U.S., Amtrak: Stephen Gardner’s ongoing scandal commonly known as the Texas Eagle

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 8, 2022

How much abuse should one named, inter-regional train have to suffer?

The Texas Eagle under the pandemic stewardship of Amtrak chief Stephen Gardner has bounced from a daily train to a tri-weekly and back to a daily train on its core route between Chicago and San Antonio, Texas.

In the not-too-distant past, the Texas Eagle featured a crew car, sleeping cars, a full dining car, sightseer lounge car, coaches and a baggage car.

Today’s sad Texas Eagle is a sleeping car, diner-lounge car, and a couple of coaches pulled by a single locomotive. Hardly a financially successful or passenger-friendly consist for an inter-regional train.

A Missouri Pacific Texas Eagle Planetarium Dome in 1961. Image via Wikipedia.Org.

If the Texas Eagle’s consist sounds familiar that’s because Stephen Gardner’s national system managers have combined the Washington, D.C.-Chicago Capitol Limited with the Texas Eagle as a run-through train consist serving two routes. We have been told this is a financial conservation plan which will daily save the use of one trainset between the two routes.

Amtrak has used this method in the past, not entirely successfully.

While saving money is always a noble endeavor, the question of at what price do the savings come has to be addressed. If the answer is at the cost of lost revenue and route/company growth, then the answer is a negative answer.

The Texas Eagle’s daily portion of its route is 1,305 miles long, with an additional 1,400+ miles for the run-through equipment added to the Sunset Limited.

Ticket jacket as used for the Texas Eagle. Image via Wikipedia.org.

The Capitol Limited’s relatively short route of 780 miles is essentially an overnight run with maximum of two meals served to passengers. The longer core Texas Eagle route serves one breakfast southbound (two northbound), two lunches and two dinners (one northbound). Texas Eagle passengers who travel the full length of the daily route are on the train 34 hours; Capitol Limited passengers traveling the full route are on the train up to only 18 hours.

There is a huge difference being on a train which travel the majority of its route overnight and a train which runs for a full day and a half. No one disputes Amtrak coach seats are more comfortable than any airline seat, but being virtually trapped in a coach seat or a sleeping car accommodation without full lounge car facilities puts passengers into the hospitality desert realm.

In its postwar youth, a new Texas Eagle in 1948 was more than just a mundane train. It was a streamliner sporting multiple sleeping cars, domes, full dining cars, lounges, coaches and baggage cars. It was a train which was assembled/disassembled from/to multiple terminals and operated with efficiency and maximum passenger convenience by the Texas & Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads.

Today’s version of the Texas Eagle, instituted by Amtrak in 1981, has always been a train that was “something of an afterthought” for Amtrak management, almost considered an orphan train in when the national system was broken into business groups during the 1990s.

Amtrak has always operated part of the train as a separate train which is forwarded to the Sunset Limited in San Antonio for operation to Los Angeles the three times a week the Sunset operates. Additionally, for a while in the early 2000s era, a fourth, exclusive Texas Eagle operated all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles without benefit of being part of the Sunset Limited, providing and extra day of service to passengers on the Sunset Route between San Antonio and Los Angeles.

Also in the halcyon days of the national system business groups, the Texas Eagle had the assistance of a volunteer group of non-Amtrak employees who helped manage the pricing and load factors of the train in addition to helping with marketing. While that group lasted for years, it was discontinued a number of years ago.

It’s notable that during that time the revenues for the Texas Eagle were higher than today, the load factors were higher and the consists were longer to support the passenger loads.

Today’s both the Texas Eagle and Capitol Limited have fallen so far out of favor with Stephen Gardner that they hardly qualify as a full-service inter-regional passenger train with bare-minimum consists. For some, these micro-consists are reminiscent of the ill-fated Penn Central Transportation Company which was forced to operated passenger train by the Interstate Commerce Commission of the day in the 1970s. Just run enough equipment to say a train is operated, but not enough to meet passenger demand. And, heaven forbid the word should get out a train is available on the route because people may actually have an inkling they “can get there from here” on a train.

Always interesting these days is Amtrak is trying to figure out how to spend its gigantic share of the $66 billion Congress awarded passenger rail late last year. While some specifics have been announced how the money will be spent on the Northeast Corridor – Amtrak’s golden child – very few specifics have been announced for the inter-regional trains such as the Texas Eagle and Capitol Limited.

Amtrak has continually used the various woes of the pandemic to explain its shortcomings in the past couple of years, such as micro consists and low levels of staffing. The question is, how much longer can that ruse stand up to real scrutiny?

If Stephen Gardner and his executive team had any shame they would accept Amtrak’s original – and, still standing – charter of operating a national system of inter-regional trains and treat each of the lower 48 states as well as they treat the NEC states. But, as always, NEC seems to stand for Nothing Else Counts, and that includes not operating a respectable Texas Eagle and Capitol Limited.

As Andrew Selden has openly wondered on this platform, are trains such as the too-short Texas Eagle and Capitol Limited consists intentional sabotage of financial results as was practiced by many railroads in the 1950s and 1960s which led to the creation of Amtrak or simply managerial and financial incompetence?

One Texas Eagle fun fact to recall: Back when he was still a United States Senator and making his reputation in the environmental world, someone sent Senator Al Gore a letter extolling the virtues of the Texas Eagle and asked that he support the operation of the train. One of the senator’s staff did not pay close attention to letter, yet faithfully sent a written reply. But, the reply pointed out the many virtues of eagles – as in our national bird – instead of realizing they were replying to a letter about an Amtrak train. Mirth ensued in many quarters as a result.

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