Thursday, July 20, 2006

Amtrak and Car Supply

Chuck Merckel writes, "Dining car service was usually good until the late 1980's when budget cuts produced meals on paper plates with plastic utensils. We now see a return to pre-prepared food in order to cut costs. While I have not seen too many adverse reviews of the "simplified dining car service", I wonder exactly what Amtrak intends to do with all their long distance equipment. From what I have read, it seems that Amtrak wants to consolidate all; food service operations into one car per train unless holiday travel warrants two cars. Thus the sightseer lounge car no longer serves as a sightseeing snack car independent from the dining car. If this is the intended arrangement, the possibility exists that the system could expand without the expense of additional lounge and dining cars. Please give me your views."

Our view of all Amtrak car operations is that it is a miracle that they have any operable cars at all. By some accounts, 66 of 479 Superliner cars (13%) are either scrapped or wrecked. There are no plans (read no money) to replace any of them. Diners and lounges have fared better. 14 of 119 are gone. (11%) There have been cars available when states want new routes. However, most of the initial new state routes will probably be sans diners and food service will either be on a snack bar basis or crammed into a corner on coach lower levels.

On Track On Line provides a fine listing of all Amtrak passenger equipment. Superliner I cars have been rebuilt and refurbished (revamped if you will). Stranger things have happened. REVAMP NOTHING!

We know Amtrak continues to this day to look forward and try to visualize a future. If you can't visualize your future, you should not be in the railroad biz. There are always experimental car designs on the table (David Gunn) or under it (when the Bush Admin is not looking). Whether Amtrak ever will have enough money to just buy new cars on a large scale basis is arguable. There will always be money for routes where the money flows (read Northeast Corridor), and there will be less for the long distance routes where a moon rocket is closer to a service center (in terms of time and money) than an Amtrak passenger car. The cars for those long distance routes have to be engineered better (read more money) than Acela trainsets, because once they are out on the rails, there is nobody to fix what goes wrong until they turn around the whole route. We don't see Amtrak building any other shops to supplement Beech Grove.

Chuck, in our opinion, simply throwing another set of cars that happen to be surplus out on the rails is no way to start up additional routes. If that is the only way, then more power to the powers at Amtrak, because we will applaud any (ANY) new passenger routings. We don't know - perhaps some readers do - but we would bet that the first diners or lounges to be withdrawn in the interest of cutting back on dining service were also the oldest, most beaten and dismal examples of what happens to a passenger car when it is run two decades past its reasonable service life. (Again a NASA analogy vis a vis Space Shuttle.) We would hate to think that potential new riders would have to form their opinion of Amtrak travel based on the worst of the worst.

Unlike this writer, most potential Amtrak passengers have no recollection of what it was like to ride a long-distance passenger train before 1971. Oddly enough, we just received advertising from Walthers, a renowned manufacturer and seller of model railroad equipment. This was a blurb, also available on the Internet, for a model of the 1955 Empire Builder trainset. (See also this link.) We witnessed this train's daily summary departure from Chicago along the Burlington Route's rails on more than one occasion. Waiting at LaVergne station about 9 miles out from Chicago Union Station through the interminable advance timed grade-crossing gates that allowed this beautiful train to zip through the suburbs at 60+ miles per and then watching all 14 of its perfectly matched cars pass on the middle track and fade off into the west as the CTC signals flipped their gels to red behind it - this was a rolling incentive to ride the train.

Compare what we just described to the last Amtrak train you watched going past. Is the incentive comparable? Is it even close?

Please, though it would do our hearts good to see new Passenger Rail routes, let's not encourage the management to re-use the diners and lounges. They will hurt themselves (and us) trying.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

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