Amtrak long-distance capacity to remain tight through 2023

Amtrak long-distance capacity to remain tight through 2023

By Bob Johnston | November 16, 2022

| Last updated on February 11, 2024

Head of long-distance services offers figure on capacity shortfall, addresses coming dining changes for Silver Star and Meteor sleeper passengers

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Two blue and red locomotives on passenger train with Chicago skyline in background
Two ALC42 Charger locomotives lead a shortened Empire Builder consist out of Chicago on Oct. 23, 2022. Larry Chestler, Amtrak’s vice president of long-distance service, says the company has accepted 19 of the 125 Siemens long-distance locomotives ordered, but car issues mean capacity is down 11% from 2019 and will remain constricted throughout 2023. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Amtrak’s Vice President of Long-Distance Service, Larry Chestler, said the company will be without more than a tenth of its equipment for those operations during the current fiscal year, which began in September.

Participating in a Rail Passengers Association webinar on Tuesday, Chestler also reviewed the status of onboard dining, workforce hiring, internal changes to better deal with service disruptions, and plans for a new fleet of long-distance trains.

Equipment shortfall should begin to ease in 2024

Man in tan sportcoat
Larry Chestler, Amtrak’s vice president of long-distance services. Bob Johnston

“Long-distance capacity in this fiscal year is expected to be about 11% less than our pre-COVIDfleet availability,” Chestler said. Though pointing to the 2021 Empire Builder derailment in Montana and the Southwest Chief’s 2022 accident in Missouri as contributing to equipment scarcity, he acknowledged, “We made decisions during the pandemic about the amount of work we could accomplish and idled some equipment. A number of [those] pieces idled at that time are cued up for needing overhaul work to be done. Scheduling that…along with all of the baseline of overhaul work is something we haven’t been able to get fully into a calendar yet.”

Chestler says he hopes to have “a definitive plan in the coming weeks” for not only a reactivation schedule but also an assessment of all of the equipment that has been damaged over the years. “We certainly won’t be able to close the 11% gap in 2023,” he said, “but as we get into 2024 the intention is to restore as much of the equipment as is feasible and build a timeline for accomplishing all of that.”

Asked by RPA CEO Jim Mathews to clarify the timeline, Chestler did not offer any indication that Amtrak will devote additional resources to speed up the effort. As in past initiatives to clear the backlog of sidelined equipment, what is “feasible” will depend on the financial resources the company intends to devote to the effort.

Meal changes coming in early 2023

As Amtrak President Roger Harris told Trains earlier this year [“Addressing Amtrak’s capacity crisis,” December 2022], the company is planning to reintroduce “traditional dining” for sleeping car customers on the Silver Meteor. Chestler says the upgrade would also occur on the Silver Star as well as the Meteor “in early 2023,” but did not specify a date. “Our team has been working actively on the matter, making sure we have the tools and resources in place to execute on that.”

Regarding coach passenger access to the dining car, Chestler pointed to the pilot program where Coast Starlight business class customers are allowed to buy meals on an “as available” basis. “We plan on imminently expanding this to everyone on the train,” he says, “and are very close to rolling it out on a couple of additional trains. More to come on that — it seems to be working well on the Coast Starlight and we are happy to expand that.”

Amtrak apparently has no immediate plans to discard the “sleeping car passengers only” model by experimenting with a different menu selection or varied price points to attract new revenue from travelers other than customers who have already paid for their meals. Though Chestler asserts café and “flexible dining” menus have been improved, there are no plans to replace the meal-in-a-bowl format on the Crescent, City of New Orleans, Cardinal, Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited, and Texas Eagle. The absence of onboard lounge space on many of these trains was not discussed.

Fleet replacement planning begins

Chestler noted that capital delivery, commercial, and product development teams are actively working on a next generation of long-distance rolling stock. Design concepts are being evaluated, and “rooms might be different than what we are offering now,” he says. A Request for Information will be issued to prospective manufacturers by the end of 2022 to determine the interests and capabilities of the carbuilding community. Based on the feedback, Amtrak expects to release a Request for Proposals next fall and have an order in place by the end of 2024. “It’s an aggressive timeline … and there are unique [procurement] complications because of the [long-distance] service elements,” he says.

Issue resolution, hiring also addressed

Other challenges being addressed include:

— Establishing new protocols involving successive levels of senior management when a train loses head end power and on-site personnel are unable to resolve the problem. This is clearly a result of the October incident in Michigan where passengers abandoned two Wolverine Corridor trains that had become disabled.

— Creating a proactive outreach team to better engage customers affected by service disruptions and hiring more contact center personnel. There is also an effort to make rebooking easier. Amtrak spent about $3 million on service recovery in 2022 (about half of this was for bus substitutions) compared with a little over $1 million in 2017.

— Boosting hiring. The company added 3,728 employees in fiscal 2022 and is targeting the addition of another 4,000 in fiscal 2023; 80% of the company’s jobs are union. “We’re far from where we need to be, but we’re getting there,” says Chestler.

16 thoughts on “Amtrak long-distance capacity to remain tight through 2023

  1. Let’s see:

    (1) Amtrak has known for many years that they needed to replace long distance equipment as most is 30 to 40 years old.
    (2) They also knew they were SHORT on existing equipment for present routes and have none for future routes.
    (3) Last order for 100 Viewliner II cars took 6-7 years to procure and build.
    (4) Amtrak Joe’s party should have had a plan ready when he took office 22 months ago to modernize the long distance fleet.
    (5) By the end of the year they may have proposals for new long distance cars.
    (6) Won’t be until sometime in 2024 that they evaluate the proposals then seek bids from car manufactures.
    (7) 2024 they have to evaluate each proposal.
    (8) Maybe late 2024 they accept a bid.
    (9) When construction starts on new equipment, if history stays true to rail car manufacturing in this country, they will be delayed (material supply shortages, faulty design, faulty materials, faulty workmanship, & bad over site of project) and won’t start delivery till 2028 and take 2 or 3 times as long to be delivered as promised.
    (10) by the way between step 4 and 5 the Democrats lost control of Congress, so getting any money out the Republicans will be difficult.
    (11) Between 8 and 9 dissatisfied bidders that loose out on the bids will probably go to court and further delay the process.
    (12) by the time NEW cars start rolling out the car fleet will be between 40 and 60 years old.

  2. Amtrak is really missing the boat not offering meals to coach passengers, as well as no sightseer lounge cars on some L.D. trains — these are two of the unique advantages, even pleasures, inherent to rail travel. They have a captive audience with time on their hands who need and want to eat, drink, and lounge about. Amtrak just doesn’t seem to get it.

  3. I would gather from reading all these negative comments and bad experiences of the above contributors that none of them are railfans or like trains except the one who gets to watch the LDs from trackside. Yes, Amtrak is a mess with incompetent management and political hacks who don’t know a thing about running a railroad or how to serve the traveling public but let us look at a few bright spots in the system. For example increased service and ridership on the trains serving Virgina as well as additional service in New York State and a few other areas as well. Get rid of the bumblers and incompetents and start to hire the right people for the job even some smart and bright railfans who have more skills and knowledge than the government officials and political hacks. Its all about hiring the right people with the know how and get it right. Look at how Brightline is making a statement with service. Brightline might be a small localized carrier now but give it time and it can become the model of how a railroad should be run the right way
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  4. Glad to hear about the Florida train food service, but would like it back on the lines with still giving the bowls. Reluctant to ride those until things change.

  5. Amtrak doesn’t have the money to fix damaged cars; but executives still get large bonuses – can’t beat that job benefit.

    He said that Amtrack is working on a plan to fix damaged cars. Why didn’t they start planning the day after the derailments last year??? Incompetent management I guess.

  6. 1. I never use Julie. I just press 0 until given a real agent.
    2. The agent I reached this week was pleasant, patient, helpful and competent. That has usually been my experience in the past as well.
    3. I often use the app on my phone but was having trouble with it so that’s why I called an agent.
    4. There is no excuse for the equipment shortage. Senior management should have taken advantage of the pandemic to get repairs done and keep on board staff on the payroll in order to ramp up operations when it became safe to do so.

  7. 4 years of sub par passenger service. Come on POLS its time to clean house at Amtrak without notice to the incompentents.

    1. The “POLS” don’t ride, Mr. Jones. They haven’t got a clue. And apparently either SecTrans Buttigieg and FRA “administrator Amit Bose aren’t getting this anecdotal info or if they are they simply don’t care. But the NARP/RPA head honcho, James Mathews, might have the standing to get audiences with them but he’s too busy shilling for Gardner, Harris, Chestler, to stay in their good graces. Mathews dares not to turn against them.

  8. I will give the agents some credit. The two that I dealt with (one last night and one this morning) were very nice, and did go out of their way to get the information I wanted. Maybe because I was very direct in what I was looking for, I do not know.
    The lady I talked with last night, when my son found out his train was cancelled, said she did not know anything about a bus when I first asked her and she offered to book him on the evening train. I told her that it was not an option for him and the message he got stated there would be a bus running in lieu of the train. She said she would look into it with a supervisor, and put me on hold. After a short amount of time she came back and did state that there was indeed a bus being substituted for the Carl Sandburg today. That’s when I asked her the real reason for the cancellation. She did apologize for the inconvenience of the train being cancelled, and I replied she isn’t the one who needs to apologize.
    When I called this morning to find out the status of the bus around 9am to find out the anticipated arrival (The train normally leaves Naperville at around 0815), The lady I spoke with, after giving her the train information and such, said she did not have that information regarding the bus move. However, she immediately followed that up with “I will check with the Supervisor (of whatever part of the operating end she told me handles that) and see if I can get an answer.” Once again, a short time later, she came back and said that the bus had just departed Chicago and would be in Naperville around 0945 or so. Given Chicago traffic, I was expecting worse but the bus did show up at 10.
    So, if nothing else, I will give the two individuals I spoke with credit for giving me answers to the questions I had, and I did thank them for the assistance. Yes, I went through the long call wait process and opted to give them my number for a callback when I was first in line. Since his train for Sunday coming back is cancelled (the college kids will really love that), I am thinking of putting him on a puddle jumper out of Quincy Airport, and cancelling his return trip.

    1. Actually while the Amtrak website is terrable for most information, the real humans that I’ve talked to on the phone have always been very helpful. They are not the problem with taking the train.

  9. Long Distance? You cant even move your short haul trains right now. My son WAS supposed to be taking the Carl Sandburg from Naperville ( I chose that instead of taking him down to Union) to Quincy this morning. Last night he gets a message from Amtrak saying the train is cancelled due to “Service Disruptions.” Disruption my A%&. I called the 800 number, told the lady I am a 29 year working railroader and would like to know the REAL reason the train was cancelled. She said “Manpower Issues.” So they get to ride a bus today. Taking the later Illini Zephyr was not an option for him. He was also informed that 380 coming back on Sunday was also cancelled. Both trains were sold out also. This will be my only experience with Amtrak. Drive or fly for me.

    1. Steven, do you mean to say you called an 800 number and actually talked to an actual human? And that actual human actually gave you an actually coherent answer? Maybe Amtrak isn’t quite as bad as I thought it was.

      When my family members moved from the Nashville area to the Denver area, they noted that now I have option of Amtrak. Amtrak my A%&. I last rode Trains 3/4 in 1974, forty-eight years ago. My only current connection to the LDs is watching them from trackside. I now have the option of Southwest Airlines or United. I have frequent flier accounts on both.

    2. Unless you are an old head railroader or Amtrak Phoamer (alias for glutton for punishment) it’s a bad joke. Told my granddaughter to ride the new Ethan Allen service from Burlington to Rochester. First it’s missing or incorrect on the computer. Julie must be from Bangladesh as every word i spoke she said, “did you say….” no I didn’t. Gave up and asked for an agent, Thirty minute wait, or “we will call you back” yes, they did and hung up three times after a few words were spoken, An Amtrak insider told me they sometimes do this at the call center to shorten the waiting list to make it look like they are making their performance target. On the fourth try, got an agent who said there was no train and suggested a bus. Fifth call and I was told a connection to Empire service at Schenectady didn’t exist, of course it does P283 with a 2-hour window. “She would have go through to Albany and wait four hours to take the LSL west”. When I mentioned the train numbers, she said she does not know these but will transfer the call, yes after 10 minutes the line went dead. I ended up back to the computer and bought a ticket to Schenectady and another to Rochester on P283, cutting 4 hours off the total trip time. And for a neophyte trying to do this for her first train trip IMPOSSIBLE with this moronic operation

    3. “Moronic operation” from your odyssey trying to reserve an SDY connection between Nos. 290 and 283 is far too mild a characterization.

  10. They’ll feed you if food is available and sell you a ticket if space is available.

    Hey, at least Amtrak admits its service is terrible. That’s more than the freight railroads do.

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