Category Archives: Commentary

Elect train supporters in 2016, starting today

The 2016 elections are a year away. It’s time to start advocating for improved passenger trains now.

Many candidates don’t have this issue on their radar. Others argue that would cost too much. Malcolm Kenton at Trains magazine argues that infrastructure spending is a matter of priorities.

Past mega-projects eventually succeeded because enough leaders decided that they were important enough priorities that they found a way to pay for them, committing the necessary resources to them each year for as long as it took. The same could be said about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like it or not, two successive presidents and majorities in Congress have decided that these war efforts were important enough to spend trillions of dollars, much of it borrowed money, for which nearly everyone could think of other (perhaps better) uses.
“For conversations to end with “we don’t have the money” represents defeatist thinking. Instead, we should all be making the case that achieving the improved mobility and connectivity.

Decisions on these sorts of projects will be made not only in Washington, DC, but also in state capitols and city halls around the country. So it’s up to us to make sure that our favorite candidates support passenger rail. The time is now.

-CH

Some good news for passenger trains. Help us make more!

Grants have been awarded for projects to expand rail in Vermont and New Mexico, and for public transit in Milwaukee and Tacoma. Many people worked hard behind the scenes to make them happen, in their home communities, and in Washington, DC.

The success of state organizations like the Vermont Rail Action Network and the Amtrak Southwest Chief Coalition, and of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, depends on the volunteer time and financial support of people like us.

One way you can help coordinate national and local rail advocacy efforts is to join the NARP Council. The deadline to apply is December 1. Please consider applying!

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

Amtrak is in the train business

Every time Amtrak transports passengers by bus, or cancels a train, it has failed in its mission. Unfortunately, Amtrak seems to have forgotten this. Indeed, the title of Amtrak.com is “Train & Bus Tickets — National Railroad — USA & Canada.” Every time I see “bus,” I shudder.

I’ll give Amtrak a pass in places where there are no tracks, or for short distances, such as the connections between San Francisco and the East Bay. But it’s time to get serious about plugging the egregious holes in the system map. Amtrak should not be running a fleet of buses between Bakersfield and LA, or between cities where there used to be trains, like New Orleans to Florida, Duluth to the Twin Cities, or Minot to Missoula. Amtrak counts these places as being served by Amtrak, but one or two buses a day is not sufficient.

And when the unexpected happens, Amtrak seems to rush to put people on buses. There seems to be a mindset that it’s more important to get people to their destinations in a hurry than to get them there by train. Granted, for some people, travel time is paramount. But as I talk to passengers, I have become increasingly convinced that most would prefer a delayed arrival by train than a sooner arrival by bus (or air). Such passengers have chosen to take the train for medical, physical, or comfort reasons, and may be incapable or unwilling to travel by other means.

The railroad should remember that it’s a railroad, and make getting people to their destination by train its top priority.

To do that, you and I need to pressure our national, state and local officials to give Amtrak the staff and equipment it needs to meet this simple goal. Today’s passenger rail network is much too fragile and skeletal to do so. That urgently needs to change. And the freight railroads that host Amtrak need to be reminded that we the taxpayers have funded a good chunk of their infrastructure, and they were let off the hook for running passenger trains when Amtrak was created. It’s time to hold them to their end of the bargain.

Politicians, Amtrak, and the private railroads must get together and restore the rail network you and I paid for. That will benefit everyone in a 21st century where fossil fuels are rarer, more dangerous, and much more expensive.

Yes, it will cost money. But infrastructure needs to be a national priority, and trains are the most efficient way to make this country as mobile as it needs to be.

We’re seeing more support for passenger rail today than we have in the past few years. Now, let’s make our dreams a reality. Join NARP and your local rail advocacy organization. Contact your elected officials. The light at the end of the tunnel to a brighter future is a train!

–CH

A lesson for rail advocates

This week’s events can provide a useful lesson for those of us who support passenger rail. Public support for gay marriage turned around quickly in the past few years, because very few people could no longer honestly say, “I don’t know anyone who is gay.”

Now, it’s up to us to make it impossible for people to honestly say, “I don’t know anyone who takes trains.” Spread the word!

–CH

The United States of Rail Supporters is Alive and Well

When someone asks to join one of the rail-related Facebook groups that I administer, I take a quick look at their profile. The idea is to keep out spammers, but it can be an eye-opening experience.

Some of the folks I’ve reviewed belong to groups, and “like” people and organizations, that are pretty alien from what I’m used to. But, no matter how old they are and where they’re from, they have one thing in common: an interest in trains.

So despite the partisan bickering we sometimes see in Washington, DC, and in some state capitols, I believe that Americans of all ages, ethnicities, and political beliefs, support passenger rail. Those of us who talked with our Congressional representatives on behalf of the National Association of Railroad Passengers in April were pleased at the positive receptions we received from almost all of the representatives we spoke with, from both parties and all regions.

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, please keep talking to your Federal, state and local elected officials. Participate in your party’s nominating process. Make sure that your party has a pro-rail plank in its platform, and help it select candidates that support passenger rail.

With your help, we can put partisanship behind us, and build the rail system everyone wants: as NARP calls it, A Connected America.

–CH

From tragedy, let’s make a better train system

This has been a very tough week for everyone who cares about trains, we the passengers, and the organizations that keep them running. The amount of verbal garbage that has been spouted by people with no knowledge has been astounding. (Check out what’s being said about the engineer’s personal life if you dare, but I warn you, you’ll need a strong stomach.)

The administrators of public forums like Amtrak Unlimited, and the many folks who manage the train-related Facebook groups, have been glued to our computers almost nonstop since Tuesday night, trying to keep up. The AU moderators, in particular, deserve BIG kudos for what they have been doing, volunteering their time and energy because they care about trains, and the people who ride and run them.

THANK YOU!

Now, let’s make sure that the American passenger rail system becomes the best and safest that it can be. Take time out from writing here, and tell your elected officials that you support trains! NARP has made it easy to contact Congress, but also tell your state and local leaders.

If this tragedy leads to an improved and safer system, then the passengers who died will not have done so in vain.

–CH

Trains, Cities, and Equality

For better or worse, trains are inextricably linked to cities, and a healthy passenger rail system depends on vibrant urban areas.

Of course, trains are well-suited to serve locations of all sizes. But they have particular advantages in serving rural areas that have no other service, and in providing direct service to downtowns.

So it’s not surprising that Millennials want trains, and they want to live in cities with good transportation.

Those of us who participated in this year’s NARP Day on the Hill were pleased to discover that we got a much better reception than we did last year. There seems to be a glimmer of hope that we’ll return to seeing support from elected officials representing urban and rural, liberal and conservative districts, as has been the norm in the past.

But modern passenger rail won’t work if it’s surrounded by crumbling, hostile communities and infrastructure. Just like in the 1960s, trains will be left to rot if they are considered to be an urban amenity, and the better-off will retreat behind their gated communities and their locked personal cars.

These scenarios are already happening. Canada’s trains are not doing well because they are perceived as too elitist, despite their serving many places with no other transportation options.

So it’s too soon to expect a wholesale defection from the 20th century’s car- and airplane-centric ways of thinking. We have a lot of work to do.

The first step: Passenger train advocates need to build the largest possible tent. We need to welcome everyone: rich, poor; urban, rural; of all ages, abilities, races, backgrounds and political beliefs. That variety of support is imperative if we are to build a consensus for a modern, reliable, and efficient 21st-century rail system.

Trains need to become the place that people know they can be comfortable, and they need to travel and make connections between vibrant, healthy cities and towns.

–CH