Responses to rail advocacy poll

An informal poll was posted on GrowTrains.org, AmtrakTrains.com, and on several Facebook groups related to passenger trains. Between October 3 and October 15, 2014, we received 104 responses to the question “What should the top priorities be for train advocates?” Responders were asked to pick no more than five of the following, or to add their own comments.

Here are the responses we received.

  • Improve on-time performance. (70 votes)
  • Advocate for more funding from Congress. (56 votes)
  • Purchase equipment to supplement or replace the Superliners. (35 votes)
  • Complete installation of WiFi on all trains (satellite-based, if necessary). (33 votes)
  • Increase frequency of all services beyond one a day. (26 votes)
  • Bring back the eastern section of the Sunset Limited. (24 votes)
  • Encourage Amtrak management to ride long-distance trains. (23 votes)
  • Encourage and promote connecting non-Amtrak train services. (22 votes)
  • Fix the Amtrak website to show correct sleeper costs. (22 votes)
  • Refurbish all Superliner and Horizon cars. (19 votes)
  • Create more “Parlour Cars” for trains beyond the Coast Starlight. (18 votes)
  • Standardize the passenger experience in business class. (12 votes)
  • Be transparent about the calculations of fares. (12 votes)
  • Bring back the Desert Wind. (9 votes)
  • Reroute one or more Chicago-New York trains through Michigan. (8 votes)
  • Bring back the Pioneer. (7 votes)

Here is a sample of the comments we received.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE

Don’t know what Amtrak or NARP can do about activist judges. Better to concentrate on things where we can make a difference.

On-time performance + more money would solve most of the other problems.  Ridership and revenues would increase, trains get a bigger voter base and increased usage would encourage states to think about frequency and links. I didn’t see a box for “employee attitude” but there needs to be more top-down supervision.  I don’t think having Amtrak brass ride the LD trains does the job unless they ride incognito.

FUNDING

The sine qua non. That without which nothing can be much improved.

Everything depends on funding. Funding has to be no. 1 priority.

Advocate the Federal Government and states of New Jersey/New York/Connecticut/Maryland for funding to replace Hudson River/East River/Baltimore tunnels.

SYSTEM EXPANSION, STATE-SUPPORTED SERVICES

The NEC is the jewel in Amtrak’s crown.  It’s living proof that intercity passenger rail the the potential to be a major transport mode in the United States.  Amtrak should not let it fall apart.

NARP needs to focus on the states more, especially with lower level agencies. NARP should be lobbying the California Public Utility Commission to replace its antiquated rules about platform heights so that there is a uniform platform height in the state and then to lobby the surrounding states so that the entire Western region can have level boarding. Similarly, they should be lobbying the states to increase their funding of corridor trains to increase service, improve speeds, and so forth.

NARP should consider changing its focus away from a focus on Federal lobbying in support of Amtrak to acting as more of a coordinating committee and central resource gatherer/organizer to focus lobbying on the individual states. Most lines are now funded and controlled by the states and the best growth, such as in California, has come from local state efforts.

NARP should expend more efforts on behalf of commuter rail improvements. Most American rail passengers are commuter, rather than intercity, and it’s not seemly to mostly ignore them while focusing so much effort on rural long distance lines that serve fewer passengers in a year than a commuter railroad may do in a day.

Shouldn’t NARP be putting a priority on supporting efforts to get funding for the (north) Portal bridge replacement and NEC Gateway? If the two Hudson river tunnels have to close one a time for a year each, I expect LD train service from NYP could be in jeopardy for the 2 year period. Why should a Silver, Palmetto, Crescent, Cardinal train carrying maybe 100-150 passengers in and out of NYP get priority over a NJT commuter train carrying up to 800 or 1000 passengers? .Hard choices will be made if there is only 1 operating Hudson river tunnel and those decisions will not be made by Amtrak.

What about a lot more emphasis on state corridor services? An expanded short to medium distance corridor system with an emphasis on services running over portions of the LD routes would help the long term viability of the LD trains over just about any other improvement.

Why push for restoration of the Pioneer, Desert Wind, SL to Florida over possible eastern and mid-West LD single night trains such which will have better cost recovery putting the LD train system subsidies on a better financial footing?

OK, so I’ve thought about this a bit, and I think NARP’s priorities should really be separated into three categories:
(1) priorities for lobbying Amtrak (and if Amtrak doesn’t respond, Congress)
(2) priorities for lobbying *state governments*
(3) priorities for lobbying the *federal government*
I think category #2 is the most important, and I think the priority lobbying effort there has to be “buy the tracks”. In some ways it’s an easy sell: point out that when a government (federal, state, or local) or Amtrak owns the tracks, passenger trains run pretty much on time and are popular, and when private “freight” companies own the tracks, they don’t run on time and suffer as a result. I suppose the second priority here should be “don’t sell the tracks” (for the tracks where the state government already owns them!) and the third priority should be “run some more passenger trains”.
In category #1, Amtrak’s internal top priority needs to be clear and consistent communications with passengers — we’ve had an absence of service alerts where they are needed, faulty pricing of sleepers on the website, lack of information about sudden changes to food service, lack of information about food service status in general (particularly on delayed trains), some OBS employees telling falsehoods to passengers for their own convenience, etc. Amtrak needs to act like a railroad and provide reliable, accurate information to customers.
The second (closely related) internal priority needs to be getting certain “recalcitrant” sections of Amtrak to operate in a manner consistent with everyone else: for instance, getting the Empire Service conductors to stop delaying trains by funnelling everyone through one door, getting the airplane-obsessed managers at the big city terminals to operate their stations like every other train station in the country, getting the one crazy dining car LSA who delays everyone at dinner on the CZ to run the car the same way every other LSA does, etc. If rumor is correct, getting Chicago maintenance to behave themselves like other maintenance bases would fall in this category too. This, unfortunately, calls for lots and lots of management; even micromanagement, if you will.
The third internal priority should be to attempt to implement the PIPs, which have been quite unreasonably ignored.
Better integration with other local passenger train services would also fall under the “lobby Amtrak” category.
In category #3, first priority should be enforceable penalties against the host railroads if they can’t run trains on time, and second priority should be capital funding.

Working on a solution to the Amtrak vs host RR issue struck down by the courts which could be easily resolved if the government appointed an independent arbitrator and rules restoring passenger train priority so passenger trains can increase average speed and improve on-time performance..

Work with states to have more routes in state. I’m in Louisiana. What about connections to Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Shreveport etc.

As a high priority matter upgrade all less than daily service to daily. Actually deliver on the PIP recommendations for LD trains.

I like to say the cure for Amtrak’s problems is more Amtrak. More and better equipment. More frequencies. Restored and added routes. So I certainly support more frequencies. But the question is to increase frequency of all services. Not such a hurry. A third or fourth added frequency in densely populated areas (e.g. Lake Shore Ltd.) could be more deserving of support than a second train out in the empty regions. Back to basics then: How can we hope to add another frequency anywhere without more equipment? Under the latest version of the Fleet Renewal Plan (latest I read), Amtrak hopes to see two lines producing new coaches, one each for single-level and bi-level equipment, 100 each per year, over six years or so. It didn’t publicly give an estimated cost for 1200 or more cars, but it’s going to be in a $3 Billion plus neighborhood. That’s the largest single cost item on Amtrak’s wish list outside of the NEC. Maybe that’s Priority #1?

Focus on corridors and daytime arrivals and departures between more cities – long distance trains are great, but the need now is for shorter and more frequent route.

We need a nationwide passenger rail system that is as frequent and good as what we have in the Northeast. Cut a few Acelas (can’t the rich businesspeople wait an extra hour for the next train?) and give that money to the LD trains. I live in the Northeast but see no reason why we should get everything and much of the country gets nothing. Also, the Cardinal needs to run every day. Many of the people I’ve met riding the LD trains are from abroad, and they do this on purpose (and spend their tourist dollars here) to be in an overnight sleeper.

Amtrak needs to greatly expand their Thruway services. Thruway connections are the single best, and cheapest, way of increasing ridership and revenue on existing services. 20% of California’s riders use a Thruway connection for their journeys; there’s no reason that Amtrak should not be offering a similar network of connections elsewhere.

When it can get more coaches to extend LD service:
Priority route #1.  Take the Cardinal daily.
Priority route #2:  Take the Sunset Ltd. daily from New Orleans to L.A.
Priority route #3.  Add a train giving waking hours service to Cleveland.
Priority route #4.  Add a day train Atlanta-NEC.
Priority route #5.  Restore the Lone Star (aka Texas Chief) Chi-Kansas City-Wichita-Oklahoma City-Ft Worth-Houston. (Or Chi-Ft Worth-Austin-San Antonio, depending on costs and of any reality of high-speed rail Dallas-Houston). This route would provide a second frequency Ft Worth-Austin-San Antonio. It could turn east at San Antonio to add a second frequency San Antonio-Houston-New Orleans. These would be the beginnings of corridor services.
Priority route #6.   If the Viewliner II experiment with the coming 60% increase in roomettes pays off, consider extending the Palmetto with sleepers into Florida, or adding frequencies on a couple more Eastern routes. There’s something wacky about having two trains arrive and depart Miami within a couple of hours of each other.

Reroute one or more Chicago-New York trains thru Michigan. Priority should be to increase frequencies on the Western end of this route. To build a basic “corridor service” using Amtrak’s LD trains. With enuff equipment and enuff money, it should be easy. LOL. :D
So, (1) Amtrak already has two trains on this Chi-Cleveland “corridor” — Capitol Ltd and Lake Shore Ltd. (2) Extend one or both Empire Service trains thru from NYC-Buffalo onward to Chicago. (3) Add a full, single-level, LD train Chi-NYC, thru Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  This extension will not add to CSX congestion in most of Upstate NY, only  ;) adding more trains Buffalo-Cleveland-Chicago. Total Amtrak LD trains running Chi-Cleveland will be 4, or 5 if both Empire trains are extended, or 6 with a second run on the Capitol Ltd route thru Pittsburgh to D.C. It’s important to serve Cleveland during waking hours. If we’ve got 5 or 6 Chi-NYC trains, I could see diverting one thru Michigan. Or extend a Wolverineto Toledo and Cleveland.
A new 4- or 5- or 6-train Chi-Cleveland “Amtrak Corridor” would demonstrate the pent-up demand here, and pressure the politicians to invest in more track upgrades for 110-mph service and 10 or even 12 trains a day. Meanwhile, of course it will take lots of money to add even two more trains. The tracks are crowded Chi-Cleveland-Buffalo. It will not be quick or cheap or easy to upgrade the route. But a 110-mph corridor should be the goal.

CUSTOMER SERVICE AND COMMUNICATION

NARP needs to lobby for greater flow of information from Amtrak to its customers. If a train is delayed, station staff need to let passengers know in a timely manner, the approximate delay, and they need to keep passengers up to date as information changes. Saying sorry has been shown to reduce malpractice lawsuits, it’ll also keep riders on trains when they’ve had bad experiences with delays.

Passenger experience for ALL classes and for all trains is inconsistent and the Amtrak Standards Manual is not followed. That includes bathroom cleanliness.

Handle service disruptions better. When a known problem exist let passengers know ahead of time about it, like in case of the EB or LSL or CL this summer.

NARP should push Amtrak to improve those areas that are directly controllable by Amtrak. Such things include ticket-change policies (particularly for AGR, S, S+, SE members), restroom cleanliness, product consistency, transparency (especially regarding delays, including on-board trains, at stations, and immediately issuing delay alerts on amtrak.com), some sort of passenger seat selection process improvements, and insisting that Amtrak re-evaluate boarding procedures system-wide, from the busiest stations with gates, to smaller stations where passengers are forced to line up and tickets are checked on platforms.

NARP should publicly push Amtrak to improve aspects fully under Amtrak’s control (boarding procedures, ticket fare calculations, service consistency, quickly informing passengers of delays/disruptions). NARP should press Amtrak for regular updates on the status of the various PIPs developed for long-distance trains (and then seemingly forgotten about). In short, NARP should be an advocate for Amtrak passengers first and foremost, both in struggles to improve the political/legislative environment but also to improve the passenger experience on Amtrak.

I think “advocating for more funding from Congress” is part and parcel of 4 of my 5 above choices. The difference between previous attempts and today is people are now clamoring for rail service across the USA. In Congressional districts large and small and urban and rural, we all want more service. If I could put a bug in the ear of someone at Amtrak, I’d encourage them to increase, develop, and maximize their real estate interests across the USA in places both big and small. In that same vein of “thinking like a business and not like a government arm”, they should actively seek corporate sponsorship with partners such as 1-800 FLOWERS (already an AGR partner-and a potential supplier for cut-rate flowers for dining & sleeping cars, Acela lounges, and more) or Tempur-Pedic (for onboard bedding) or Verizon (for onboard Wi-Fi). Martha Stewart for linens. Bath & Body Works for toiletries kits. Napa Vineyards for onboard wine & cheese tastings. These are just SOME of the opportunities to get others to underwrite the costs in exchange for national, daily exposure to a very specific, upper income demographic.

Encouraging Amtrak to improve it current services is the best first step. This means better OTP, improved connections and better accounting practices. Amenities should be returned to first class travellers as well as an improved use of technology. The website and station systems could use much better functionality. Also, onboard systems could greatly increase efficiency and productivity while adding value to the customers’ experience. By personalizing each route to meet the specific needs of its unique market, all while becoming more consistent and reliable as a national network will spark growth across the board. Only then should Amtrak be rewarded by increasing capacity, adding additional frequencies or even new routes.

Bring back the experience for sleeper passengers. Flowers and table cloths. (artificial flowers are OK.) Change the boring menu. Bring back apple or other pies. Newspapers can be sold in the food car on long distance trains. encourage congress to ride the trains and Amtrak management. Have more no Amtrak connecting route.

Were I to suggest things for NARP to pursue, I would aim at things that Amtrak can control today. I would call for more liberal same-day change policies, particularly for elite members of the Amtrak Guest Rewards program. It is nuts that an Acela passenger at the Select Executive level can be hit with a huge fare change for wanting to use a train an hour earlier or later than planned. I would call for some accommodation for sleeper passengers to obtain snacks and beverages off-hours in the lounge. If you have paid several hundred dollars for your ticket, should you really have to pay an additional $4.50 for a can of soda and a bag of chips at 10pm. I would call for a limited rollout of assigned seating in coach, business class, and Acela First Class. Not every seat (maybe 50%), but enough seats to permit a couple or family to be assured of sitting together if booked weeks or months in advance.
These are not new routes, or new frequencies that require lots of funding and years of planning. It is not calling for action by host railroads, that may or may not be possible.  These changes do not require congressional or state action. It just requires someone pushing Amtrak to try something new and break with the “it’s not the way we do things” mentality that they have had for 43 years. With the degree to which NARP is beholding to Amtrak and seemingly fearful of poking the bear, I don’t see them as an agent for change within Amtrak to benefit their members.

Lots of common sense and outside the Beltway is what is needed! It’s good that fresh blood is being brought on board, too much clubiness in WAS and its good that actual Amtrak Customers get to have input and get Amtrak and NARP moving!!

EQUIPMENT

“Purchase equipment for Eastern LD trains.” I’d rank single-level equipment well above the Superliner order. Several LD trains in the East are not impossibly far from breakeven or an operating profit. Let’s improve those results and then turn to the Western trains and their heavy losses. But the poll forgot to ask about single-level coaches to replace the Amfleets.

Honestly, what Amtrak needs to look into doing on the equipment front is an attempt to re-equip one LD train at a time.  I think there is a strong case to be made, assuming funding could be found, for trying to completely re-equip the Auto Train (I’m sure that Talgo or another provider could help work something out, even if a power car became necessary), which would improve said train’s bottom line, and then redistributing the roughly 40 Superliners among the rest of the system.  I think a high-profile re-equip of the Meteor, Star, LSL, and/or Cap would work out well…in the case of the Silvers and the LSL, a good re-equip with 4-5 sleepers on the train in question would likely kick the train being upgraded deep into the black.

Replacements for the Amfleet I fleet.  (They seem to be in pretty good shape, but they are almost 40 years old.)

FARES

IMHO, Amtrak fares ARE “transparent” with no extra fees that pop up only on the last screen before payment like a lot of airlines and hotels. As an extreme contrast, I know someone who flew RyanAir and paid a one-Euro “fare” with 99 Euros in “fees.”

Do something about the ridiculously high coach fares on the NEC.  One way  BAL-PHL for a Northeast Regional coach should not be ~$100, even for high bucket. I have some concern that unless the NEC fares are kept competitive, Amtrak will start losing market share to Bolt Bus Megabus, etc.