Meeting Amtrak's Southwest Chief (both 3 and 4) at the miserable excuse of a train station in Albuquerque, NM, this past week has reminded us just how much Amtrak is still doing with the budget whose bottom line is most easily described as "not enough."
Before we go off on what's wrong with the picture, here is what's right:
The trains were reasonably on time. We say reasonably because both delays were none of Amtrak's fault. Train 3 was delayed by a freight train engine failure, and Train 4 by wet roadbed resulting from the record rains in New Mexico.
The trains were reasonably beautiful. This train running behind two or three new diesel electric units still evokes memories of the Super Chief of the 60s with high level cars in all stainless steel. Inside, my visiting family had a family bedroom that was as luxurious as it was expensive and appeared to have been recently refurbished. REVAMP NOTHING!
The personnel we met were courteous and helpful, and my family reported that service enroute was exemplary. Even food service was praiseworthy, and that's saying a mouthful.
Station personnel were equally to be praised. The station agent was happy to describe his understanding of delays, and the baggage clerks were pleasant and communicative. No secrets were being kept, or at least one didn't get that impression. Amtrak take note! These are the loyal personnel of the Albuquerque station.
Now to what Amtrak is doing wrong with the limited budget.
Amtrak needs to break out only a small fraction of what they will spend for locomotive and car maintenance, for track maintenance, and for new equipment over the next few years and spend that money on dunderhead cities like Albuquerque. The station is a disgrace, and the dunderheads that run Albuquerque have seen fit to highlight the disgrace by sandwiching it between the brand new city transit station and the brand new city bus station. Both are less than magnificent unless stood up against Amtrak's hovel. Then they become palatial.
Yes, we know it was about forcing Amtrak's hand, but Amtrak and Albuquerque both dug in for a battle and both lost. Now the arriving passenger gets a bad impression, not of Amtrak, but of the City of Albuquerque, because by the time the passenger gets there, he/she already knows Amtrak is trying.
So get out of your foxhole, Amtrak, and put up a few bucks and build a decent station waiting room, ticket booth and baggage handling area. One that doesn't look like the roaches are going to eat the luggage as soon as the lights are turned off. The dunderheads that run Albuquerque will never do it.
What else? Amtrak should refuse to pay New Mexico to use the tracks until they are upgraded to a standard that doesn't look like a branch line from the 1930s. Now that New Mexico owns the right of way used by the Chief from Raton to Isleta, Amtrak should have the right to demand decent track or withhold enough payment to do it yourself. (The washout wasn't anybody's fault.)
Amtrak, playing second fiddle to state legislators for funding of many of its routes, needs to get some nads and be ready to put some feet to the fire when a state doesn't deliver. We have suggested before that using the right-of-way for free should be New Mexico's contribution to Amtrak's subsidies.
So there you have it. Amtrak is doing a truly remarkable job with the money they have, and they could use some stones, and if they stood up to some of the recalcitrant cities and states once in awhile, they just may have more money to play with. That's what we saw as Trains 3 and 4 rolled to a stop in Albuquerque.
©2006 - C. A. Turek - firstname.lastname@example.org