Sunday, January 04, 2009

Winter and Amtrak

Now that the early-winter holidays are past, it is worth noting that Winter has been upon much of the country with a vengeance since well before the holidays came and went. And what has Amtrak been able to do about it? Not much.

I have opined on this blog in past winters that Amtrak should focus more on keeping its equipment winter-operable and on getting new equipment that is more weatherproof. Nonetheless, the norm seems to be to shrug when weather sidelines equipment or makes it inoperable enroute, and to make the poor passenger endure the hell that results.

Several winters ago, I experienced what happens to Superliner sleepers when snow and ice get up between the cars and into the high-voltage house power connections. The resulting explosion and showers of sparks are certainly memorable, but sitting for hours on the track while crews use every imaginable spit-and-baling-wire fix to try to get things working again, all the while freezing in a train with no heat or light, is not the makings of a pleasant trip. There should have been spare parts on board. And it wouldn't hurt to have at least one crewmember who is also trained as a car mechanic, at least on paper.

But that winter has been repeated many times this year, according to reports, in lower Michigan and the Northeast. There are horror stories of a four-hour trip taking 16 hours with no available toilet facilities and no adequate communication from Amtrak. The intertia that this represents in Amtrak's approach to such things is staggering.

We, the sheep . . . er, taxpayer . . . shouldn't stand for this kind of management in Our Passenger Rail System! I'm imagining that all Amtrak trains that have a longer than 2-hour run should have a passenger representative appointed by random draw of ticket stubs to be empowered to summarily fire any employee of Amtrak that lets this kind of thing happen. Nice fantasy, but it won't happen. Too many bureaucrats (with really heavy ass inertia) standing in the way.

Amtrak needs to get it's crap together or be modified out of existence into some new form, with a new charter and a new commitment to passenger service. It could happen. Change should be forthcoming. Let's hope it's real.

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