28.5.12

CONNECTIVITY, CONSISTENCY, CONVENIENCE.

My recent train ride to Longview, Texas might have been more instructive for what it revealed about Amtrak's passenger base than it did about the railroads' ability to manage an unusual movement.

Let's start with the case for connectivity.  Amtrak's long-distance trains do not exist as entities unto themselves.  Among the passengers I met are the following journeys: New York City to San Antonio, Toronto to Dallas, Pittsburgh to Arkadelphia (family reunion), Texas points to South Bend (Notre Dame graduation), business trip Chicago to Fort Worth and return, circle tour of U. S. baseball stadiums (in coach) originating in London (yes, the one with the Queen).  I was probably the only passenger riding solely for the detour (the serious railfans putting the mileage ahead of things as mundane as submitting grades).  In Longview, an attorney who remarked on my back-pack (certainly not an accessory to accompany a business suit and a court date) noted that the Texas Eagle was conveniently timed for business in St. Louis.  Probably competitively priced, even in the sleeper.  I didn't research those fares, but what I paid for the Chicago - Longview round trip came in as less than the Chicago to Longview round trip air fare, and my parking at Elburn and Metra connection to the train is cheaper than a rental car, choose any car in the aisle or not, and a hotel, which a business trip by air would involve.  Eighteen hours each way on the train, however, may be a losing proposition commercially, the availability of cell phone service and wireless internet over much of the route or not.  But Longview to Little Rock or St. Louis might work for the business traveler, although the Little Rock to Longview is for former members of the military or early risers or devotees of the red-eye, and you avoid the tender mercies of the Transportation "Security" Administration for the most part.  As one passenger put it, he'd like the carriers to treat passengers like a guest, not a suspect.

Conclusion: there is much Amtrak can do to encourage passengers to take journeys on multiple trains.  Much more, that is, than timing the east coast trains to arrive at Chicago in the morning and depart in the late evening, with the west coast trains leaving and arriving from midafternoon on.  (The Lake Shore Limited  deliberately has a late evening departure from Chicago so as to protect connections from late-running Western trains, and even with the timings, a Capitol Limited that was close to time at South Bend ran into the all-too-common Norfolk Southern freight train tangle west of there, and a few passengers transferring to the Eagle expressed dismay at not being able to visit the Art Institute or the Skydeck during their anticipated layover.)

Next, consider the consistency.  Amtrak 22 Texas Eagle, Longview to Chicago via C&EI detour, 17-18 May 2012: diesel 114, transition sleeper 39026, sleeper 32057, diner 38021, buffeteria car 37009, coaches 31042-34062-31003.  Hot but dry temperatures at Longview and dry rail.  Train arrives 6:23, my space in lower level of 32057, an unrebuilt car, conductor checks coach tickets and assigns passengers to seats at trackside, all passengers boarded and train in motion at 6:32.

Longview is the station where Amtrak passengers from Houston and Shreveport transfer from buses.  Frequently, a large contingent of passengers from these destinations makes the connection here.


The connecting passengers do not delay the train inordinately, and in a world where United Airlines has ended pre-boarding for families with small children and other air carriers have begun charging fees to obtain blocks of seats together and generally acting unfriendly toward family groups, perhaps the trackside seating assignments are a way to keep families together (an announcement as I'm settling into my room, after being informed I have a 7 pm dinner reservation, asking passengers to move to their assigned seats, suggests as much).  But airlines have a boarding process and load through one door.  Trains have multiple doors and car attendants so as to get passengers on board more expeditiously.



The consist this evening is a substitute consist, with the buffeteria car substituting for the usual Sightseer Lounge, and a standard diner substituting for the buffeteria car.  The usual crew for a Cross Country Cafe is assigned to the diner, which means seating in one end of the car only, the other end being commandeered for the crew office, and the spartan "Express Menu" with neither a steak option or the delicious lamb shanks of the outward trip on offer.  The train makes its crew-change stop at Marshall at 6:58; dinner call is at 7, train pulls ahead for passengers 7:04, stops 7:08, plenty of time for the imitation of an airline boarding process and waiting for time for an on-time departure at 7:30.  Too much padding in the schedule.  The half-chicken is decent, although my table-mates at breakfast the next morning make invidious comparisons to McDonald's.  Texarkana 8:45 - 8:50, again waiting for time, take what remains of the half-bottle of wine to my room, sack out.  Awake on the approach to St. Louis, shower is unoccupied, train arrives St. Louis approximately 6:45, as the water supply in the shower is about to give out.


Note the water supply not connected to the sleeping car.  The water tanks were not filled in St. Louis, and  when things go wrong, the wrongs sometimes compound.    Pull ahead 7:35 to place the coach doors close to the stairs, take on Chicago passengers, go 7:55.  Breakfast call (with a small crew able to serve only half the tables, a short wait list is still nearly an hour wait.)  Running well through Hillsboro and Nokomis; westbound freight waiting at Ohlman 9:34; stop 9:38, freight does not begin to move.  Conductor announces the freight train has a broken air hose that has to be repaired.  Tablemates willing to keep talking, we move to buffeteria car to continue conversation.

The railroads have reduced their expenditures in a number of ways over the years.  One economy was to convert sections of two or more tracks to one track with centrally-controlled sidings.  When it works well, it pays off, but when it breaks down, well, you miss that second track the New York Central once had here.  Another economy was to reduce through train crews to two people, and replace the caboose with a radio-equipped sensor to monitor brake pressure through the train.  But when that sensor notes a loss of brake pressure, the train stops, but the sensor can't walk forward with a replacement hose and the tools to do the change.  That's up to the conductor, forward with the engineer.  Or perhaps a carman from the mechanical department, if a radio-equipped pickup truck is nearby and the tracks are close to a road.  If it's an Amtrak train, its crew can help with the repair.  Train 22 reverses at 10:45.  Reverse movement again at 11:12.  Move forward again at 11:13.  Absence of water in the sleeper noted by the car attendant.  Compressed air toilets still flush, but in the adjacent car, the toilets don't flush, although there is running water for the sinks (but not for showers).  Reverse again at 11:34.  Pull ahead at 11:36; freight now also moving!  Dining car had originally intended to make first lunch call at 10:30 in anticipation of a close-to-time arrival in Chicago; subsequently announces that the first lunch call will be at noon.  That's something else for Amtrak to work on: the hours of operation of food service cars, whether diners or lounges, suggest that getting the books closed out before the train reaches the end of its run matters more than serving passengers.  The French toast and coffee were good, and they'll last until dinnertime.  Stop at east end of Ohlman siding 11:39, go 11:41.  Westbound manifest  holding at Pana, stop for switch 11:53, go 11:54.  Pass Findlay Junction 12:14, pass eastbound manifest 12:48; the shame of a digital camera is that one can't do grab shots of a prototype undecorated EMD switcher Tuscola or the current incarnation of 8080 at Villa Grove.  Tuscola 12:50, Villa Grove 1 pm; meet westbound stacks 1:05; attendant apologizes for failure to water car.  (Our train might have been scratched together in San Antonio, but the attendant told me that he first had to prepare all the rooms for a quick turnaround in Chicago as 58, a request later countermanded to stripping the bedding from all rooms prior to a move to Brighton Park for servicing.)  Pass Ellis 1:35, onto two main tracks at Woodland Junction 2:02, Watseka 2:08.  Time to meditate on the absence of the Georgian and the Dixie Flagler.  The last long-distance departure of the night from Union Station is a bus to Atlanta.   Crete 2:58, pass a manifest, stop Steger 3:01; 21 by at 3:02, cross over 3:02, pass CSX autoracks 3:07, pass UP covered hoppers 3:10; Thornton Junction 3:16, Chicago terminal dispatchers assiduous in moving us along, roll through the 80th Street complex 3:40.


Again, digital camera shutter lag.  Just before I took this picture, Michigan train 353, benefitting from the 110 mph running in Michigan, sailed past 22, arriving about 30 minutes ahead of its scheduled time.  Stop Harrison St. 4:05, arrive Union Station a minute or two later.  Somehow I manage to hustle to North Western Station in time to catch the 4:11 semi-fast, first stop Elmhurst.  (Didn't have to run, although my lower legs protested for the rest of the weekend.)

Not bad for an impromptu trip.  Amtrak would likely have a lot more friends if the timekeeping, running times, connectivity, and consistency of the sleeper and food service improved, judging by the comments from passengers.

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