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This Week at Amtrak 2007-02-01

February 1st, 2007
  1. (Sigh) There is Amtrak winter naughtiness again in Chicago. Many of us had optimistically thought the Winter of ’07 was going to be the winter Amtrak got over its many bad weather operating problems in Chicago. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case.Here’s what Amtrak’s internal daily report had to say about the Cardinal, running from Chicago to New York City via Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Washington.

    The report for January 31st says:

    Train 50 [The Cardinal, complete with sleeping cars, dinette, and coaches, departing Chicago on Tuesday, January 30th at 5:45 P.M., Central Time] … operating with locomotive 205 and 6 cars reported south at Dyer [Indiana, 29 miles out of Chicago and one hour and 12 minutes after the scheduled Chicago departure] that all toilets were inoperative account frozen, except for (1) toilet in lounge car. Beech Grove mechanical advised to meet train in Indianapolis, but advised that if they were able to thaw toilets that there might be freeze damage and that toilets could freeze again after departure. Due to health and sanitation issues with one working toilet and unable to confirm repair of frozen toilets, decision was made to arrange for busses and terminate train. (2) busses were secured to meet train at Cincinnati where 46 passengers where transferred to the busses to destination.

    What the report doesn’t say: The trainmaster in Chicago ordered the train out of the initial Chicago terminal in this condition, with toilets frozen, despite the protests of the train’s conductor.

    The train was terminated at Cincinnati, 319 miles out of Chicago and at 3:00 A.M. because of the unsanitary conditions.

    Contrary to internal Amtrak advisories, operating employees report the train came from the yard in this condition, and the conductor, upon reporting the inoperative toilets, was ordered by management to depart anyway. The crew was unable to do anything to fix the toilets and gave up near Dyer, where they advised the Operations Center of the problem. Mechanical personnel from Beech Grove Shops were to meet the train at Indianapolis but said that even if they could thaw out the frozen toilets, there could be leaks due to burst pipes, and the toilets could freeze up again shortly afterwards.

    Buses were called to meet the train at Cincinnati, where passengers were transferred and taken to enroute destinations up to Washington, D.C. Passengers for Northeast Corridor points north of Washington were handled by NEC trains.

    Food and beverages in the lounge/dinette car were loaded onto the buses and provided complimentary to passengers; meal stops were made by the buses on Wednesday.

    Equipment was deadheaded from Cincinnati to New York.

    Looking at this situation, one Washington wag commented, “Seems to be a common problem. A terminal manager will push a train out of his area in order to improve his on-time batting average and if it hits the fan later on, well, it’s someone else’s problem.

    “The other question is why the yard crews and management in Chicago still can’t find the 480-volt electrical service to keep the equipment warm during layovers. [Installed and intended to avoid problems exactly like this one.]”

    At this early date, we know the Chicago Amtrak boss is a longtime operations veteran and good railroader and will likely take action, but, also, what does President and CEO Alex Kummant know about this personally, and what will he do to rectify such problems?

  2. Other folks in Illinois, not riding the Cardinal of January 30th, are excited about the possibility of expanding Amtrak service in their state. United States Senator Dick Durbin is among those pushing for expanded service.Reporter Thomas Geyer, writing in the Quad-City Times, on Saturday, January 27th, which covers events in Rock Island, reported on a public meeting about Amtrak.

    “We’ve been going to Washington for many years in pursuit of rail service for the Quad-Cities and we always came away empty,” Rock Island City Manager John Phillips said. “For years, the people there would just stare at us blankly, not giving us any indication that things would ever be different.”

    Now, he said, it seems as though things are different, “and with Amtrak’s success in Illinois and elsewhere, federal lawmakers are taking a fresh look at things.” [Senator] Durbin, along with George Weber, chief of the passenger rail division of the Illinois Department of Transportation, or DOT, and Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director for governmental affairs, gave their ideas to a crowd of about 200 people during an hour-long meeting at Rock Island’s Abbey Station. … Amtrak’s goal is to double the number of riders nationwide by 2020, he [Lang] said, adding that Amtrak is not looking at long-distance rail service. The company’s future is servicing corridors 300 to 500 miles.

    He said Illinois is one of 14 states that have a rail service contract with Amtrak.

    Oops! What? Did the Quad-City Times reporter correctly quote Mr. Lang, a long time Amtrak public affairs veteran and experienced spokesman, saying “Amtrak is not looking at long-distance rail service. The company’s future is servicing corridors 300 to 500 miles.”?

    Putting two and two together, and hoping it doesn’t add up to five, we have last week’s offering from Mr. Kummant in the Associated Press article which was printed across the land that long distance train ridership was expected to be flat, and reiterating the belief in state sponsored corridors of 300 to 500 miles in length.

  3. But, wait, there’s more. Amtrak This Week, the company’s internal employee communication (and no relation to This Week at Amtrak), prominently features Mr. Kummant’s writings, saying:

    Dear Co-workers,

    Let me take a moment to bring you up to date on a couple of important issues, one of which is the work we’re doing to improve our long-distance on-time performance. Because it’s essential that we foster a productive relationship with our freight partners at all levels, I’ve met with each major host railroad CEO at least once, the most recent visits being to BNSF and NS just this month. In addition to targeting some of our chronically late trains, we’re also identifying new ways to expand capacity for growth and improved reliability in the future.

    While I’m far from satisfied with the current state of long distance OTP, we’ve seen some solid improvements on Auto Train and Silver Service trains since we began targeting those trains with CSXT in August. Auto Train OTP has improved 27 percentage points, Silver Meteor 38 percentage points and Silver Star 22 percentage points (comparing Aug. 1 through Jan. 25 to the same period last year).We still have work to do there, but I know the crews aboard the trains have noticed the difference.

    Poor OTP sets off a downward spiral that affects not only passengers’ confidence in Amtrak, but also taxes our crews and puts our equipment cycling and servicing way out of whack.

    I have another meeting with UP’s CEO Jim Young next week, and I will continue to keep you informed about what we’re doing on this front.

    Did you notice that one line neatly tucked into the statement: “In addition to targeting some of our chronically late trains, we’re also identifying new ways to expand capacity for growth and improved reliability in the future.”?

    Let’s look at some of those words, again: “expand capacity for growth and improved reliability in the future.”

    What type of growth are we talking about? Most likely corridor growth, but, the majority of Mr. Kummant’s writing seems to be about the long distance network. Is it possible that Mr. Lang, who is far down the corporate food chain from Mr. Kummant, was just continuing to spout the company line as instructed, where Mr. Kummant may be signaling a change in thinking about the many possibilities for growth and financial improvement through the long distance system?

    Time, of course, will tell, but this provides a possible glimmer of hope that “someone gets it” when it comes to the many virtues of Amtrak’s long distance network of trains.

  4. Another interesting note from Amtrak This Week; apparently Amtrak is beginning a campaign to stop being America’s Best Kept Secret:

    Marketing and Product Management:

    Amtrak Chairman David Laney and Westwood One’s Jim Gray will present the “Amtrak/Westwood One Player of the Year” award during the Amtrak Super Bowl XLI halftime show on Westwood One Radio.

    Well, if you’re going to stop being a secret, it’s nothing like making a splash in radio during the Super Bowl. Good work, Amtrak.

  5. An Amtrak/passenger rail update from here in Florida reveals that the State of Florida, which under now retired Governor Jeb Bush in 2001 set aside $60 million for implementation of Amtrak service over the Florida East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to West Palm Beach where the service would join the existing coast service down to Miami on the old Seaboard Air Line/CSX main line, still has the money waiting for use for this project. Sources say Florida DOT and Amtrak are still having discussions regarding the implementation of this service.
  6. Beginning today, Jim Young of Union Pacific Railroad will become the railroad’s chairman of the board, following the retirement of Dick Davidson, a 47 year UP veteran. Mr. Davidson was chairman of UP for 10 years.Notable about Mr. Davidson’s service to the UP was the indigestion of the Southern Pacific Railroad takeover by the UP and the resulting and still recurring problems with the Sunset Limited and Coast Starlight routes for on time performance issues, plus, the comment by his former chief spokesman labeling Amtrak passenger trains as “novelty transportation,” as opposed to being a part of our nation’s domestic transportation network.

    We wish Mr. Young, the new chairman of UP, every success in his leadership of the company.

  7. The Mobile, Alabama Press-Register reported Sunday, January 28th on the death of the lead partner in the redevelopment of the former L&N/CSX/Amtrak hurricane damaged station and office building on Mobile’s waterfront next to downtown.The remaining partners in the project, which will demolish the old building and build the 241-unit Water Street Landing, will still create Mobile’s first waterfront condominium project. The project will include 60,000 square feet of retail space, and will be built on the west side of the existing CSX main line track. Water Street Landing will be built next to the Mobile convention center, which is also built atop the CSX track, creating a tunnel for all trains.

    The Mobile station was the station with the worst damage from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and became unusable. The platforms still remain.

    The lack of use of this station facility is one of the ongoing “the dog ate my homework” excuses by Amtrak for not restoring the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans and into Florida.

    In reality, this new development should not hamper development of a new or temporary Amtrak station while the project is being built. It is merely an inconvenience that can be overcome by any Amtrak management that may be interested in restoring this vital part of Amtrak’s national rail system.

  8. One other notable retirement has occurred as of today, February 1st. Capitol Hill is noting the departure of Glenn Scammel, as the Staff Director and Senior Majority Counsel of the Rail Subcommittee of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.Mr. Scammel was a long Republican Hill staffer, and before that, served his country in the military in Judge Advocate General’s work. Mr. Scammel is a bona fide fan of trains and planes, and his passion showed in his always excellent work. He has been highly active in successful efforts to clean up Enron-style compulsions in Amtrak’s daily corporate life, and help guide the railroad on the road to ultimate success as a vibrant and healthy company. Many of Mr. Scammel’s labors haven’t been seen by many outside of Washington, but have been felt by nearly everyone.

    Mr. Scammel was more than a bureaucrat, he was a visionary that demanded compliance with the law, accountability of the people’s money and resources, and a workable plan for the future. Much of the good legislation introduced by Republicans regarding railroads and Amtrak was often the handiwork of Mr. Scammel and his staff.

    He says that in the process of retiring from government service, he is now “privatizing” himself, and plans to work in the private sector in Washington. We are all fortunate this great public servant who has given so much to his nation will continue to contribute to the public good through new avenues of endeavor.

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