Aboard the California Zephyr.
We’ve just left Grand Junction, Colorado, and Glenwood Springs is about two hours up ahead. The first part of this great ride was yesterday–crossing the Sierra Nevada range by way of Donner Pass. The climb up the western side of the range begins not long after leaving Sacramento. This part of the ride–about 130 miles–is breathtaking, especially if you can imagine thousands of Chinese laborers creating this engineering marvel by hacking away the rocky earth with picks and shovels and carting it off in wheel barrows.
It’s early April, but there’s still a lot of snow out there as the train rolls along on a ridge high above Donner Lake. Somewhere down there is the actual site where the Donner Party bogged down and aborted their attempt to cross this brutal and unforgiving mountain range. How bad was that winter of 1846? When the last of the snow finally melted, some of the stumps of trees those poor people cut down for firewood were twelve feet high. The Zephyr crossed these mountains in about two hours and for most of that time, I was in the dining car enjoying a burger and a cold beer.
There are two sleeping cars in this consist and I lucked out because none of the toilets are working in the other one. That, of course, means all of those unhappy souls are using the lavatories in this sleeper. I’ve mentioned here before that the good Amtrak crews pitch in and help each other out when there are problems. Confirming that, I just saw the car attendant from the other sleeper tidying up the lavatories in this one.
Sitting in the lounge car waiting for the 6:15 dinner seating to be announced, I noticed a conductor remove his cap before entering and passing through the dining car. By contrast, today at breakfast, a 40ish man, who evidently has a very good job with a high-tech company, wore a baseball cap throughout the entire meal.
One tidbit of information: I asked the server this morning if the report we got was true: that French Toast was coming back to the breakfast menu. She said, “Yeah, well, nobody’s told us!” Her expression spoke volumes.
It is discouraging to say this, but it’s pretty clear that Amtrak’s on board crews don’t have much respect for company management … meaning those making the day-to-day decisions affecting on board operations.
Not long ago, a styrofoam cooler filled with ice cubes was located in the middle of every Superliner sleeping car. The cooler has now gone the way of the French toast and the real china plates and the olives garnishing my Bloody Mary in the Coast Starlight’s parlour car.
Memo to whoever becomes the new president of Amtrak: You Can’t Cut Your Way to Profitability!
That sleeper with the bad toilets is the AMTK 32084. It has been bad for several trips. It gets to Chicago, which massages it, maybe cleans a few windows, then it gets sent out again. Same thing every time…the toilets quit. Reports from prior trips have been “STINKY.”
Chicago seems to do much the same thing to diesel locomotives. The same Reliability-Centered Maintenance program that improved Acela reliability, generating millions in revenue by making two more trainsets available for service every day, was axed by “Northeast Joe” Boardman; the Navy veteran who had formerly overseen the program for submarines quickly realized that he was no longer wanted at Amtrak despite his success, and he left for greener pastures, though he says they’re not as enjoyable as was Amtrak while he was working on Acela.
Boardman can’t cut his way to prosperity…but he THINKS he can on the long distance trains. The so-called “profitable” Northeast Corridor (NEC = Nothing Else Counts) costs Amtrak $200 for every $120 in ticket revenue, by Amtrak’s own figures. Yet in the current budget crisis (announced as a $100 million budget shortfall, then revised to an estimated $130 million and still climbing), Boardman expects OFF-CORRIDOR to make up 70% of the shortfall!
George Warrington left behind a near-bankrupt Amtrak when he
departed. Tom Downs left behind a long distance system in tatters,
after he hired a bunch of know-nothing consultants to run “his”
business for him.
At first I thought the loss of Amtrak control over its shorthaul
non-Northeast operations in the Amtrak-conceived-and-written PRIIA would be the most significant mark that “Northeast” Joe Boardman’s would leave on Amtrak. Sadly, however, Amtrak’s dismal safety record will probably become his lasting legacy, with a steadily worsening safety record since he implemented the $70 million outside-consultant “Safe-2-Safer” program in 2009. Yes…”Safe-2-Safer” made things WORSE.
Meanwhile, hope the toilets don’t go out in your sleeper, Jim. As of this moment, you have cleared Mt. Pleasant, IA, and have about five hours, and one lunch in the dining car, before Chicago. Enjoy…despite all its issues, I still enjoy long-distance Amtrak. I could go more often and hope that we will still be able to do so.