U.S., Amtrak History: The Financial Calamity of the First Too Small Viewliner Order and Routes That Have Come and Gone, Part Three

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 22, 2021

Amtrak is like any other company or major organization when it comes to planning: While there may be specific people in the company whose job it is to plan long range, oftentimes change comes from the people on the front line; someone may have had a brainstorm during their morning shower, someone else had an idea pop into their mind while lunching with colleagues, still another may have run across an old document which brought a new idea to mind.

And, then in the late 1990s, there was the calamity of the new Viewliner sleeping cars. Only 50 (Plus the two existing prototype sleepers) would be ordered to replace 110 Heritage fleet sleeping cars for Eastern single-level trains into Florida and the Crescent and Lake Shore Limited.

The Viewliners had 12 roomettes each for two passengers, two bedrooms for two passengers each, and one accessible bedroom for an additional two passengers, totaling 30 passengers plus a car attendant.

The Heritage Fleet sleeping cars, of which the great majority were 10/6 cars – 10 single roomettes, six double bedrooms for 21 passengers plus a car attendant occupying one roomette. There were 76 10/6 sleepers (including ADA compliant sleepers) and 25 Slumbercoaches – seven Slumbercoaches carried 26 passengers and 18 Slumbercoaches carried 40 passengers – replaced by the Viewliners.

The math says the 50 Viewliners with a total capacity of 1,500 passengers replaced Heritage and Slumbercoach sleeping cars with a total capacity of 2,498 passengers. One of the primary reasons: the decision was made to remove the Heritage Fleet sleeping cars and Slumbercoaches because they did not have retention tank sinks and toilets. Could some of these cars be retrofitted for continued use? Yes, just as the Hi-Level Fleet had retention tanks and the Heritage Fleet dining cars and lounges had retention tanks.

The single-level trains with Viewliners all sharing the “common consist” were the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Silver Palm, Crescent, and Lake Shore Limited.

The definition of the common consist was each of those trains had the exact same number of cars in the exact same order in the consist, and would be rotated between routes at New York’s Sunnyside Yards and Miami’s Hialeah Yard, the primary Viewliner maintenance base. The Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited would be rotated in Chicago.

The typical pre-common consist Heritage Fleet train in Florida service consisted of two baggage cars, three sleepers, a diner, buffet diner, lounge, and nine Amfleet coaches, totaling 18 cars. Both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star were split in Jacksonville and one section of the train traveled to Miami via Ocala and the other section to Tampa via Orlando.

The Crescent and Lake Shore Limited had similar consists; at one time the Crescent had several cars, including sleeping cars, which were switched out of the southbound consist in Atlanta, cleaned and serviced, and sent back north to New York Penn on the next train. The rest of the train continued to New Orleans.

Keep in mind at Amtrak, managers were rewarded for saving budget money; they were not rewarded for increasing revenue, load factors and ridership, so managers were constantly looking for ways to eliminate any possible cost.

From FY 1994 to FY 98 several major events happened to the Florida Service trains, including the disruption of the infamous Mercer cuts.

Using Amtrak statistics for Florida Service (Including Auto Train, the Palmetto, Silver Palm and Sunset Limtied):

1993: Benchmark year, 1,262,059 riders
1994: 1,167,838 riders, a loss of 94,221 riders against 1993
1995: 1,125,5781 riders, a loss of 136,488 riders against 1993
1996: 1,002,009 riders, a loss of 260,050 riders against 1993
1997: Common consist, 928,252 riders, a loss of 333,807 riders against 1993
1998: Common consist, 976,301 riders, a loss of 285,758 riders against 1993

Total, 1994 –1998 – 6,462,030 riders, a loss of 1,110,324 against 1993

Circumstances in FY 93 and changes through FY 98:

  1. In 1993, both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star were split in Jacksonville, with Miami and Tampa sections operating as separate trains South of Jacksonville. Each day, two trains became four trains.
  2. The Palmetto terminated in Jacksonville in 1993, running as a day train to New York City, providing daylight service to Northeast Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia.
  3. In 1993, the Sunset Limited was extended to Miami from New Orleans.
  4. In 1994, schedules were changed to extend the Palmetto to Tampa, adding a diner and sleeping cars, and remove the Tampa section of the Silver Meteor. This still maintained two daily trains in and out of Tampa and three daily trains in and out of Jacksonville,
  5. In 1995, the Mercer cuts were implemented, discontinuing the Palmetto, leaving only one daily train serving Tampa. Later, the Tampa maintenance and crew base was closed, and service was reconfigured to run the Silver Star through Tampa on the way to and from Miami. At that point, midday Tampa schedules where changed to early morning and late night departures, and Tampa ridership continued to plummet.
  6. In 1996, the Auto Train was converted from Heritage Fleet equipment to Superliner equipment.
  7. In 1997, the Sunset Limited moved its Eastern terminus from Miami to Sanford.
  8. In 1997 and 1998, the Florida Service trains were converted from Heritage Fleet sleepers to Viewliner sleepers and all Eastern trains with sleepers were assigned to the common consist pool.
  9. In 1998, the Sunset Limited restored all-train service to Winter Park and Orlando, extending its route by 22 miles from Sanford to Orlando.

The Tampa Bay area is Florida’s second largest metropolitan area and has experienced continual growth since the opening of Walt Disney World in Central Florida in 1971. Through the various changes in service in and out of Tampa, the common consist and ultimately the reduction of its one-seat train service to Tampa (Today, passengers from the Silver Meteor must use an Amtrak Thruway Bus service from Orlando to Tampa Union Station), Tampa ridership and revenue took a major hit. From a 1999 Florida report on the subject:

“Closing the Tampa maintenance and crew base saved several millions of dollars per year in avoidable expenses, however, the resulting dramatic drop in ridership dictates that a larger amount of revenue was lost than costs saved. Based on FY 98 versus FY 93, conservative estimates show the closing of the Tampa maintenance and crew base saved less than $4,000,000 per year, but loss in revenue due to route restructuring, schedule changing, and participating in the common consist pool is conservatively estimated at over $14,000,000 per year. Therefore, $14,000,000 in revenue per year was lost to save $4,000,000 per year in expenses.”

A similar situation with today’s Palmetto has produced similar results. When the Palmetto was ultimately restored as a New York Penn – Savannah train, the reasoning for not continuing the train to Jacksonville which was the previous successful southern terminal from 1988 to 1994 was the payroll of one crew saved. So, for the cost of a crew the train was terminated in Savannah, a relatively small city, eliminating all of the city pair matrix effect and business in and out of the much larger metropolitan area of Jacksonville to all of the other station stops along the route. No extra equipment was required to run the train to Jacksonville and Jacksonville already had a crew base. Just to serve the Palmetto turn, both a crew and turn maintenance base had to be established in Savannah.

Many would classify that as false savings.

So many similar decisions have been made to justify Amtrak train-offs throughout the national system during the past 50 years.

At some point, someone is going to come to the realization that starving a system to death results in exactly that – death of a company. No company has ever survived cutting its way to prosperity for half a century.

Part Three

Amtrak is 50 years old this May. That’s a half century of train operations. Many of us are not aware of the number of Amtrak trains that have come and gone in those decades. Some contributors of Wikipedia have done yeoman’s work compiling lists of past and present Amtrak trains with a plethora of information about each route. Below is an abbreviated part of that work, focusing on Amtrak trains serving the Northeast (Non-NEC Corridor):

Atlantic City Express
Washington, D.C. – Atlantic City
New York City – Atlantic city
May 1989 to April 1995

Cape Codder
New York City – Hyannis
May 1986 to September 1996

Boston – Portland
December 2001 to November 2012

Boston – Brunswick
November 2012 to Present

Washington, D.C. to Montreal
September 1972 to April 1987
July 1989 to April 1995

Washington, D.C. to St. Albans
April 1995 to Present

Washington, D.C. to Montreal
September 1972 to May 1974

Please share with others