From the beginning of Amtrak in 1971, any attempt to add new routes, trains or frequencies has been met with Amtrak's standard reply that "We don't have enough equipment." A lack of equipment is now being given by Amtrak as one of the reasons to eliminate service on the Texas Eagle, Pioneer, Desert Wind, and Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited.
Fifteen of my twenty-one years as an Amtrak employee were directly or indirectly related to Amtrak locomotives or passenger cars. I have inspected new cars at the factory where they were being built, and have made quality assurance inspections in the yards or shops where the rolling stock was being repaired or maintained. It is as a result of this involvement on a daily basis that I long ago came to the conclusion that Amtrak fails to obtain the full earning potential from its modern passenger car fleet. It can and must do much better.
When the Texas Eagle was operated by the Missouri Pacific Railroad, trains #21-22 required only two train sets to provide daily service over a distance of 921 miles, with each train making a one-way trip per day between St. Louis and San Antonio. The Dallas/Fort Worth section of the Texas Eagle averaged 742 miles per day. The Colorado Eagle between St. Louis and Denver averaged 1,021 miles per day, and it was not uncommon for many of the postwar streamlined trains to achieve average utilization of between 700-1000 miles per day. These trains operated at higher average speeds than do most Amtrak trains (except those in the Northeast Corridor.) The high utilization of that era was achieved with short turn around times at endpoint terminals, close and thorough inspection, and superior maintenance.
Now, lets take a look at Amtrak. The famed Metroliners operating between New York and Washington, D.C., a distance of 225 miles, only make one and one-half round trips per twenty-four hour day, for an average of 675 miles per day. Since many of the Metroliners do not operate on Saturday and/or Sunday, some train sets actually have a daily average of less than 675 miles. All Metroliner sets layover nights at either Washington or New York for maintenance, and this maintenance is superior and more carefully supervised than what other Amtrak train sets receive, due to the demands of high-speed operation.
In comparison, consider the Texas Eagle as operated by Amtrak, on either daily or tri- weekly frequency. The distance from Chicago to San Antonio is 1,308 miles or 2,616 miles for a round trip. Because of the excessive length of the schedule, which could be reduced by at least two hours in each direction, Amtrak required four train sets to protect daily service. This arrangement meant that each train set would average only 654 miles per day. By adjusting the schedule only slightly, an entire train set could be saved. This reduction would tighten the schedule to 28 hours in each direction, compared to the present 29.5 hours southbound and 30 hours northbound. Average train mileage would increase from 654 miles to 872 miles per day. The present schedule averages 43 mph for the 1,308 miles (including the station dwell time enroute), whereas the faster schedule would average 46.5 mph. Texas Eagle train crews confirm that this slight improvement in schedule is immediately possible. It requires only cooperation from the contracting railroads (Union Pacific-Southern Pacific) to improve dispatching and reduce freight train interference.
Let us now consider the present tri-weekly operation of the Eagle. Because of the schedule and days of operation, two train sets are required. This averages out to only 561 miles per day per train set. The train that arrives in Chicago on Wednesday at 1:05pm is not scheduled to depart from Chicago until Friday at 6:30pm, some 53 hours later. The other of the two train sets which arrives at 1:05pm on Friday is not scheduled to depart until 6:30pm on Sunday, again after a 53 hour wait. This means that two complete train sets, with a value of 15 million dollars per set, each consume over 53 hours per week, plus the turn around time at San Antonio, during which time they are earning no revenue. This incredibly poor equipment utilization would not be permitted by any of Amtrak's competitors, such as Southwest Airlines. Only one of Amtrak's western long-distance routes, the Southwest Chief, has acceptable equipment utilization, averaging 892 miles per day for each of its five train sets.
Amtrak's poor on-time record has two primary sources: (1)the contracting railroads' failure to meet their performance agreements, and (2)Amtrak's poor record of getting trains ready in the yards, causing departure delays from originating terminals. Amtrak, like the railroads, tends to reduce the number of people in the equipment maintenance/mechanical departments when a budget crunch develops. This not only affects daily servicing of the trains, it sets back periodic maintenance and results in lengthened time between major overhauls. In railroad terminology, this is the insidious "deferred maintenance."
In Amtrak's recent announcement to reduce service, a new term "growth opportunity pool" has surfaced. Amtrak plans to establish a "growth opportunity pool" of 58 Superliners and 9 locomotives for special trains and development of new auto-train markets. Is it coincidental that the present operation of the Texas Eagle, Desert Wind and Pioneer require about the same number of Superliners? It is my opinion that this 58 cars is approximately how many cars Amtrak has fallen behind on their major overhaul schedule. Amtrak simply does not have funds to shop these cars, and they will in fact sit in dead storage awaiting shopping rather than operating in the so-called "growth opportunity pool."
Currently, enough equipment is available to operate all of the Amtrak long-distance trains daily, including the Texas Eagle. This utilization would require that 80% of the fleet be in service daily, with 20% in various stages of maintenance. It would also require an on-time performance of 80%. Does any major airline in this country compete effectively in the marketplace with less than an 80% efficiency ratio? Why should Amtrak be permitted less efficiency, particularly when receiving government funding?
Prepared for Arkansas Rail by Bill Pollard.
Posted: Sunday, 8 September 1996.
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