The fix involves a quasi-privatization, in which Amtrak leases the Corridor to a private company that does the maintenance. There are some details to be worked out. First, The Pennsylvania Railroad has not been available for going on fifty years. Second, as long as the Acelas and the Regional or Northeast Direct or whatever they run as these days are subject to Metro-North dispatching between Rye and New Haven, the asset is unlikely to achieve its full potential.
All of that is moot, however, as long as scoring political points comes first.
Leadership. . . wow. Remember when we had real political leadership? If Schumer were to get behind this, President Trump would demonize it in a second. And if support came from the White House, the Democratic cry would be about the “great giveaway.” And, of course, the present owner of the failing Northeast Corridor, Amtrak, is opposed, never mind that it has failed utterly to maintain or improve the NEC."Failing Northeast Corridor." Don't give Our President any ideas!
There you have it, our broken-down system of government, unwilling to even entertain and debate a sensible idea meant to address a pressing problem when there is so much more to be gained by mindless partisan attacks on the other side. Leaders of both political parties in Congress are aware of this proposal, as is the White House. But there we sit, waiting (in [former New Jersey Representative James] Florio’s words) “for the next bridge or tunnel to collapse.”
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Three years or so ago, Amtrak pushed back against freight train interference. That didn't seem to work, so this time Amtrak is pushing back by issuing failing grades.
Norfolk Southern continues to do it wrong, as does CNR (with only the City of New Orleans and two Carbondale trains to lay out?) Here's the full report card.
Only CSX has responded to a Trains request for comment.
“While the issue of on-time performance is more complex than a single letter grade implies,” a CSX spokeswoman said, “we are committed to working with Amtrak to meet our contractual obligations to them, and to support passenger rail as a safe, efficient transportation alternative in the U.S.” She added that CSX hosts more passenger trains than any other U.S. host railroad and “takes Amtrak’s performance very seriously.”The report notes, "[P]assenger trains are the canary in the coal mine. When they cannot make their achievable schedules, it usually means the host railroad is also in a world of woe." Then why is CSX, supposedly suffering from low employee morale and too much restructuring, managing to keep the Cardinal (over much of its route), Capitol (Washington and Pittsburgh), the Florida trains plus the Savannah service and the Auto-Train closer to time than Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific can manage?
Neither Norfolk Southern nor Canadian National has responded to Trains News Wire’s request for comment.
Amtrak’s report explains, “An “F” host forces Amtrak trains on a particular route to wait one hour and 40 minutes on average for freight trains, and forces many Amtrak trains on this route to wait as long as 3 hours and 12 minutes. As a comparison, suppose you were on a flight and your plane had to circle the destination airport for one hour and 40 minutes while cargo flights were given priority to use the runway.”
The winner is BNSF Railway! Hold it. . . the producers in their tuxes just walked onstage. We were given the wrong envelope. I humbly apologize. Stand down, BNSF. The real winner, with an A, is Canadian Pacific Railway — yes, Hunter [Harrison]’s old hangout. This ranking is not new, either. I was told a year ago that CP had the best on time record of the lot for the previous couple of years. Delays attributed to CP were less than 600 minutes per 10,000 train miles. As most of you know, the stats are skewed by the seven trains each way run the 85 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee. Statistically, the Empire Builder, operating the approximately 418 miles between Chicago and the Twin Cities, doesn’t count for as much as the Hiawatha trains do. But let’s give CP and Keith Creel’s people a bow.Indeed so, as there are plenty of opportunities on the C&M to let a freight train get ahead of a Hiawatha or scoot at A-20 westbound, or go through the Fowler Street Depot first eastbound.
At the same time, and the current management at Amtrak have offered the freight railroads an out, threatening to stop running trains on any section of track not equipped with positive train control by year's end, as prayed for by the latest Congressional mandate.
That's going to be on Passenger Rail advocates, as the freight carriers now have a way to rid themselves of this troublesome Amtrak.
[Amtrak president Richard] Anderson dropped a bombshell: Amtrak, he said, has completed installation of the Positive Train Control system on all track owned by Amtrak. But, he said, at the end of this calendar year, he would stop running Amtrak trains over any stretch of track owned by a freight railroad that had not implemented the PTC system.Meanwhile, management seem determined to antagonize upscale riders.
Wow! That’s terrific! Amtrak socking it to the freights, demanding that they quit dragging their feet and finally meet the Congressional mandate to get the safety system in place.
But wait a second! It’s no secret that after 50 years, the freight railroads have come to hate the original agreement — specifically, that they would not only allow Amtrak trains on their track, but they would give Amtrak priority. It would now appear that if the freight railroads just do nothing … just don’t finish implementing PTC … Richard Anderson could actually do what John Mica and a gaggle of GOP members of Congress haven’t been able to do: shut down some portion of Amtrak’s long distance network. Maybe even most of it.
Cutbacks have also included the de-staffing of several hundred stations, which has spill-over consequences because, if there’s no station agent, there’s no checked baggage and no human being to provide current information and sell tickets. And, of course, we now have full-service dining cars being taken out of service and replaced with café cars with their microwaved meals and cafeteria-style dining.I'm no fan of the etiolated dining service that passes as Cross Country Cafe or as upgraded Amdinette. Nor, do I have a deluxe sleeper-lounge of my own to attach to a train and have only the delayed trains to worry about.
Over many years and well over 100,000 miles logged on Amtrak long-distance trains, I’ve had many informal conversations with sleeping car attendants. Inevitably, the discussions turn to whatever it was that generated the latest edict from on high. Most of those discussions evoke the same response from the Amtrak employees: “Not a good idea, but nobody ever listens to me!”
A couple of years ago at a luncheon during one of our Spring meetings, I happened to be seated next to one of Amtrak’s top executives. Several times during the meal, others at the table offered suggestions for improving on-board service or for fixing some annoying problem from a passenger’s perspective. This guy’s response was the same for each: he smiled and said, “Well, I’ll have to look into that.” The thing is, he never once took out a little note pad or an old envelope to jot down a reminder. Everyone at the table knew we were being blown off.
And so top management at Amtrak continues to make cuts that diminish the experience for sleeping car passengers without listening to their front-line employees or the passengers themselves or the passenger rail advocates. The Amtrak brass is convinced if they keep cutting, the red ink will disappear. The question is, who’s going to pay top dollar to ride on what’s left when they’re through cutting?
Anderson and the Class I railroads have problems with each other. Anderson also has problems with much of his largest constituency—his passengers. In rapid order Amtrak has eliminated its special discounts. No more student discount. No more senior discount. No more AAA discount. No more railfan (NARP) discount. No more veteran discount. Did I miss anything? Only the discount for the active-duty military survives (as it does on airlines). And with his concurrence Amtrak is ending all or almost all excursions and special trains and curtailing where private car owners can add and subtract their carriages from Amtrak trains.Down the tubes?
Let’s see where this leaves us. A great swath of Amtrak passengers has had its nose twisted. A politically active group of customers, the private car owners, is in outrage at a policy instituted without (to my knowledge) any consultation. People are asking questions about this man. For instance, 11 brand new dining cars sit idle in Hialeah, Fla., while long distance passengers on two routes get fed crap. What’s up? The big railroads don’t talk nice to Richard Anderson and are probably perceived by him as dinosaurs. Everyone is confused. And he says nothing. Therefore, I have five words of friendly advice for Richard Anderson: Tell us where you’re going.
It’s baffling why Anderson would so casually toss aside such a constituency, a group Trains Editor David P. Morgan could have been describing when he wrote this more than 50 years ago: “No other industry in the land possesses such an audience. It is unpaid, inquisitive, full of good will, enthusiastic. There is simply no counterpart for it in America.”Editor Morgan's successor, Jim Wrinn, suggests playing well with Amtrak might help.
Basically, friends in PV, non-profit, and steam locomotive land, you need to come to the table with hat in hand, a warm smile, and most importantly, a better offer. Up the ante. Make it worthwhile to Mr. Anderson.Perhaps so, although I'm not sure if I'm looking at a Trumpian Art of the Deal renegotiation here, or just another hold-up, this one coming about because the private car owners have invested in heating, cooling, braking, and safety appliances compliant with Amtrak standards.
The last figure I heard was that Amtrak earned about $3.7 million in private car moves and special trains on an overall budget of $2.2 billion. That’s about .17 percent of the total budget. There’s a lot of effort that goes on behind the scenes to make that $3.7 million happen. They aren’t cheap or easy dollars to earn. You cannot provide enough money to make this attractive, so figure out something else.
Remember also, that our traditions may seem foreign and strange to someone who isn’t from Train World. When Anderson, a former airline CEO went to work as Amtrak’s new boss, I have a vision of his staff sitting him down to explain private cars. I can see them using an analogy that goes something like this: “From time to time, on our Washington-Chicago route, we carry a 1920s private car with a dozen people on it. It’s like tying a Jenny bi-plane to the back of a 777.” Then everyone ducks as the man spits his coffee across the room.
There’s a new boss at Amtrak. Any time there’s a new boss, all old bets are off. It’s time to renegotiate and sweeten the pot.
Taken together, though, it appears as if the current management of Amtrak would not be troubled managing an orderly retreat from anywhere not the Acela Corridor.