trains, the money-gulping NEC, and the overcharged state-supported corridors. Many times they don’t care much for each other.

In my experience the highlight years came when the company became three separate business units: Amtrak West, the NEC, and the “rest” of the country.

Amtrak West was highly successful under its President Gil Mallery and assistant Brian Rosenwald, who put the hugely successful Pacific Parlour Car on the Coast Starlight. Gene Skoropowski was developing the Capitol Corridor. All of the amenities that were tried back then, including trying 24 hour dining on the Sunset Limited in its early days of Coast to Coast running, have vanished into the huge hole called the Northeast Corridor, which gobbles up every spare dime and uses strange accounting to charge the long distance routes for some NEC expenses while burying its unmet needs for deferred maintenance.

By now you know that the long distance trains will return to daily service … except for the Sunset Limited and Cardinal which continue to be tri-weakly because “they have been so historically.”

From Trains magazine’s Bob Johnston we learned on March 11 that “Amtrak wasted no time in complying with the marching orders from Congress in the just-passed economic stimulus legislation, immediately announcing the restored service would begin May 24, May 31, or June 7, depending on the route.” That is a positive move by Amtrak, but I commend them for the quick action, which deprived critics of the need to prod them into action. It’s possible Amtrak was going to do it anyway, responding to the constant barrage of criticism people like us have thundered since last summer.

The pandemic actions taken by Amtrak were unproductive, so it is with great relief they are returning to be the service provider they were, and hopefully will get the idea that continuing a pro-growth philosophy is what is needed for them to survive. Bob Johnston also reported Amtrak told him that “forward load factor bookings are ahead for this summer.” Watching the VirtualRailFan cameras it’s easy to see that ridership is there! Amtrak said it is “going back into diversified media channels such as radio and television that we had de-emphasized in recent years,” according to Johnston. Like the old sayings, “you have to spend money to make money,” and “you have to keep letting potential customers know you are there, when you are there, and what you offer.”

How bad has it been? Well, let’s look at California’s Capitol Corridor for instance, one of the very successful state-supported corridors. Managing Director Robert Padgette, reported that in February 2021, it “continues to experience relatively low ridership due to the ongoing pandemic.” During February they “experienced a slight increase compared to January, and we are optimistic about the future of our service. The additional Federal support puts us on a solid financial footing to be able to slowly rebuild. We plan to reopen cafe service in the coming months.”

And that brings us to the other element of Amtrak travel that has deteriorated in recent years: the onboard dining car service. Perhaps going to box meals was justifiable from a narrow financial perspective, but certainly not for a traveler’s positive experience. According to Bob Johnston, “Amtrak plans to restore ‘traditional’ dining car meals with the return of daily frequencies,” which he was told by Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer. If that takes place, and it is full restoration not just a partial one, that is a plus … but, all it does is bring them back to where they were. Where do we go from there?

If Amtrak thinks restoring service just to the levels they offered before 2020 will make rail advocates like us happy, they have another think coming. Can they continue to sell the false idea that the NEC is “profitable?” The Congress doesn’t think so, neither do we, and we will continue to call the Northeast Corridor names such as “Never Enough Cash,” or “Never Ending Crisis.”

Instead of working to grow its super productive national system of long distance trains they are only touting the ideas of new corridor services, which of course must be financially supported by the states in which they will run, but must also be approved by the freight railroad on which they will run.

An example is the Gulf trains that would go from Mobile to New Orleans twice daily. As Andrew Selden said, “This is a service that Amtrak has the legal authority and money to start up on its own, if it thought it made any commercial sense to do in the first place. The railroads would not be putting up much of a fuss over infrastructure enhancements if what we were discussing were a New Orleans-Port of Mobile stack train on a guaranteed schedule.”

The same fuss is brewing in Montana where the state wants Amtrak to restore service to its southern tier cities. Wait until the infrastructure costs are announced.

Speaking of the NEC, did you notice that 2/3 of the stimulus money in the current bill goes there? To restore what? Ridership there is horrible. The national trains get 1/3, but how much will actually end up there except for restored daily service and rehiring employees, as great as that is. As Selden said, all this money is for the year that ends October 1. What then?

To wind up this jaunt down memory lane, I quote from a recent article by Bruce Richardson on Corridorrail.com: ” ‘Settle for More’ desperately needs to be the watchwords for supporters of passenger rail in the U.S. These three words should be a clarion call for people who want to ride passenger trains to stop settling for the half-a-century of myriad excuses as to all the things Amtrak can’t do instead of doing the right things to expand passenger rail. Amtrak can do better; it must do better. Accepting anything less merely guarantees an ongoing political organization which lives as a beneficiary of the generosity of others versus a robust, self-sustaining company charting its own course for the benefit of American travelers.”

Isn’t that what we have been saying for most of the past 50 years? It’s time for growth at Amtrak, not just begging. I’ll keep advocating, if all of you will. As Richardson concluded, “For all of those supporting passenger rail, settle for more, not less. Demand more.”

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