Category Archives: Amtrak

Trains don’t grow on trees

Every once in a while, someone will post that they’re tired of politics, and just want to talk about trains. But are these folks naive? Whether they like to ride trains, or watch them roll by, how do they expect service to survive without the hard work that’s done every day in Washington, DC, by organizations like the National Association of Railroad Passengers, and by state advocacy groups in state capitols and with local elected officials?

I think most of us would agree that the current political environment can be poisonous and hyper-partisan. But support for passenger rail service is still one of the few subjects that finds support on both sides of the aisle….if you and I keep telling our elected representatives that passenger rail is important.

Please join NARP for our annual “Day On the Hill” if you can make it to DC in a couple of weeks. And if you can’t, contact your elected representatives, and show them how passenger rail affects your community.

Working together, we can make sure that the “Train Tree” stays healthy and growing!

-CH

How can Amtrak improve accessibility?

Charlie Hamilton, NARP Council Rep. at Large (WA), is part of a team asking for input from us and others on the topic of Amtrak trains, stations, and passenger services being ADA compliant for those traveling passengers that may have limited mobility or other physical disabilities. These items can also include concerns that have been addressed through current ADA guidelines but which could be improved.

For example, Stephanie Weber, NARP Council Rep. (WA), offered the concern of passengers with impaired hearing having a difficult time understanding station announcements given by Amtrak employees. Also, there are stations that don’t have a visual train status information board for those to read that are unable to hear a PA system.

At your earliest convenience, if you have ADA topics relating to Amtrak trains, stations, and services offered that should be addressed, please contact us. Be specific so Charlie can accurately present your suggestions/concerns.  Should you have any questions, please contact Charlie Hamilton.

UPDATE: Thanks so much for everyone’s continued input. We are collecting comments here, and in a number of other locations:

Amtrak Unlimited
http://discuss.amtraktrains.com/index.php?/topic/69449-how-can-amtrak-improve-accessibility/

Amtrak Fans on Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/groups/AmtrakFansGroup/permalink/697139910463687/

@AmtrakFansNews on Twitter

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Amtrak Riders on Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/groups/AmtrakDeafHOH/permalink/388955888116149/

Vote for rail supporters at all levels

For now, seven races shift toward Democrats:

Florida’s 7th District (John L. Mica, R) from Tilts Republican to Tossup

Representative Mica (R-FL7) has been known for micro-managing Amtrak for several years, but he is now facing a real struggle in his bid for re-election.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has a list of local transit measures on their website here, but they can’t endorse candidates because of their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. If anyone knows of candidates who are worthy of endorsement by passenger rail supporters, please post them here or on the Grow Trains Facebook page.

Don’t forget to vote for passenger rail supporters in the Senate, the House, in state legislatures, and locally!

Amtrak employees paid to report passengers to law enforcement

Amtrak employees have a responsibility to report suspicious activities to the appropriate authorities.

But according to the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Justice, some transportation employees (including Amtrak employees) have been participating in a poorly-managed Drug Enforcement Agency program that pays “tipsters” for information with very little accountability.

But the report indicates that the DEA is as interested in cash as it is in drugs, thus potentially leading to  questionable searches. It’s well-known in the train-riding community that such incidents happen frequently in certain places.

Balancing passenger safety with the needs of law enforcement is a tricky proposition at best. But this balance needs to be decided upon in the light of day.

A good choice, but don’t expect miracles

Amtrak’s announcement that retired Norfolk Southern executive Charles “Wick” Moorman will be the railroad’s next president has been greeted positively.

Railfans immediately started posting their wish lists for Mr. Moorman: resurrection of every route Amtrak ever had; return of old-style elegant food service; and so on…even a steam excursion program similar to Norfolk Southern’s.

Well, dream on. We’re pleased that Amtrak has selected a widely-respected executive. But Mr. Moorman is going to need our help to make our wishes come true. This fall, we need to vote for members of Congress, governors, legislators, and local officials who are willing to fund passenger rail.

So please, ask candidates if they support better trains, and let us know what you find out. Mr. Moorman needs our support.

-CH

Trains bring people together

In the lounge car, travelers who might not ordinarily come together due to economic, geographic or social stratification suddenly find themselves sharing tables. They are “people you’d never put together, but on a train you can, and it works,” [59-year-old Chicagoan Vivian Lonak, our sleeping-car attendant, who has worked for Amtrak for seven years,] said.

Chugging west on Amtrak, family-style

Why do I work for better trains? Because I believe that bringing people together improves understanding, and understanding makes it easier for all of us to live together on this world we share.

We can no longer accept a world where people travel in their own little bubble cars, ignoring the humans around them. We can no longer accept a world where everyone gets “news” that reinforces pre-existing beliefs.

Haven’t been on a train in a while? Join me and my friends from the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Now is the time!

–CH

What the new Siemens Chargers mean for riders

From Railway Age:

The first two Siemens SC-44 Charger diesel passenger locomotives have arrived in Colorado for the start of testing at TTCI’s Pueblo, Colo., facility.

Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) awarded Siemens a $228 million contract in 2014 to supply 32 of the 125-mph diesel-electric locomotives for use on Amtrak services in the states of Illinois, California, Michigan, Missouri and Washington. The locomotives are being assembled at the Siemens plant in Sacramento, Calif., and the first units are due to be accepted by IDOT in December.

The first options for additional units were exercised in November 2015, when the states of California, Illinois and Maryland ordered a total of 34 locomotives.

In September 2014, Florida East Coast Industries subsidiary All Aboard Florida ordered 10 Charger locomotives to operate its Brightline higher-speed passenger service from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, which is due to be launched next year. Assembly of these locomotives is now under way at Sacramento.

The four-axle, AC-traction Charger is the first locomotive to be equipped with the Cummins QSK95 prime-mover. The 95-litre, 16 cylinder engine is rated at 4,400 hp (3.28 MW) and is equipped with Cummins’ Modular Common Rail Fuel System (MCRS) with quad-turbocharging. The QSK95 is also equipped with Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) exhaust aftertreatment, enabling it to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tier 4 emissions standards.

For the last few years, Amtrak’s diesel fleet has been pretty static, excluding the rebuilt stimulus P40DC locomotives. However, weather extremes have not been kind to the fleet, and on numerous occasions a host railroad’s locomotive is leading an Amtrak train. I can only imagine the frustration a host railroad has when an Amtrak locomotive has failed on a section of their track, no less the passengers.

The new SC-44’s, as the Chargers are being called, will free up in the Midwest upwards of about 20 locomotives that Amtrak should have overhauled immediately. When Amtrak’s fleet is at peak performance, passenger satisfaction improves. Coming home from the 2014 NARP Spring Council of Representatives meeting, the locomotive I was on (all but certain it was an AEM-7) experienced technical issues a little north of the Metropark station. Eventually the issue was fixed enough so that we could continue on our way, but we were an hour late into New York City.  I have read that the ACS-64 have very good reliability.

Furthermore, as locomotives are being retired, Amtrak should encourage transit agencies across the country to purchase them and even save them in the interim should a state out of the blue decide to start an intercity service or a commuter rail service. Equipment should see as much re-purposing as possible.

Hopefully in the next few years we will see much more reliable and comfortable equipment coming for Amtrak. But that means all of us in the public bring to light that Amtrak and all passenger rail operators in the United States need proper funding and regulation that allows for innovation and growth.

 

May Day, A-Day, Yea Day!

May 1, 1971: Amtrak begins operations. Its creation was an unprecedented taxpayer-funded lifeline to the freight railroads. They were given the authority to get out of the passenger rail business, in return for allowing Amtrak trains priority on their tracks.

Amtrak was not expected to last very long, since most people believed that passenger trains would be completely replaced by the publicly-funded highway and air traffic control systems. But forty-five years later, passenger trains are more popular than ever, despite chronic underfunding.

So let’s celebrate Amtrak’s anniversary by reminding our elected representatives that passenger rail is still an amazingly good value. The “Mayday” from the freight railroads that we answered in 1971 was the right thing to do. Tell elected officials in Congress, state capitols, and city halls to say “Yea!” to rebuilding a robust and reliable national system.

Amtrak is in the train business, part 2

The debacle surrounding this week’s rollout of the new Amtrak Guest Rewards credit cards from Bank of America prove, once again, that Amtrak is in the train business. And it sometimes has significant challenges doing that. So if Amtrak is going to venture outside of its core competencies, it should make sure to do such ventures well, and not in such a way as to have a negative impact on its core mission.

In today’s world, of course, it’s expected that any large travel-related customer-service business will offer the sorts of perks that its competitors do, like “frequent traveler” loyalty programs and co-branded credit cards. These can be significant money-makers, and can reinforce the predilection of a company’s customers to return.

But only if the perks are done well, which arguably, Amtrak’s are not.

The recent announcement of “Amtrak Guest Rewards 2.0” has not made many of its best customers happy, both because the perks have been significantly devalued, and because the new program is much less enticing for the majority of Amtrak passengers who don’t live in the Northeast Corridor.

Then, to top it off, the rollout of the new credit card was botched, due to an error that caused the online application system to reject everyone.

There’s no excuse for such a disaster. While it’s probably true that the application rejections were most likely due to programming errors on the part of Bank of America, Amtrak very obviously didn’t do its due diligence, both during the selection process for its new credit card partner, and the evident lack of any sort of beta testing before the application site went live.

Amtrak, with its chronic underfunding, antiquated equipment and facilities, uncomfortable tenancy with freight railroads, complex employment rules, and opaque accounting, has enough problems as it is. It doesn’t need “loyalty” programs that have the opposite effect of driving away its best customers.

The folks at Amtrak headquarters need to apologize to their customers who have been affected by their recent ventures. Then, they need to think seriously about getting their own house in order before getting into more ill-advised and badly-implemented side ventures. After all, Amtrak is facing significant competition as an operator of passenger rail for the first time in forty-five years. Time to get your act together, Amtrak.

–CH

Update:

I am not suggesting eliminating AGR or the credit cards. I’m saying that they need to be done right in order to meet the needs of both Amtrak and its customers.

I imagine that most of us would have been perfectly happy to participate in focus groups and beta tests before both the new AGR and credit cards were publicly announced. Which would have provided Amtrak with the feedback they needed to work out the bugs, and would have prevented it from getting an unnecessary black eye at a time when it is under scrutiny for other reasons.

Salad dressing and broken-down trains: No way to run a railroad?

I recently saw a letter that was sent to Amtrak President Joe Boardman, with copies to Rep. Mica and the writer’s Congressional representative. The letter focused on two complaints about the writer’s recent trip: how salad dressing was presented in the dining car, and that it was twelve hours late due to locomotive breakdowns.

The writer made the point that these are symptoms of larger issues pervading all of Amtrak, and I agree.

Management of a passenger railroad can’t afford to take their eyes off of any aspect of their operation, no matter how big or small. Amtrak cannot compete on travel time except in certain specific corridors, and they can’t compete on price, so they need to maintain a level of reliability, passenger comfort and amenities that will allow them to find and retain customers among those who aren’t necessarily time-sensitive, but want comfort, and want to get to their destination when they expect to.

In addition, Amtrak is, for better or worse, governed by our elected representatives in Washington, DC, and while most Congresspeople don’t pay much attention to trains, they do hear from constituents about the railroad that you and I pay for.

As the election season heats up, we need to make expanded passenger rail an issue. There are many good reasons that conservatives and liberals alike should support a robust rail network. All of us need to work with our favorite candidates and political parties to make sure that they include pro-rail planks in their platforms. And those platforms should be served by good and frequent trains! 😀

–CH