Destination: Freedom

The newsletter of the National Corridors Initiative

Vol. 1 No. 15 ©2000, NCI, Inc. July 24, 2000

James P. RePass, President Leo King, Editor

A weekly passenger railroad update

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With this issue, Destination: Freedom

becomes a Monday magazine

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NCI: Leo King
The 2001-2003 Acela Express trainset has been testing in Boston nightly for nearly two weeks. The trainset is pictured here in its Southampton Street yard maintenance facility between runs. The broken truck-bolt problem remains as two broke Thursday night-Friday morning trials, according to sources. This train is testing between Boston and New Haven, Conn., but the 150 mph trains will not debut in service until September. Amtrak hopes the trains will earn $180 million in additional revenue annually and bring the railroad's operations to a profitable side of the ledger. Alstom and Bombardier are building 20 trainsets. The testing is for the FRA-required vehicle qualification and qualification of the "Overhead Catenary System." This trainset returned to Philadelphia Friday night.
 
 

Uneven tracks ahead

Attitudes seem to be problem for Amtrak

By Wes Vernon

Washington Correspondent

After the evangelistic hype about "satisfaction guaranteed" for Amtrak riders (See D:F-July 14), early returns indicate that the "new attitude" may have to be an evolutionary process, dragged out of the more "reluctant" sector of the Amtrak work force, one at a time.

On July 6, seven of Amtrak's best employees led a cheering section for the new guarantee whereby if you have a lousy trip on one of the trains, and an employee does not make it right, you get a voucher for a free future trip.

On July 9, just three days later, Amtrak Reform Council (ARC) Vice Chairman Paul M. Weyrich boarded the Vermonter to return to Washington. What he witnessed was one of Amtrak's worst employees who was "just nasty." Mind you, this was not "some old geezer" left over from the old days when railroads, while actively discouraging customers from riding their trains, stopped barely short of handing out "Grouchy Conductor of the Month" awards and bonuses.

The employee, as described by Weyrich at a July 17 ARC meeting, was a woman of about 35 years of age, definitely of the current Amtrak generation.

When he recounted the event for the benefit of Amtrak Executive Vice President Barbara Richardson and Marketing VP Steve Scott, who were testifying that day, they replied that one of the purposes of the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" program was to weed out employees precisely like the one Weyrich encountered.

If that is the case, the weeding out may be a slow, painful process. That very day, the 17th, I had my own experience with an Amtrak ticket agent at the 800 telephone number. This time the problem was not rudeness, but incompetence.

I had ordered tickets for a trip to Syracuse I had planned for August. The woman assured me there was no Metroliner service on Monday August 7. I told her I knew that was not true, that Amtrak runs Metroliners every weekday, every hour on the hour out of Washington. Her response was that she would "have no reason to lie to you," that I must be reading from an old timetable. The timetable had been issued July 9, eight days before the call.

The upshot was that she insisted on booking me on the 12:05 PM No. 142 Northeast Direct instead of the l2 Noon No. 112 Metroliner that I had requested.

So I let it go, vowing to untangle it later. Back in the hearing room, I related the experience to Amtrak Government Affairs Director Joe McHugh. He was incredulous. He endorsed my idea to see "a real ticket agent" at Union Station, which I did. The Union Station agent opined that the lady at the 800 number was new and had misunderstood the computerized instructions to use the 12:05 train as the recommended connector at New York to the "Lake Shore Limited" to Syracuse.

Someone, please tell me: Is it unreasonable to expect that, before dealing with the public, a new reservations employee be grounded in such basics as the simple Monday-Friday memory system for the very popular Metroliners?

To a customer less familiar with the Amtrak system than I was, this agent could very well have been driving business, not to say revenue, away from an extra fare train.

Speaking of driving business away, when Weyrich asked for Business Class seating on the Vermonter, he was told it was sold out, that no space was available. He found out later that this was not so, that there was plenty of room. Revenue lost to a cash-strapped Amtrak.

And although the next example may not have involved an immediate revenue loss, it may have resulted it a loss of repeat customers. Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, another ARC member, complained at the hearing that passengers were discouraged from riding the Empire Builder from Chicago to Milwaukee because Amtrak wanted to save that space for longer distance passengers on its trip to Seattle.

The only problem, said Mayor Norquist, was that he had heard from citizens of his city who, having been denied the dining car facilities of the Builder, had to wait for another hour or two for the privilege of standing in the aisle on the next train. If those people choose to drive or take the bus next time, that's more lost revenue for Amtrak; but this apparently is not the fault of any one Amtrak employee. It appears to be Amtrak policy, in which case, the blame reaches another level in the hierarchy.

I can't wait until the "weeding out" of the "bad apples" gets underway in earnest. What will happen when Amtrak President George Warrington is dragged before a rail-labor inspired congressional hearing and told to back off? That's exactly what happened to Graham Claytor in the mid-80's, after which he simply did not want to hear any bad news.

This is not to lay every problem at the feet of the labor unions. They have their share of legitimate gripes, too.

At the July 17 hearing, Charles Moneypenny, the new labor rep on the Amtrak Reform Council, told the Amtrak officials of an incident in Boston where an employee was manhandled and "shoved out the door" by a manager. The manager's only "punishment" was five days paid suspension. Moneypenny, a veteran of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), said a joke making the rounds in Boston was that if the manager had hit the employee, he would have ended up with two weeks of paid leave.

That simply shows that not all is not necessarily sweetness and light in Amtrak's labor relations which in turn may explain, but not excuse, employee rudeness or incompetence in dealing with customers.
 
 

Two million riders in June

Amtrak's reported on Friday that its ridership continued to climb between April and June, and achieved a nine-year high of more than two million passengers in June.

In a faxed message to employees around the country, the company's Employee Advisory stated, "because of the strong ridership performance last month, Amtrak has achieved a first in the company's history ¤ a $100-million month in ticket revenue."

Officials stated "Overall, third-quarter ridership rose to nearly 6 million, against 5.5 million for fiscal year 1999's third quarter."

Revenue totaled $293 million, against $260 million for last year's third quarter.

"On June 12, one day alone, the Riverside, Cal., call center recorded an all-time high $3.1 million in sales."

Amtrak attributed June's "strong ridership and revenue results to improved product quality, rising gasoline prices, increased airline delays and fares, continued strong national travel demand, and effective marketing programs."

Long ¤distance trains also showed improvement. The Texas Eagle showed the most gains, with ridership up 49 percent. Amtrak did not state the numbers of riders nor the train's revenues.
 
 

McCain lobs 'grenade' at new Amtrak funding

By Wes Vernon

Washington Correspondent

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose verbal tirades against Amtrak suddenly stopped when he was trying to appeal to a national audience during his failed bid for the presidency, was back in form this past week.

In a "Dear Bill" letter to Senate Finance Committee chairman William Roth (R-Del.), McCain expressed his "deep concerns" over reports of the $10 billion bonding authority measure for Amtrak being considered by the committee.

The bonding bill is intended to provide some capital stability for Amtrak in the period following the late 2002 deadline for Amtrak's reaching operational solvency, as mandated by the 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act.

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...then the vote came
Just as the ink was drying on Senator McCain's letter opposing the High Speed Rail Investment Act (which is what the bonding legislation is) another part of the Arizonan's renewed anti-Amtrak crusade was slapped down by his colleagues on the Senate floor. By a lopsided vote of 72-24, the Senate approved the pro-Amtrak Specter-Kohl amendment.

The authors of the measure said it was aimed at preventing "unintended consequences" of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act. Without Specter-Kohl, Amtrak would no longer have been allowed to lease vehicles from the General Services Administration (GSA). Otherwise, Amtrak would have to shell out another $15 million a year in to lease vehicles, including road-rail "high rail" vehicles, police cars, and buses for track gangs.

McCain objected because this was not helping "Amtrak to become like a business".

Most of Amtrak's main equipment (passenger cars, locomotives, etc.) is leased through the private sector. On July 17, Amtrak Treasurer Carol Dillon told the Amtrak Reform Council that 85 percent of its actual train equipment is "encumbered" (i.e.-leased).

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McCain, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, told Roth he is "adamantly opposed to providing yet another tax bill bailout for Amtrak."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the bill's chief sponsor, unveiled the measure last fall, when McCain was competing for the Republican presidential nomination. The Arizona lawmaker, whose committee is the authorizing panel for Amtrak, chose to remain silent at that time as he pursued his national campaign that included vote-rich states with relatively heavy Amtrak ridership.

Moreover, some members of the Amtrak Reform Council (ARC), created to monitor Amtrak's progress toward operational solvency, quietly seethed as McCain did not lift a finger to defend the ARC (which he had helped create) just when the panel was under unrelenting attack from rail labor unions.

Now, the Arizonan is saying in his letter that "I have not acted to alter (the four-year-old law) reached as part of the reform legislation, and I find it a breech of agreement that Amtrak and others are already seeking substantial increases in funding when Amtrak hasn't even fulfilled the first quite substantial statutory obligation to operate free of taxpayer assistance."

The 1997 law does, as Mc Cain noted, deal with ridding Amtrak of operational subsidies. The same law is silent on the subject of capital subsidies, enjoyed by every other mode of transportation. McCain's letter to Roth does not say anything about the capital side of the Amtrak ledger either, but the Lautenberg bill is primarily aimed at dealing with precisely that.

McCain said it was "premature" to pass such legislation before the 1997 law has run its course.

Roth is in a tough re-election battle at home in Delaware, which is on the Amtrak's popular Northeast Corridor. His support of the Lautenberg bill is one of the actions he is taking to bolster his position with the voters back home. For that reason ¤ and the fact that he is a longtime Amtrak supporter ¤ it is not likely that he will slow down the legislative process on the bonding bill.

As for Lautenberg, he retires at the end of this year, and has made it clear that he intends to make this legislation his "legacy" and that he will not go out like a "lame duck."
 
 

So long, Fort Yard

Amtrak builds new MW base

Amtrak is buying a large warehouse on Industrial Drive in Groton, Conn., and the seven-acre property will be used as a maintenance base for the New England stretch of electrified rail along its high-speed corridor. The railroad reportedly has hired 60 employees for the facility and will transfer 40 more from other maintenance shops, including Fort Yard in New London, which it plans to close. That small yard is near Shaw's Cove swing bridge.

The newer building contains 50,000 square feet of workspace along with 12,000 square feet of office space. Remington said the shops will run 24 hours a day, and will be responsible for maintaining the newly electrified tracks between New Haven and Boston.

Amtrak plans to sell Fort Yard to the New London Redevelopment Council which the council has wanted for some time because it is prime waterfront land.

The New London Day via Friends of Amtrak and Dave Bowe
 
 

Advertising account is reviewed

Amtrak has put its estimated $35 million account up for review, Adweek reported last week.

The advertising profession's journal stated, "'Amtrak has begun a competitive process for selection of an advertising agency to handle its corporate advertising activities,' said client representative Bill Schulz."

He said a consulting firm is on board to manage the review, but declined to name it. Schulz also declined comment on whether the review would result in a consolidation of the business.

Three shops currently handle Amtrak. DDB Worldwide, which won the account in 1972, one year after Congress created the federally funded national passenger-rail service, is the lead agency, holding the bulk of creative and media duties. Other roster shops are E. James White of Herndon, Va., which does promotional work, and Lowe Lintas & Partners, whose Chicago office handled Amtrak's Intercity business.

Lowe closed its Chicago office two months ago when its principal client, SBC-Ameritech, consolidated its $85 million account at GSD&M in Austin, Tex.

Schulz declined to cite the reason for the review except to say it was ""prudent for a major corporate advertiser to do this. It happens all the time." He said Amtrak was not unhappy with its current advertising and that DDB was welcome to participate in the process. DDB executives declined comment, but sources said the shop would likely defend the business.

The DDB network handles the Washington, D.C.-based client's brand-identity, Metroliner, promotional and Acela accounts. Two weeks ago, DDB, New York, broke a print campaign for Amtrak's new "satisfaction guaranteed" service. Last summer, the shop produced Acela print, TV and outdoor ads for an anticipated fall 1999 launch of the high-speed rail service. The service is expected to launch by the end of the summer, Schulz said.
 
 

Corridor lines...

The beat goes on in Illinois

Amtrak and the Illinois DOT are working jointly to introduce 110 mph train service between Chicago and St. Louis. The state is seeking public comment on the proposed draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The High Speed Rail Coalition said it needs "demonstrate strong public support for this project in order to keep it moving. Governor Ryan has pledged to have the trains running by Fall, 2002, but this could easily change if the only people who comment on high-speed rail are its critics."

A web site offers details, at http://www.dot.state.il.us/hsrail/highspdinfo.html.

The High-Speed coalition is asking Illinois residents to send an e-mail in support of rail service to the Illinois DOT.

"Just copy the text and paste it in a new e-mail message to hsrdeis@nt.dot.state.il.us."
 
 

NARP urges vehicle bill support for Amtrak

National Assn. Of Railroad Passengers (NARP) President Ross Capon was urging its members last week to support legislation that would allow Amtrak to continue to contract with the General Services Administration for vehicles through 2003.

He urged its members to "Ask your senator to vote for the Specter-Kohl Amendment to H.R. 4461, the Agriculture-FDA Appropriations bill.

"This would preserve Amtrak's eligibility to lease (highway) vehicles from the GSA, and thus avoid a nearly $15 million a year cost increase resulting from leasing vehicles privately (from $10 million now to an estimated $25 million).

Capon said, "Without this amendment, Amtrak would lose its 'Interagency Fleet Management Eligibility,' an unintentional byproduct of the 1997 law that reauthorized Amtrak."

He said GSA had offered Amtrak an alternative, to buy the vehicles outright for $40 million (and maintain them for an additional $10 million a year), but Capon stated flatly, "Amtrak does not have money for this."

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Herbert Kohl (D-WI) offered the "pro-Amtrak" amendment. It would allow Amtrak to keep its GSA leasing eligibility through 2003, the operational self-sufficiency deadline.

If the amendment fails, Amtrak would need to return all 1,650 vehicles to GSA by October 1.
 
 

IllDOT to honor Molitoris, others

FRA Administrator Jolene M Molitoris, Wisconsin DOT secretary Terrence D Mulcahy and Cristine M Klika, Honorary Chair, will be the guests of honor at a meeting in Indiana in September.

The Indiana High Speed Rail Association, the High Speed Ground Transportation Association, Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition, Railway Progress Institute, Siemens Transportation Systems, Inc. United States Steel Corporation will honor the trio at its sixth annual meeting and "The Golden Spike Seminar in celebration of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative."

The gathering will meet on Sept. 8 from 7:00 am to 3:15 pm at the Center for Visual & Performing Arts in Munster, Ind.

For reservations, call (219) 887-1351, or e-mail <wdh.indiana@att.net>.

Ticket prices range from $75 to $50, the lower rate for students, and includes the seminar, a continental breakfast and luncheon.


An end note...

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 train1812@home.com.


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