In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published a modernized and revised version of an ancient fable, under the title, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In it, the vain and foolish Emperor is taken in by charlatan weavers who promise him a glorious new wardrobe, magically invisible only to stupid and unworthy people. No one, including the Emperor, is willing to admit that the new costume is invisible to them, until a child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!”
Author: Andrew Selden
Years ago, the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers ran an experiment. It published a quarter-page print ad in a weekly “shopper” newspaper in a small town in North Dakota served by the Empire Builder. The paper laid out the ad for free. It had no glitz, no slogans, just hard information: when and where the train went, where it connected to others, sample fares, onboard amenities, and the local station address and telephone. No “800” number, no web address, no ad agency fees. The ad ran four weeks in mid-Fall, when coach seats are abundantly available.
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson proposes to eliminate most of Amtrak’s interregional trains because, he says, they cater predominantly to “hobbyists” and “experience-seekers.” And, he asserts, hardly anyone rides between endpoints. This vision explains in large measure why Amtrak does so poorly in the competitive marketplace for intercity travel, and why its trivial market share for intercity passenger transport (smaller than motorcycles) continues to decline.
CEO Richard Anderson’s announced strategy to reposition Amtrak’s train operations is a puzzle. It appears incapable of working. He proposes to end most long-distance services in favor of higher frequency corridor services connecting nearby urban areas. Yet, much better opportunities exist that are easier to exploit and promise much higher returns on invested capital.
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson and his chief deputy, Stephen Gardner, have proposed eliminating the company’s interregional trains in favor of a scattering of discontiguous, higher frequency short corridors connecting nearby city pairs. But this reflects a deep misapprehension of the performance of the company’s three primary business groups, and a surprising emphasis on minimizing the returns on investment of the company’s capital resources.
Amtrak Senior Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner’s response to Railway Age’s recent coverage of Amtrak encapsulates perfectly why Amtrak is such a rolling financial and commercial disaster. It also shows that Amtrak’s senior leadership is either deep in the well of self-delusion, or possibly intentionally misleading its various stakeholders.
Underlying the ancient aphorism “be careful what you wish for … because you might get it” is the law of unintended consequences.
What does a deflated balloon look like? That is becoming an apt metaphor for travel on an Amtrak interregional train. The regime of CEO Richard Anderson is eliminating services and amenities as fast as they can think up items to ditch.
Amtrak is embarked upon an aggressive plan to “de-staff” the majority of its stations, to “cut costs.” The project downgrades the service support for its largest and most commercially successful group of trains, the long-distance interregional services. Amtrak justifies this by the trend toward selling tickets on the web rather than from agents at stations.
Passenger trains don’t operate in a vacuum. They compete for business against air and motor vehicles. The results of the competition are reflected in, and measured by, their respective market share. Automobiles win the competition for the great majority of intercity travel, even in the highest-density corridors.