News & Reviews News Wire Chief wreck puts further strain on Amtrak capacity woes: Analysis

Chief wreck puts further strain on Amtrak capacity woes: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | July 6, 2022

| Last updated on February 24, 2024

Decisions made in 2020 for 2021 still having an impact

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Bilevel passenger car with no windows and damage to stainless steel body
Superliner II sleeping car 32100, New York, at Sanford, Fla., in 2003. The car was damaged in a 2002 Auto Train accident at Crescent City, Fla. It was cannibalized for parts but 11 of the other 14 derailed cars were eventually returned to service. Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — When bad CSX track caused the northbound Auto Train to derail 14 of 16 Superliners at Crescent City, Fla., on April 18, 2002, Amtrak strategists scrambled but were able to counteract the resulting equipment shortage.

Dealing with a similar shock to the system today — such as the one caused by last week’s Southwest Chief accident at Mendon, Mo. — is much more difficult.

Aerial view of three Superliner passenger cars on their side after derailment
The June 27 derailment of the Southwest Chief further depleted Amtrak’s rolling stock fleet. Sol Tucker

In the wake of the Auto Train accident, planners immediately switched the Cardinal from a Chicago-Washington, Superliner-equipped train back to a Chicago-New York, single-level operation with Viewliner sleepers and Amfleet II coaches and cafes. They were also able to quickly assemble ready-to-roll Superliners held as “protect” equipment at terminals across the country, and at the company’s Beech Grove (Ind.) Heavy Maintenance Facility.

In the current situation, maintenance and personnel cutbacks management initiated in 2020 continue to negatively impact long-distance train capacity. This is despite an infusion of $728.6 million specifically allocated to the national network in early 2021 [see “FRA obligates Rescue Plan funds to Amtrak, states,” Trains News Wire, April 27, 2021].

Amtrak was able to scrounge enough cars and locomotives to send a Southwest Chief west last Thursday [see “Southwest Chief resumes service after Missouri derailment,” News Wire, June 30, 2022]. However, the westbound train departing Chicago on July 2 and eastbound Chief on July 4 did not run “due to crew and equipment availability issues for that route,” Amtrak spokeswoman Beth Toll tells News Wire.

The train scheduled to leave Chicago on Thursday, July 7, would normally use equipment making an overnight turn after arriving on July 6 — the trainset that would have departed Los Angeles on July 4. The July 7 departure is scheduled to run and is fully booked — as of July 4, its three coaches were sold out between Newton, Kan., and Lamar, Colo. The additional time created by not running the trains on the 2nd and 4th will allow the company to get more rolling stock ready.

Shrinking supply of serviceable cars

That overnight trains have been sold out for months, while operating with reduced consists, reflects management’s decision to limit the amount of serviceable equipment available while reducing the workforce necessary to maintain and run it.

In September 2020, Amtrak Executive VP and Chief Human Resource Officer Qiana Spain announced plans to furlough 1,950 union and 100 management employees [see “Amtrak tells employees it will furlough 1,950 …,” News Wire, Sept. 1, 2020]. This was after 284 union and 227 management workers accepted buyouts earlier that year [see “More than 500 accept Amtrak buyouts,” News Wire, July 27, 2020]. Those buyouts averaged $33,000 for a direct cost of $16.83 million, but taking into account revenue lost from inadequately equipped and staffed trains, the cost is much higher.

Passenger train led by locomotive in heritage red, white, and blue striped scheme.
The westbound Empire Builder departs Chicago on June 2, 2022, with one Seattle standard Superliner sleeper and one Seattle coach, fewer cars than it has operated with in previous summer seasons. The train requires five trainsets to maintain daily operation. Bob Johnston

Demand for space on Amtrak’s long-distance network in 2022 has reprised the segment’s strong showing in summer 2021, when Amtrak operated 66 fewer Superliners than comparable months in 2019 and 2020 [see “Coming back,” Trains Magazine, November 2021]. Yet staffing and maintenance shortfalls have reduced this year’s capacity even further.

Earlier this year, News Wire asked why Sightseer Lounges were not being redeployed on the Texas Eagle, and why the City of New Orleans schedule was not adjusted to avoid having its off days fall on Saturday and Sunday, which are traditionally high-demand days for that train. Amtrak responded on May 10, 2022, with this statement:

“We are deploying all available long-distance equipment this summer. With a portion of the Superliner fleet in need of maintenance due to a production fall-off during the pandemic, transition sleepers and Sightseer Lounges are most impacted. Resource constraints across several operating functions have limited the restoration of the remaining reduced service routes, which we hope to restore later this year.”

A former Amtrak employee tells News Wire that Amtrak management “probably let cars sit because it costs about $13,000 to put a car back in service.” Superliners undergo preventive maintenance every 92 days, and face additional service at longer intervals. “If management decides to let a four-year brake inspection date slide [while a car is stored],” the former employee adds, “that would have to be redone before a car is put back in service.” The company’s focus on these maintenance costs, without taking into account lost revenue, has resulted in substantial asset mismanagement.

How many Superliners?

Amtrak has enough of the bilevel cars available to make up for the eight cars that will be sidelined in the foreseeable future as a result of last week’s wreck. But there has been attrition among the Superliner I and II fleets, for which orders were completed in 1981 and 1996, respectively, because of unrepaired cars. The table below estimates the available equipjment, based on online updates to “Amtrak by the Numbers,” by David C. Warner and Elbert Simon, and other News Wire sources.

Table showing number of Amtrak Superliner cars built and the number believed to still be in serviceOnly three Superliners of the 16 that went on the ground in the 2002 Auto Train accident never returned to service after tipping, sliding, and jackknifing. Heavily damaged Superliner II sleeper No. 32100, New York, was relocated to the Sanford, Fla., maintenance facility and cannibalized for parts, but No. 32084, Kansas, was repaired and soldiered on until February 2021, when it was stored.

Equipment is permanently taken out of service for many reasons other than wreck damage, such as fatigued frames. But once sidelined, and with insufficient shop forces to restore to operation cars ranging from almost 30 to more than 40 years of age, the danger is that a cost-focused management will strip a car for parts to keep the remainder of the fleet active. As a result, restoration becomes even more expensive.

Four Superliner coaches that received relatively minimal structural damage in a March 2016 derailment of the Chief at Cimarron, Kan., have not been repaired and were put up for sale in 2019. Since then, two transition sleepers, four standard Superliner sleeping cars, two diners, two Sightseer lounges, and three coaches have been listed as “stored.” The list doesn’t necessarily include all cars damaged in the Sept. 25, 2021, Empire Builder derailment at Joplin, Mont.    

Amtrak still has plenty of unspent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds it can invest in equipment restoration that is sorely needed. And the company also received an $8 million Federal Railroad Administration grant to expand an apprenticeship pilot program “aimed to create a talent pipeline for new and existing employees,” according to a press release [see “Amtrak receives FRA funding for apprenticeship program,” News Wire, June 9, 2022].

The question now is whether Amtrak management’s missteps have caused irreversible damage to the ability to meet the rural-to-urban travel demand that only its national-network trains are positioned to provide.

38 thoughts on “Chief wreck puts further strain on Amtrak capacity woes: Analysis

  1. Data point: The Seattle section of the Empire Builder is running with a transition sleeper (normally up to four roomettes and the ADA room sold), one full sleeper, and a single coach. The coach has been nearly sold out departing Seattle on all five trips I’ve made this summer. I hear “staffing” and “equipment out of service for rehab” as the reasons that the consist will likely remain the same all season.

  2. About ten to fifteen years ago the CA Division of Rail within CALTRANS paid Amtrak to restore about a dozen partially wrecked coaches at Beech Grove, and then leased them to Amtrak CA. They were and still are used on the Surliners, Capitols and San Joaquins, but are limited to one coach per train, because the doors will not automatically open. CA is starting to take delivery of the new single level Siemens coaches. As a result, the San Joaquins maybe converting to all new single level cars. This will free up the bi-level California Cars and leased Superliners to be used on the other two routes. I suspect the Superliners may be surplus, and may be returned to Amtrak soon. If not, has Amtrak asked for them back? Granted Amtrak needs more than coaches, but might allow them to add a third coach on a train that normally runs with two coaches and would otherwise be sold out. Something to look into, Bob?

  3. I would go further, and recommend discontinuing Auto-Train and the weaker NEC trains, reducing consist sizes on current LD trains, and calling a “time-out” on route expansions such as in Virginia and the Gulf Coast. By current accounts, Amtrak doesn’t have enough equipment to effectively service its present core routes, so fix the core network trains before adding all these other service.

  4. It would be foolish to reconfigure the Auto Train as it is the only Amtrak long distance train that serves a viable market. And it comes the closest to breaking even. What I don’t understand is why they haven’t expanded the concept. I know many people who use it and enjoy it. Unlike the remainder of the long-distance trains that seem to generate lots of complaints and talk of “never again”.

    1. “It would be foolish to reconfigure the Auto Train as it is the only Amtrak long distance train that serves a viable market.”
      — ONLY Amtrak long distance train that serves a viable market? How can you say that when almost all of the long distance trains have at least portions of their routes’ seating completely sold out? We not only need more trains on existing routes, we need more routes! We need routes to cities that have no passenger access that could benefit by passenger access. Not just coastal routes; not just cross-continental routes but routes to cover every major city in this country!!! We need a viable alternative to expensive and abusive airline travel, both regional and national in scope.

  5. Ms. Vinson is correct single level the CNO & the Capital but also reduce the capacity of the Auto Train to free up sleepers for the western routes or single level it. This is a overnight train that serves a limited clientele & no communities between origin & destntn. Also, the President has no authority over the Amtrak Board other than appointing members same as the Postal Board it is independent from the Executive branch the Postal Board is not even accountable to Congress as was evident when their current CEO refused to reinstall sorting machines before the last election, so Mr. Buttigieg may also have limited influence over the Amtrak Board.

    1. “… also reduce the capacity of the Auto Train to free up sleepers for the western routes or single level it.”

      — You’re kidding, right? The Auto Train is one of Amtrak’s most profitable trains; it tends to be sold out for every trip in either direction. My wife and I take that train, #52 and #53, at least twice per year and almost always in a full sleeper. We wouldn’t be comfortable in a coach.

  6. Steal 6 train sets of single levels to work the CNO and Capitol? Just how are the east coast LD trains going to maintain their fleets? 6 – lounges, 6 – diners and 9 – sleepers would put the east coast trains back worse than before C=19.

  7. The Siemens equipment is not good for LD service until they reinvent the reclining coach seat. What would it take to modify future Viewliner equipment to make it more ADA friendly? I know of nothing being done NOW for future LD equipment.

    1. Who in their right mind would do away with reclining seats? For two years I traveled over night between Pennsylvania and Missouri in real heritage coaches — 44 seat, lounge-sized rest rooms, reclining seats, etc. Those amenities made the trip bearable.

    2. I think he is saying that the type of reclining seat ordered by Amtrak for the Siemen’s coaches are not suitable for long distance service. The seat cushion moves forward and the back reclines slightly.

    3. Viewliners are the way to go for long distance equipment. Only drawback is that you would need 18 car trains to have the capacity of a western Superliner train so in the west, Superliners

    4. Viewliner or Superliner, Sleepy Hollow Leg Rest coach seats are a must. With those seats, you wouldn’t need a sleeper

  8. I am so tired of the repetitive Biden bashing on News Wire. He and the Democrat controlled Congress have appropriated significant funding for Amtrak. That most likely would not have occurred under a Republican administration. Instead under GOP control we would return to the usual “Perils of Pauline” existence for Amtrak.

    1. Well Mark, you may be tired of it, but you’re going to hear a lot more of it. Much much much much more — and every bit of it justified.

      Biden is a horrid man and a horrid president. Ditto Kamala Harris.

      As for all the money he’s gotten for Amtrak, why is Amtrak such a hot mess???? You’d not hesitate for a microsecond to blame a Republican president if Amtrak were at death’s door under a Republican administration.

    2. CHARLES. You say the most obnoxious words concerning an administration that is making progress with amtrak. What do you want? Dorothy to click her heels 3 times and everything be repaired, replaced and re-crewed obviously! Amtrak is making progress on getting a broken link in the chain back on the fence row. How much did Dumbpy Doofus allocate to spend on Amtrak? Get over your bitterness dude. We all have opinions and they’re not the same, but stop acting all high and superior on Joe and Pete’s accomplishments. This administration has 2.5 + years left to deal with you and your nay-sayer cronies determination to make sure you’ll never be satisfied with service becoming operable and able to continue as an option for highways and airways. That’s the monopoly that gets way more money with every budget..
      . You still fight and holler about the New Orleans to Mobile, Al. round trips. You did mention how Nashville, Chattanooga, Birmingham, Atlanta and numerous other cities can benefit with ANY access to Amtrak’s system. I’m the discouraged passenger that doesn’t have this form of transportation as an option. Run Amrtak where the railroads always ran them for passengers. They have plenty of dead space on their networks that should provide numerous slots for passenger trains. In fact, this would be a dispatchers dream job.
      Amtrak was instituted as private. Let it be. In previous post you mention the money poured into airlines. We all exist to cost someone or something money and that’s our only fact of life, okay? Back up and chill out. Stop predicting the future with your crystal ball cause “it ain’t a workin’!”

    3. Personally, I agree with you, but we need more than just what you say. The Class I railroads are as much a part of the problem as Amtrak itself, as they don’t like sharing their Rights of Way with passenger rail. The best fix is also the most expensive fix; give passenger rail exclusive rights of way and/or priority access in Class I trackage where necessary. What some forget is that Amtrak has to pay every day for every piece of motive power and rolling stock on Class I track, even if it’s only to cross a single diamond that intersects a different road. I would wager that more than half of Amtrak’s revenues go into Class I pockets, everywhere EXCEPT the NEC and other Amtrak-owned ROWs.

    4. Gentlemen! As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between.

      While most Republicans like to pick on the low hanging fruit in the budget (short sided in my opinion – more dollars could “saved” by going after the subsided highway and airplane infrastructure), all of the cuts to Amtrak’s long distance trains happened while Carter and Clinton were in office. Yes, with NARP rallying us to lobby or Congressmen, cuts are avoided during Republican Administrations, but the results are starvation only appropriations along with micromanaged food service strings attached without any reform to Amtrak’s non-GAAP bookkeeping,

      However, under Democrat Administrations, they usually get more money, but waste it on studies, corporate reorganizations, and subjectively invest some such that the improvements get the biggest political notice, but poor ROI (e.g., the NEC).

      Until Amtrak management can learn to investment in trains west of Harrisburg, the LD trains are going continue to be the poor stepchild in the system. However, if either Claytor, or Boardman were CEO today, things might be better. The culture instead has to change. Good grief! They have cut costs through early retirements and those employees left are under staffed and don’t know how to run a railroad.

  9. I see the unprepared cars problem as one of management.

    Rebuilding a team of passenger car shop employees is a good idea, but a team of good players with weak coaching cannot win. Amtrak has resisted hiring highly-qualified leaders and supervisors who have a proven record of success at freight railroads. As a result each level of management fails to understand the mediocrity in the next level downward, and feeds it more. And its budget policies thwart the small number of really good shop managers. Amtrak needs less politics and more business, but politics is strong, in the hiring and promotion. Maybe somebody with authority and a national voice will say this out loud someday.

  10. Mr. Bob Johnston, thank for the work and info that went into this.

    At the end of the day I can’t sort out how this is one of many arguments for ending Amtrak’s LD trains. They’re the least efficient use of equipment.

  11. With the “Cardinal” changed from Superliners to single-level cars, the “Capitol Limited” and the “City of New Orleans” likewise can be re-equipped with single-level passenger cars to make available Superliners to western long distance passenger trains.
    Meanwhile, Amtrak should begin ordering new long distance single-level passenger cars from Siemens from the $66 billion infrastructure bill for the next generation of long distance intercity trains that would be versatile nationwide with no height and platform restrictions. Superliner cars and high platforms are incompatible yet alone with low clearance in the Northeast.

    1. It seems logical that Amtrak should eventually prepare for nation-wide SuperLiner capacity, however painful & expensive. Especially with a new Hudson River tunnel being planned for operation for 100+ years into the future. This new train tunnel must be able to accommodate both types of high level train cars: Superliner cars as well as double-stacked freight cars. If that’s not the current plan, they need to re-think the project.

  12. Looks like Amtrak has caught the same “lay off employees” fever as the big six freight railroads – straight out of 1st semester MBA school.

  13. Where is all that Money sign into Law in Jan or Feb 2022, Amtrak got 66 Billion Dollars??

    1. The 66 Billion you are referring to is for Amtrak expansion and purchase of equipment for that expansion. Railway Age published that design work has started for new equipment for the expansion. Until then only the yearly crumbs.

  14. NOBODY is addressing anything.This administration& its incompetent fools will only create more national unmanageability

    1. Incompetent? Please see 2017-2021 for textbook self-serving actions by the President and cluelessness by his pretend DOT Secretary Elaine Chao.

  15. Finally trains is addresssing the equiipment problem that the railfan community has know for over a year.

  16. We have supposedly pro-Amtrak president of the United States who believes in spending infinite amounts of “money” for Amtrak, “money” that he prints at the Federal Reserve. This is the result. The strongly pro-Amtrak Pete Buttigieg is one of the most incompetent officials in Washington since Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan.

    Resurrect Roger Lewis and Richard M. Nixon from their graves. The best rides I had on Amtrak LDs were when Nixon was president, when Dirty Dick was trying to kill off Amtrak. Remember when you could get a meal in the diner and feel pampered? Remember when the trains ran on time and there were enough seats for anyone who wanted to travel? Remember when stations were staffed? Remember the last time a Transcon had 2x Daily frequency? (Chief and Super Chief.) Richard Milhous Nixon, not Joseph R. Biden, was president of the United States.

    1. Oh, and pardon my Bay State chauvinism as a Massachusetts born Republican. By some fortuitous fluke, Dirty Dick appointed a superbly qualified SecDOT, the late John Anthony Volpe. That appointment made the difference between there being an Amtrak and there not being an Amtrak. In contrast, Joe Biden appointed a SecDOT under whose watch all modes of transportation in USA (freight and passenger) are dropping to third-world quality.

    2. The strongly pro-Amtrak Pete Buttigieg i

      The guy just skipped out on 25+ trains a day and chose to drive from DC to NYC. That ain’t someone who actually likes Amtrak; just parrots the words, IMHO.

    3. That Buttigieg drove WAS-NY is a disgrace. I once got into a tiff with passenger rail advocate icon, Wayne Davis, formerly of NARP and now at Maine-based Train Riders Northeast, over my comment in an email to his organization that politicians don’t ride Amtrak except for an occasional politically-driven photo op. He came at me like I’d tried to give him poison. He cited Sen. Angus King’s (I-ME) wife once road a Downeaster. Wow. Woopdie do! If I could get Mr. Davis on the phone again I would cite 1) Buttigieg’s trip, 2) the photo in the admittedly right of center Boston Herald of the spoiled brat, Biden’s climate change “czar” John Kerry, on a flight BOS-WAS UNMASKED when masks were mandatory, 3) NY Gov Kathy Hochul’s ALB-WAS and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s BOS-WAS both to meet and greet the party faithful…and both by plane in Amtrak’s only “bedrock”.

    4. Lots of political vitriol here and less about Amtrak. The first two relief programs, including the complete scam known as the CARES Act was passed on the watch of the former Grabber-in-chief who instituted zero accountability. Trump has zero interest in Amtrak nor public transit as he sees both as unnecessary when one has a private plane and helicopter. Buttigieg is far more involved and competent than Elaine Chao who repeatedly struggled to name a single freight railroad. To argue bereft of evidence is an ad hominem argument devoid of meaning. Biden does not determine the amount of money in circulation nor how much is printed, that is the role of the Federal Reserve System. And Treasury prints money.

    5. Very well spoken, Mr. McClure! Thank you! Amtrak has an opportunity to function well with knowledgeable and concerned leadership. I enjoy riding Amtrak whenever the possibility exists for me.
      Our political landscape is sadly broken. Certain people, many who read TRAINS, refuse to offer any optimistic out-look for a passenger rail future. That future includes rail passenger business, old and new.
      Look forward…the caboose has left the tracks…lol

    6. Better to be realistic than to be delusionally optimistic. These aren’t H0 scale toys.

    7. Delusional Mr. Pinckney? Fortunately, I’ve worked on the railroad and I’m speaking from railroading experiences. “Realism” is what we work with today and optimism is our only hope for tomorrow. I know where I stand.

  17. And the beat goes on. Nothing will change until top management changes, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Other than Bob Johnston and the readers of Trains Newswire, who knows about this or gives a damn? Media? Silence. Occasional politicians? Yatta yatta yatta.

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