U.S., Amtrak: Sabotage!? Why are Southwest Chief and other train consists designed for failure? Revisiting, a year later

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief at Kansas City Union Station in 2016. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform a year ago on September 7, 2021. Andrew Selden has updated the article and photographs and illustrations have been added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; August 9, 2022

Under federal (and many states’) law it is a crime, often a felony, to sabotage or tamper with railroad property with the intent to (or with reckless disregard towards) causing damage or injury to persons or property.

Southern Pacific Railroad’s famous Audubon Room dining car on the Sunset Limited circa 1950s. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

But apparently it is perfectly fine for management of a railroad to operate it in a manner that stifles its economic prospects and prevents growth. Pre-Amtrak, the management of a few railroads did just that to drive away passengers. The Southern Pacific famously took dining and café cars off the Sunset Limited and replaced them with vending machines. There was a story, possibly apocryphal, that the Soo Line furloughed its car cleaners. Other companies reportedly understaffed their booking offices to limit ticket sales. Milwaukee Road scheduled trains asymmetrically and at awkward times.

Southern Pacific replaced dining cars with vending machines on the Sunset Limited before the Sunset became an Amtrak train. Internet photo.

Keep in mind that during and (today) coming out of the COVID epidemic, the only Amtrak trains that people used and came back to in significant numbers were the inter-regional (“long distance”) trains, long despised by management. The short-distance corridor trains so mindlessly favored by management collapsed, and still have not recovered; ridership is still down well over 50% on all short corridor trains. Not so with long distance trains, from Auto-Train to the California Zephyr, which are running sold-out this summer (at least in sleepers), turning away frustrated prospective customers by the hundreds and leaving on the table huge amounts of uncollected fare revenue. This performance humiliates executives who constantly disparage the inter-regional routes.

Auto Train’s automobile loading ramps in Lorton, Virginia. The Auto Train private vehicle loading and unloading process is the same as is found in freight railroad yards for transporting new cars from factories to dealerships. Wikimedia Commons photo.

An outside observer could easily conclude that Amtrak has begun a quiet campaign to discourage or even prevent use of its long distance train services in the inter-regional corridors, to cap sales and ridership, and stifle growth, with the ultimate intent of eliminating long distance trains altogether. Management says with its actions and sometimes its words that these trains have no future, despite their stellar performance. And if this is not the case, how would it look any different if it were?

A juggler on the Reno, Nevada station “trench” platform next to the California Zephyr in this 2016 photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Management learned over the last four years that crude attempts to kill productive inter-regional routes directly (e.g., the Southwest Chief) drew strong pushback from congress. But they have also learned that they can get away with a more subtle campaign to eliminate the reviled but still heavily-used long distance trains by a thousand smaller cuts:  artificially-shortened consists that limit ridership and output; hiding timetables and train status from the public; sharply limiting access to live agents at call centers; banning coach passengers from dining cars (even where average trips span three to five meal periods); understaffing trains; eliminating agents at most stations; offering disgusting “Flexible Dining” airline food on eastern trains’ dining cars (but costly top of the line meals free to short-haulers in First Class on Acela); cutting back on maintenance of trains causing sporadic, unpredictable, last-minute significant delays and even outright cancellations of entire trips; and last-minute annulments of sleeping car assignments, leaving passengers with confirmed reservations behind on the platform.

A single-level cafe car on the Adirondack; this same car with a similar menu is all that is available for coach passengers on long distance/inter-regional trains such as the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Crescent and Lake Shore Limited. Internet photo.
A sample lounge car menu for coach passengers on the Coast Starlight. Internet photo.

The most effective of these strategies, and the most subtle, is running trains with arbitrarily shortened consists, because it is a sneaky way to cap the reported use of the train in a way that members of congress won’t understand. The Empire Builder, Trains 7 and 8, runs with one sleeper (plus overflow Roomettes in the crew dorm car) and just one coach all through the summer peak period. That is half its normal capacity. Guess the impact on reported “ridership”?

Route map of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. Wikimedia Commons image.

Another egregious case in point is the Southwest Chief (“SWC”), Trains 3 and 4, between Chicago and Los Angeles via Kansas City, Albuquerque and Flagstaff.

This summer, again, and despite a resurgence in demand to pre-Covid levels, Amtrak has seen fit to operate the SWC with a minimalist consist of only one sleeper, plus overflow roomettes in the crew dorm car, three coaches (one often a coach/baggage, with no downstairs seating), a diner (for sleeper passengers only), a lounge car, and a baggage car. (With the full baggage car, the coach baggage car should be swapped for a full coach).

Southwest Chief at Tyrone,Colorado in 2017. Wikimedia Commons photo.

This is a train that is structured to fail for the simple reason that even if it runs full every day it is so small a train that it cannot generate enough revenue to sustain itself.

Amtrak made clear five years ago that it wanted to be rid of the SWC. Blaming deteriorating track between La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico, Amtrak proposed to run a coach-only train from Chicago to western Kansas, with a 12-hour bus bridge to Albuquerque and a coach-only train between Albuquerque and Los Angeles. This farce might have generated bus-load levels of ridership, but it couldn’t have survived a year, and would then have been easy to discontinue altogether “because no one is using it.” And they were serious about it, even producing a formal timetable showing the “service” with the long bus-bridge in the middle. Only furious resistance by local advocates along the route (with only token support from NARP/RPA) persuaded congress to push back, eventually ordering Amtrak to maintain the full through train.

But Amtrak doesn’t take well to congressional oversight, particularly when it involves service outside of the NEC. Amtrak now appears to be maintaining the Chicago-Los Angeles route only in a begrudging manner cloaked in plausible deniability, but designed ultimately to cap ridership and revenue at a sufficiently low level as to justify eventual discontinuance.

Consider the tiny amount of revenue space on the SWC. Three normal coaches, plus a baggage-coach, provide only about 200 seats (depending upon the exact configuration of the cars used; two seats are taken by each car attendant). But the number of passengers accommodated is less than that, because a western long distance train is functionally sold out at about a two-thirds load factor due to the large number of stops and the huge number of potential origin-destination city pairs on the line, which generate a large amount of turnover along the way. (The Empire Builder turns over every seat and every berth an average of 2½ times on every trip.) A seat that is vacant at any given point has been sold to a passenger boarding downline. If 135 coach passengers are on board the coaches at any given point, the train is full — sold out. No more tickets can be sold.

Elderly and handicapped passengers, an important part of Amtrak’s customer base, who rely on using the lower-level seats in the Superliner coach, are especially harmed because the unnecessary use of a coach-baggage car (when the train also carries a normal baggage car) cuts the available number of such seats by one-third on every trip. “Attention seniors: Your business is not welcome here.”

The lower level of a Superliner coach in 2008. Internet photo.

A similar calculus applies in the sleepers. Sleepers have less turnover and longer average trips than coaches, but are also functionally sold out at about a 70% load factor. (For comparison, the Empire Builder historically offered 15 Bedrooms and 47 Roomettes each trip on a route serving a smaller population than does the SWC.) Amtrak could easily fill a second sleeper on the SWC route, but maliciously refuses to assign one to the train. Historically, it always carried two Superliner sleepers plus a crew dormitory car that adds eight more overflow Roomettes to the train’s inventory.

Amtrak Superliner bedroom made up for daytime travel. Internet photo.

No train with as little revenue space as the Chief offers has any hope of covering its costs. On a recent trip on the Empire Builder (in 2020), we observed that sell-out conditions on the train suggested that an additional coach and sleeper could easily have been filled with paying passengers. That train had 3½ sleepers (counting overflow Roomettes in the crew dorm car) and three coaches, and we know from independent analysis that the Empire Builder route generates about $15-20 million a year in free cash flow for Amtrak. But with so little revenue space, the Chief simply is incapable of doing that.

And don’t think that the top managers at Amtrak don’t know exactly what they are doing when they run impossibly short consists on the Chief. They might claim that the train attracts only that much traffic, but even if that were true (it isn’t), the correct response would be to fire the sales and marketing staff and replace them with people who believe in and can sell the company’s product.

And the sabotage of the Chief and other inter-regional trains goes deeper still.

The marshalling order of the Chief reflects a subtle but calculated effort to run off the highest-revenue passengers. The Chief carries its sleepers at the front of the train. This arrangement guarantees that sleeping car passengers will get to hear the engine’s horn all night at very close range, and that diesel exhaust fumes will enter the lead sleeper. That is a “never again” experience for many customers.

The correct marshalling order for the Chief is to place the sleepers at the rear. Anyone who travels by train would agree that a longer walk between the sleepers and the terminal at Chicago is a good trade-off for avoiding diesel exhaust fumes and listening to the train’s horn all night.

And, when was the last time you saw an ad for the Chief in any media? Or looked for a route timetable? Amtrak hides this train from its potential customers in another subtle, underhanded effort to run off prospective passengers. How can any service business sell its offering without advertising it, and without detailing it on its website?

Amtrak is nevertheless likely to get away with its sabotage of the Chief. Few will notice or understand the implications of a ridiculously short train, incorrectly assembled, and not marketed, on a transcontinental route. Congress is less likely to intervene than with a crude attempt to kill the route outright like Amtrak tried before.

The Empire Builder in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a contemporary photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Not just the Chief is at risk from Amtrak’s sabotage. The Empire Builder, Amtrak’s most successful single train, runs with only one coach and one sleeping car on the Seattle Section. The second Seattle sleeper and the customary second coach never appeared this year. A transcontinental train with just one coach and one sleeper is doomed. But that is Amtrak’s not-so-subtle way of undermining its strongest trains, in its decades-long effort to abandon its inter-regional services in favor of disconnected short corridor trains.

The Empire Builder with a full consist makes a station stop in Minot, North Dakota in 1991. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Even the heretofore untouchable Auto Train has been shorted sleepers, just as demand surged when vacationers discovered that rental cars weren’t to be had in Florida and turned to Amtrak. Amtrak turned them away.

The small, economy-sized Texas Eagle with a minimal four car consist. Internet photo from Trains Magazine.

The Texas Eagle, connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas and San Antonio, with through service three days a week to El Paso, Tucson and Southern California, runs as a four–car train. That is beyond comprehension.

In better days, a full size Texas Eagle with a full dining car and Sightseer Lounge car in addition to sleepers and coaches. Amtrak Guide photo.

A study by Passenger Rail Kansas/Oklahoma’s Evan Stair in late July, 2021 showed that the California Zephyr (Chicago-Oakland via Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno, a train usually second only to the Empire Builder as Amtrak’s best-performing train) also was consistently selling out its sleeping car space in just two sleepers, even at sky-high prices. Bedrooms Chicago-California were priced at more than $2,200 in the handful of cases when one was available, and Roomettes at a breathtaking $1,100. They were sold out on nearly every trip July-September. Amtrak added zero capacity to the train.

The Zephyr operated again this summer with only two sleepers and two coaches, but did have a crew dorm car, adding a net 13 Roomettes to its salable inventory on each trip. Like the Chief, the second coach was often a coach-baggage, while the train also carried a standard baggage car, eliminating half of the lower-level senior/handicap seating.

Under these circumstances, any rational management would do everything possible to add Superliner sleeping cars (and a coach) to all of these trains. But Amtrak was too busy buying new corridor trains and new Acela II high speed trains, to replace old trains that few are riding, at a combined cost of $7 billion taxpayer dollars, to add so much as a single stored Superliner from the dead line at Beech Grove to any sold out inter-regional route. And, Amtrak still refuses to order new cars to replace, and supplement, the 40-year-old Superliners. The plain implication is: why order new cars for routes you plan to eliminate?

Another camouflaged step in Amtrak’s strategy to eliminate inter-regional trains is to delete features that are central to passengers’ quality of experience traveling by rail.

The late, lamented Pacific Parlour Car as found on the Coast Starlight. The cars were removed four years ago by Amtrak from the Starlight’s consist, leaving sleeping car passengers without a highly-desirable, highly-sought amenity with no replacement. The Pacific Parlour Cars were rebuilt from original Hi-Level lounge cars originally built by the Santa Fe Railway for its exclusive, all-coach El Capitan train operating between Chicago and Los Angeles. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The effort to run off the highest-revenue passengers extends to quietly downgrading the quality of the  travel experience for passengers. Four years ago, Amtrak abruptly cancelled the highly popular Pacific Parlour Car (a sleeping car-only lounge and diner) on the Coast Starlight and refused to replace them. Amtrak next removed the popular and heavily-used Sightseer Lounge cars from trains such as the Capitol Limited and Texas Eagle.

A popular Sightseer Lounge car on the California Zephyr at the Glenwood Springs, Colorado station. The Sightseer Lounge cars have been removed from the Texas Eagle and Capitol Limited in what can only be described as a downgrading for these two historic inter-regional trains. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The last printed version of Amtrak’s system timetable was published for Winter/Spring 2016. Now the only source of timetable information is Amtrak’s website. Internet image.

Amtrak quit publishing route timetables, and went so far as quietly removing route timetables even from its website. Popular Route Guides are gone, too.

Amtrak continues to serve “TV dinners” to high-revenue sleeping car passengers on eastern trains, and to deny coach passengers access to meals in the dining cars on every train. (Coach passengers typically are on board an inter-regional train over three to five meal periods.)

This inversion of commercial priorities can reflect only one thing — a deliberate effort to sabotage the nation’s highest-performing, inter-regional, routes, to set them up to fail. The inter-regional trains are still Amtrak’s biggest (by output and intercity ridership) and most commercially successful (by market share and load factor) business segment. Whether they can survive management’s active hostility and distorted priorities is an open question.

About the author:

Andrew Selden of Minneapolis, Minnesota is President of United Rail Passenger Alliance and Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. Mr. Selden is a retired nationally known franchise law attorney and is the author of a book and numerous scholarly articles on the subject.

Andrew Selden has served as a National Park Service Ranger Guide on the Empire Builder. Photo provided by Andrew Selden.

In a 1998 Amtrak Board of Directors vote, Mr. Selden lost out to George Warrington to become the new CEO of Amtrak.

In January 1986 Trains Magazine published Mr. Selden’s article “How to get Amtrak out of the woods.” Editor David P. Morgan labeled Mr. Selden “The dean of pro-passenger Amtrak critics.”

The biographical information for Mr. Selden accompanying the 1986 article said, “Andrew C. Selden … graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1971… A lifelong railroad enthusiast (a painting of the running gear of a streamlined NYC 4-6-4 hangs on an office wall), he became seriously concerned with Amtrak’s future after the 1979 route cutbacks of the Carter Administration. … Selden has taken issue with Amtrak accounting procedures and management/marketing strategies in numerous privately circulated white papers. His “The High Cost of Amtrak Accounting,” a three-part analysis co-authored with. Dr. E.P. Hamilton III, a Texas professional engineer, appeared in the August/September, October, and November 1984 issues of Passenger Train Journal, and elicited a feature-length response by Amtrak Vice President-Corporate Planning and Development Timothy P. Gardner in February 1986 PTJ. Selden gratefully acknowledges the technical assistance of the Surface Transportation Systems Institute, Nordberg-Herzog & Associates, Inc. and The Balcones Group in preparation of this (1986) article for Trains.”

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