Gardner articles this week

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Nothing earth shattering but may be of interest to some


 

jis

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Of the two, I really like the second article. The first makes some good points and I might take issue with a couple of others, but the last para makes an interesting point which even some good airline executives understand well, but none involved with Amtrak of late I suspect. I have seen even not so good an executive as Smisek appear on a welcome message on each United flight while he was around. But then I guess that was left over from the Gordon Bethune days at Continental.

The second article is right on the mark. Nothing can fix Amtrak until the entire Board is replaced and unfortunately the current administration is merely rearranging deck chairs as far as possible instead of using the facility given to them in the new Authorization Bill to actually bring in new talent instead of re-appointing spent forces with no new ideas to bring to the table beyond New York area political intrigues.
 
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My issues with the article is the supposition that “everyone except Amtrak” are the “successful rail providers in North America.” Amtrak provides far more usable transportation utility than VIA rail Canada across the board unless of course one’s definition of transportation utility is a land cruise. VIA rail Canada is a joke when it comes to usable transportation - yes the Canadian has a different OBS mindset and fancier amenities than Amtrak but I don’t know how one can argue than twice weekly is somehow better than daily service - as a usable transportation service. This is very revealing of the author’s true motives - that rail travel isn’t about providing usable transportation rather it’s about providing the land cruise experiential trip they are looking for. As far as Brightline it is a “let’s wait and see” - certainly provocative but far from proven that it’s going to be sustainable as a private venture. I wish them the best - but rail travel as a 100% not subsidized private enterprise in 2022 - I must admit I’m skeptical. Yes there are problems with Amtrak long distance - but one should not gloss over their successes - which, yes, includes the NEC - which is light years better than VIA’s corridor services.

VIA is NOT what Amtrak should be striving for - is a once a week Zephyr maybe with premium fancy amenities what we really want? Food for thought.
 
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My issues with the article is the supposition that “everyone except Amtrak” are the “successful rail providers in North America.” Amtrak provides far more usable transportation utility than VIA rail Canada across the board unless of course one’s definition of transportation utility is a land cruise. VIA rail Canada is a joke when it comes to usable transportation - yes the Canadian has a different OBS mindset and fancier amenities than Amtrak but I don’t know how one can argue than twice weekly is somehow better than daily service - as a usable transportation service. This is very revealing of the author’s true motives - that rail travel isn’t about providing usable transportation rather it’s about providing the land cruise experiential trip they are looking for. As far as Brightline it is a “let’s wait and see” - certainly provocative but far from proven that it’s going to be sustainable as a private venture. I wish them the best - but rail travel as a 100% not subsidized private enterprise in 2022 - I must admit I’m skeptical. Yes there are problems with Amtrak long distance - but one should not gloss over their successes - which, yes, includes the NEC - which is light years better than VIA’s corridor services.

VIA is NOT what Amtrak should be striving for - is a once a week Zephyr maybe with premium fancy amenities what we really want? Food for thought.
I agree with your post 100%. What I have issues with and I think Richardson is trying to show in his articles is Gardner has very little regard for the passengers. Gardner basically being a life long bureaucrat doesn’t seem to care about any passenger experience outside the NEC. There’s no reason Amtrak can’t have a passenger friendly experience and operate daily service.
 

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Have to agree with that evaluation of VIA. Even though I dearly love the Canadian, at 2x weekly isn't practical transportation, while Amtrak largely remains so. Further, if Amtrak were to adopt that strategy, infrequent but lux transportation, it would find itself back in political crosshairs and destroyed in short order.

With that said, Amtrak's highly variable OBS service quality is its biggest single problem that is wholly within its control. Amtrak has needed to address it for decades. The issue long predates Anderson's and Gardner's tenure. There really is no excuse for it. It needs sustained management focus and attention, which it has never gotten, and will likely require a reorganization.

While VIA as a whole isn't a good model, VIA has some good practices that should be copied. First and foremost is the position of an empowered onboard Service Manager responsible to enforce standards.
 
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zephyr17

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Gardner basically being a life long bureaucrat doesn’t seem to care about any passenger experience outside the NEC
My admittedly limited experience on the NEC is that it features particularly surly OBS staff. Outside Acela First that is, which I rode once and which was excellent on that occasion.
 
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west point

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Disagree with the example of VIA for several reasons.
1. When was the last time VIA had enough equipment to run a daily train to Vancouver? Or even run 3 days a week and run a stub the other 4 days Winnepeg <> Vancouver.
2. Then CN made VIA expand the enroute schedule untilVIA had to go to 2 times a week. Then the Canadian government has done nothing until reacently to buy enough equipment for a daily service. But that equipment has gone to corridor routes.
3. If once daily service is a possibility maybe route the train over CP for 3 or 4 days a week.
4. Canada need a VIA rail law stronger than the present Amtrak law.
5. if law was passed then CN could be held to a higher OT.
 
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Canada needs a statute establishing VIA, period. It was established by an Order In Council, the Canadian equivalent of an Executive Order. It has no statutory foundation at all, unlike Amtrak.
Hi Zephyr, I'm not trying to be ornery, just interested in the basis for your comment. What is it that VIA lacks in service because it is not founded in a statute that Amtrak has gained in service because it is? VIA does seem to be a better run operation even if it can't provide optimum frequencies.

Which, IMHO, raises a broader point: Just what is the mission of both these railroads? Is it to transport people from A to B efficiently and affordably? Or is it to provide a quality customer travel experience that will inevitably be more expensive? Airlines concentrate on the former; cruise lines on the latter. Via and Amtrak seem to be somewhere in between, and therein lies at least part of their problem.

As lordsigma said, food for thought. This is a very interesting thread.
 

jimdex

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Which, IMHO, raises a broader point: Just what is the mission of both these railroads? Is it to transport people from A to B efficiently and affordably? Or is it to provide a quality customer travel experience that will inevitably be more expensive? Airlines concentrate on the former; cruise lines on the latter.
As long as Amtrak is taxpayer-supported, efficiency and affordability have to be the priority. Once these criteria are satisfied, however, there is nothing to prevent Amtrak to offer higher-end service (i.e. sleeping cars) on these same trains, as long as the high-end service produces produces more revenue than expenses.
 
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As long as Amtrak is taxpayer-supported, efficiency and affordability have to be the priority. Once these criteria are satisfied, however, there is nothing to prevent Amtrak to offer higher-end service (i.e. sleeping cars) on these same trains, as long as the high-end service produces produces more revenue than expenses.
Exactly. Most of us on this site (me included) are self-described rail fans. Which means, I suppose, that we are looking for a quality travel experience rather than efficient, affordable transportation. Hence the entertaining and descriptive trip reports and comments comparing Amtrak and VIA on-board customer service.

I think the article the OP posted comparing Amtrak customer service with Rocky Mountaineer is not valid; it's comparing apples to oranges in terms of each entity's mission.

This Forum provides another great benefit besides travel experience discussions, and that's the tremendous amount of experience shared by regular posters on all aspects of Amtrak operations - and I mean all. I've learned a helluva lot about how (and how not) to run a railroad, from hiring and staffing to back office and reservations to running and maintaining equipment, to scheduling and routing, and on and on.

My sincere thanks to those posters who ask questions and to those who answer them. And also to those who keep this site running smoothly and friendly. 🚂
 
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Interesting enough today‘s RPA hotline has 7-8 paragraphs starting with this discussing how Amtrak’s long distance customers specifically are being poorly treated.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve received dozens of complaints from Amtrak long-distance passengers about last-minute cancellations affecting trips which were, in some cases, booked and paid for as long as ten months ago…”
 

jis

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Interesting enough today‘s RPA hotline has 7-8 paragraphs starting with this discussing how Amtrak’s long distance customers specifically are being poorly treated.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve received dozens of complaints from Amtrak long-distance passengers about last-minute cancellations affecting trips which were, in some cases, booked and paid for as long as ten months ago…”
If RPA manages to rise from its slumber on the LD front and actually start asking Amtrak a few tough questions beyond traditional dining, that would on the whole be a good thing. I hope this portends well. Questions need to be asked about the Mothball LD Fleet, and specifically what is the plan for bringing out the non-rev service cars and put them back into service.
 
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My admittedly limited experience on the NEC is that it features particularly surly OBS staff. Outside Acela First that is, which I rode once and which was excellent on that occasion.
As a more frequent NEC passenger, I don't think the cafe car staff (the only real OBS) are particularly "surly." On the other hand, for a 2 and a half hour ride to New York, you really don't need much in the way of OBS, most of the time, the only interaction with an Amtrak employee is having the conductor scan your ticket.

Acela First class is a different level, and they're fine, but the vast majority of NEC passengers don't travel Acela First Class.
 
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Funny that no one has mentioned the Alaska Railroad. While it doesn't have daily service on its routes, it does seem to offer more than a "cruise train" experience, and I believe that people in parts of the Alaskan bush do rely on the service. I've never ridden it, but the basic class seems to be fairly comfortable reclining seat coaches, a dome car, and a dining car whose menu looks pretty good to me. And this operation is run by the state of Alaska, so I'm sure they're concerned with doing this efficiently and economically for political reasons. Seems to me that at the very least, Amtrak could be looking a see how they manage to have decent food service while keeping withing their budget.
 

zephyr17

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As a more frequent NEC passenger, I don't think the cafe car staff (the only real OBS) are particularly "surly." On the other hand, for a 2 and a half hour ride to New York, you really don't need much in the way of OBS, most of the time, the only interaction with an Amtrak employee is having the conductor scan your ticket.

Acela First class is a different level, and they're fine, but the vast majority of NEC passengers don't travel Acela First Class.
I've traveled on the NEC a reasonable amount, mostly on Regionals in coach. And compared with the Seattle based cafe attendants on the Cascades, which I ride a lot, they are a surly bunch. You don't interact that much on a 3 hour ride to Portland, either, but most of the cafe attendants make a mean Bloody Mary.
 

jis

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Frankly, I found myself in an NE Regional Cafe Car more often as an overflow in oversold trains when boarding at Metropark. However, when I have actually bought food I did not find them the LSAs to be overly surly or jovial, just very NE business-like, which as a baseline is quite different from most other parts of the country. Actually it amazes me that they are not way more frazzled given the sometimes incredible crowding that happens on those trains in the cafe.
 

rs9

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To be honest, these articles strike me as a bit out of touch. Amtrak's customer base is vastly different than that of VIA, Rocky Mountain or Alaska. Most long distance Amtrak travelers are using the trains for corridors that don't have corridor service. It would be well-worth answering the question as to why, for example, CHI-BUF is a healthy corridor route on the Lake Shore Limited and why so many passengers are choosing the train in lieu of flying. Are these passengers looking for a utilitarian experience (the train gets me where I need to go in a reasonable fashion), an experiential trip (I had an amazing three course meal), or somewhere in between?

If Amtrak customers are using long distance trains essentially as corridor service, should the product reflect that, or should the product reflect the grandeur of an era gone by? Or somewhere in between?

These seem like more reasonable questions than the lambasting of Gardner in these articles.
 

Siegmund

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Funny that no one has mentioned the Alaska Railroad. While it doesn't have daily service on its routes, it does seem to offer more than a "cruise train" experience...

Sorry, but no. The Alaska Railroad has been a cruise train for upwards of 30 years now. (In part because that is what makes money, not providing basic transportation, and they are in business to make money.)

I rode it between Fairbanks and Denali a number of times while I lived in Alaska. The train did not even stop in Nenana, Anderson, or Healy, though in the 90s Nenana and Healy were still listed in the timetable. Something upwards of 95% of the passengers get off at Denali Park. A tiny handful of through Fairbanks-Anchorage tickets.

When I was going to college in Fairbanks, I enquired about riding to Anchorage at the end of the term - got laughed at. In the offseason it ran once a week (north Saturday south Sunday) so I'd have had to stay in Anchorage for a week, and it cost considerably more than a plane ticket.

They do still offer the bush service between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch (where the railroad travels one river drainage farther east than the highway,) sort of the way VIA offers the minimal amount of service they are required to in the Canadian far north. But they quit providing that type of service to the rest of the state, where they are "only" a few miles from the highway (and sometimes on the opposite bank of a river with no bridges), a very long time ago.

That said, both ARR and Princess (or whomever has since bought them out) DID offer exceptionally good service at not-completely-outrageous prices for the Denali rides, and I can easily imagine that kind of service and pricing working on any number of scenic Amtrak routes. There could be 5 Princess cars going from Denver to Grand Junction every day, but there aren't...
 

jis

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Funny that no one has mentioned the Alaska Railroad. While it doesn't have daily service on its routes, it does seem to offer more than a "cruise train" experience, and I believe that people in parts of the Alaskan bush do rely on the service. I've never ridden it, but the basic class seems to be fairly comfortable reclining seat coaches, a dome car, and a dining car whose menu looks pretty good to me. And this operation is run by the state of Alaska, so I'm sure they're concerned with doing this efficiently and economically for political reasons. Seems to me that at the very least, Amtrak could be looking a see how they manage to have decent food service while keeping withing their budget.
At least on the Winter Aurora Express which is purely an ARR operation with no other party like Princess involved, when I traveled by it several year back (Anchorage - Fairbanks - Anchorage) the food service was provided by a contract vendor. The food is pretty good but limited menu and the POS used is an iPhone with one of those Square doohickies to run credit cards through.
 

jis

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They must have decent enough cell service along the route to be able to do this. Means Alaska may be better served than parts of Northern and Eastern Maine where I live.
Very selectively they have service along the major routes of travel, of which ARR is one.
 

Northwestern

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It looks like, as far as the "connect us" Amtrak expansion plan is concerned, if the states want it they pay for it.
 

zephyr17

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It looks like, as far as the "connect us" Amtrak expansion plan is concerned, if the states want it they pay for it.
Yep, that is required under PRIIA, all runs under 750 miles (except the NEC 😡) must be fully paid for by another entity, largely states, but could be municipalities (some Indiana cities, notably Lafayette, kicked in for the Hoosier State before Indiana pulled the state's contribution out) or I think anything except Amtrak's Federal subsidy (Jeff Bezos? Bill Gates? Hear he is a bit of a railfan..).

The Connect US proposal takes something of a drug dealer approach to the issue, giving out free tastes to get them hooked. Amtrak proposes that they'd would work with the local entities to get Federal grants to cover the start up costs and initial operating costs for the first couple of years. These grants would not be to Amtrak directly, but to the local entities which in turn would use the grant money to pay Amtrak and so be compliant with the PRIIA restrictions on Amtrak's subsidy. The theory is that after getting their "taste" they'll pick up the dime after the initial grants.
 
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