29 October 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares # 1 – History

Though many people are not old enough to know this by having lived through it, Amtrak did not invent the passenger train in the United States.  Amtrak was created by the federal government in 1971 to preserve what was left of passenger rail service operated by private railroad companies after decades of decline.

A note about the photos you see enlivening this post.  The picture above was taken by Steve Schmollinger near Colfax, Calif. in July 1973.  The other photos you'll see from here on are courtesy of Larry Mack, and snapped in the Midwest during the same time period of the early 1970s, which is known as Amtrak's "rainbow era".  You'll read why it's called that later.  Thank you, Steve and Larry!

Branch-line passenger service had begun to drop in the 1920s as automobile ownership increased and the reach of paved roads grew.  That drop in ridership coupled with the Depression resulted in many short-distance passenger trains being discontinued prior to WWII.  During the war, passenger traffic exploded on all lines, in part due to wartime rationing of gasoline and tires, though service was ragged due to unprecedented demand.

Although after the war railroads invested heavily in new, streamlined passenger railroad equipment for longer distance travel, by the mid-1950s it was clear that more and more of the public was leaving the rails for the sky or for their own cars operated over the ever expanding interstate highway network.

This decline in ridership was not identical from railroad to railroad.  Some fought to retain passengers through enhanced service, but others lost interest altogether and claimed, sometimes dubiously, about the deep losses they suffered operating passenger service.  Two western railroads were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant carrier within California and along the Pacific Coast, became notorious by the 1960s for its bad service and zeal for discontinuing trains.  (Railroads could not unilaterally discontinue trains as they were heavily regulated by the government.  Discontinuance petitions had to be made to the Interstate Commerce Commission which by no means was a rubber stamp for the railroads.)

On the other hand, the Santa Fe Railway maintained impeccable service standards aboard its trains up until the end.  While it did discontinue a number of secondary trains and shorter distance trains, the trains it continued to operate (such as the famous Super Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles) were consistently top-notch.

One of the last things that kept many passenger trains in the black – carriage of the U.S. Mail in baggage cars on passengers trains – was largely eliminated in 1967.  By the late 1960s it was clear to the public and to policy makers that passenger trains were endangered and the railroads were clamoring for some kind of relief: government subsidies, a government takeover of passenger trains, or blanket permission to discontinue any trains they wished.

By 1970 a discussion was well underway in Congress, and between the Nixon Administration and Congress, which ultimately resulted in the bill that created Amtrak.  (This is politically ironic, because in general it has been Republicans over the years who have used Amtrak has a punching bag, even though Amtrak was created under a Republican president.)

In brief, the plan offered railroads the opportunity to lose their financial responsibility for operating passenger trains by buying into Amtrak with their passenger railroad equipment and cash.  All of the major railroads except three (Rock Island, Southern, and Denver Rio Grande & Western) chose to participate from its inception.

As the countdown to Amtrak’s takeover of passenger rail service on 1 May 1971 began, many people began taking their last rides on trains that would not survive the transition to Amtrak.  The route network authorized by the bill that created Amtrak was skeletal compared to what the railroads had chosen to operate (or were required to operate) even with all of the train-off notices of the postwar years.

Below are maps of the U.S. intercity rail service at the end of the private railroad era (30 April 1971) and at the beginning of the Amtrak era (1 May 1971).  (Maps are scanned from "Journey To Amtrak", recommended at the end of this post for further reading.)

Because so many trains had already been discontinued in California prior to Amtrak, the cuts were probably less severe than elsewhere.  Trains in northern California that made their last runs on 30 April 1971 included Southern Pacific’s Del Monte (San Francisco-Monterey), the San Joaquin Daylight (Oakland-Los Angeles) and the Redwood (Willits-Eureka), as well as the Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief (Chicago-Richmond, Calif).  (Western Pacific’s California Zephyr did not live to see Amtrak; it was discontinued in March 1970, although the name would be resurrected a number of years later by Amtrak for a train that only partly used the same route as the original Zephyr.)

Southern Pacific’s Daylight (San Francisco-Los Angeles) and Cascade (overnight between Oakland and Portland) would be amalgamated into Amtrak’s Coast Starlight running from Seattle to Los Angeles.  Other than commuter service to San Jose, San Francisco has been without mainline intercity passenger rail service since 1971, except by way of the Amtrak bus connection to trains in Oakland and Emeryville.

The history of Amtrak itself is not the subject of this series as it would easily fill many posts.  A few key points are worth noting.

Initially most of the employees operating and staffing the trains remained on the payrolls of the railroads, although reimbursed by Amtrak.  This gradually changed, but since the late 1980s all of the employees – whether operating employees (engineers, conductors, etc.), on-board staff (dining car, sleeping car, etc.), station agents, call-center agents, maintenance, and so on, have been Amtrak employees.  Most non-management Amtrak employees are unionized, and represented by the same unions that employees of the now freight-only railroads are.  Amtrak employees, like their freight railroad brethren, are covered by Railroad Retirement, a separate system very much like Social Security.

It was a number of years before Amtrak ordered its own equipment (locomotives and passenger cars) so the initial years (roughly 1971-1974) are known as the "Rainbow Era", because the passenger cars that the railroads had to contribute in order to join Amtrak ended up being used all around the country.  A silver and red Southern Pacific car might be next to a green Burlington Northern car which was next to a golden yellow Union Pacific car.  Eventually all of this equipment would be painted in Amtrak’s own livery and look more or less the same.  Most - but not all - of this railroad hand-me-down equipment has been replaced by locomotives and cars ordered by Amtrak.

Amtrak has a president appointed by the Board of Directors; the Board is appointed by the president subject to confirmation by the Senate.  The Secretary of Transportation is an ex-oficio member of the Board.  While Amtrak runs its own affairs on a day-to-day basis and is technically a separate entity, it is highly subject to political interference both by friends and by enemies.  The federal government provides (some years) capital investment funds and annually supplies an operating allowance to make up the difference between revenue and expense.

Decisions about adding or cutting routes, have invariably involved input from Congress.  Historically the Democratic Party has been more inclined to support Amtrak, and the Republican Party to disdain it, but exceptions to that rule render it only a rough guide.  Under President Jimmy Carter several Amtrak routes were axed and Republican stalwarts former Senator Trent Lott and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have been two of Amtrak’s best friends.  Though invisible to the traveling public, Amtrak’s headquarters is in the upper floors of one of the nation’s busiest and prettiest train stations: Washington Union Station.   And coincidentally or not, the U.S. Capitol is just a few blocks walk in distance.

Amtrak is not the name of the corporation.  In fact, the official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but it has always done business publicly as Amtrak.

That’s enough history.

For further reading:

If you would like to read more about passenger trains before Amtrak, and the path that eventually led to Amtrak, here are three recommendations:

Wikipedia (this is a very detailed and useful Wikipedia entry)


Journey to Amtrak, edited by Harold Edmonson (1972)
This is about the decline of railroad operated passenger trains and the formation of Amtrak, and about the last months of private passenger service leading up to Amtrak day (1 May 1971) with lots of pictures of trains making their last runs.  (Used copies of this are a bargain at Amazon.)

Twilight of the Great Trains, by Fred Frailey (1998)
Frailey examines eleven different railroads and their attitudes and policies concerning passenger service in the postwar years until they joined Amtrak.  Frailey writes exceptionally well, and presents the information in such a way that even readers who aren’t enthralled by trains will find this interesting from a business or historical perspective.  Excellent pictures and diagrams, too. (Available both new and used at Amazon.)

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Introduction
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South

27 October 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares - Introduction

Between July 2009 and January 2010 I wrote a series called Airline Fare School. The purpose was to convey to readers the underpinnings of the fare system that has existed for decades, and largely survived the downs and ups that have plagued the airlines for many years.

Now it’s time for a similar treatment of Amtrak.

Amtrak’s fare structure is simpler than that of its airline  counterparts. I won’t need to devote anywhere near as many chapters to the details of Amtrak’s pricing system as I did for things that fly. There is more than a little irony in this fact, because airlines being the newer technology, copied features of the railroad system that was dominant at the dawn of commercial aviation.

LOGO 1971-2000
In the many decades that have passed since air travel eclipsed rail travel for most long-distance non-automobile trips, a lot has happened and in some respects the influence started flowing the other direction, from the airline system back to rail (Amtrak).

One thing I did not do in “Airline Fare School” that I am going to do with Amtrak is to provide substantial background information about the service itself. Because of that, the title for the series is “Amtrak Service and Fares”. I’ll supply my bona fides later in this introduction, but I've observed over many years that there is a lot of interest in and affection for rail travel in the U.S., but often it's not well informed.

The result is when people finally decide to plan a train trip within the United States they can be surprised about how much or how little rail service there actually is, depending on where they are thinking about going.

Because of that knowledge gap, the first four chapters after this introduction won’t be about fares at all.

In the first chapter you’ll learn a little about Amtrak's history.  Chapter two will look at Amtrak’s route structure, and then chapter 3 will describe the services Amtrak offers and where.  Chapter four will address channels through which Amtrak sells tickets.

Starting with chapter five, the chapters will cover Amtrak's fare structure.  I'm expecting the series to have around nine chapters after this introduction.

As with the Airline Fare School series, the posts will not come one right after another; posts about other subjects will be interspersed along the way, including another series I'll be commencing with an entirely different topic.

I recognize that there is a small cohort out there that knows lots and lots and lots about trains in general and Amtrak in particular – way more than I do, in fact. Chances are slim that readers in that group will learn much in these first chapters. But stick around for the fare chapters. You may be surprised at what you’ll find, plus you almost certainly will have insightful comments to contribute that other readers will enjoy.

What background do I have to write this?

You could say I began my research at age 3 (1959) at the Southern Pacific train station in Santa Clara, Calif. I don’t even remember this, but I’m told that my father brought me down to the station to entertain me by watching trains. (Or maybe he wanted to watch them himself, and I was the foil.) At around the same age I took the first of a number of summer trips on the Southern Pacific Daylight between San Jose and Santa Barbara, with the result being a fondness for trains above any other form of transportation that has endured to this day.

Fast forward to the 80s.

Briefly in 1987 I worked for Amtrak as a union contract employee in Seattle but after two 8-to-5 admin jobs in the sales and transportation offices, I realized that I wasn't cut out to work the odd and unpredictable hours that would follow on the union extra-board (basically fill-in and short-time assignments) so I went back to being a travel agent. But late in 1989, my buddies in the Seattle sales office told me of a new Amtrak position that had my name written on it.

They were right.

A new department was being established in the national sales office that would be exclusively responsible for training travel agents to understand Amtrak’s products, and how to use their computerized reservation systems to reserve space and issue tickets.

Other than my regret at having to leave Seattle at the beginning of 1990, it was the perfect job with a great boss and colleagues around the country. My mother said “never say never” but I don’t ever expect to have a job that I like as much as that one. Based in San Francisco, I worked a region stretching from the Pacific to the Rockies, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. I even crossed those borders a few times to train travel agents in Vancouver, B.C. and Mexico City.

Sadly, Amtrak’s history reads like the Perils of Pauline and after 5½ years our training department was eliminated in June 1995 and I went on to other non-Amtrak pursuits. A few years later, I ended up doing three years of consulting (1998-2000) to Amtrak on a big project related in part to the launch of the Acela Express service (east coast higher speed rail).  I spent a great deal of that time in Washington, D.C. and got to work with a number of folks I had known previously when I was an employee and many others that I got to know for the first time. It was a terrific experience.

Other than a few minor gigs with Amtrak early in the 2000s I haven’t done any further work for Amtrak but I remain in touch with a number of people there, and I keep a very close eye on its fortunes. Even though I don’t agree with every move it has made over the nearly 40 years since it was created in 1971 (like eliminating my job!), it’s the only national passenger rail system we have. I want it to be successful.

That's me and Amtrak - we go way back.

Welcome to “Amtrak Service and Fares”.

All aboard!

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Forward to History

04 October 2010

Rail - Feather River Express and Trains Unlimited Tours

Two years ago, one of the first posts in my “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” blog was about my ride on the detour of Amtrak’s California Zephyr along the Feather River route of the original Western Pacific California Zephyr.

Many people were interested in this at the time, and I promised to report if I heard of other Amtrak detours through the canyon.  As far as I know, Amtrak did not repeat the detour after the autumn of ’08.

However on what seems now to be an annual basis, you can get the opportunity to ride the rails up the Feather River canyon on a train that will take you back to the era of the postwar streamliner California Zephyr.

Photo by Phil Gosney
It won’t be an inexpensive trip, and you have to reserve space way in advance due to its popularity, but if your heart is set on this train ride then I’m giving you ample notice here.  (I was gently chastised by my good friend John Maretti for not alerting him to the 2010 train sooner.)

Trains Unlimited Tours of Reno will be operating its third annual “Domes to Railroad Days – The Feather River Express” excursion train over three days, Friday, 19 August, to Sunday, 21 August 2011.

The train will run from Emeryville to Portola, with stops at the Amtrak stations in Martinez, Davis, and Sacramento.

Why Portola?

The town celebrates its railroad heritage with the Portola Railroad Days Festival, a 4-day event.  If you take this train, you’ll land smack-dab in the party and aboard one of its star attractions.

The train will operate with vintage postwar streamliner equipment, some of which was part of the original California Zephyr, which ran until March 1970.

Photo by Phil Gosney

Trains Unlimited Tours offers numerous options including coach, dome cars, and Pullman.  If you book Pullman space, that also serves as your hotel for the two nights you’ll spend in Portola.  One-way travel is also available (either direction), with an optional bus transfer to or from Reno.

For complete information including pricing take a look at Trains Unlimited Tours website for this excursion.  You’ll see many photos of the “Domes to Railroad Days” trains from this year and last year.

Remember that this will sell out long before August 2011.  Chris Skow with Trains Unlimited Tours told me that this year's train sold out by June, and the 2011 excursion is already about 25% booked and may well sell out even earlier.

Photo by Phil Gosney

Another excursion train that may interest northern Californians is the Dunsmuir Shasta Daylight which will operate to Dunsmuir and Black Butte over the 10-12 June 2011 period for Dunsmuir's Railroad Days celebration.

Trains Unlimited Tours has a full catalogue of rail tours, many of which are overseas including Africa, Australia, and South America.  They even have a rail tour of Cuba on the schedule (16 April – 1 May 2011) if the idiotic ban on travel to Cuba is finally removed.  (Technically it’s a ban on spending money in Cuba, not travel, but functionally it’s the same).  Their tours are designated as either “railfan” (the trains themselves are the focus of the trip) or “tourist” (trains are part of the trip, but not the whole trip).

Take a look at their website for the 2011 schedule of tours.  You can also sign up to get periodic e-mail news about their trips.

A big "thank you" to Phil Gosney, senior Amtrak locomotive engineer and railfan, who took these photos of the Feather River Express in Rodeo in the East Bay on 21 August 2010, and gave me permission to use them in this post.  Phil was one of the Amtrak engineers that operated the California Zephyr detour in 2008.