Trains For America

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UPDATED and CORRECTED: Amtrak eyes Sunset improvements

Here is the latest from Amtrak Ink. Analysis follows.

RPI 2009 To Target
Improvement Opportunities

“The 2009 RPI initiative is in full swing as a crosssection of departments and individuals are engaged in delivering route-level improvements to a number of corridor and long-distance services. In Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, representatives from Marketing and Product Management, Strategic Partnerships, Labor Relations,Transportation,Mechanical and Engineering
are evaluating route performance and targeting opportunities for improvement.”

Sunset Limited
“The Sunset Limited is one of a number of routes that is buoying overall long-distance ridership and revenue totals. Ridership and revenue are both around 20 percent higher than the prior fiscal year.

Product Management Director Jack Rich and a team of 65, which includes department heads, on-site managers, key employees and union officials fromWashington,D.C., New Orleans and LosAngeles, established an initial
punch list of more than 200 potential areas for change and improvement.And, while Rich said his team will likely focus on typical improvement areas like on-time performance or higher CSI scores, he envisions that the process “will put everything on the plate, with no prejudice.” Among the items for consideration are ensuring that the proper amount of equipment and staffing is maintained; implementing aggressive “green and clean” initiatives; establishing marketing initiatives to target city pairs; and launching station enhancements to increase patron awareness and use.

“We need to re-engineer every aspect of this train.That means redirecting
everything —from food to scheduling to marketing — so that it’s more customer-oriented,” said Rich. “We’re conducting a total examination
of the existing model to better match customer expectations, maximize revenue opportunities and get the most out of this service.”

Rich added that, “The recent significant improvement in on-time performance for the Sunset Limited has provided an opportunity to create momentum, as
performance indicators move in a positive direction on this route.We have an opportunity to be the Petri dish for unique innovations”

This is nothing but good news (unless Amtrak is exclusively managed by sociopaths and pathological liars). TFA has been somewhat skeptical about Beech Grove projects and the ultimate outcome for long distance trains. Taken at face value, this should answer those questions. Let us review.

  • Ridership and revenue are both around 20 percent higher than the prior fiscal year. This is great news and we an only hope that, within the Amtrak managements corps, left hand is talking to right hand. One would expect even more outstanding results from a daily train. It is impossible for anyone but a serious railfan to plan a trip using a three-day a week schedule.
  • “n initial punch list of more than 200 potential areas for change and improvement” How many can be done immediately? How many will cost nothing?
  • “proper amount of equipment and staffing” Not easily done today. As equipment becomes available, this will change. Daily operation is a function of equipment.
  • “on-time performance” How this objective relates to the excessive padding on the schedule is an unknown and a major issue. All suggestions welcome. End-to-end running time must be shortened.
  • “target city pairs” There are plenty on this long route. Again, a function of scheduling. New Orleans-Houston might grow with a daily schedule. LA-Phoenix is schedule sensitive and worked better with the old schedule.
  • “launching station enhancements to increase patron awareness and use.” Start in Beaumont. (Orange Co. Texas pop. 385,000)
  • And don’t crow about the improvement in on-time performance. The schedule is a disgrace, an abomination. Reliability is important but speed must have some value.

Amtrak seems to be saying many of the right words. All of this is the best possible news if good words are matched by good deeds.

Making this a daily train, which I believe is a non-negotiable item, raises logistical issues which those of us who are not working with it every day cannot imagine. Change is coming and not everybody will be pleased with every symptom of recovery on the Sunset.

The matter of restoring service east of New Orleans is also overdue for consideration. This is an essential part of the national system. It is another “must do” item.

Creating a separate connecting service similar to the old Gulf Wind between New Orleans and Jacksonville is a possibility. This is a logistical issue and way over my rank and grade. The only question is “when,” not “if?”

Your comments are surely invited and I promise to take part in the discussion.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: I am informed that Jacksonville is not a “terminal.” A restored Florida Sunset must go to Orland. This seems to assure a “break” in the schedule at New Orleans. That’s probably a good thing.

As Amtrak gets serious about the Sunset, everybody concerned needs to realize that this route has been somebody’s red headed stepchild for 40 long years. SP has this train running tri-weekly in the 60’s and deliberately broke its connections to Florida in New Orleans every night. This train has had its diner pulled, its sleepers discontinued, its stations abandoned for 40 years and this is not by any means only Amtrak’s fault.

Getting this train back on its feet will take years.

Here are some general goals.

  • Daily service LA-NO and NO-Orlando
  • restore service into downtown Phoenix
  • restore Coast Starlite connections
  • improve Beaumont station
  • additional sleeping cars

Finally, restoring service east of NO is not a Florida issue. This train should be feeding the City and the Crescent from NO, the Eagle at San Antonio and, of course, the various east coast trains in Florida. This is an important regional issue and should be seen as effecting the nanational system.

And in summation, (whew) not everybody is going to be satisfied with all of the changes. That includes me. On this one, considering the sad history and sorry condition of this train, we need to give Amtrak some room to experiment. The population centers served by these two routes (LA-NO and NO-ORL) are too important to let languish.

FURTHER DISPUTED INFORMATION: A reader (who equally seems to know what he is talking about) tells me that Jacksonville, in fact, has necessary facilities to be a terminal for the Sunset (or Gulf Wind, or whatever).

I apologize. If things get any more serious around here, I may have to resort to AN ORIGINAL SOURCE. Don’t make me go there!

So many “stations” are in such shabby condition I would not doubt anything I was told about even a large facility like Jacksonville’s. Little Rock, where I live, has a single side track and the “house” siding for Amtrak was ripped out a couple of years ago. Only one train at a time can use the LR depot. We do have a crew base, and two agents.

Terminating a restored Sunset or Gulf Wind at Jacksonville has advantages, but that is an operational, logistical, management decision.

AND I really apprecaite readers input. I only wish I could do this full time.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

6 Responses

  1. Greg says:

    These are indeed exciting times for Amtrak…I really hope they re-instate some type of passenger rail service through north Florida. Thanks for the article.

  2. Chris G says:

    I would like to see a train from LA to FL being daily. But if they’re not going that far I believe a train from LA to New Orleans that is daily is more important than one from LA to FL that is 3 per week.

    My last experience with the Sunset was in 1999 and like all the previous was one way from LA to New Orleans to connect to the Crescent.

    Also, a matter of cars. How many of the Chicago area trains use Superliners that will be replaced with the new cars Mr Boardman wants to order? Will this be enough to finally restore the Sunset to the full route and make it daily?

  3. Robert Mann says:

    UPDATE AND CORRECTION: I am informed that Jacksonville is not a “terminal.” A restored Florida Sunset must go to Orland. This seems to assure a “break” in the schedule at New Orleans. That’s probably a good thing

    Who informed you of this? Jacksonville, even out at the shabby AMSHACK is indeed a terminal. The Palmetto terminated there for several years and service tracks, fuel, water, food service, ice, and two sidings are available for use tomorrow.

    The REAL Jacksonville Terminal is now called the “Prime Osbourne Convention Center”. But the City has started the ball in motion to move the trains back downtown, with as many as 12 tracks.

    Don’t know where your information came from but “THIS IS A TERMINAL.”


  4. Steve Langius says:

    I have now taken this route 5 times in the last 5 years, soon to be taking my 6th trip to New Orleans from Los Angeles in the spring for Jazz Fest.

    In these lean years I’ve seen over all good service on this train
    considering all the obstacles are against it all all times, be it the freight traffic, the crew fatigue with delays and just over all disregard for this route by the federal government. It’s been a complete shame, but I have had nothing but great times on this run. I’ve met people I still communicate with years after our meeting on the train. It’s a great way to travel which adds adventure to our long forgotten need for more social activity with others. This may be one of the longest routes but it should be
    just as comfortable as any run in the system. I’ve been to Seattle
    and Chicago also on Amtrak from Los Angeles too. These routes get more attention and thus better service, but really should be no different anywhere you go on Amtrak. Make it all the same please, full comfortability and a classy way to travel no matter where you go.

    This is the long forgotten route in the system, any upgrades in service will be welcomed like new equipment, remodels cars, more food choices which I’ve seen change a lot, but over all not near as bad as the food on the airlines, which is atrocious. Please hurry up
    with these changes. Finally there’s some wisdom in Washington who sees the value of train travel in this country. America is crying
    for better service all around. Why not make train travel more popular and enticing. Most people are now thoroughly disgusted with the airlines. Less is not more. Flying is that fun anymore.

    I will continue riding Amtrak because I enjoy it. That’s a promise.
    But I’m truly looking forward to that day when traveling on a train in America is the only way to go…

  5. JG says:

    We need service that goes through to Florida. Having to go up to Washington D.C. from New Orleans or up to Chicago from Texas is just absurd. The nation needs to be able to go straight through. That would be like leaving Texas and going to Wyoming to get to L.A. Amtrack will be even more needed as the gas prices begin to spike coming soon.

  6. joe mc donald says:

    as aresident of the ms coast who has recently traveled on the crescent and ethan allen express to vt and back i feel that if amtrac can establish service from no to jax stopping in bil, mob pens and other areas alon g the rout to jax suficient ridership will be had. a further conection on to orlando would be better. here you havethe huge entertainment ceters of orlado,biloxi ms, and the big easy all on one line seems to me a real winner in view of the problems of flying and driving we encounter. if you provide a dining svc comparable to that of the crescent you willsurely have a winner. i look forward to riding this route to visit my daughter in jax soon.

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