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Cost Cutting Has Consequences.

Let’s start with a simple, indisputable truth: all public transportation is subsidized. That’s true from airlines to bikeways, and everything in between. 

Amtrak’s troubles began at the time of its creation in the early 1970’s when conservatives in Congress decided that the primary goal for the railroad should be to at least break even. We’ll get you started, they said, but we want you folks to at least try to make a little money. That’s been the one consistent message for Amtrak from Congress (mostly from the Republicans): Stop losing money!

The demand that Amtrak break even has been unrelenting and, on occasion, absurd . . . as when former congressman John Mica, supposedly outraged that Amtrak was losing money on its food service, stood next to the tracks waving a McDonald’s Big Mac at passing trains … all for the cameras, of course.

In an effort to meet those congressional demands, Amtrak management took the traditional approach: they looked for ways to reduce costs. And, since coach passengers really get nothing but their transportation, the focus naturally fell upon sleeping car passengers. Almost literally overnight, the little “welcome aboard” gifts vanished—the souvenir Amtrak coffee mug or the little bottle of cheap champagne, for instance.

Disposable plastic replaced real china and then ice cream was cut from the dessert menu as the dining car experience was gradually eroded.

In the sleepers, the coffee urn, heretofore dispensing hot coffee until after the dinner meal, was ordered unplugged at 10:00 a.m.  The cooler with ice cubes disappeared and the three choices of fruit juice was reduced to one, the flavor of which is uncertain.

For me personally, as well as thousands of other sleeping car passengers, the most unkindest cut of all  occurred shortly after Richard Anderson appeared on the scene as Amtrak’s newest president. Proving that he doesn’t understand why so many of us choose to travel long distances by train, Anderson ordered the Pacific Parlour Cars removed from the Coast Starlight. Too costly to maintain, he said. Well, sir, at least 15 or 20 times over the years, I extended both personal and business trips just to spend a dozen or so hours getting a taste of the Golden Age while relaxing in those wonderful rail cars. I’ve heard from many people who have done the same.

More recently, there came “contemporary dining”, which is Amtrak-speak for a meal delivered to your roomette in a cardboard box. That’s how Amtrak now feeds sleeping car passengers after removing the traditional dining cars from overnight trains running east of the Mississippi.

And here, finally, is the point to all this: Two weeks ago, I was returning home from a trip to Europe. I flew from London to Boston and, from there, I had booked a roomette on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago.

But there was track work going on between Boston and Albany which meant a five-hour bus ride. Then, contemplating the ride from Albany to Chicago, I couldn’t help picturing me eating my “contemporary” dinner and breakfast meals alone in my roomette. So got a refund on my Amtrak ticket and flew to Chicago on American Airlines.

The thing is, Mr Anderson–and you should probably worry about this– I don’t feel guilty at all. 

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