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Amtrak's Intercity cuts hurt long-distance trains!

Amtrak Intercity cuts too deep - Amtrak official says.


Amtrak official: cuts hurting intercity travel - banning passengers carrying too much baggage
By Doug Ohlemeier, MOKS Rail newsletter editor

OMAHA, Neb. - The cuts Amtrak is making on the system's long-distance trains will do nothing but hurt passenger train travel, said an Amtrak official addressing a group of National Association of Railroad Passengers meeting in Omaha.

Brian Rosenwald, Chicago, Amtrak's general manager of the Southwest Chief, California Zephyr and Empire Builder, presented a "State of Intercity" talk at the NARP Region X membership meeting.

The cuts in 2002, though necessary, Rosenwald said, are much worse than previous cuts. He said they are longer, larger and deeper in scope.

"These serious and drastic cutbacks are having a dramatic impact on our business," he said. "We do not have enough money to make it through the fiscal year, without taking some drastic actions to survive."

Rosenwald questioned the value of the massive station cuts that Amtrak management ordered on station hours, station staff and checked baggage service for the western long-distance trains.

"The cuts were done almost exclusively at intercity stations," he said. "The cuts did not go on at northeast corridor and very little at Amtrak West. Personally, I question whether this is the right way to go."

Rosenwald said the checked baggage cuts have meant passengers are carrying on more than two bags. He said Amtrak management, as a worst case scenario, may have to seriously consider preventing passengers who bring more than two bags on board trains from boarding trains.

"It may get to the point where we won't take that guest," he said.

Due to cost savings, dining car savings are being studied.

Amtrak is going to a national dining car menu starting in May. Trains will have a regional selection, he said.

"It will be that way for quite some time," Rosenwald said. "There will be no difference in direction."

Rosenwald doesn't agree with the cuts that are being make-up its $285 million shortfall. He said the dining car changes will "take away a little bit of the soul of the train."

"If it's not safety-related, it's now considered a low priority," he said. "It's heart-breaking for me."

So don't expect to see Rainbow Trout on the California Zephyr.

Amtrak is now in a survival mode, Rosenwald said. He said his plan was to transform the California Zephyr to the service level the train offered during the 1950s.

"I wanted to make it a true land cruise (experience)," he said.

Rosenwald formerly led efforts that transformed the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight into a rail cruise experience.

Rosenwald said there is enough demand to run the popular California Zephyr in two sections - one being sleeping cars only and another with only coaches.

"When you see sleeping car demand (increase) May through October with little or no advertising, that tells you something, that the demand is there."

When the product is upgraded, more people who wouldn't normally ride overnight trains are attracted to the trains, Rosenwald said.

"Many young people don't know or think about trains. This is not a recipe for long-term success," he said.

Customer satisfaction has taken a back seat to the ability to survive within the next few months.

Experience shows cutting service or amenities has in the short term saved money but has resulted in long term ridership and customer satisfaction losses, Rosenwald said."These service reductions won't attract people out of their cars. If service isn't good, people won't come back."

He gave NARP a strong show of support.

"NARP has always been important. They are crucial to Amtrak making passenger rail survive," Rosenwald said. "Today, the importance is even greater."

Rosenwald said the fight over Amtrak comes down to a political battle beyond the power of Amtrak's managers to fix.

"I'm grateful to all of you in this room for fighting," he said. "Clearly, we are in a terribly difficult situation that's putting our
long-distance trains at risk."

Rosenwald said he respected Amtrak's former president, George Warrington, who recently resigned.

Rosenwald told rail supporters that many of Amtrak's senior marketing people have never ridden an intercity train. "If the people involved in marketing and selling Amtrak could see the product, talk to guests and employees, it would help them understand the strengths and weaknesses of the product," he said.

Amtrak's intercity trains, he said, are normally the last area of concern for Amtrak senior management.

"We hope that changes," he said.

Of Amtrak Intercity, the Southwest Chief is ranked second, in terms of operational performance, only to the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Ore., via Minneapolis-St. Paul and Montana. The Southwest Chief, Rosenwald said, has an 87% operational rating compared to the Empire Builder's 88.4%.

Unfortunately, the third train Rosenwald manages, the famed California Zephyr, which traverses the scenic Rocky Mountains on its journey from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area, "is one of the worst trains on the system for dependability."

Union Pacific, he said, is "absolutely unable, not willing or undependable to run it on time."

The California Zephyr, which stops in Omaha, Neb., Lincoln, Neb., Denver and Salt Lake City, "is late every day, all the time."

Despite its poor on-time performance, the train is enjoying large ridership increases.

Region X is comprised of rail passenger advocates in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The Missouri-Kansas Rail Passenger Coalition, which is in region IX, was represented at the meeting.

Joe Esty, ColoRail leader, and others, arrived at the meeting via the California Zephyr, which arrived Omaha nearly four hours late. He said it provided him an opportunity for rare views of daytime Nebraska scenery.

"It was different and a change of pace since the train normally goes through this state at night," he said.

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