NCI: Leo KingAcela Express and Metroliner trips earn 500 points, and 750 points if a rider travels first-class on either of these extra fare trains in Amtrak's new "Guest Rewards" scheme.
Acela Express tickets go on sale;
Amtrak launches 'guest rewards'
Amtrak kicked off the sales for its long-awaited high-speed Acela Express train November 29, and at the same time, offered its own version of a "frequent flyer" program long promoted by the airlines. The railroad celebrated the first Acela Express ticket sales with events in Boston, Providence, and New York, and Washington.
However, there is a significant difference. Amtrak's "Guest Rewards," as it is to be known, operates on a point system rather than miles. For a limited time, passengers will be awarded 500 points just for enrolling online (at (www.amtrakguestrewards.com). The normal enrollment award will be 400 points.
The basic rule is passengers are required to travel within 90 days of enrollment in order to win their enrollment points. They then earn two points for every dollar spent on Amtrak (but not for travel before the Nov. 29 official opening), 500 points for every Acela Express or Metroliner trip, and 750 points if a rider travels first-class on either of these extra fare trains. Amtrak President George Warrington, at the Union Station ceremony in Washington, described this as "a bonus for not taking the shuttle to New York," over and above the two points for every dollar spent on the ticket.
Points can be redeemed right away for future Amtrak travel, and after January 1, 2001, riders can redeem the points for airline miles, hotel stays, car rentals, or retail gift certificates to participating companies. For future Amtrak travel, the program divides into three (as yet undesignated) zones, reminiscent of Amtrak's long-time "All-Aboard America" discounts.
For example, a free ride, reserved coach, in one zone is worth 5,000 points, for travel in two zones 7,500 points. A free upgrade to a "standard" sleeping car room, as opposed to a deluxe bedroom, is worth 20,000 points.
The program goes ever further, said Warrington, "by awarding points when members use the services of some of our partners."
One of those "partners" is Midwest Express, an airline represented at the Washington news conference by an executive, Steve Mathwig. He emphasized what his airline's partnering with Amtrak said about "seamless transportation," a step toward rectifying this country's uncoordinated transportation system, a longstanding complaint with many customers.
"We congratulate Amtrak on the launch of this flexible program," Mathwig said, "and believe this new initiative is good for our mutual customers and good for business."
The program also partners with United and Continental. So this will be a far-flung partnership covering the nation.
The hotel partnership, where a sufficient number of points can get you a free stay, includes the HiltonHHonors Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, Four Points, St. Regis, Luxury Collection, and W Hotels, as well as Marriott hotels and free car rentals from Hertz.
Furthermore, members can earn points when staying at HHonors hotels, including Hilton, Conrad International, Doubletree, Embassy Suites Hotels, Hampton Inn, Hampton Inn and Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and Homewood Inn, by Hilton Hotels, in addition to Westin, Sheraton, Four Points, or St. Regis.
Retailers and restaurants in the partnership include Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Bath and Body Works, Bloomingdale's, Corporate Movie Club, Eddie Bauer, Macy's, The Olive Garden, Red Lobster, The Sharper Image, SpaWish.com, TGIFriday's, and the White Barn Candle Co.
This is a major step for Amtrak and surely puts on display significant results of George Warrington's strategy, to which we have alluded several times in this space, of making business deals right and left, not only to secure for Amtrak increased revenues, but also helping to put the passenger train company into what its supporters have consistently viewed as its rightful place in America's transportation network.
Most people, when they go from point A to point B, just want to get there at the most reasonable cost and are oblivious to the special pleadings of any one mode. If Amtrak can connect with other modes of transportation in such a way as to make it easier for people to get around with a minimum of hassle, we may finally see the kind of organized transportation system that America deserves and which our European cousins have enjoyed for some time. We helped build that European transportation system right after World War II. Now, perhaps, it is our turn.
As for the economics, one has to believe that Warrington, his managers and board chairman Tommy Thompson and the other members of the Amtrak board have spent hours going over the plusses and minuses with a fine-toothed comb. It is true that the inducements involve a lot of things given away to good, loyal Amtrak riders. While that may solidify their preference for rail travel, there is always some risk to the bottom line when you start handing out something for free.
It marks a major change in direction in the Amtrak management culture. During the late W. Graham Claytor, Jr.'s tenure as Amtrak president, he was asked at a National Press Club appearance why Amtrak did not implement the rail equivalent of the airline "frequent flyer" programs.
His response was that he hadn't met a single airline executive who didn't regret having started that promotion because the air carriers ended up giving away too much. Claytor also said Amtrak didn't need a major give-away program considering, for example, that one has to make sleeping car reservations months in advance on many trains.
Of course, as noted, Amtrak's Guest Rewards program operates on a different scale than "frequent flyer" programs, perhaps having profited by the airlines having learned the hard way that handouts based on pure mileage is not the best way to do it. Besides, it's reasonable to speculate that many, if not most, of the giveaways will be in the form of benefits in non-Amtrak segments of the program.
The new rewards program stole the thunder from the main purpose of the news conference, i.e. the launching of ticket sales for the new Acela Express service, which begins next Monday.
"This is more than an introduction of a new service," Warrington told the crowd, "It's the start of a transportation revolution. This is Acela Express, and it begins right here, right now." The assembled VIPs picked up that applause line on cue.
The Amtrak boss said the new train service is expected to generate net revenues of $180 million in its first full year, and that combined with other inducements such as Amtrak's Satisfaction Guarantee program and other initiatives, including but not limited to the new Guest Rewards plan, "Acela Express will help make Amtrak a commercial and financial success, and give our passengers a world-class travel experience."
Washington D.C.'s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was given a symbolic giant "first ticket" for the Acela train.
John Bickerman, a Washington attorney who apparently spends a good portion of his life riding on the Metroliner on business trips, was awarded the very first Amtrak Guest Rewards membership.
FRA's deputy administrator, John V. "Jack" Wells, promised a vigorous lobbying effort on Capitol Hill this month to pass the $10 billion High-Speed Rail Investment Act to upgrade the Northeast corridor infrastructure to cut down further on running times for the Acela, and to lay the groundwork for faster train service in other corridors, as well.
But perhaps the most interesting attendee at the ceremony was not recognized until after it was over. The nine-year-old boy's name is Stephen Anderson of Lafayette Hill, Pa. Proudly sporting his blue-gray Acela conductor's hat, the youngster was awarded an HO model set of the new Acela Express, probably the first copy given to anyone.
What young Stephen showed us was the future. He was really caught up in new modern trains the way other kids take to faster planes and racing cars. Those of us who have memories of steam engines in regular service are coming to realize that kids don't call them "choo-choo trains" anymore.
|First revenue train leaves next Monday|
|The first revenue Acela Express train will pull out of Washington's Union Station on December 11 at 5:00 a.m., arrive in New York at 7:44 a.m., depart at 8:03 a.m., and arrive at Boston's South Station at 11:31 a.m. The train will make an evening return to Washington, as part of its regular daily service. When all 20 trains are delivered to Amtrak from the manufacturer, Acela Express will serve Washington and New York with 19 weekday round trips and New York and Boston with 10 weekday round trips. Weekends will feature fewer round trips.|
|A ticket to ride: $87, please...|
Getting tickets for that first day of tickets going on sale was sort of like pulling hen's teeth.
I was up at 3:00 a.m. working at my keyboard (writers work at strange hours) on November 29, 2000, so I called Amtrak's 1-800-USA-RAIL number to make a reservation.
"I'm sorry sir, we can't make reservations on that train until 7 a.m."
Hmm. Okay. Back to work.
6:30 came along, and it was off to my shower.
6:59 a.m., dialing Amtrak again.
"I'm sorry sir, those tickets don't go on sale until 10 a.m."
"But I called at three and they said they wouldn't be available until seven."
"I'm sorry sir, but the information isn't even in our reservation system yet." She didn't have train numbers, either.
It was time for me to take a nap.
I would try again at ten.
I suspected what was going on: Amtrak was holding off letting the public buy tickets so they could let VIPs at various stations along the corridor do the task first.
I tried again at 8:45, but this time I got the same answer.
Ten o'clock finally rolled around, and this time, I was successful. I got a ticket for Tuesday's train no. 2150. Personal commitments prevented me from getting a first-day ride.
Eighty-seven bucks, please.
My reservation number was 039D28.
The lady reservation agent I spoke to said she had gotten several queries regarding the tickets, but mine was the first one she sold.
The train would leave Washington at 5:00 a.m., as Wes reported, and it would arrive in New York City's Penn Station for a crew change and quick sprucing up at 7:44 a.m., then leave at 8:03.
It would depart New Haven at 9:27 a.m. and arrive in the Hub at 11:31 a.m.
The return train number was 2175, and would leave Boston at 5:12 p.m., arrive in New Haven at 7:18, continue on to New York to arrive at 8:40 and leave at 9:00 sharp, and finally land in our nation's capital at 11:43 p.m.
The train will reach its top speed of 150 mph over an eight-mile stretch within Rhode Island, 50 mph faster than today's trains, and complete that leg of the journey in three hours, 23 minutes. The Washington-New York trip will take two hours, 44 minutes, make six stops, and achieve a top speed of 135 mph.
Those Acela Expresses will also stop at BWI Airport, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, Providence, and three stations in the Boston area, Route 128, Back Bay, as well as South Station.
Meanwhile, Amtrak is taking no chances with someone derailing the train. A helicopter will fly ahead of its route.
Amtrak is using money seized from drug dealers to lease a helicopter and pilot that can fly officers out of the stations and off the platforms and tracks. The chopper will go on specific missions rather than daily patrol sweeps, and is expected to fly about 80 hours per month, officials said.
Amtrak Police Chief Ron Frazier said he expects the leased Bell Jet Ranger to be aimed mainly at apprehending trespassers, snipers, vandals and saboteurs, according to APBnews.com (at http://www.apbnews.com).
"Its greatest utilization will be in trespass reduction," he said.
Amtrak police put a sergeant and a hired pilot aboard the helicopter. Railway interlopers, including fishermen and teenagers riding over tracks on all-terrain vehicles, pose a threat to passenger trains, he said. Frazier anticipates that the chopper will help cut incidents, including collisions, on the busy commuter route between Washington and Boston.
The bird is equipped with night vision gear, video and photographic equipment, and its crew will hunt for people who snipe at passing trains with guns, and others who intentionally place debris on tracks to cause delays or derailments.
Frazier said Amtrak officials are especially concerned about the new Acela train.
"These issues are horrible for us," Frazier said. "We have a duty not only to our passengers on board but to the community we serve, to make sure that we have a good system in place that will keep it safe and secure."
The helicopter patrol will also help watch the rails when trains are carrying valuable goods, sensitive military equipment or important government officials.
The helicopter hovering above the rails will communicate with the railroad police on the ground, as well as with local authorities, who often are called in to help catch vandals or trespassers that the train's crew has spotted.
The helicopter flew its first mission earlier this month, when Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express had its inaugural run between Washington and New York. Several members of Congress were on that train.
Vermont commuter rail arrives
Commuter rail service between Charlotte and Burlington, Vermont begins today.
Vermont Transportation Authority's (VTA) Susan Compton told Destination: Freedom that it will be "offering limited service until full start up in the Spring 2001. At present the schedule calls for four roundtrips per day during peak hours."
She said, "Vermont Railway, Inc. will be the operator of the service, which will be managed by VTA."
The 12-mile route "will use conventional push-pull equipment," she said, and speeds along the corridor will vary, but should be between "30 and 40 miles per hour."
Compton said the operation "is a contracted agreement, the total of which is still being negotiated."
The Burlington-Charlotte shuttle will begin running at 6:00 a.m. Its crew will deadhead to Charlotte and will open its doors for passengers to ride northward to Burlington Mondays through Fridays.
Train 100 will deadhead from Burlington at 6:30, but will not carry passengers southward. Its scheduled arrival time in Charlotte is 6:53 a.m.
Train 101 will depart Charlotte at 7:00 a.m., Shelburne at 7:10, and will arrive in Burlington at 7:25.
Trains 102 and 103 will have departing and arrival times exactly one hour from 100 and 101.
In the evening, 114 leaves Burlington at 5:30 p.m., Shelburne at 5:45, and arrives in Charlotte at 5:55.
113 will depart Charlotte at 6:00 p.m., leave Shelburne at 6:10 and arrive in Burlington at 6:25.
Trains 116 and 115 are on the same schedule except for being one hour later. No. 115 will be a deadhead and carry no passengers.
|Rail advocates seek link to East Texas|
Passenger train advocates say they can measure the distance left to revive the Cotton Belt line between the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and East Texas: a 23.5- mile stretch of uprooted rails, ties and rocks between Wylie and Greenville.
If an agreement with area transit authorities can be reached, the rural rail line could eventually provide commuter train service between downtown Fort Worth and the Mount Pleasant area, officials said.
A plan to rebuild the Cotton Belt line probably has about a year to succeed before regional growth swallows the empty land, Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap observed.
"What it could be is a link between us and north Dallas, D-FW Airport and downtown Fort Worth, but in a year or so, it'll be gone, and the chance at a vital link between the Metroplex and Northeast Texas will be gone," he said, according to a report last week in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The St. Louis Southwestern Railway, nicknamed the Cotton Belt because it passed through cotton-producing states, ended service in 1988 after a flood near Lake Lavon in Collin County washed out part of the track. The segment of the line between Wylie and Greenville was sold in 1995 to A&K Materials. It was salvaged.
Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, and Titus counties with the name Northeast Texas Rural Rail Transportation District formed a rail district.
Through the years, the state and federal governments have bought sections of the line, including 31 miles with a $2 million appropriation from the 1995 state Legislature and 35 miles with a $1.5 million federal grant.
"There's a feeling that rail service may be the future of transportation in our corridor of Northeast Texas," said Harold Curtis, the district legal counsel. "My understanding is that A&K has taken the rail, ties and ballast from the line but would offer the right of way for sale. If that is the case, we'd like for someone to be a buyer."
Rail district advocates such as Millsap are pushing resolutions at regional governments and lobbying groups to support the purchase and preservation of the Cotton Belt right of way for a passenger train line into the Metroplex.
Hopkins County Commissioners Court approved the resolution, 4-0, one week ago.
Multiple gauges pose problem,
An agreement by the European Union last week to open up its rail freight system to cross-border competition is "real revolution," according to Loyola de Palacio, the European transport commissioner.
Under an agreement between EU governments and the European Parliament, 90 percent of the 15-nation EU's international freight network will be opened by 2003.
"We have taken a first step towards a genuine European rail network," she said, and, de Palacio added, "For the first time, Europeans will have the means to reverse the trend of decline of rail transport."
The agreement calls for rail companies to have access to the entire EU network for international rail freight in 2008, seven years after the new law takes effect.
Rail's share of the EU's freight market has crashed from 32 percent in 1970 to around 12 percent today, while trucking has raised its share from under half to around three-quarters, and is still gaining ground.
EU governments struck a deal last December giving rail freight operators from other EU countries access to their rail networks and agreed to a framework for a transparent system of fees for using the rail infrastructure.
De Palacio said she expects the established railway companies to offer cross-border freight services as well as newcomers, including trucking firms and shipping lines.
Competition already exists in several EU countries, notably Britain where the rail industry is entirely privatized, and Germany, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands, where small short haul operators are emerging to challenge the established operators on selected routes.
Short Lines, a Rotterdam-based rail operator, recently won a large contract with AkzoNobel, the Dutch-Swedish chemical company, that previously was held by NS Cargo, the Netherlands' main rail freight company.
France, Europe's second-largest rail market after Germany, opposes opening its rail network despite the agreement. Some 30,000 rail workers rallied in Paris recently to protest deregulation, raising doubts whether the new agreement will lead to greater competition in the country.
De Palacio said opening up the rail network faces many technical hurdles. She said she would present proposals to open the passenger network next year.
The EU has four axle widths; four train heights, five electrical systems and several signaling systems.
|Can freight ever move by rail from London to Tokyo?|
Goods could be delivered all the way from Britain to Tokyo by train under a plan to resurrect Stalin's dream of building a tunnel and bridge to link Russia and Japan.
The grandiose project involves the construction of six-mile tunnel from the Russian mainland to the island of Sakhalin and then adding a 22-mile bridge over the ocean to Japan, not unlike the Florida East Coast's route in the 1930s over the Florida Keys. A hurricane destroyed that route.
Russian officials, including President Valdimir Putin, are talking up the idea and suggesting the project could be under way from the end of 2001, reports The Moscow Times.
A tunnel to Sakhalin was first started in the 1940s. Workers reportedly reached halfway before the project was abandoned after Stalin's death.
Russian Railways Ministry officials say the massive outlay on infrastructure would pay for itself in 15 to 20 years, because of the increase in freight passing through Russia from Europe.
So far, the idea has received a sour response from Japanese officials, with Tokyo saying it will not put one yen into meeting the United States' $50 billion costs because of a lack of confidence in Russia.
Akira Imamura, a consular official with the Japanese Embassy, said the real problem with moving cargo from Britain to Japan via Russia was not a lack of monster bridges and tunnels, but every-day problems with the Trans-Siberian Railway.
He said, "Due to big problems with safety, stability and security, Japanese companies do not want to use the 'Trans-Sib.' If all these problems are resolved, the Trans-Sib could be a shorter, easier, cheaper and real route from Japan to Europe."
NYO&W: Hal Carstens; Leo King collectionA kid named Hal Carstens of West Englewood, N.J. snapped a photo of a New York, Ontario & Western F3 1,500 HP EMD engine when the railroad still had some life left. The "Old and Weary," as some folks called it, would soon be abandoned over its entire length. Its earliest version came about in 1868, but its demise came in 1957, and its downfall was the truck, plus, despite its name, coming from no major metropolitan center, had none along its routes, nor ended at any. Trucks took over the milk runs - literally.
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Destination: Freedom's editor, Leo King, also writes for "ThemeStream," a forum for writers and readers. King's articles are all rail-related, and mostly chronicle events over the last ten years on the Northeast Corridor, particularly in New England. Look for his articles at http://www.themestream.com under the heading "Travel," and the sub-heading, "Riding the Rails."
In an effort to expand the on-line experience at the National Corridors Initiative web site, we have added a page featuring links to other rail travel sites. We hope to provide links to those cities or states that are working on rail transportation initiatives - state DOTs, legislators, governor's offices, and transportation professionals - as well as some links for travelers, enthusiasts, and hobbyists.
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