Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby Matt Johnson » Sat Jul 14, 2018 1:11 pm

The long distance trains in my opinion give a pretty good bang for the buck in terms of utility offered for minimal investment. I can think of a lot of other areas of government spending I would target before putting my focus there. So much of our transportation policy is driven by ideological preference, disguised as market driven economics while subsidies remain hidden or at least unexamined where lobbyists hold sway. I think that's what Ryan means by monied interests.

As for me, I'll choose to avoid this dystopian nightmare by favoring transit oriented development to the extent that I'm able, so for me it is a lifestyle choice. Alas, I'm still forced to be a slave to the automobile. But I suppose transit is different from long distance services. My Amtrak trip to visit my brother in San Diego from my home at the time in Williamsburg, VA was largely an experiential trip (to use the jargon that I've been hearing lately) and I chose to take the really scenic route home via Coast Starlight and Empire Builder, after taking the Southwest Chief on the way out. That type of land cruise certainly makes up a part of the long distance ridership demand, and I met some interesting people visiting the US from various parts of the globe, but there's significant local ridership too along those routes. Amtrak's long distance trains are sort of a unique blend of services, probably more so than the VIA Canadian.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby mtuandrew » Sat Jul 14, 2018 5:17 pm

I’m with you there, Matt. Some routes (could) provide a really important end to end route, like the Capitol Limited, the Silvers, or the City of New Orleans. Others (could) serve strong intermediate markets in addition to a not-insignificant number of end-to-end riders, like the Lake Shore Limited, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief. The anchor around their neck is timekeeping, which keeps extra employees, supplies like food, and equipment from being either laid aside or used fully. Eliminate the time waste and you’ll eliminate a lot of FBS waste.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby R36 Combine Coach » Sun Jul 15, 2018 1:45 am

mtuandrew wrote:Some routes (could) serve strong intermediate markets in addition to a not-insignificant number of end-to-end riders, like the Lake Shore Limited, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief.
By comparison, how many "intermediate" passengers are there on the Canadian? (in particular the rural flag stops in Northern Ontario) Any comparison with the small villages and towns on the Western LDs (Builder, Zephyr, Chief, Eagle)?
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby jp1822 » Sun Jul 15, 2018 12:26 pm

R36 Combine Coach wrote:
mtuandrew wrote:Some routes (could) serve strong intermediate markets in addition to a not-insignificant number of end-to-end riders, like the Lake Shore Limited, Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Southwest Chief.
By comparison, how many "intermediate" passengers are there on the Canadian? (in particular the rural flag stops in Northern Ontario) Any comparison with the small villages and towns on the Western LDs (Builder, Zephyr, Chief, Eagle)?


I really feel the 2010 schedule change of the Canadian was a dividing line. Among other things, it eliminated and drove off the intermediate markets. The schedule had about 8 hours of running time added to it and began to serve the Canadian Shield at the wrong times.

The Perry Sound, Washago, and Sudbury traffic, was driven off by station stop times that were passenger unfriendly. On EVERY westbound Canadian I was on, be it winter or Spring, we stopped to depart or board passengers. Many booked "sections" on their journey to Sudbury - private office for day time business travelers, or the option to enjoy more scenic dome cars and particularly a sit down lunch in the dining car. That's most notably go e now.

Another is - east or westbound - the lake and cabin region across the Canadian Shield. I could ALWAYS count on stopping for at least two flag stops between Sioux Lookout and Winnipeg. It seemed as though the train was the only main way to get passengers, with canoe in the baggage car out to their weekend cabin! Obviously there are other ways these people are now served. But this traffic seems dried up. Even at Sioux Lookout, a service stop, passengers began or ended their journey.

The current Canadian schedule across the Canadian Shield - I don't see the intermediate traffic that once was. It was still light in comparison to Amtrak, but now, largely non-existent. I also don't think it is as scenic with the current schedule.

Most intermediate stops for the local Canadians seem to be the major ones - Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, Kamloops, Vancouver. The lengthening of the schedule and timekeeping has killed intermediate markets for this train.

Believe it or not, the Empire Builder gets a lot of Canadians boarding or departing across Montana, cause a quick drive across the border to a daily train that travels East or West! And the southern tier lost Via Rail Service back in the 1990s. A station stop outside of Glacier National Park - forget which one - had a lot of cars with Canadian plates in it!

Amtrak needs to get more relevant in operating its long distance trains if they are to survive. You can't be operating a 1950s train model in the 21st century! Everything from the way the train is staffed, the way it is operated (onboard service to integrating with technology to achieve better efficiencies), selection of amenities for price paid, way it can garner more up sells from passengers, supply chain of servicing and stocking the train, best way to allow for flexibility of supply and demand, management of the bottom line, etc. needs to be looked at and considered. Amtrak thinks it's just a cost problem. But eliminating costs without having an eye towards the passenger's needs and revenue opportunities is not going to work. Processes and operations need to be re-thought and modernized.

Does it make sense for Amtrak to maintain the expense of crew bases across the middle of the country for two trains a day (east and westbound)? Or should Amtrak try to eliminate the hotelling and crew base costs in exchange for having a chief of onboard services that travels end to end on a long distance train and contracts out the engineer job to the freight railroads (that already have their own crew bases)? VIA's done this for 20 years with the elimination of conductors. What happens if all long distance trains (only) have a chief of onboard services, extra coach attendant, and contracted engineers from the freight railroads? Like Auto Train, coach and sleeper buy a ticket that includes the price of meals in the diner, but the consist can also expand to have more than just two or three sleepers. Do the economics of just two sleepers and three coaches always play out? For single level overnight trains, is it one attendant per two Viewliners, or two attendants per three Viewliners? Just talking about ONE overnight with crew taking up some of the Viewliner sleeper space. Shouldn't a diner of the 21st century operate more cheaply and efficiently than a diner made in the 1950s and 1960s? And I am not talking about cold or boxed lunches..... Again, I don't know what the "formula" is, but the status quo is being shaken up by Amtrak.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby ThirdRail7 » Sun Jul 15, 2018 1:06 pm

They should work in tandem with more trains. A perfect example is this:


jp1822 wrote:Does it make sense for Amtrak to maintain the expense of crew bases across the middle of the country for two trains a day (east and westbound)?


It depends on the train (such as the auto train) but if you had another frequency, you may be able to turn them and bring them home. It may also feed the route.


jp1822 wrote: Or should Amtrak try to eliminate the hotelling and crew base costs in exchange for having a chief of onboard services that travels end to end on a long distance train and contracts out the engineer job to the freight railroads (that already have their own crew bases)? VIA's done this for 20 years with the elimination of conductors. What happens if all long distance trains (only) have a chief of onboard services, extra coach attendant, and contracted engineers from the freight railroads? .


Amtrak would be in violation of federal regulations enacted in 2012 requiring every train to operate with a certified conductor. Additionally, freight wants very little to do with passenger services. They don't want the liability or the expense. This particularly true since there are different classes of certifications for passenger and freight.

jp1822 wrote:Do the economics of just two sleepers and three coaches always play out? For single level overnight trains, is it one attendant per two Viewliners, or two attendants per three Viewliners? Just talking about ONE overnight with crew taking up some of the Viewliner sleeper space. Shouldn't a diner of the 21st century operate more cheaply and efficiently than a diner made in the 1950s and 1960s? And I am not talking about cold or boxed lunches..... [/url]

I've complained about this for years....to you...to boot:

ThirdRail7 wrote:I think what is left out of the questions is what Jp1822 mentioned a long time ago combined with the economics mentioned by Arlington. Can the model be viable? I say it can if you have enough faces in front of the plates and actually marketed the train for long distance travel.

Lost in the conversation is how Amtrak has continually cut the available seats on these trains over the years. If the consist was expanded, you would likely reduce your losses. Years ago, you may have had 300-360 coach passengers, 20-30 bedroom passengers, 18-24 roomette passengers and 32-64 slumbercoach passengers on the train.

At this point, the average eastern consist holds roughly 20 roomettes, 6 bedrooms and capacity for 240 coach passengers. Additionally, there are only a limited amount of seating designated for actually long distance travel so out of the 240 seats, you may have 120 that may be on the train long enough to choose the dining car over the cafe. it more seats were actually designated for longer travel, you may see the dining car receiving more patronage.

However, the cars aren't available so it is a moot point. Additionally, as Arlington pointed out, when the converted the Palmetto from a NYP-JAX day train to a dining car/sleeping car train from NYP-MIA named the Silver Palm, it tanked financially.

The diner lite seemed like it would have solved these problems, yet people revolted. I'm not in favor of throwing in the towel on the dining cars. However, I'm not in favor of running them for the sake of running. There is something to be said for choosing your market.

I think you can get away with killing the diner on some trains because the market will support it. We'll find out which ones soon enough.


Since this post, the consists have been "right sized", meaning cars have been cut off. I mean, why come up with a marketing plan to get people to your product when you can lop off equipment and bench it. So, this means less riders to utilize your services. On top of that, you have the cafe car competing against your dining car on the same train.

The model has its flaws but the service should be used to feed the corridors.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby R&DB » Mon Jul 16, 2018 6:42 am

adamj023 » Sat Jul 14, 2018 1:20 pm

After deregulation of the airline industry, the airlines eventually changed over to profitability after multiple bankruptcies.


Deregulation of the air and freight rail industries both resulted in profits. Before there was regulation of the trucking industry, they turned enormous profits. (Helped out by the tax payer funded Interstate Highway System)

What is the ultimate form of industry regulation in the US? Ownership by the government. I can't think of any government-run entity that makes a profit for the taxpayer. If Amtrak was privatized and deregulated (but keeping safety standards), it would probably find a way to turn a profit and the service would improve. Taxes payed by this new industry would also help reduce the burden on all taxpayers. Maybe do a trial with one LD route, Autotrain is probably a first choice. (It's already near profitability & would choose Cardinal or Sunset next) Interested (only) employees could be furloughed from Amtrak for the experiment and return if it fails. This would allow the new entity to "think outside the box" and find creatative new solutions to LD rail service.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby Gilbert B Norman » Mon Jul 16, 2018 7:48 am

R&DB wrote: I can't think of any government-run entity that makes a profit for the taxpayer


Mr. R&DB, by and large quite true, but there are a few exceptions. Coming to mind are the auto industry bailouts and of course Conrail.

Considering how on April 1, 1976, C-Day, the term "Con-game" was quickly in the vocabulary, we have to say things turned out "a bit" different. Who could have imagined that twenty years later, seven or so bankrupt roads would be the target of a bidding war?
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby bdawe » Mon Jul 16, 2018 1:12 pm

ThirdRail7 wrote: Additionally, freight wants very little to do with passenger services. They don't want the liability or the expense. This particularly true since there are different classes of certifications for passenger and freight.


Class 1s sure seem to operate a pretty substantial number of commuter operations for wanting so little to do with passenger services, including hundreds of trains per day on UP & BNSF Metra service, BNSF Sounder commuter service in Seattle (not a legacy operation), CP operated commuter services in Toronto & Montreal
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby ExCon90 » Mon Jul 16, 2018 2:48 pm

Gilbert B Norman wrote:
R&DB wrote: I can't think of any government-run entity that makes a profit for the taxpayer


Mr. R&DB, by and large quite true, but there are a few exceptions. Coming to mind are the auto industry bailouts and of course Conrail.

Considering how on May 1, 1976, C-Day, the term "Con-game" was quickly in the vocabulary, we have to say things turned out "a bit" different. Who could have imagined that twenty years later, seven or so bankrupt roads would be the target of a bidding war?

Actually it was April 1, adding April Fool jokes to the mix. And the most significant factor in the turnaround was the Staggers Act of 1980, which made it all possible. As a Conrail marketing employee at the time I can recall that the word throughout the company was that we were to operate like a for-profit private company, not a Government agency, since there would be no more money coming from Washington. I'm not sure it's generally realized outside the transportation business just what a life-changing event deregulation was for both railroads and truckers.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby SouthernRailway » Mon Jul 16, 2018 4:59 pm

R&DB wrote:I can't think of any government-run entity that makes a profit for the taxpayer. If Amtrak was privatized and deregulated (but keeping safety standards), it would probably find a way to turn a profit and the service would improve. Taxes payed by this new industry would also help reduce the burden on all taxpayers. Maybe do a trial with one LD route, Autotrain is probably a first choice. (It's already near profitability & would choose Cardinal or Sunset next) Interested (only) employees could be furloughed from Amtrak for the experiment and return if it fails. This would allow the new entity to "think outside the box" and find creatative new solutions to LD rail service.


Plenty of government-owned companies make profits. I believe that the US Postal Service and some housing-market participants (Fannie Mae, etc.) do.

I don't think that Amtrak would make a profit if it were privately-owned. The capital and overhead costs of running passenger trains are too high compared to potential ticket revenues. Amtrak would probably lose less money and would have better service if it were privately-owned, though--but then how could it survive as a privately-owned company, without government support? It's a chicken-and-egg question.

Autotrain is a great example. The original privately-owned Autotrain made some money some years and lost money other years. I think that it lost less than the Amtrak version does, but it didn't generate enough profits to survive as a private company, and it shut down. The same would happen with Amtrak.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby R36 Combine Coach » Mon Jul 16, 2018 5:08 pm

bdawe wrote:Class 1s sure seem to operate a pretty substantial number of commuter operations for wanting so little to do with passenger services, including hundreds of trains per day on UP & BNSF Metra service, BNSF Sounder commuter service in Seattle (not a legacy operation), CP operated commuter services in Toronto & Montreal

GO Transit was operated by CN until BBD takeover, CSX operated MARC until recently but no longer wants to deal with passenger service (CSX wants nothing to do with MBTA's Worcester Line).

SouthernRailway wrote:
R&DB wrote:I can't think of any government-run entity that makes a profit for the taxpayer.


Plenty of government-owned companies make profits. I believe that the US Postal Service and some housing-market participants (Fannie Mae, etc.) do.
USPS is a "revenue neutral" (break even) agency, but has been hit with deficits lately with a pre-funded pension mandate. PANYNJ earns huge profits on toll bridges, tunnels, airport fees, air rights and real estate (which is then used to subsidize rail transit), as is the TBTA (MTA Bridges & Tunnels).
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby ThirdRail7 » Mon Jul 16, 2018 7:22 pm

bdawe wrote:
ThirdRail7 wrote: Additionally, freight wants very little to do with passenger services. They don't want the liability or the expense. This particularly true since there are different classes of certifications for passenger and freight.


Class 1s sure seem to operate a pretty substantial number of commuter operations for wanting so little to do with passenger services, including hundreds of trains per day on UP & BNSF Metra service, BNSF Sounder commuter service in Seattle (not a legacy operation), CP operated commuter services in Toronto & Montreal


Conversely, Conrail got out of the commuter rail service. CSX kicked out of their legacy commuter contracts (indeed, charging Maryland an additional million dollars a year if memory serves when they couldn't find an operator by the time the contract ran out) and when NS was offered the VRE service, they declined. They didn't even want the Manassas line, even though it is their territory.

Whatever happened to that provision that would allow a company to operate 3 long distance trains? Did that generate any interest from the freight operators?
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby R&DB » Tue Jul 17, 2018 7:58 am

Conversely, Conrail got out of the commuter rail service. CSX kicked out of their legacy commuter contracts

Conrail was legislatively ordered out of the commuter business. Some areas (MARC, VRE) had bad experiences and others (NJ commuters) were happy to see them gone. But none of that has anything to do with LD trains.
The future of LD trains is dependent upon management realizing that they are operating a combined LD bus, hotel and restaurant business and each of those sectors should be run as a for-profit business.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby Mackensen » Tue Jul 17, 2018 8:44 am

R&DB wrote:
Conversely, Conrail got out of the commuter rail service. CSX kicked out of their legacy commuter contracts

Conrail was legislatively ordered out of the commuter business. Some areas (MARC, VRE) had bad experiences and others (NJ commuters) were happy to see them gone. But none of that has anything to do with LD trains.
The future of LD trains is dependent upon management realizing that they are operating a combined LD bus, hotel and restaurant business and each of those sectors should be run as a for-profit business.


Well, it's relevant because Conrail asked Congress to let them off the hook. Under the original legislation Conrail inherited the various private commuter operations from the bankrupts and was supposed to be reimbursed for any losses. Needless to say it didn't work out that way, and Conrail regarded these operations as an obstacle to eventual profitability. There wasn't any money to be made there, even with the government taking over capital renewal.

The various private railroads that operate commuter railroads today do so under contract, for a subsidy, using equipment bought by state actors, over tracks that they own. You don't see a Class I going around looking to pick up additional passenger business. Brightline is an unusual case, but has to be understood in the context of the FEC/Fortress seeking to develop property values along its main line. None of these factors are relevant to the possibility of a Class I reentering the passenger business. They got out in 1971 for a reason. That reason hasn't changed.
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Re: Do Amtrak LD trains have a future?

Postby R&DB » Tue Jul 17, 2018 10:33 am

Gilbert B Norman » Mon Jul 16, 2018 8:48 am

R&DB wrote:
I can't think of any government-run entity that makes a profit for the taxpayer


Mr. R&DB, by and large quite true, but there are a few exceptions. Coming to mind are the auto industry bailouts and of course Conrail.

Considering how on April 1, 1976, C-Day, the term "Con-game" was quickly in the vocabulary, we have to say things turned out "a bit" different. Who could have imagined that twenty years later, seven or so bankrupt roads would be the target of a bidding war?


This exchange from 26 hours ago has devolved and gone off-topic into a discussion of Conrail commuter service.

Conrail has not been government run since 1987. I do not see Mr Norman's case for Conrail as benefiting the taxpayer although he is correct that the Conrail bailout did have a happy ending. The Staggers Act allowed Conrail to become solvent and go Public, resulting in taxes payed into the government. Have the taxes paid in surpassed the taxpayer cost to create and subsidize Conrail? Who knows?
The auto industry bailout is the same thing, but I don't remember if it was ever a government-run entity like Conrail. Same result though in making failing businesses succeed.
In both cases Mr Norman you are correct. But in neither case has ownership been taken by the government as in the case of Amtrak. So I am at fault and wish to apologize for my error in using the word "government-run" instead of "government-owned" that Mr Norman quoted that led this thread off into Conrail and transit discussions.

Now back to LD trains future. :-)
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