Refurbished Rail Cars Rejoining the Amtrak Fleet

For all the talk of adding new Amtrak routes and restoring others that were dropped over the past couple of decades, one unpleasant fact has always stood in the way: Amtrak has barely had enough equipment to maintain the reduced services, let alone add more.

This problem was at its worst in the final months of the Bush Administration, and no wonder: for eight years, Amtrak had submitted bare-bones budgets, only to have Bush’s pencil-pushers cut back even more.

The most egregious moment came in 2006 or ’07 when a Bush budget was submitted with zero dollars for our national passenger rail system. Congress intervened and provided minimal funding, of course; otherwise, it would have been the end of Amtrak.

By 2009, with Amtrak carrying record numbers of passengers thanks in part to $4-a-gallon gasoline, things had just become ridiculous: Amtrak had more than 100 desperately needed passenger cars sitting in storage because there wasn’t the money for the minor repairs or the required maintenance needed to get them back into service.

But by then, Barack Obama had taken office and his administration’s stimulus package began kicking in. To every rail advocate’s delight, Amtrak was awarded several million dollars for exactly that purpose. And within the past couple of weeks we have learned that one of Amtrak’s most popular trains – the Empire Builder, operating daily in both directions between Chicago in the east and either Seattle or Portland in the west – is about to get a fourth sleeping car added to each train … each day, both ways.

What does one more sleeper mean in terms of additional revenue for Amtrak? Consider: for a trip covering that entire distance, and depending on the time of year, bedrooms in those Superliner sleepers sell for anywhere from $800 to $1100, with the range for roomettes running from $150 to $600 depending on the time of year.

So that’s 5 bedrooms times two trains a day times seven days a week times 52 weeks … and add to that 14 roomettes computed the same way. And, in addition, every passenger
pays a basic rail fare that will average about $200. You do the math: ka-ching, ka-ching!

By the way, I tried to come up with exact numbers for this example, arbitrarily picking travel dates in the middle of July and in early December. Whaddaya know! Many of the roomettes and most of the bedrooms for those dates have already been sold out!

All of which brings to mind the now-infamous quote from Norman Mineta, who served as Transportation Secretary in the Bush Administration. He said, “Amtrak operates trains no one rides to places no one wants to go.” Yes, he really did! And, to quote the legendary Casey Stengel, “You could look it up!