U.S.: Amtrak in October… what’s going to happen now?

Commentary By Russ Jackson; October 28, 2020

Editor’s Note: Russ Jackson is the distinguished retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review. His commentaries appear here occasionally. – Corridorrail.com Editor

Here we are in October, 2020.  Covid 19 is still spreading across the country, wildfires are burning in California and Colorado, another hurricane is hitting the Gulf Coast, a massive cold front is bringing snow and cold temperatures to much of the mid-west, the election is days away, the Congress has done nothing about the needs of the country since early in the year, and Amtrak has begun Tri-weekly service on all of its western long distance trains.  Is there any good news?  Yes, the election will be held and be over-with shortly, the wildfires will eventually be extinguished as the winter cooling comes, and the hurricane should be the last one of this year.  BUT, Covid 19 will probably be a continuing factor, AND, Amtrak will still be running the western long distance trains Tri-weekly just as they have planned all along.  Despite the unified effort of rail advocates and a massive communications campaign directed toward the Congress and the press, we lost.  It’s as simple as that.  Amtrak was able to ride out the storm and ended up doing what it wanted all along.  You know the details of what has been done, so now we are faced with what comes next, for us as advocates and for the Congress.  The Congress has held hearings recently in which several important members took on Amtrak CEO William Flynn on the subject of national train service.  Mr. Flynn stated, as they have said since June, “Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021.”  Can we believe him?  Were we justified in saying that by then the system will have deteriorated to the point where its data as they say it to be shows the criteria for restoration is not justified?  I’m afraid so.

Andrew Selden, URPA President, has been outspoken on this issue and as always is worth quoting:  “Flynn manifests no awareness whatsoever that ‘ridership’ is largely irrelevant as an index of performance by an intercity passenger carrier.  No airline measures or reports its ‘ridership.’  The correct  metric is revenue passenger miles.  Flynn never mentions that.  In the period April-September, 2020, the inter-regional (long distance) trains produced more RPMs and revenue than all of Amtrak’s other trains COMBINED!  Does Flynn know that?”  Does he care?  Obviously not, as in all of the published pronouncements all that is mentioned is the combined figures for the whole corporation, lumping the NEC and the State Corridors in with the long distance trains which makes them look as bad as the other two which have had huge drops in “ridership” and “revenue.”  Anyone watching the arrivals and departures on the VirtualRail web cameras across the country can see that passengers are there just like they were before October 1.  RailPAC discovered that on one August night at Los Angeles Union Station Train 2, the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle would depart with 184 in Coaches, and 49 in Sleeping Cars. Train 4, the Southwest Chief, would have 153 in Coaches and 35 in Sleepers. And, the Coast Starlight departed that day with 244 in the Coaches and 50 in the Sleepers.  That was in August.  Since October 1 the number of trains have been cut by 4/7ths.  If the trains were doing that well in August what was the justification for Tri-Weekly?  Bob Johnston, the top passenger train writer for Trains Magazine, wrote on October 9 that “A Trains News Wire analysis of October and November (future) departures on the four routes that began tri-weekly operation this week shows little or no coach and sleeping car availability on many dates.”  Amtrak attributes this to “re-accommodation of existing reservations and determining future consist planning for the upcoming holiday periods as well as early 2021.”  We’ll see what they do; are you betting they will do anything?  I”m not.

Is Tri-weekly adding to the cost in any way?  Oh, yes.  RailPAC’s Paul Dyson reported in late October that according to a crew member from the Southwest Chief, “they now spend 3 days and nights fully paid in a hotel in Chicago before their return trip” instead of one night, and “most roomettes are now blocked for crew accommodation and are not available for sale” (the consist of the train is now 2 Sleeping Cars, Dining Car, Lounge Car, and 3 Coaches) The number of high revenue rooms are not equal to what they were before, when a Transition-Sleeper (crew car) was on the train.  There no longer is a baggage car either, with one of the Coach cars being a Coach-Baggage, thereby reducing its capacity of “social distanced” seats available for sale, too.  The crewmember also told Dyson, “Most rooms are sold out on eastbound trips.”   RailPAC member Ralph James writes from his Sierra Nevada home looking over the tracks, “With the tri-weekly schedule of the California Zephyr and only six instead of fourteen passings per week I have not seen very many consists lately, but the two I have noted (including 6 today) have had two power units, two sleepers, diner, lounge and two coaches.  No bag or transition.”  Observers have noted that the Texas Eagle is down to four cars, a Sleeper, Diner-Lounge, and two coaches, with the Sleeper and one Coach continuing to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited west of San Antonio.  (One thing has continued unchanged:  the one to four hour delays to Trains 1 and 2 between San Antonio and El Paso due to “freight interference” by the Union Pacific.)  Does the long distance system stand a chance to meet Amtrak’s inflexible criteria for restoration any time soon?  I don’t think so.

Let’s look at another effect of Tri-weekly, not so much on the long distance passengers, but on the shorter distance riders who use the long distance trains.  Christina Kartchner, the actress who is featured in the hit Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” found a few years ago that it was easier to take the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Tucson to visit her family over the weekend than to do all the hassle at LA International Airport.  She could arrive at LA Union Station Friday night from her home nearby, take a Coach seat overnight, and arrive the next morning at the Tucson train station; then board the westbound train on Sunday night to arrive at LAUS early (very early) on Monday morning.  Because the schedule of the Tri-weekly Sunset Limited has not changed that is still possible for her.  But, let’s look at another location.  A student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff could have boarded the Southwest Chief on Friday night, and arrived at LAUS (or other California stations) Saturday morning to visit relatives until boarding the train Sunday night and arrive back in Flagstaff the next morning.  Not so anymore!  The westbound Train 3 now departs Flagstaff on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday which meets the need of this traveler, but the return trip on Train 4 from LAUS is on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday nights.  That knocks out the visiting opportunity with Tri-weekly “service.”  It’s obviously not the only travel problem encountered by people who want to travel by train.  Is that important for Amtrak’s future?  You bet it is.

Now something personal.  In July we were speculating about taking our semi-annual Amtrak trip from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles in October.  We didn’t know whether the Covid 19 situation would have abated enough by then or that the places we wanted to visit would be open again.  But, we made reservations, with an agent by phone, on Trains 421 and 422 for mid-October, and of course had to pay in advance with a credit card.  In late September it was obvious travel would be ok, as Amtrak has done a great job of keeping the trains safe (have you heard of any cases from people traveling the long distance trains?  No, they are a safe way to travel and folks are flocking to ride them), but the places we wanted to visit all remained closed!  So we made the decision to postpone the trip to next year, if conditions are better then.  When I called Amtrak to cancel the reservation, I called the “Julie” line for a simple cancel of the reservation number.  It was accepted by the automated voice, and told my fare would be refunded on my credit card, then added there would be a “$250 cancellation fee.”  WHAT?  I quickly called a live agent, and told her that I thought those fees had been eliminated, which she confirmed and issued a new refund order for the fee.  How many folks in the same situation just accepted that the fee was there when it isn’t?  I hope the agent passed along what happened to me so a correction could be made.  Do you think she did?  I hope so.

I always call a “live” agent to do Amtrak business, but this time I didn’t on the call above.  It may be the “old fashioned way” to do business these days, but let’s face it I’m old and like to deal with a person, not the internet or an automated “voice.”  When I told some friends what happened, Gene Poon replied, “Don’t be surprised, then, when Amtrak follows the airline model and tacks on a service charge for agent bookings!!!”  You think that day is coming?  I do.  (Sigh)

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