Category Archives: Commentary

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

What you can do to improve passenger rail

The recent vote in the House of Representatives shows that, while there is significant support for passenger rail, we have a lot of work to do to build the sort of robust, national rail network this country deserves.

Here are some suggestions for ways that anyone can do to help build that network, adapted from a discussion on Amtrak Unlimited.

  1. Join and support the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Please also join your state and local rail advocacy groups, since decisions on passenger rail are increasingly being made by state legislatures.
  2. Respond to newspapers, television, radio, blogs and social media posts about transportation issues. Correct misinformation whenever possible, and hammer home the point that people do ride trains!
  3. Contact your local, state, and national elected officials, and make sure that they understand how important passenger rail is to those who are not served by other modes, and/or who cannot or will not drive or fly. Make sure that they know about and understand the statistics showing that younger people are choosing not to be dependent on cars.
  4. Talk to your fellow passengers while aboard Amtrak. Encourage them to join NARP and advocate locally. NARP has business cards that you can edit to meet your needs, and print locally or buy online. Many passengers who rely on Amtrak have no idea how service decisions are made, and where the money is coming from.
  5. Testify before your state legislature, and even before Congress, about legislation that affects passenger rail.
  6. Write some emails, and follow them up with snail-mail to your local elected officials, whether or not they are “your party” or not. Hand address the envelope. Sometimes, you may not prevail in the short term, but the lessons to be learned about politics, PR, and back-room dealing will serve you well in the future. In summary, “If rail travel is your passion, at some point, you are going to have to get passionate!”
  7. Foster support for improved passenger rail in other groups you belong to.
  8. Foster diversity among rail supporters. Recruit members and supporters who don’t fall into the traditional “old white guy” railfan demographic.
  9. Word of mouth is gold. Post photos of your train travels on Facebook. Many of your friends will start asking questions and make comments about how fun it looks. The more that these friends start taking the train, the more their friends start doing it because they’ve seen the pictures and/or join them on their next trip.
    Getting the ridership numbers up is a good reflection on Amtrak and can create the demand for more service. Also, getting more people on the trains means more advocates for rail service.
  10. Push back against rail opponents who focus only on “subsidies” and costs. Transportation of all kinds is a public good, and should be evaluated in ways beyond dollars and cents. Steer discussions toward the points that Joe Boardman made recently.
    Amtrak President Joe Boardman…maintains a focus on income statements and balance sheets, but he is not single-minded. He considers equally important a responsibility to provide affordable and reliable intercity rail mobility to rural families, college students, vacationers, an aging population, city dwellers without automobiles, and a growing number of citizens now signaling that they clearly prefer public transportation.
    …Boardman is relentless in educating members of Congress on public opinion polls, validated by Amtrak ridership gains, that voters even in hard-core conservative districts are supportive of federal financial support for Amtrak….
    “Boardman advocates [that politicians] recommit themselves to advance and fund public works projects that have been the foundation of America’s financial, cultural and global strength—transcontinental railroads, inland waterways, an interconnected air travel network, urban transit, the Interstate Highway System, and, of course, a world-class national intercity rail passenger network.”
  11. Push for a robust, truly national system. Much of the country is served by one train a day or less, on one route, and this winter’s disruptions have shown how fragile such a system is. We need multiple daily frequencies on the routes we have, and then alternate routes, so that people can be served even when there are disruptions.
  12. Encourage hotels and convention centers to include train stations on their “how to get here” web pages.
  13. Participate in the many online communities that discuss passenger rail, such as Amtrak Unlimited and others, as well as the many Amtrak-related Facebook communities.

What other ideas do you have?

Edit: Some additional suggestions from NARP, from the January 2016 NARP Newsletter.

Ways To Help NARP in 2016
Thanks to NARP members, 2015 was a very successful year
for rail supporters. The association’s hard work will continue
in 2016, so we hope you’ll consider helping NARP continue its
work advocating for a strong rail system as part of the national
transportation network. To that end, are a few things you can
do to help the NARP staff during the year. You can see the full
list here: http://bit.ly/1PNFwFR
1. Contact your congressional delegation. In 2015, we asked members to contact key legislators that led to, among other things, the defeat of anti-Amtrak provisions in the rail and transportation bills. If you didn’t send an email or make a
call in 2015, pledge to do so in 2016 when NARP sends eBlasts asking for your help.
2. Work with your local government. Now is the time to focus on grassroots outreach across the national network to
ensure that passenger advocates, mayors and state and local
officials are educated on the importance of rail as part of a
multimodal transportation system.
3. Encourage others to join NARP. “Over the long
term, NARP should have at least 100,000 members nationwide to amplify the voices of all of our citizens who support passenger rail as one of the most effective economic engines ever devised,” said President and CEO Jim Mathews. Tout the benefits of NARP membership and have them join here: http://bit.ly/1mCmqXY
4. Make a donation. Your donations in 2015 helped us
achieve major victories, and we need to keep the momentum
going. You can do this with cash donations, securities and stock
gifts. Go here — http://bit.ly/1OOoX7o — to see all the ways
you can contribute to NARP in 2016. And remember — it’s all
tax deductible!
5. Become a NARP leader. Applications are now being taken for those interested in being elected to the Council of Representatives as an At-Large Representative or those
interested in running for the NARP board (see page 5). The
deadline to apply is 11:59 p.m. (local time), March 31, 2016.
6. Join a local rail organization. NARP President and CEO Jim Mathews has emphasized the importance of grassroots efforts in the coalition for better rail. Check out this list of local groups to join. http://bit.ly/1W8vpvS
7. Become a NARP volunteer. Are you looking to build your resume, add to your creative portfolio, develop new expertise or just trying to make a difference? We have a variety of volunteer openings available across the country right now.
Click here to see the complete list of available opportunities.
http://bit.ly/1UPIf0M

Will Amtrak trains run on time?

Most Amtrak trains travel on tracks that Amtrak doesn’t own. The legislation that created Amtrak in 1970 included a provision that passenger trains should have priority over freight trains. But that provision has expired, and today, passengers often get stuck behind coal, oil, grain and other goods.

Congress tried to rectify this by passing legislation that would create standards of on-time performance to which the private railroads could be held. But that legislation gave Amtrak, in conjunction with the Federal Railroad Administration, responsibility for writing the rules.

Which led to the case argued today in the Supreme Court. Is Amtrak a government agency that has the authority to write regulations, or is it a private entity that would gain unfair advantage over other railroads by such actions?

It’s up to the Supreme Court to make this decision. Congress could also change the law to remove Amtrak’s authority to participate in the writing of on-time performance standards. We’ll see what the decision will be in the upcoming months.

UPDATED: Press coverage of the court’s deliberations:

What next for passenger rail?

Now that the election circus is over, and the candidates don’t have to posture and bombast, maybe we can move forward to get something done on passenger rail.

You laugh? Don’t forget that not too many years ago, support for rail service was broadly bipartisan, and honest representatives of all stripes still understand its importance.

For most politicians, rail is not a central issue. So this is an excellent opportunity to sway their opinion. We should tell our newly-elected (or re-elected) representatives now that we support a robust, national passenger rail network. They’ll listen if they hear from enough of us.