July 2, 2023 - TRA commentary -
Do you remember stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield and his "I don't get no respect" routine? If so, that line was surely made for Amtrak's Texas Eagle.
While most sleeping car and coach passengers on long-haul Amtrak trains around the country can enjoy freshly cooked meals onboard, one of the last trains to switch back from "Flexible" to "Traditional" dining looks like its going to be the lowly Texas Eagle. Maybe, maybe not, if history at Amtrak repeats itself.
Here in flyover country we refer to the Texas Eagle as Amtrak's red-headed stepchild. Ever since a grass-roots uprising by a coalition called Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization (TEMPO) saved the train from the chopping block in 1996 it seems that Amtrak management has tried their best to make the journey as uncomfortable as possible. Some think its possibly as retribution for TEMPO, a group of civic leaders, elected officials and rail advocates, going against train-off edicts from the railroad's DC headquarters.
After rebuilding employee ranks from un-needed layoff during the pandemic, Amtrak has slowly been restoring "Traditional" dining service to most of the overnight trains around the nation. No so on the Texas Eagle, that trundles daily between San Antonio and Chicago, serving large cities, medium towns and small crossroads in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois along the way.
Instead, sleeping car passengers are supposed to get what is called "Flexible" dining, on a when-you-want-it basis. In fact, slumbering passengers are told when it's time to eat their "Flexible" microwaved TV-style meals. Coach passengers have it one notch lower. They get to go to a window in the food service car, the Cross Country Cafe, and pay for a sandwich. That's providing the commissary in Chicago adequately restocked the train for a four day round-trip to Texas and back. Most all other trains around the nation are back to "Traditional" freshly prepared meals. The onboard crew on those trains welcomes both sleeping car passengers, whose meals are included in the ticket price, and coach passengers, who pay for dining car service that adds extra revenue to the trip.
But death by a thousand cuts has been the way of life for Texas Eagle passengers for a long time.
Amtrak management bonuses, based on how much you can cut and save the company, not based on how to grow revenue and ridership, results in more cuts.
> Mismanagement of equipment and failure to keep cars up-to-snuff during the pandemic has resulted in a critical shortage of rolling stock. Today's Texas Eagle operates with only four cars, a shadow of it's former self. The consist has two coaches, one food-service car and one sleeper. Onboard crews take up at least 4 cabins in the lone sleeping car so booking a room for a passenger paying a premium price could mean you see a "sold out" notice on the Amtrak.com website unless you book far in advance. Meanwhile, dozens of cars are parked on multiple tracks at the Beech Grove, Indiana shops outside Indianapolis with no timeline on when they will return to service, if ever.
> The popular sightseer lounge car, where passengers could buy a variety of snacks and view the country, was taken off by former Amtrak President Richard Anderson shortly before the pandemic. Anderson only wanted a few trains to run a premium service that he called "experiential". To hell that the great unwashed needed to travel to see Aunt Suzie, go for medical treatments, couldn't fly or had mobility issues. The Texas Eagle would have been on the do-not-resuscitate list if Anderson had his way. Anderson, who came to Amtrak after inflicting damage to Delta Airlines, is now a footnote in Amtrak history.
> Three volunteer TEMPO members, consisting of two Amtrak employees and a former ticket clerk turned dentist, had managed ridership levels and revenue ticket prices on the Texas Eagle in their spare time. For nearly twenty years, the trio showed ridership and revenue increases most every year until they were axed by Anderson. Duties for revenue management of the Texas Eagle returned to Amtrak headquarters where the revenue and ridership numbers immediately dropped.
> The Texas Eagle used to offer a connection to most other national network trains at the Chicago hub. When a link with the Empire Builder, that serves northern tier states, was severed it was said the Texas Eagle lost several million dollars of revenue a year from that Chicago interchange. The same with a direct connect to both the Southwest Chief and Zephyr in the windy city.
> A full-service baggage-express package car was removed over a decade ago. Businesses that used to ship bulk products or items on pallets were told to go to FedEx or UPS. That revenue vanished along with the baggage car.
> There have been other knee-jerk cost-cutting actions by Amtrak execs over the past 20 years on the Texas Eagle. Dining-car service between Fort Worth and San Antonio was discontinued for several years to supposedly save crew costs. The dining car crew exited the southbound train from Chicago when it arrived in Fort Worth and were paid to stay overnight in a hotel until the northbound train returned the next day. No real cost savings and plenty of hungry passengers. Former Amtrak Chairman David Laney ordered that to stop after a paper was presented to him by Texas Rail Advocates showing the folly.
While we wait for the next shoe to drop, we'll let rail writer Russell Jackson (email@example.com) sum it up.
>A timeline, history of TEMPO and the Texas Eagle can be found here: http://www.tempo-rail.org/tempo-prior-meetings.htm
Photo: Amtrak Texas Eagle at Longview, Texas