Want airline food? Take Amtrak

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Ex-Florida Congressman John Luigi Mica, a foodie who spent a considerable amount of time when he was Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee questioning Amtrak’s food service costs, must be very pleased with Amtrak’s announcement that it’s getting rid of dining cars on two long-distance trains.

Yes, you heard me right, and I believe it’s part of a plan to dismantle the National Network—shutting down most, if not all, long-distance trains, to focus on the Northeast Corridor, Midwest (Chicago) and California short- and medium-distance services, and state-supported trains. More on that later.

This morning (April 19), I received a press release with the following headline:

New and Contemporary Dining Soon on Two Amtrak Routes. Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited sleeping car customers to be offered fresh choices for meals this summer.

Right away, I smelled corporate-speak rotten fish. Read on:

“Amtrak will offer contemporary and fresh dining choices for sleeping car customers, instead of traditional dining car service, embarking aboard its Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited trains starting June 1. Sleeping car customers will choose meals delivered to their Bedrooms or Roomettes—or eaten in a private café or lounge car—and entrees such as:

“• Lunch & Dinner: Chilled beef tenderloin, Vegan wrap, Chicken Caesar salad, or Turkey club sandwich.

“• Breakfast: Assorted breakfast breads with butter, cream cheese and strawberry jam; Greek yogurt and sliced seasonal fresh fruit plate.

“These meals will continue to be included in the sleeping car fare and are delivered to the trains just prior to origination, eliminating on-board preparation. Customers will also be offered unlimited soft beverages, a complimentary serving of beer, wine or a mixed-drink and an amenity kit (what’s that?). A Kosher meal continues to be available with advance notice.

“‘Our plan is to provide new and fresh food choices in a contemporary way for these overnight trains,” said Bob Dorsch, Vice President of the Amtrak Long Distance Service Line. ‘Our continued success depends on increasing customer satisfaction while becoming more efficient.’

“Dorsch said this enhancement ‘will continue to be refined, and we look forward to hearing from our customers.’”

Gag me with a plastic spoon! Why don’t you just come out and say it: “Amtrak is getting rid of dining cars.” No BS. No dancing around the issue. Tell it straight up. It’s what’s happening, right?

Anybody want to eat in a roomette?

No thanks, not me. I’m not entirely antisocial.

And is what’s best described as vending machines on rails going to cost passengers any less? Of course not! Less service for the same (or more) money—just like airlines. “Contemporary and fresh dining choices”? Gag me with a plastic spoon!

Am I right? You tell me, President and CEO Richard Anderson, the former Delta Airlines chief executive. (By the way, Delta, I’m told, is a pretty good airline, thanks to you. I’m a regular United customer, and it’s pretty good, too, at least for now. But Amtrak is a railroad, not an airline. Different animal. Different service expectations. Different type of customer. Just sayin’.) Gag me with a plastic spoon!

Is what we have here “Amtrak as airline,” complete with—as if you’re flying first-class—meals delivered to your seat? At least the airline meals are hot. Amtrak’s offering is stone cold. Seated in coach class? You’re only choice will be the café car, if the train has one. Goodbye dining car service, one of the pleasures of traveling by rail? Is this all part of becoming “lean and mean” (which is perhaps how the food will taste)?

Already gone are the Coast Starlight parlor cars, in-train tour guides on some western trains, most charters, and private railcars bringing up the markers (for a hefty fee, of course). The “cross-country café” is replacing, I’m told, full dining service on Superliner trains: One crew member runs the microwave, another delivers the meal. Gag me with a plastic spoon!

Anderson himself has reportedly mothballed the Beech Grove, the private Amfleet office car used on inspection tours. That’s all well and good, but does this mean he’s going to travel with his customers when he wants to see what’s going on across the railroad? Or, does it mean that, before long, there won’t be any national network to inspect?

I’ve been hearing about internal plans within Amtrak to discontinue long-distance trains. The best way to do that, of course, is to make the service so unpalatable that people stop riding them. Are we looking at a veiled attempt to drive passengers away? I believe we are.

A bit of history: Back in the just-before-Amtrak days, the freight railroads, which were losing untold amounts of money on intercity passenger trains they were forced to operate, purposely attempted to drive customers away, because it was the only way they could successfully petition the Interstate Commerce Commission for discontinuance of service. One infamous example is Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited. During the decline of passenger rail in the 1960s, more and more services on board the once-luxurious streamliner were cut back, culminating in the elimination of the dining car, lounge car and all sleeping cars. By 1968, the train had three cars: a baggage car, a coach and an “automat lunch counter car” with vending machines.

But there’s more to this story than lousy, cold food. Amtrak recently issued a “report card” on how the freight railroads treat its long-distance trains. Grades were A (Canadian Pacific), B+ (BNSF), B- (Union Pacific), C (CSX) and F (CN and Norfolk Southern).

I looked this report card over, and it strikes me as being overly simplistic. Most of the language is, quite frankly, dumbed down. Some of it is downright silly, particularly the bolded text:

“Put in perspective, an ‘F’ host forces Amtrak trains on a particular route to wait one hour and 40 minutes on average for freight trains, and forces many Amtrak trains on this route to wait as long as 3 hours and 12 minutes. As a comparison, suppose you were on a flight and your plane had to circle the destination airport for one hour and 40 minutes while cargo flights were given priority to use the runway. Amtrak passengers typically experience those types of daily delays on poorly graded host railroads owned and operated by large freight companies.”

This is a disingenuous comparison. It makes no sense. None.

The general media, which doesn’t know any better, will swallow this nonsense whole and accept it as gospel. But perhaps that’s the intent.

On top of that, Anderson certainly isn’t making any friends on the Association of American Railroads board. If I were a Class I CEO, I’d tell him … well, never mind.

Stop the train. I want to get off. Oh wait—it’s already stopped, in the middle of Nowhere, which is somewhere between I Left Late and I’ll Get There Eventually. Whose fault is it? Why, it’s (fill in the name of a Class I freight railroad)’s fault, of course!

The other not-so-veiled hint at what may be in store for long-distance trains is Anderson’s public statements on PTC. He told a Feb. 15 House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on PTC implementation that, as of Jan. 1, 2019, Amtrak won’t operate its trains on freight railroad rights-of-way where PTC is not yet operational, even though the Dec. 31, 2018 deadline is an interim one, and an at least one line, PTC is not required. His words—and pay particular attention to the bolded text:

“It is now clear that we are likely to encounter different scenarios where PTC is not yet operational by the end of the year. First, there will be carriers that have made sufficient progress to apply to FRA for an alternative PTC implementation schedule under the law. In these instances, Amtrak’s equipment will be ready for PTC operation, but additional work, testing or approvals are still required by the host railroad before the system is considered functional. We believe a significant number of routes outside of the NEC will face this situation. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we continue to operate over such routes until PTC is turned on and if so, what additional safety protections are appropriate to reduce risks?

“Second, there will be carriers over which we operate who appear unlikely to achieve sufficient progress to apply for an alternative PTC implementation schedule by year’s end. For any such route segments, Amtrak will suspend operations until such time as the carrier becomes compliant with the law.

“Third, there are areas over which we operate for which there is an FRA “Main Line Track Exclusion” in place exempting that segment from the PTC requirements based on the low levels of freight and passenger train traffic or the presence of low-speed operations, such as in yards and terminals. We are currently reviewing our policy on operating passenger trains on Exclusions to determine whether we have adequate safety mitigation practices in place for each territory. In certain areas, where signal systems are not in place, we will reconsider whether we operate at all.”

How convenient!

Is this part of a strategy to get rid of long-distance trains? Maybe, maybe not. Is it time to shut down the National Network and focus on corridor and state-supported services? Maybe, maybe not.

For additional perspective, Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner, author of Amtrak: Past, Present and Future, offers the following:

Amtrak was created in 1970 to relieve freight railroads of the unaffordable regulatory mandate of operating money-losing passenger trains. Amtrak commenced operations in 1971, capitalized with federal money and equipment contributions by the railroads that paid to be excused from operating passenger service.

The 1970 statute creating Amtrak required “just and reasonable” compensation of the host railroad. It also required the avoidance of “unreasonable interference with the adequacy, safety and efficiency of (freight) railroad operations.” It did not contain a preference or priority requirement for Amtrak passenger trains.

In 1973, Congress enacted legislation giving undefined (in the statute) “preference” for Amtrak trains. It has been interpreted as giving better than usual treatment to a specific rail customer, Amtrak. Amtrak seeks to extend the statutorily undefined term to mean absolute train priority in all cases, and at no increase in access fees.

That 1973 legislation gave the ICC authority to regulate passenger train performance, but the regulations that included fines for late trains proved impractical and unworkable, and were repealed by the ICC in 1979.

Main line track congestion did not become an issue until the mid-2000s, and in 2008 Congress enacted PRIIA, whose Section 207 allows Amtrak and the FRA to establish metrics and standards for passenger trains; with Section 213 allowing the STB to enforce the standards via fines payable to Amtrak.

In 2010, citing the PRIIA, Amtrak and the Clinton Administration FRA promulgated metrics and standards for passenger train performance over host railroad tracks based on the failed ICC rules from the 1970s. Under those metrics and standards, host freight railroads face what they consider to be unachievable goals and unlimited fines.

Beginning in 2011, freight railroads asked federal courts to block the PRIIA metrics and standards from being enforced. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that Amtrak is not a private company, but an arm of the federal government, creating new legal concerns and perhaps a new round of legal challenges.

CN has since sought to terminate its operating agreement with Amtrak and demand compensation for delay of freight trains caused by hosting Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a demand for absolute dispatching priority at no increase in access fees, and brought suit against CN as well as CSX and Norfolk Southern (those cases in limbo pending resolution of the still pending metrics and standards litigation).

Possible solutions going forward:

  1. Repeal PRIIA. As the ICC discovered in the 1970s, federal agencies are not equipped to micromanage the rail system. Fines don’t work; in fact, they are counterproductive as disputes have moved to the snail’s pace of courts, and the operating relationship between freight railroads and Amtrak has turned hostile.
  2. Invest in sidings. If Amtrak wants to be able to overtake freight trains at will, the simple solution is for Amtrak to provide sidings at regular intervals. The cost per siding is estimated at about $15 million.
  3. If no money is available for sidings, run closer to freight speed. Long distance Amtrak trains could reduce the amount of overtaking by a simple reduction in speed. If Amtrak ran at, say, 60 or 65 mph instead of the current maximum permissible 79 mph, its capacity footprint would be greatly reduced. Because maximum track speed would remain at 79, the engineer on a late train could potentially make up time by running at 79 mph where the track is clear. In fact, adjusting the Amtrak timetable to lower speeds would make Amtrak long distance trains much more reliable, and at a lower cost than new sidings.
  4. Revise schedules to focus on reliability. Amtrak creates schedules using a best-case scenario called “pure run time.” A “fudge factor” is added to account for “unavoidable” delay. Realistically, schedules should be based on what is achievable on a consistent basis, not ideal conditions on a sunny day as Amtrak assumes in its “best-case” scenario. In fact, the FAA requires airlines to advertise schedules that can be achieved reliably. Amtrak should follow the same rules—rules well known by its new president.

(Amtrak, in the past, has responded to this suggestion by saying, “If we make the schedules longer, the host railroad will just use the additional padding and OTP will be just as bad.” This is pure speculation reflecting the poisoned relationship that has been created between Amtrak and the hosts.)

At least one, and possibly three, Class I railroads are preparing for possible Tucker Act lawsuits against Amtrak. Because the Supreme Court found that Amtrak is “the U.S. government” for due process purposes, the Tucker Act opens the door for monetary damage claims against the government. Bolstering the Tucker Act’s standing is that the Supreme Court also found Amtrak to be a competitor to freight railroads for scarce track space.

If, in fact, Amtrak is demanding absolute priority of its passenger trains at no cost, the answer could be in a Tucker Act (takings) lawsuit by freight railroads. The Tucker Act permits claims against the federal government, which otherwise has sovereign immunity, for damages arising out of takings of private property.

Perhaps never fully explored by the courts is whether the original preference provision in the Amtrak statute was meant to be—or could be enforced—in perpetuity. Some of those who were involved in the original negotiations have said that freight railroads then were so desperate to exit the passenger business in 1970 that they didn’t focus closely on that terms of that preference language.

Of course, freight railroads might not wish to test that definition, as it could be worse than the status quo—with the issue best left to play out, for now, before the STB.

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