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Amtrak has a new chief marketing and sales officer

January 18th, 2013

There’s a new guy in the corner office in Washington, running marketing and sales. He’s Matt Hardison, an Amtrak veteran employee who has been with the company since 1999. He replaces the retired Emmett Fremaux.

We wish Mr. Hardison well; this is an extremely important position in the company, as it’s his job to move Amtrak forward in revenue, increasing load factors, and ridership. Some may think this is a thankless task as the moment, as Amtrak’s current passenger fleet keeps shrinking, the locomotive fleet is on many days unreliable, and options seem limited.

If you have an open mind, there are many things which can be done to improve Amtrak’s financial performance without adding any new equipment, but creating more opportunities for passengers.

Back in the 1980s, United Rail Passenger Alliance was instrumental in convincing the Amtrak Board of Directors to make a simple extension of the New York City-Savannah, Georgia train, the Palmetto, to URPA’s headquarters city here in Jacksonville, Florida. No new equipment required, no extra crew required, just a simple extension of the route southward by 148 miles.

Happily, at the time, Amtrak was interested in hauling the United States mails, and a mail contract was available in Jacksonville for moving mail northward. So, the Palmetto moved south, with a departure before 7 A.M. and an arrival around midnight. Even at Jacksonville’s difficult to find Amtrak station in the middle of a warehouse district, passengers flocked to the Palmetto, with excellent loadings in Jacksonville daily for the daylight ride north to every major city on the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (now CSX) mainline through Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and onto the Northeast Corridor into New York City.

No other part of the schedule was altered, just a simple extension from Savannah southward to Jacksonville.

Many people know the rest of the story: In the 1990s, the Palmetto morphed into the Silver Palm, and became a full service Florida train with dining car and sleepers. Then, the dreaded change to common consists to accommodate the then new Viewliner sleepers, and every Florida train suddenly had identical consists and schedules were muddled to handle all Viewliner maintenance at Hialeah in Miami, and the Tampa crew and maintenance bases were closed.

In one of Amtrak’s endless restructurings, the Silver Palm was cut back (after all, even though Florida has the number one vacation destination in the world – Orlando, home to Mickey Mouse – certainly two trains a day into Florida, plus the Auto Train were more than enough) to Savannah, and redubbed the Palmetto. When asked why Savannah instead of Jacksonville, the Amtrak reply was the crew turns were easier in Savannah.

In other words, once again, Amtrak designed a train for the convenience of the operating department, not passengers and the traveling public.

Mr. Hardison has a golden opportunity to fix this silliness, and figure out a way to move the Palmetto back to Jacksonville. It currently arrives southbound in Savannah at 9:03 P.M.; extending to Jacksonville would put it here around 11:30 P.M., an acceptable terminal arrival time. Currently, the Palmetto launches northbound out of its Savannah terminal at 8:20 A.M.; extending the train would put it out of Jacksonville around 6 A.M., or a few moments before. If you think that may be just a smidge early, well, Amtrak’s new service to Norfolk, Virginia and continuing on to Boston departs Norfolk at the unseemly hour of 4:50 A.M., and Amtrak doesn’t seem to have a problem with that (especially since the Commonwealth of Virginia is paying for the train).

Extending the Palmetto to Jacksonville from Savannah would simply align the train with the Silver Meteor and Silver Star for train and engine crew bases and crew days, as Jacksonville is a full crew base. As of now, Amtrak must maintain a separate crew base at Savannah just for the Palmetto, and have cleaning forces there, too.

It doesn’t seem like rocket science to think about moving this train to Jacksonville for its southern terminus. In Fiscal Year 2012, the Palmetto had a low load factor of 47.8%. In comparison, a similar train, the Carolinian, operating between Charlotte, North Carolina and New York City on a daylight schedule had a load factor of 79.4% The Palmetto carried 198,300 passengers in FY 12, and had total revenue of $17,342,000. The average length of trip was 439 miles, and the Palmetto averaged 151.7 passengers per train mile. This shows plenty of room for improvement, such as a logical extension to Jacksonville.

Mr. Hardison has other East Coast opportunities for similar improvements; more on those, soon. – J. Bruce Richardson



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