The newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative
Vol. 1 No. 14 ©2000, NCI, Inc. July 14, 2000
James P. RePass, President Leo King, Editor
A weekly passenger railroad update
Amtrak's new sound and light show starts
By Wes Vernon
All together now!
We are fam-i-ly
Amtrak's here to say
We can guarantee it today
Sitting in the audience of the on-stage performance in the main hall of Amtrak's historic Union Station in Washington, I could have sworn it all sounded just like the Sisters Sledge rock piece of some twenty years ago, the only change being the lyrics. The music intro was exactly the same... and the lead singer?!
But it was!
Meet Linda Howard, Reservation Sales Agent at Riverside, Cal. Turns out she was indeed a part of the Sisters Sledge rock group back in the late '70s, early '80s. She was not an original because the actual Sisters Sledge organized their music group while they were growing up as teen-agers. Later, one of them dropped out to pursue other goals, and in stepped Linda Howard. That was how her career started.
So how did she end up in Riverside as a reservation sales agent? Long story there. But to boil it down, she, too, had other goals to pursue to after a while.
Ultimately, in the year 2000, she was back on stage, leading six other star Amtrak employees in telling America that this was "the rebirth of America's passenger railroad, Amtrak. The cornerstone of this is our declaration of service satisfaction and puts the guest at the center of everything we do. That's our promise to every guest on every train, every day."
The stars of the show were not the top brass, though many of them appeared by videotape, and CEO George Warrington came on stage toward the end of the presentation. The real stars, placed squarely on the spotlight for this occasion were seven Amtrak employees who wanted to speak directly to the customers ¤ "Our guests," as they repeatedly affirmed.
Even the 29-year-old pointless arrow is fading into the sunset; more on that below.
Under the guarantee, the official statement assures us, "Amtrak promises all its guests a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable travel experience. If guests are not satisfied at any point in their travel experience, they will be encouraged to bring their concerns to the attention of any Amtrak employee, who will try to make it right. If the guest feels that the effort is not enough, they can call 1-800-USA-RAIL [1-800-872-7245] for a 'Service Guarantee Certificate,' which entitles them to the equivalent of free travel in the future. While the guarantee cannot prevent the occasional problem that a guest may encounter on the trip, it is designed to ensure that guests receive full satisfaction for their money."
Obviously, you don't undertake an unprecedented risk of this kind without considerable preparation. No other transportation entity anywhere offers anything like this, and to prepare for it, Amtrak conducted a comprehensive training program for all of its 25,000 employees.
"Through this training, employees have been empowered to take personal initiative and do what is necessary to solve guests' problems," stated an Amtrak press release.
I got a taste of this system before it was officially announced or completely in place. I ordered tickets to Greensboro, N.C. over the phone. I had to postpone that trip and turn in the reserved seating tickets. At first, I was to be assessed a substantial penalty for the cancellation. When I pointed out to the clerk that, yes, the penalty for cancellation is mentioned on the ticket but was not explained to me prior to the sale, he briefly consulted his supervisor and then cheerfully waived the penalty. He explained to me this was part of the new company effort to keep the customer happy. Amtrak has usually not been excessively unreasonable in situations like this, but in the past, I'm sure there would have been more hassle to get a waiver like that, and not everyone up and down the line of command would necessarily have been all that cheerful.
The company has also instituted policies aimed at meeting "the highest standards of excellence," and include procedures to insure that all trains are "right and ready" for service, covering every aspect of every train prior to guest use.
Other policies include standards to make levels of service and any amenities more consistent on trains, and cash incentives that promote excellent performance in delivering service to guests.
Now, let's back up here.
What if the "California Zephyr" is six hours late because a freight train on the host railroad has a derailment. Whose fault is that? Not Amtrak's. Amtrak doesn't own the railroad.
"If the Zephyr is five, six, seven hours late, the dissatisfied customer doesn't care whose fault it is," Warrington told me at a reception after the ceremony. "All he knows is he missed an appointment, a funeral, family reunion, or whatever.
"Look, we're not talking about nickel-and-diming people here. We're talking about satisfied customers. We want those people back. The obvious way to do that is to live up to their expectations. That's what this is all about."
Okay, so they get vouchers if they are dissatisfied with a huge time problem. Ten or fifteen minutes late?
"Ten or fifteen minutes late, we don't think they'll nickel and dime us any more than we'll nickel and dime them," the Amtrak boss replied.
Deputy USDOT Secretary Mortimer Downey, a member of the Amtrak board, put it to me this way: "If we're down to quibbling, then the guarantee loses its meaning."
Signaling the new changes, Amtrak introduced a new logo. The "pointless arrow" is out the window. In its place is a "Travel Mark" whose shape, convergent lines, and suggestion of movement "capture the excitement of the travel experience. The new identity, according to Warrington, "will be introduced in a gradual cost-conscious manner over time as Amtrak's brand revitalization effort continues."
At this opening, Amtrak put its best foot forward with seven of its best employees. Besides Howard, they were Amy Sine, On-Board Supervisor, Los Angeles, Calif.; William Howell, Conductor, New York, N.Y; Jerry Higa, Customer Relations Representative, Riverside, Calif.; Robert Heath, On-Board Service Attendant, Chicago, Ill.; Yvonne Battle, Lead Service Attendant, Boston, Mass.; and Tom Finnegan, Sleeping Car Attendant (for the Lake Shore Limited), New York, N.Y.
All of them exuded a certain personal magnetism. I told Warrington if all his employees were like that, he wouldn't have to do all of this.
"True," he said, "But many of them are (like that), although I know we've had some problems."
Warrington is not the first Amtrak president to try to tackle the problems of on-board customer service.
I remember Paul Reistrup, going way back to the '70s, said anyone who can't treat customers decently would be yanked out of the service areas and put in a back room somewhere with no contact with the public.
Graham Claytor in the '80s, in commenting on a café car attendant with "an attitude," told me if that had happened when he was running Southern Railway, "we'd just fire their ---." However, handling problem employees in a publicly owned entity could present practical problems.
Claytor found that out when he tried to impose strict discipline on the Amtrak workforce. The rail labor unions, through then Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) had him hauled up before her congressional panel for the kind of tongue-lashing to which Claytor, a crusty, onetime military officer, was unaccustomed.
Now George Warrington is taking his turn at bat, so to speak. An unconditional guarantee, fed in part by a workforce whose morale has been hyped. Warrington closed the presentation with something reminiscent of the old revivalist meetings.
"I guarantee it!" he bellowed, instructing the gathering of Amtrak employees in the huge Union Station hall, "Repeat after me. I guarantee it! I guarantee it!" which they shouted in unison about ten times with all the fervor of a football stadium crowd rooting for the home team.
Carrier is first national transportation provider
to unconditionally guarantee satisfaction
Amtrak's unconditional guarantee of guest satisfaction is a first among national travel and transportation industry providers. The plan is to revitalize rail travel and transform the company.
"This 'Satisfaction guarantee' represents our promise to travelers that Amtrak will treat you like a guest and make service excellence the central focus of everything we do, said Gov. Tommy Thompson (R-Wis.,) chairman of Amtrak's directors.
"Today, Amtrak is not only more customer-focused, it is also a more commercially driven and financially sound business. That is why we are marking the rebirth of America's passenger rail system today with a new corporate brand identity for Amtrak that reflects both its promise and its performance," he added.
An Amtrak press release stated that the satisfaction guarantee "is a key element of Amtrak's business plan and one of several initiatives Amtrak is taking to improve its financial performance and achieve operational self-sufficiency by 2003 as mandated by Congress."
The company said a 1 percent increase repeat business would add $13 million in annual revenues.
The Satisfaction Guarantee program is among five major initiatives that the company has taken since its new board and management responded to Congress' mandate with a strategic business plan that maps its path to commercial viability. The others include developing high-speed rail corridors; developing commercial, state, and local government partnerships; and implementing Amtrak's strategic network growth plan.
Amtrak set recent passenger revenue records for May, up 12 percent compared to last year, and, ridership is up 8 percent for the same period.
Amtrak stated the new logo, whose shape and converging lines, suggests movement, and captures the excitement of the travel experience. Its new, sturdy "wordmark" reflects the company's growing strength and reliability.
"Combined, they represent a revitalized corporation that puts the safety, comfort, and enjoyment of every guest first, and backs it up with a one-of-a-kind commitment to guest satisfaction.
Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) member Joseph Vranich has resigned.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.,) he called on Congressional leaders to replace the Amtrak board and to launch a sweeping investigation into the railroad's financial affairs.
The ARC is a Congressional oversight panel, and he stated he "is unable to serve the statutory watchdog function that Congress intended, largely because Amtrak has stonewalled against ARC requests for financial performance data."
He accused the railroad of benefiting from hidden subsidies, "including a secret $1 billion loan from the Canadian government for the new Acela high-speed train, disguises the nature and extent of its losses through bogus accounting methods and other means."
He also accused Amtrak of "hiding
the fiscal consequences of costly delays in its Acela high-speed
train program in the Northeast Corridor."
Looking deeper into Norfolk Southern, can
Amtrak, freight lines find common ground?
This is an expanded story related to the article that appeared in D:F two weeks ago regarding Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, and freight railroads in general. ¤ Ed.
Bill Schafer likes trains. That is evident from his presentation at the June NCI conference in Washington.
He is also a practical railroader who knows his freight trains earn big bucks for his corporation, and he wants to see more trains moving into the New York City area. He plainly says so.
He told the gathering in the Marriott Hotel that "Society and investors are both being shortchanged by the rail mode at the moment for a number of reasons," and he explained, "the private sector side of the equation is how NS is restructuring for survival and growth in the wake of the Conrail acquisition, how passenger trains can be our friends if they don't kill us first, and policy issues that will require some hard choices.
"We need to find a way to stop the nibbling ¤ to preserve a freight envelope, if you will, so that conventional freight trains can operate as close as physically possible to the places where freight is generated." He said ports, factories, distribution warehouses, and freight terminals, were examples.
He admitted "The break-up of Conrail got off to a rough start," but he added, "A lot of credit must go to Amtrak and our customers for their forbearance while we scrambled to get our act together. We have corrected most of the problems, and now our operation is about on a par with where it was on Split Date, June 1, 1999."
Schafer observed, "Regardless of the turmoil and travail, the purchase of Conrail by NS and CSX was the right thing to do." We both now have franchises to die for; franchises essential to our long-term well-being."
His railroad took several steps to improve its numbers and service, including continuing to hire train and engine crews, adding new transportation officers who will be needed for the foreseeable future, and force reductions through early retirements and furloughs. "Some parts of the organization have more resources than we will need going forward."
He said "Gradual improvement in systems and other IT services" will be continuing, and NS will make "Strategic investments, focused on where NS's future lies."
He said the freight railroad's managers have "taken a look at the routes of the new Norfolk Southern and identified core lines, defined as lines that are essential for the continued viability of the NS system. It is on these lines that we are focusing our investment for the foreseeable future."
The lines themselves remain proprietary information, so D:F cannot publish or describe which lines they are.
Schafer explained though, that "Many of these lines have passenger service today," and that "high-speed passenger service is proposed for some of these core lines, including Charlotte-Atlanta, Birmingham-New Orleans, and Chicago-Cleveland.
"New intercity passenger service also is proposed for some core lines, such as Raleigh-Asheville, Washington-Bristol, Va., Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, and Harrisburg-Pittsburgh."
New commuter services on its core lines have also been proposed in Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.
Schafer emphasized that "For all core lines, we must preserve enough
room for freight traffic to grow before beginning to consider capacity for new passenger trains."
He also noted that freight business has been nibbled severely in Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (NEC).
"If congestion on the NEC continues to get worse, private sector rail freight will continue to wither away. NS can't let that happen. The NEC is needed to reach a huge portion of the freight we inherited with Conrail. We're negotiating intensely with Amtrak for flexibility to allow growth. Serious infrastructure investment is long overdue on the NEC south of New York for all the freight, commuter, and high-speed intercity traffic that needs to move. As newcomers to the NEC, NS realizes that, despite the billions of public dollars spent on the NEC over the past 30 years, it's a fraction of what is needed."
The railroader added, "None of that money was spent for freight capacity. In fact, much former freight capacity has been consumed by commuter trains. The NEC is not up to the task of handling all these demands today. Without significant public investment, intercity, high-speed, commuter passenger, or conventional rail freight will lose out."
He also looked for a definition of "high-speed rail. Is it TGV? Acela? Competitive with automobiles?" and added that they "are all incompatible with conventional freight if implemented with meaningful frequency and windows.
Speed differences are also a large factor, he pointed out. "Not enough attention has been focused on this factor, which will affect whether or not high-speed trains are compatible on the same tracks as freight trains. With additional tracks and other improvements, we may be able to live with some higher speed trains, but eventually, totally separate infrastructure will be needed to provide world-class service with a flexibility that will attract people out of their cars or airplanes. This is also the future of NEC: separate tracks.
Schafer focused on commuter services as well as Amtrak. "Existing commuter train service is funded and growing, and, in some places, it's squeezing freight."
Factors to be considered, he said, include additional service frequency, high-level platforms (which are too close to the tracks for freight trains), and new commuter train service.
This will "all be very expensive," to make changes, he said, but "basic issues must be addressed, including the ability to grow freight."
All commuter services serve the hearts of urban areas, he said, and "those are the most constrained, most congested, and most expensive areas to add capacity. Freight is subject to more nibbling."
Schafer said NS has a relationship with Amtrak intercity like no other because of mutual dependence.
"We're willing to go along with more Amtrak freight on our lines if they go along with more NS freight on their lines. But to some freight folks, the express issue is another form of nibbling. If nothing else, we have accommodated ourselves to the nibbling so far. Freight railroads are survivors. Think of all the changes to the industry that have taken place since 1920, since 1950, since 1980. Now, intermodal freight is our growth engine." He predicted that "We can make good money on it if we get the fundamentals right (which we're in the process of doing). Something we have learned from Conrail; but for intermodal service to make sense for us, it must play by private sector rules. It must make enough money to yield a good return on investment and to earn its cost of capital."
Some of its characteristics, he said include long hauls, and that means nothing under 500 miles. Flexibility is also a big factor. Which is the most cost-effective way to serve markets? Sometimes it is by rail, sometimes by highway.
Reliable service is a major ingredient, he said.
"If there are too many clearance restrictions or too much congestion or if offering rail service is too expensive or unreliable, we'll truck the freight to or from an efficient terminal. The most cost effective terminals have good highway access and are built on cheap land. Harrisburg and Bethlehem are excellent examples."
For congested cities, "rail intermodal service does not always lead to public benefits, such as less congestion and less pollution, because we can't make any money on inefficient rail routes or terminals in urban areas that are too difficult to get to. Put another way, we can take trucks off the highway if conditions are right. In the case of Bethlehem, for example, we may take trucks off I-80 west of there, but may add trucks to I-78 east if it becomes too difficult to operate trains closer to the New York metro area."
Ultimately, should public planners care, he asked?
"The answer is 'yes,' if one assumes that freight rail can yield public benefits, such as reduced congestion and improved air quality ¤ some of the same benefits from rail passenger service.
"If mobility planning for the next 25 years is restricted to rail passenger, the result will be cars off the highway, but most likely at the expense of putting more trucks on the highway.
"Regardless of the planning horizon and the type of service planned, a lot of money will be spent. You can't expect the rail mode, which has been capital starved for the past seventy or eighty years, to take on the demands of the 21st century without massive investment."
When Amtrak Reform Council chairman Gil Carmichael was speaking, Schafer was listening.
"I think that Gil Carmichael is on to something when he advocates an 'Interstate II' type of program to bring rail passenger to a meaningful level of relevance and usefulness. I would only add that freight rail will need that level of investment too, if it is expected to generate public benefits. Having said that, Norfolk Southern's profitability from its new franchise grows every day. Our profitability comes from offering good rail service in our expanded service area. We will also continue to invest heavily in our core lines, where it makes sense for our freight customers, indefinitely; but the service we offer and the profits we generate are for the benefit of our core constituencies: our customers and our owners. Public benefits from freight rail, beyond the scope of what we provide today, will need to be publicly funded."
NCI: Leo King
A high-speed train departs wide-open Paddington Station in London. The area behind the camera is as open as this, and leads directly to the waiting room.
Some intriguing ideas float across the 'pond'
By Leo King
I had the opportunity to travel to London and Nottingham in the United Kingdom in early July. Some things I observed while I was there might give pause for some suggestions for Amtrak ¤ or any American passenger rail service ¤ to consider.
The average temperature in the southern parts of England is about 50 degrees year-round, so that allows them to keep the waiting rooms and track platforms wide open, without doors or restrictions between the waiting areas, platforms and trains.
These arrangements all seem to be in stub-end terminals, and if Amtrak were to build such stations, they probably would have to locate them in warm climates.
Considering the mix of freight trains with passenger trains, Railtrack, the Wisconsin Central clone that operates the British rail lines, keeps the express trains on both middle high-speed tracks except for scheduled station stops. Commuter trains operate on both outside tracks so they are frequently passing platforms, and freight trains run on yet even farther outside tracks and seldom encounter platforms. All the trains are on the same right-of-way, but the freight tracks are generally widely separated from passenger tracks, except at some interlockings and junctions.
England, too, is having capacity problems, with freight tonnage up considerably above what it was ten years ago, and more people riding trains.
Those freight train tracks are well-maintained, but speeds are lower because of the tonnage they are required to haul, and the much lower speeds they attain.
Power sources do not matter ¤ diesel
or under catenary.
St. Augustine could become 'wheels' hub
A transportation center proposal by the St. Augustine-St. Johns County Airport Authority would combine new passenger rail and bus service, lacking for 35 years, with the existing St. John's Airport.
Costs and funding are not known yet, although it would run into the millions, officials said, according to a report in the July 4 Jacksonville Times-Union.
An elevated walkway would connect the existing airport, which primarily serves smaller planes and corporate jets, on the east side of U.S. 1 with an Amtrak terminal and other facilities to the west on undeveloped land.
The Amtrak part of the center is under intense review, said Jane Covington, spokesperson for Florida East Coast Railway, which owns the track.
"We feel like we are getting very close to a deal but can't say when," she said of negotiations with Amtrak for track access. Cities that would be served by the new Amtrak route would be St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Melbourne, Titusville, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and Stuart. Amtrak would offer three northbound trains daily and three southbound.
A violent railway strike in 1963 ended passenger service in St. John's, but a court order forced FEC to reinstate one passenger train a day from Jacksonville to Miami in 1965. Service ended because the average ridership was 3.2 people a day, Covington said.
We try to be accurate in the stories we write, but even seasoned pros err occasionally. If you read something you know to be amiss, or if you have a question about a topic, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the crew at email@example.com.