April 15, 2022 - TRA Opinion -
Amtrak's Texas Eagle, cut down to a four car train with limited amenities, continues to suffer additional woes.
The daily service from San Antonio to Chicago that stops in a host of Texas cities and towns including Austin, Temple, Fort Worth, Dallas, Longview and Texarkana, has seen its on-time performance slide from 62.3% in February to a dismal 52.5% in March.
The train was cut to just two coaches, one diner-lite called the Cross Country Cafe and one sleeping car last fall during the pandemic. The consist in better days had two sleeping cars, a sightseer lounge car, a dining car, a baggage car, three coaches and a transition car with one-half used for crew rooms with the other half sold as roomettes.
Part of the reason for train delays, which can average around 2-4 hours off schedule, is a plan that Amtrak managers instituted this month to run-though the same cars from the Washington D.C.-Chicago Capitol Limited to the Texas Eagle at Union Station in Chicago. When the Capitol Limited runs late on CSX Railroad tracks to Chicago, the Eagle leaves Chicago behind schedule.
In some cases where the Capitol is extremely delayed, a make-up train with spares from the Chicago yard has to be hastily assembled to get the Eagle out of the Windy City. This creates a cascading effect of station delays through downstate Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and finally, Texas.
For the first 15 days of April, the Texas Eagle was late out of the gate at Chicago Union Station 8 times and only had an on-time departure for 7 of the days.
When the trains are out of their assigned freight railroad "slot" (Union Pacific and BNSF Railway are the primaries for the Texas Eagle) it creates a dispatching headache for the freights that Amtrak has foisted upon itself.
Another new indignity is that the revised schedule holds the Texas Eagle in St. Louis for two hours both southbound and northbound, allegedly to do required maintenance and safety checks that are normally performed in the Chicago yard. That is where there are craft mechanics on duty overnight to fully service and inspect the trains, not in St. Louis.
Passengers on the Texas Eagle have complained that since there is little to no time to turn the train from the Capitol Limited the same cars don't get scrubbed in the Chicago wash, leaving grimy windows for the next roundtrip of some 1,600 miles.
Passengers trying to book a sleeping car accommodation may find that the single available car is sold out, sometimes weeks in advance. Part of the lone sleeper has to accommodate the on-board crew that travels the entire length of the line, leaving less room for paying passengers and thus, less revenue for Amtrak.
Sleeping car passengers on the sister train, the Sunset Limited, that run a Texas Eagle sleeper and coach through to California three days a week are able to enjoy freshly cooked meals in a full dining car. Texas Eagle sleeping car passengers coming back from California must slog through microwaved meals north of San Antonio while coach passengers are barred from full meals at all, an edict from former Amtrak President Richard Anderson, the airline guy who thought long-distance trains should be "experiential". Coach passengers continue to exist on only hamburgers, microwaved pizza slices and sandwiches for their journey.
The Texas Eagle, once the #1 train in CIS scores (customer favored) and a top revenue and ridership increase champion, continues to go down a slippery slope.
It's past time to treat the Texas Eagle like the gem it should be. Amtrak has promised to restore the routes to it's previous full service but the date continues to be a mystery.