By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; October 9, 2021
Everyone who travels has certain things they do in preparation, depending how they choose to travel.
People who choose intercity travel by automobile do the greatest amount of trip preparation, often stocking their vehicle with all sorts of personal comforts such as choices of music, maybe snacks, maps, and more, depending on how much personal technology is along for the ride.
People who choose to travel by motorcycle perhaps pack the most efficiently as there aren’t a lot of available luggage storage opportunities.
People who choose to travel by ship – be it an ocean voyage, overnight ferry or luxury river cruise – don’t take much extra; maybe some motion-sickness meds, some binoculars for distance viewing and again their personal technology. This group may travel with the greatest amount of wardrobes, mostly because of customs of proper dress for various onboard meal times.
People who choose to travel by airliner – the most popular but not necessarily the most efficient way to travel – face a number of restrictions for what they can pack, how they can pack, and how much they can pack because of high airline fees for what the airlines amusingly classify as “excess” baggage. Because rational people agree some sort of emergency caused by a disgruntled or deranged passenger six miles above the earth hurtling along in excess of usually 600 mph is a huge unwanted occurrence, passengers agree to a fairly severe degree of limitations of what may be carried in the main cabin of the aircraft.
People who choose to travel by intercity bus – a surprising number of passengers for those who don’t keep up with the statistics – are about the same as airline passengers when it comes to the amount of luggage and “excess” baggage.
Then, there are people who choose to travel by Amtrak, which according to the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is about the same amount of people who choose to travel by motorcycle.
Seasoned Amtrak travelers – particularly sleeping car passengers – all have personal check lists of critical items to pack specifically for the purpose of traveling comfortably in an Amtrak sleeping car. These lists, by the way, are also practiced by seasoned Amtrak managers.
For those of us who have spent a lifetime traveling by train two basic items are a “Swiss Army Knife”-type of multi-tool which can take care of a number of things, from tightening loose screws to trimming loose threads. The second item is a small can of spray disinfectant, especially for use in roomettes where an upholstered seat is immediately adjacent to a toilet. No further explanation needed. Some Amtrak managers have been known to always carry a small flashlight, too.
Savvy passengers know to expect rattles, broken air vents which can’t be closed, doors which don’t close properly and a myriad of other mechanical ailments. Common packing items are duct or gaffers tape, rubber items to use as wedges, something to cover over-enthusiastic cold air vents, and electrical outlet extensions to compensate for a single outlet which plugs will not stay connected because the outlets are worn out.
The list goes beyond the items listed above, but you get the picture: Amtrak maintains its highest-priced equipment for passengers so poorly its repeat passengers know in advance to compensate for Amtrak’s maintenance ambivalence. To break that down, someone paying often over $1,000 for an accommodation on an Amtrak train should bring along their own temporary repair kit to make up for what is ignored by Amtrak’s maintenance department.
There are common stories about air conditioning which is too cold, offset by air conditioning not working at all and rooms broiling hot, night and day. Plumbing problems are legendary.
The way Amtrak equipment is designed, the various hotel features such as plumbing operate on systems depending on the head-end power supplied by the locomotive. When the HEP fails – a too-common occurrence – restrooms shut down, too, along with lights and everything else which operates on electrical power. Amtrak’s locomotive fleet has been high unreliable, whether or not on a state-subsidized route or a long distance/inter-regional train route.
For veteran travelers one of the greatest concerns is to see your train arrive at your station with only a single locomotive pulling it. One never knows where in the middle of any given corn field a locomotive will fail.
More than one host railroad requires Amtrak to use two or more locomotives on trains on their railroad simply because they are aware of Amtrak’s unfortunate locomotive maintenance practices or perhaps because it’s not unknown for Amtrak locomotives to simply run out of fuel.
While railfans may delight in seeing a colorful freight locomotive on the point of a passenger train with Amtrak locomotives trailing, what that means is another Amtrak maintenance failure and the train being unable to reach its destination terminal without emergency assistance. Plus, freight locomotives don’t operate at the same speeds as passenger locomotives, making it impossible to maintain published schedules.
For the host railroads, a freight locomotive on the front of an Amtrak train means there is one less protect locomotive in their own fleet available plus less fluidity of their railroad because of a passenger train “out of slot” due to slower speeds. Those are just the “highlights” of a freight locomotive on the front of a passenger train.
Amtrak True Believers often readily accept this great disparity between forms of passenger travel as simply the “cost of doing business” when choosing to patronize an Amtrak train. While airline, cruise line and bus line passengers all enjoy a higher level of equipment maintenance and reliability, Amtrak passengers are left to their own devices – literally – to make their trip comfortable and restful.
The reality is, it’s a matter of choice for Amtrak management. While the same old saws are used about under-funding, old and tired equipment, etc., etc., that everyone has heard before, none of that is relevant.
Anyone who has flown enough has been on an older jet in a fleet that has been well-maintained. The interior appointments may be a bit dated in looks, but everyone works as it should.
Cruise ships often are turned in a matter of a few hours when arriving in a home port with hundreds or thousands of passengers debarking in the morning and less than six hours later the next ship full of new passengers are embarking for the next cruise. Cruise lines understand the critical importance of maintenance and deal with issues when they arise, not at the next scheduled 40-day maintenance cycle.
Amtrak chooses to allow things to wear out and not be in a hurry to replace parts. There is a maintenance log in every Amtrak car that stays with the car every trip. Supposedly, when a car attendant or conductor comes across something that isn’t working properly they are required to make note in the log and then the maintenance crews at the terminals are supposed to address the problem and fix it.
One could wonder of these logs are ever read by maintenance crews. There is never a reason for a hot car without properly working air conditioning to be sent out on the road, or for any other major item to not be addressed.
Some terminal managers will say it’s a matter of scheduling and they don’t have enough time to make certain repairs or maybe don’t have the right replacement parts. That is not a maintenance problem, that is a management problem which can be remedied.
Keep in mind Amtrak has a large protect fleet; it’s often not a question of enough replacement equipment available for use.
As to the issue of old equipment, it’s been true for decades Amtrak operates ancient fleets of equipment. But, so does VIA Rail Canada, with Budd stainless steel equipment which dates back to the 1960s, and VIA passengers don’t have the type of problems Amtrak passengers have. Why? Because VIA has pride in its equipment and services and maintenance is an important issue for them. The Budd equipment has now been updated several times in its useful life, and VIA expects to keep operating this equipment for years to come while also replacing parts of daytime corridor use fleet.
Amtrak passengers, before blindly defending the many flaws of the company must always remember, Amtrak management, like everyone else in life, makes choices on how they will act. New equipment, through available commercial leasing, could have been ordered years ago. Airlines don’t own their planes, they lease them. The same opportunities are available to Amtrak.
Amtrak used to say that maintaining the original Heritage fleet was not easy because some parts were no longer available from the manufacturer. Anyone who has enjoyed working on old automobiles and trucks knows the same may be true, but there is usually someone willing to make a new part. Amtrak has experienced craftsmen at its major maintenance and rebuilding facilities in Beech Grove, Indiana and Bear, Delaware. Let these craftsmen put their specialties to work.
Everything in life is about choices, good and bad. Bad choices should not be confirmed or excused because of blind loyalty. When passengers pay huge amounts of money for a trip, that trip should be comfortable and convenient, and there should never be a need for passengers to bring their own repair kits.