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This Week At Amtrak 2007-03-08

March 8th, 2007
  1. Amtrak has started its winter/spring leisure travel advertising campaign for 2007 by placing ads in 12 top markets. Target marketing, of course, is very important, and getting the biggest bang for every marketing buck is critical, too. However, Amtrak does serve over 500 destinations in the continental United States, plus some locations in Canada. It’s kind of tough to expect many results from just advertising in the top 12 markets …
  2. Here’s a fascinating bon mot turned up by one of URPA’s numbers crunchers, derived directly from Amtrak data: Revenue and ridership are up, but during the last fiscal year (2006), passenger miles dropped once again to 5,361,517,000. In FY 05 the figure was 5,419,720,000, and a decade or more ago, it was around 6.5 billion revenue passenger miles per year.This means even though the false measurements of increased ridership and revenues may be climbing, the actual number of revenue passenger miles – the only true measurement used in the real world of common carriers – has declined.The most likely cause of this is an increase in short haul trains (which are the most expensive to operate and can’t cover their costs with true accounting numbers that include all appropriate allocated expenses) and small increases or decreases in long distance train travel, most likely due to the alarmingly short consists of most long haul trains as compared to a decade ago when much more of Amtrak’s long distance fleet was roadworthy.
  3. A regular commuter rider on Amtrak’s Empire Service in and out of New York City provided this fascinating use of an Amtrak diesel locomotive:

    … (I)t was pretty interesting. That was a day last summer when one of our favorite conductors, Artie, earned his stripes as a true hero of the people. On our way home after some violent summer squalls had been through, a big tree ended up right across the tracks a bit south of the Rhinecliff station.The southbound train had already beaten us to it and CSX had been notified. So a couple of hours passed, with the conductors bugging CSX to come and do something, and CSX basically just making promises without giving any real information on where they were in the process. So after going to the grapevine they eventually got wind of the fact that in all that time, CSX had gotten as far as contacting the members of a road crew that was on its way to meeting up for deployment — from Syracuse, about 200 miles away. It would have been well past midnight before the crew even arrived. So Artie went out and conducted a slow and delicate dance in the waning daylight. He had his train push north while the southbound train pushed south, and together they slowly rotated the tree so that it ended up lying between the northbound and southbound tracks. I wonder what the CSX ground crew thought when they arrived.

    Good going, Conductor Artie. Nothing like taking some personal responsibility and using some initiative to take care of your passengers and your train. This guy should get a medal.

  4. URPA stalwart Dennis Larson, Vice President of the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers, shares some numbers from the cold, Upper Midwest.

    March 2 – The second major snowstorm in Minnesota and Wisconsin within the last week, along the Empire Builder route, is now wrapping up with over a foot of snow and more, once again.

    People were sleeping at the airport due to delayed flights and most schools and events were closed or cancelled as were some business places. Highway travel was discouraged and I-35 south of the Twin Cities from Albert Lea to Ames, Iowa was closed by the highway patrol as was I-90 west of I-35 to the South Dakota border. There are railroad-type cross arms that block the entrance ramps when these highways are closed.

    But Empire Builder arrivals are not doing all that bad though considering the poor weather conditions. The evening arrivals of the Empire Builder from Chicago to the St. Paul Midway Station are below-

    2007-03-01: Scheduled: 10:31 PM Actual: 12:04 am Delay: 93 minutes
    2007-02-28: Scheduled: 10:31 PM Actual: 11:31 PM Delay: 60 minutes
    2007-02-27: Scheduled: 10:31 PM Actual: 10:24 PM Delay: 0 minutes
    2007-02-26: Scheduled: 10:31 PM Actual: 10:23 PM Delay: 0 minutes

    The morning arrivals of the Empire Builder to the St. Paul Midway Station from the Pacific Northwest are below-

    2007-03-02: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 7:01 am Delay: 0 minutes
    2007-03-01: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 7:02 am Delay: 0 minutes
    2007-02-28: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 6:46 am Delay: 0 minutes
    2007-02-27: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 7:15 am Delay: 10 minutes
    2007-02-26: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 7:01 am Delay: 0 minutes
    2007-02-25: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 7:19 am Delay: 14 minutes
    2007-02-24: Scheduled: 7:05 am Actual: 6:29 am Delay: 0 minutes
  5. Things haven’t been quite so rosy for the Empire Builder’s sister transcontinental train, the California Zephyr, which operates between Chicago and Emeryville (San Francisco), California.Mr. Larson made this note from a November Zephyr report:

    Looking over Amtrak’s California Zephyr report for November, I see it has nearly 5 hours of make up time [automatically built into the schedule] so they have been sitting for 11 hours [due to delays] plus another 5. Amtrak makes big talk about dining car losses but an Amtrak train person with overtime collects on average a bit over $27 per hour.

    So Amtrak is paying out at least an extra $300 per person in wages plus all those mis-connect charges, which amounts to thousands.

    Their report of November 2006 shows the California Zephyr was standing for 38,203 minutes, or 26 ½ days! Amtrak-caused delays amounted to over 60 hours for the month. Most of the delays attributed to the host railroads were slow orders amounting to 10.6 days.

    And, then there is this, also from Mr. Larson.

    Regarding references to on time performance of the California Zephyr [which operates on the BNSF from Chicago to Denver, and the Union Pacific from Denver to Emeryville, California] …

    In December of 2005 the Zephyr had an on-time record of 5% and the average delay minutes per trip was 552 minutes. Figure in the recovery time of 299 minutes and the train arrived on average 4 hours 13 minutes late. In November of 2006 the train arrived on average 5 hours and 29 minutes late. At this rate of decline, the train will not only be standing still longer than it is rolling, but every single mode of transport including horseback and a very slow boat on the river will operate at higher average speeds than the Zephyr in a very short time. All this on the all-weather mode that is suppose to save America from highway and air gridlock.

    This information is buried in Amtrak’s monthly report on its website.

  6. Amtrak shares this with us via the company’s employee newsletter, “Amtrak This Week” of February 12, 2007, about what it is doing to improve cold weather service.

    Overhauled Horizons Withstand Cold

    Last week, some service in the Midwest was cancelled due to freeze damage to Horizon equipment as a result of bitter cold conditions in Chicago. A collaborative effort between the Transportation and Mechanical departments that included redeploying preventive maintenance employees to help thaw and prep the trains helped get the schedule back on track. While this work required more time and manpower in the extreme cold, by Thursday, full service from Chicago had resumed.

    As part of the company’s drive toward a state of good repair, a Horizon overhaul program — the first for the 17- year-old cars — was begun in FY ’05. The four-year program includes modifying the equipment for winter weather conditions, and of the 41 cars overhauled, only three were affected by the extraordinarily cold temperatures last week. Why the three were affected by the weather is being investigated, and modifications will be made accordingly. Of the trains not yet overhauled, root-cause analysis is currently being performed on the failures to better target problem areas as part of the overhaul process.

    The Horizon fleet is about 50 percent overhauled, with five cars currently at Beech Grove, 8 scheduled for overhaul this fiscal year and another 21 next year. The company’s aggressive state-of-good-repair goals over the past several years have contributed significantly to improved reliability, and there’s still more work to be done.

    Next question: When is Amtrak’s “state of good repair” mantra going to extend to the long distance Viewliner and Superliner fleets so enough equipment can get out on the road and start generating some high value revenue and revenue passenger miles for Amtrak, not to mention fulfilling Amtrak’s original mission of providing America with a true nationwide network of passenger trains?

  7. Here’s a reminder of the Saturday, March 17th joint meeting in Los Angeles of the Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada and the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Featured speakers will be Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant, and URPA Vice President of Law and Policy Andrew Selden, along with others.Also appearing will be Ross Capon, NARP Executive Director, on a panel regarding the future of Amtrak.For decades, RailPac has long been closely associated with URPA, and much of the senior leadership of RailPac have been contributing members of URPA. This meeting should prove to be fascinating as Mr. Selden and Mr. Capon advance ideas on the future of Amtrak, and Mr. Kummant’s keynote address possibly may provide a glimpse of his ideas about the future of the company he now heads.Also up for discussion will be institutional views on the future of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans, which has not been in operation since prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. URPA has been strongly advocating for the return of this vital part of Amtrak’s national network, and other organizations outside of Florida and the Gulf Coast states have taken a less vigorous approach, apparently in fear of losing favor with Amtrak management.

    If you’re near Southern California and can attend this meeting, the $35 advance registration fee ($40 at the door) should be a small price to pay for an informative day. Further information is available at http://www.RailPac.org

  8. Word has come of a needed second Amtrak frequency between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. Amtrak’s Cascades service has been a popular cross-border passenger train, and a second trip is being made possible by expansion of BNSF’s line between the two cities.There is one area of dissension, however. The Vancouver Sun reports the Surrey United Naturists Association is planning to register the group’s dismay over what it considers the imposition of a second Cascades train along Surrey’s coast line by staging a mass mooning under the banner “BNSF Butt Out of the Beach.”The nudist group appears to want the beach alongside which the new Amtrak train will run all to itself, and feels a new Cascades train full of gawking passengers will interfere with the privacy of the group. Actually, it’s tough to wrap your mind around the fact this group is worried about privacy.BNSF officials expect to complete the track improvement by the summer of 2008, in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The project has been in the works for over six years.
  9. A private web design in Peoria, Illinois (You remember the hackneyed phrase, “Let’s see if it will play in Peoria.”) has come up with an interesting service for those who wish to monitor Amtrak’s on time performance levels.The company has provided a free web site which will provide a three week accounting of Amtrak on-time history for any given train to any given destination. The site can be found at http://web.peoriadesignweb.com/cgi-bin/amtrak/train.cgi to keep track of your favorite trains.Faraz Hussain of Peoria Design Web explains how the site was developed:

    My motivation for developing the on-time performance calculator was so I could schedule my squash matches with my opponents at my destinations. Squash is similar to racquetball in that it is an indoor court sport. I live in Peoria where there are not many squash players so I travel to Chicago and St. Louis often from Bloomington to play better players.

    So knowing the statistical delays helps me realistically plan my day when I arrive at my destination. The program is just a program that retrieves information from Amtrak site behind the scenes. I based it off a similar search engine I developed, Medreport.org. Medreport.org lets you create reports by scanning up to thirty websites and extracting content based on your search criteria.

    The program did not take more than half a night to develop as I was able to copy/paste a code from Medreport.org . I knew this tool would benefit many others which is why I invested more time to make it robust and easy to use. I am now working on a ‘Catch a train’ script that finds where a particular train is on its route.

    This could easily prove to be a user-friendly tool that will benefit many Amtrak-watchers.

  10. The United Transportation Union has published a six-point plan it feels will help improve both Amtrak and the life of its union members who work for Amtrak.

    Highlights of the six-point Amtrak reform plan include:

    • Congress must pass a long-term authorization bill that provides at least $2 billion per year, to be fully funded by appropriators.
    • Labor/management relations must be reformed. Amtrak must stop withholding reasonable wage increases by blaming unpredictable federal financing for the carrier. Most Amtrak employees are entering their eighth year with no general wage increase.
    • A new Amtrak board of directors should be created with members — including a voice for employees — who actually believe in maintaining and strengthening a national Amtrak system. Board members who pursue self-destructive policies for Amtrak do not serve in the interest of the company, its workers or the 25 million passengers who depend on Amtrak service.
    • After 30 years of under-funding, Amtrak has taken on substantial debt that should be paid down with federal assistance.
    • The way Amtrak security costs are paid must be reformed. Specific expenses associated with the defense against terrorism should be borne by the Department of Homeland Security.
    • To ensure independent oversight, the Inspector General of Amtrak should be separated from the company. It should not work as an extension of Amtrak management as it does today.

    March 7, 2007

  11. Here’s a nugget of information from an Amtrak daily operations report that shows someone cares about Amtrak trains and passengers.

    Train 6(04) [Eastbound California Zephyr] Delayed at Omaha, NE by Mechanical Failure

    The outbound crew reported (3) blower bearing adapter bolts on coach 34001 axle #1 were missing. The contractor that waters the train was able to obtain bolts at a local hardware store and replaced them. The contractor also reported the plates that hold the bolts in were upside down.

    Delay: 6(04) 41″

    Note to the Amtrak Mechanical Department: Sometimes, just a quick trip to the corner hardware store can solve a host of problems.

  12. And, this, from another Amtrak internal operations report about train no. 91, the southbound Silver Star, preparing to leave New York City for Florida:

    Train 91(06) Late Departure, New York, NY

    Train 91(06) was delayed in Sunnyside Yard account [passenger cars] C/25091 and C/25097 shopped/cut due to frozen waste lines. C/25014 and C/25015 were substituted then C/25014 shopped/cut due to frozen waste line, C/25082 was substituted. Also necessary to thaw frozen lines on C/25005.

    Delay: 91(06) 1’43”

    Apparently, Amtrak’s winter weather woes are not just limited to Chicago.

  13. What’s the latest on the restoration of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans, into Florida? Nobody seems to know.A number of concepts seems to be floating around, including putting back the short-lived late 1990s Gulf Coast Limited daily service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and then adding a separate tri-weekly service between New Orleans and Orlando, which would operate separately from the Sunset Limited, and originate in New Orleans. No direct connection from the Sunset would be available eastbound; an overnight New Orleans stay would be required. Westbound, a same day connection would be available.Other reports still circulate regarding extending the City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Orlando.One obvious connection which would greatly extend matrix opportunities would be to re-extend the Palmetto south from Savannah to Jacksonville, where hubbing opportunities with a Florida Panhandle/New Orleans service could be restored. The Florida Coalition of Railroad Passengers under the able leadership of President Jackson McQuigg continues to take a strong leading public role in the effort.
  14. In the “What Were These Guys Thinking?” Department, comes this story from a TWA reader from Omaha, Nebraska, who was on the California Zephyr February 19th.The Associated Press reports that five men forced off the Zephyr for smoking marijuana were discovered to be carrying a simple cardboard box holding $700,000 in U.S. savings bonds, allegedly stolen from a Nevada home.The men were traveling from Sacramento, California to Chicago to illegally launder the bonds. The five men, whose ages range from 24 to 42 were smoking pot on the train. When they were asked to leave the train because of the pot smoking at Helper, Utah, about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, they were met by local authorities and a drug-sniffing dog. The dog reacted strongly to two bags. The Helper police searched the bags and found the bonds inside the cardboard box.All five of the men were released on bond.

    The moral of this story? When you’re running from the law carrying huge amounts of stolen federal bonds, don’t do something stupid like smoke dope in public places along the way. Then, again, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a bond thief, so these same non-rocket scientists probably wouldn’t think twice about smoking dope, either.

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