Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on February 25, 2021. It has been updated, additional information has been added and photographs and illustrations have been added. – Corridorrail.com Editor
By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; September 2, 2022
The dog days of summer are coming to a close, the “unofficial” end of the summer season (even though by the calendar it’s really September 22nd) is upon us with the Labor Day long weekend celebration.
On Labor Day Weekend 2022, Amtrak unceremoniously has cancelled Michigan state-subsidized Wolverine service train number 350, the early morning departure from Chicago to Detroit and Pontiac, and train number 355, the late afternoon departure from Pontiac and Detroit to Chicago.
These are trains which the Michigan Department of Transportation pays Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner dearly to operate. Michigan has for years had a very proactive state tourism marketing campaign which relies heavily on rail. Yet, Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak, while providing no alternate transportation for these cancelled departures, simply says they do not have enough operable equipment or crews for these trains, and they will not until September 17th.
When you consider this latest insult by Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak to the State of Michigan and its passengers who perhaps wildly, wrongly believed Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak was a reliable common carrier source of transportation, it’s not hard, along with all of the other cancellations, to say the company is in free fall and totally mismanaged and disorganized.
The Silver Meteor did not operate all summer, and is allegedly scheduled to resume operations October 3rd between New York Pennsylvania Station and Miami. The over-burdened Silver Star picked up some of the slack of the Meteor, but thousands of passengers who wished to travel were denied carriage because of lack of carrying capacity.
Trains originating at Chicago Union Station have particularly been plagued by often hours-late departures because of equipment failures, be it locomotives, dining cars or other cars because the mechanical forces in Chicago seem unable or unwilling to properly maintain equipment in a state of good repair.
Some optimists, already planning for travel in July 2023, are reporting sold-out sleeping cars on the Empire Builder nearly a year in advance. Are sales that strong or has inventory been reduced radically?
Ah, the True Believers and Near Believers say, all will soon be well because Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak hit the jackpot in federal funding and cash will flow like a river down the side of a mountain. They sadly believe/hope money is the answer to all problems. It isn’t.
All summer long there have been social media reports of sleeping car reservations made months in advance which were suddenly cancelled at the last moment because of an alleged lack of equipment and crews. Passengers who paid hundreds and into the thousands of dollars for sleeping car space were – again, unceremoniously – downgraded to coach transportation with no dining car access. Most just chose to cancel their trip instead of traveling by coach.
Many True Believers and Amtrak passengers who have used and enjoyed train travel for decades have sworn off travel on Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak until this mess gets sorted out. The list of cancellations, non-daily trains, suspended trains and multiple failures is much too long to list here. But, you get the idea. Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak is failing on practically every front outside of the Northeast Corridor and related routes. Just enough state-subsidized new service is being introduced to make it seem the company is prospering and moving ahead; a great public relations smokescreen which receives good play in the news media and compliant railroad industry press.
When you have lost the True Believers and Near Believers, the game is over. In 2022 we may have a population of over 332 million souls in this country, but at the rate Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak is turning current passengers into the dreaded “never again” passengers, who eventually is going to be left to ride what is left of the trains?
We have seen open speculation Stephen Gardner’s management team is overtly sabotaging the long distance/inter-regional national network with pint-sized train consists that have no hope of even remotely covering their operating costs, setting up the perfect scenario to tell Congress (undoubtedly with a straight face) “Well, we tried, but no one wants to ride these trains, so, yes, let’s ditch the long distance system and just go with our Amtrak Connects US short corridor plan the states will have to pay if they want service.”
An unintentionally ignorant Congress is likely to agree. Sadly.
We have seen this script before in the 1960s, and it worked. Even though the circumstances were different then, the sentiments were the same, and Amtrak was born as the result. Today, Amtrak wants to reinvent itself on the model of the Northeast Corridor while ignoring the economic realities and still present national charter that requires Amtrak to operate a national system of long distance/inter-regional trains.
There is lots of blame to go around here as to how Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak got to this untenable position.
First, the Amtrak Board of Directors has signed off on everything the company wants to do. Even though the chairman of the board from New Jersey has served two full terms, the Biden White House has nominated him for a third term. This is unprecedented in Amtrak history.
Other board appointees awaiting Senate confirmation can with difficulty be described as agents of change as much as political favors being acknowledged.
All money bills for the federal government originate in the House of Representatives. Congress has just given Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak $66 billion to make things better, yet simultaneously we see the company headed down a dead end track. As World War II was on the horizon in 1940, then-United States Senator Harry S. Truman headed the Truman Committee in the Senate which spent years from then until Senator Truman became Vice President Truman in 1944 ferreting out waste, fraud and poor workmanship in government war contracts, saving the American taxpayer the equivalent of over $220 billion in 2022 dollar equivalents. While the Amtrak Inspector General’s Office does highly commendable work, American taxpayers desperately need a modern-day Senator Truman to take an interest in Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and not give up until reasonable answers are found and changes made.
Corridor Rail Development Corporation Executive Chairman James Coston was an active member and leader of the Amtrak Reform Council which was formed by Congress in 1999 and issued its final report in 2002. Most of Amtrak’s ills at the time were identified and reasonable options were offered to make Amtrak a stronger railroad. But, like so many other studies originating in Washington, it was just another study which found a permanent home on a backroom shelf. That is why some Senator or Congressman with a lot of juice needs to take a close, personal interest in Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and not give up until it’s a better railroad.
United States Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig doesn’t appropriate the federal money for Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak, but his DOT does oversee the distribution of the money and isn’t supposed to just pass money to the railroad and wish them a nice day. Former “Mayor Pete” and now “Secretary Pete” technically is a permanent member of the Amtrak Board of Directors. Even though his designee actually keeps the seat warm, the DOT needs to take a more critical view of Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and let them know they won’t receive their weekly allowance until they actually take a better stance on running the trains they are paid to run.
“Amtrak Joe” is one of the nicknames for the most powerful man on Earth, President Joe Biden. Mr. Biden was a daily NEC commuter between his home in Delaware and Washington when he was in the Senate. All of Amtrak’s True Believers and Near Believers thought when Mr. Biden was inaugurated Amtrak’s problems would be over. No, that hasn’t been the case. As with every other president, Mr. Biden and his White House have had much bigger fish to fry than worrying about what amounts to a minor domestic program that runs passenger trains in the overall scheme of the federal government. But, it would be nice if someone’s attention in the White House could at least take a closer look at Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and perhaps come up with a better slate of nominees for the Amtrak Board of Directors, specifically for the chairman of the board.
While there is a belief many middle and front line managers at Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak actually want to run trains, they are not decision makers, but the people who keep the locomotives fueled up and the phones working in the reservation center. Will somebody please give these people a chance to run their railroad the right way?
Amtrak’s near-silent unions have contributed to the current condition. Nothing that has happened in the past three to five years has been to the ultimate benefit of union members. On the surface, the unions appear to have taken a “go along to get along” posture with management. Historically, the railroad unions have been the backbone of the industry, not silent partners with management. It would be nice to hear from the unions and what their future plans are for Amtrak.
The railroad industry trade press – what remains of it – seems uninterested in the future of Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak other than what press releases want them to say. Their staffs are small; they choose to spend their time being uncritical of Amtrak instead of probing and investigating.
The general news media is a lost cause. The few remaining transportation reporters spend their time and energy reporting on the airlines and highways, most can’t even spell “train.” The general assignment reporters just report what is handed to them in Amtrak press releases without comment or investigation. They have little interest because, at the bottom of it all, Amtrak is America’s best kept secret.
And, then there is Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak wholly owned lapdog organizations, some which may on the surface talk a good game, but, in the end always seem afraid they will fall out of favor with Amtrak management and lose privileged access, including travel discounts for their members. When you have member travel discounts you are not on the outside looking in with a skeptical eye for improvement, but on the inside taking broad direction from other insiders.
In other areas of interest there is the matter of new passenger rolling stock.
Just about everyone (because there is always someone with a contrary opinion) can agree that one size does not fit all. This seems to be common wisdom. If you’re in the passenger railroad business these days, the wisdom seems to be broadly ignored.
One of the major advantages passenger trains have over all other forms of transportation is the easy ability to add and subtract both passenger cars and motive power. Have a sold out train? Add another car. Have a heavy holiday consist? Add another locomotive so you can maintain the schedule. It’s a pretty simple concept.
The modern thinking seems to be a throwback to the days in 1934 of Edward G. Budd and the Budd Company’s first articulated stainless steel streamliner, the Pioneer Zephyr for the Burlington Railroad. Perhaps this piece of history is one which should be ignored when planning new passenger trains.
Today, Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada are both procuring new trainsets – not train cars, but trainsets – for their next generation of rolling stock.
In the last half century there has been some history of articulated trainsets, including the Turboliners in the 1970s, and more recently, the Talgos used on the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades Service. It’s notable the Turboliners were pulled from service long before their service life was over, largely because their fixed consists limited the ability to meet passenger demand. Like the Turboliners, but for different reasons mostly concerning crash safety after a horrific wreck, the Talgos are being replaced by Siemens Venture cars now in production.
When Amtrak introduced the Northeast Corridor’s Acela Service in 2000, these were also fixed consists. Amtrak was so sure they had achieved consist nirvana that the special Acela maintenance facilities were built to hold exactly the size of the consist. No thought about future growth. As a result, now that the second generation of Acela equipment is under production, all of the existing Acela maintenance facilities must be expanded to handle the longer trainsets.
Most other NEC trains and many state-subsidized trains fall into the same category; same size consist, no matter the load factor. One has to wonder why; is it because no one wants to actively manage the reservations system and add and subtract equipment as necessary?
Up-and-coming Brightline in Florida seems to be following the same model of fixed consists. Texas Central Partners for their Dallas-Houston high speed train seem to be thinking about that, too.
Here’s one of the biggest drawbacks of fixed consists: When one part of the consist fails, the entire consist fails. If you have a bad-order car at any point in the consist, then the entire consist is sidelined for maintenance. In traditional train consists, when you have a bad-order car, the car is simply replaced.
Looking at today’s long distance/inter-regional trains, one size does not seem to fit all. On the West coast, the Coast Starlight typically has more carrying capacity than the Silver Meteor on the East coast. The Starlight’s route is 1,377 miles long, the Meteor’s route is 1,389 miles. Both start their routes at a major terminal city and end at another major terminal city. Both have multiple large urban areas along the route and a high number of intermediate station stops. But, the Starlight is more than just transportation, it’s a travel destination itself. The Meteor does yeoman work moving passengers, but few take the Meteor for the “travel experience” and scenery. In a typical year, the Starlight carries about 100,000 more passengers than the Meteor.
In the pre-Amtrak world, North American passenger trains were right-sized for their seasonal needs. Railroads often ran smaller consists in non-holiday winter months when demand was the lowest. Summer train consists were always longer when family vacationers took to the rails. Amtrak does this today on its long distance/inter-regional trains, but not to the extent the pre-Amtrak railroads did.
In those same days when there were multiple frequencies on most routes, the premium Pullman sleeping car train of the route usually had the longest consist. Some secondary trains, such as Union Pacific’s Domeliner Challenger and Santa Fe’s Hi-Level El Capitan, both all-coach trains, both operating between Chicago and Los Angeles, carried consists equal to their sibling Pullman sleeping car trains, including lounge and full-service dining cars.
Most secondary trains carried smaller consists to meet the passenger demand. Great Northern’s Western Star, the lesser sibling to the Empire Builder had the smaller consist. The was true on the Northern Pacific with the North Coast Limited and the Mainstreeter. The North Coast Limited was the premium train; it was longer in passenger car counts, but the Mainstreeter may have been overall longer because of the heavy amount of mail and express cars it regularly handled.
Local mail and express trains often had more head-end baggage and mail cars than passenger cars.
Delightfully, some post-World War II railroads found a way, courtesy of the Budd Company, to provide adequate service on lightly-patronized, short-distance departures, but still offer a necessary complement of trains: The Budd Rail Diesel Cars. The RDCs were employed by many railroads which needed to fill in under-patronized schedules, but still offer some sort of service. Not only were they used as main line trains, they also operated efficiently in local commuter service.
The RDCs were popular throughout the country and in Canada, too, where VIA Rail Canada continues today to operate the equipment in regularly scheduled service in Ontario between Sudbury and White River Junction.
Today, RDCs, under different manufacturers have been rebranded as Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs. The concept is the same – no separate locomotive; the cars are self-propelled, and can be configured in short or long consists. The important factor is they provide a choice; some routes need a full, long train, but a fill-in frequency may only need a DMU consist.
We have seen the financial havoc raised by Amtrak’s common consists in the East. It is appropriate to wonder if all of the new consists which will be difficult to be altered as demand warrants will overall generate the same type of poor financial results as the common consists inflicted on the Florida Service and the Crescent and Lake Shore Limited.
Choice is good, customization is good, meeting market demand is the best. Having only a single solution to all problems is a problem itself.