• Amtrak Surge Capacity & Reserve Fleet

  • Discussion related to Amtrak also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp.
Discussion related to Amtrak also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp.

Moderators: GirlOnTheTrain, mtuandrew, Tadman

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  by east point
Let us look at just this winter so far if Amtrak had a surge fleet. We have lost count of the number of trains cancelled or late turn due to trains not arriving at destination in a timely manner. Delays have come in all flavors including freight train derailments, snow, landslides, mud slides, trees, mechanical problems, floods, grade crossing collisions, and more. Except for a rail line closed for whatever reason the surge fleet could easily have dispatched an on time fully mechanically sound train.

Where we would recommend train set surge fleet placements about in order of availability due to past problems.
CHI 2, NYP 1, SEA 1, PDX 1/2, NOL 1, LAX 1, NYP + 1, MIA 1, WASH 1, CHI+1, NOL+1, Would keep spare V-2 diner in CHI, then NOL, then MIA.
  by mtuandrew
In theory Amtrak already has reserves in those places. But in practice, they don’t seem to be used fully?

I’ve been thinking about a surge diner/cafe (as opposed to a reserve V-II or AmCafe) and think that such would need to have extremely limited cooking appliances in order to make food safety a reasonable goal after coming out of storage. Perhaps only a sink, a large icebox cooler, a water cooler with multiple sealed Culligan-style bottles at the ready, possibly a hot plate electric burner, and enough space for a convection oven and coffee maker. Along with a cash box and credit card reader, that would be enough to prep (very) simple food and sell prepackaged items without the large number of surfaces and machines to sanitize in place.
  by dowlingm
The heterogeneous nature of the Amtrak fleet makes east point’s suggestion above difficult to implement, at least at some of the indicated bases. There is a big difference between Southwest having a stack of 737s to pick from at a hub if one goes tech with the variation between LDBL, LDSL, and Corridor consists. And even if you have the equipment, without a territory-qualified crew to take the protect consist in a given direction it’s not much use. Suddenly Congress is screaming about Amtrak headcount.
  by gokeefe
I would note that based on reports from the relevant authorities we are less than two years away from a lot of new equipment coming to Amtrak routes. Specifically the "Cal/IDOT" cars from Siemens with "more to follow" after that.

Amtrak is going to have excess cars and they do not appear to have enough new service proposals in the pipeline to absorb all of them. Virtually by default there is going to be a "reserve" fleet. How (and if) they choose to use such is another matter entirely.

The Horizon cars will be displaced first followed by the NCDOT fleet and the Amfleets after that.
  by bratkinson
This entire thread fails to recognize a variety of factors that, to me, indicates Amtrak will never have a surge capacity/reserve fleet of their own.

First and foremost, money. WHERE would Amtrak get the money to buy 13 or more (as proposed above) full 'trainsets to be stored'? Once the new Acelas' come online, there may be a couple used in secondary corridor service, but that would undermine the pricing structure of the Acelas. (For what it's worth, I'm on an Acela as I write as the same trip on a regional train in business class was THREE dollars less! Thank you, Amsnag!) So in all likelihood, expect most to head to the scrapper. Note, too, they are 4" wider than all other 'standard' passenger equipment in North America, which limits their usefullness to SEPTA or other electrified commuter routes.

Maybe, when Amfleets start being replaced in MAYBE 5+ years, some will still be viable if they don't have cracked center sills, etc.

Part II of the money issue is where to store the 'fleet' when not in use. Amtrak has little trackage of their own and adding any at WAS or CHI, for example, would be beyond expensive. And don't forget the property taxes levied on properties with tracks...it ain't free folks!

Part III of the money issue is maintenance. I make no pretense at knowing or understanding the required inspections and frequencies, but it's likely any cars and locomotives coming from storage have to go through a FULL inspection & repair/replace gaskets, pumps, whatever as necessary.

Part IV of the money happens if Amtrak chooses to store equipment on some 3rd party property. Rent isn't free, either.

Part V of the money is 'return on investment'. Whether it's new cars, just-retired cars, or leased cars, if the wheels aren't turning the ROI is ZERO! No money manager, VP of accounting, or CEO would ever justify spending significant amounts of money 'just in case' or for 2 weeks per year. While holiday decorations fit the 2 weeks per year category, how much decorations has anyone seen other that at retail outlets? Corporate America pinches every penny these days. Corporate America is not 'Doomsday Preppers', or even 'overflow business preppers', either.

The second big issue is labor. Simply put, WHERE would Amtrak find a short-notice trained staff to actually PERFORM the inspections and repairs needed to get each car ready to roll? It's not like calling up 'We Work Today' and warm bodies descend on the property to do the work.

Don't forget the onboard staff, either. Cars need staffing. OBS people that have been furloughed, including dining car staff, likely have other jobs by now and can't just take a couple weeks unpaid leave to return to Amtrak. Again, Instant-Staff-R-Us is not an option. And don't forget T&E crews, either.

Another issue is sleeper furnishings such as blankets and pillows, and even food requirements that exceed 'normal' long-term contracted levels and rates. Can the food suppliers instantly increase their provisions by 20% for a couple days or a week?

As an example, take a look at the freight railroads that have stored many locomotives during downturns in business and laid off countless operating and maintenance staff as a result. Due to PSR they cut, cut, cut to the bone. If everything runs smoothly, their operating ratio got super low and the stockholders cheered. How many of those laid off employees are willing to come back in 2, or 5 years from now when business takes off again? What about a winter in Chicago like they had a couple years ago where there was a total breakdown of operations and it took months to recover?

With all the cuts that have occurred at Amtrak in the past 30 years, perhaps the biggest is the lack of funds to procure and replace equipment on a timely basis. Regardless of what's under construction today or RFPs in the works (Amfleet replacements), all that can be done is to simply 'replace' existing fleet levels with minimal expansion, if any. It would be fantastic if all rolling stock was replaced every 20-25 years and the displaced stock used for creating new trains, new routes, etc. But that won't happen any time soon, in my opinion.

Bottom line, ever since Amtrak came into being on May 1, 1971, it has been fight for survival. As long as Congress holds the purse strings, they'll never get ahead. Yes, when the Superliners were new, they created a couple of experimental routes like the Desert Wind and Pioneer. But as equipment became less and less availalble due to wreck damage, etc, those routes were among the cuts. The same holds true with North Coast Hiawatha and the National Limited. Lack of funding as well as funds for even more equipment doomed useful, but not sufficiently patronized routes to be eliminated. And due to various route segments being abandoned, most can never be restored.
  by gokeefe
Amtrak does not pay property taxes they are a government entity. In most states railroads don't pay property taxes on rights of way or yard tracks (certainly the case in Maine). I would note that this topic generally hasn't been about the Acela.

The question of maintenance and periodic inspections is indeed relevant. My guess as far as storage goes would be Bear, DE shops or Beech Grove, IN. Could be other options out West. I'm not as familiar with those Amtrak facilities.
  by JoeG
Most of this thread has been about large numbers of extra cars. Sleepers and diners have also been mentioned. There's another issue that hasn't been mentioned. Traditionally, railroads have added cars to trains as needed for extra passengers. This is one of the great flexibilities that trains offer.
Amtrak, of course, has stopped doing this. I'm not talking about Thanksgiving. Even on regular Corridor, Keystone, Empire, etc trains, there are frequent sellouts. If there were even a small number of extras available, these sellouts could be eliminated and Amtrak would make extra revenue. Some extra cars could be stored at Sunnyside, Chicago, etc.
The major impediment to this flexibility is that Amtrak has lost the ability to switch cars quickly. Mr Deasy, earlier in this thread, said that one problem with switching cars in or out in Atlanta was that there was only a 30 minute dwell time there. Back in the day that would have been more than enough time for switching operations. What makes it so much more time consuming today? We have seen the same issue with engine changes, which used to take 5-10 minutes at New Haven or Harrisburg . (These particular ones don't usually happen anymore, but the general point still applies.) At PHL it takes longer to change ends than it did for engine changes.

I would like to understand why these moves take so much longer now than back in the day. Is it stricter blue flag rules? Is it because there is less labor available? Is it some managerial or bureaucratic slowness? If these ordinary railroading tasks can't be performed expeditiously, the utility of any surge fleet would be vastly reduced.
  by gokeefe
Many of the major terminals and stations that Amtrak serves are much smaller than they used to be. Switching crews are mostly non-existent along with the personnel necessary to couple and decouple cars.

Most reports that I've seen indicate that in places where the practice is still common place (ALB & NHV) switching or power changes are still very efficient.
  by Tadman
bratkinson wrote: Fri Nov 15, 2019 12:31 pm This entire thread fails to recognize a variety of factors that, to me, indicates Amtrak will never have a surge capacity/reserve fleet of their own.

First and foremost, money. WHERE would Amtrak get the money to buy 13 or more (as proposed above) full 'trainsets to be stored'? Once the new Acelas' come online, there may be a couple used in secondary corridor service, but that would undermine the pricing structure of the Acelas.
I think there are some very valid concerns here if this were a textbook problem. That said, Amtrak is long on space, especially after M&E failed, and the the fleet is not showing any signs of structural failure either. Beech Grove has plenty of room, even 14th street.

Long story short, they will have to pay some folks to keep these cars fresh on their 90 days inspections which indicates there is some sort of business plan addressing their viability. I have no insider info but perhaps summer weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break are enough to let an aged fleet break even.

It's also worth looking at the surge fleet makeup, as different sub fleets will see different fates.

Acela 1 - probably scrap
Horizon - some surge fleet, maybe some to other buyers
Amfleet - same
NCDot cars - maybe tourist roads, scrap

So given that info, we don't have to account for two smaller sub-fleets that will probably leave the roster.
  by Arborwayfan
Railroads used to rent passenger cars to each other when one road's off season was another road's peak, or just when one had extra and the other had need, right? (At least, I have seen a lot of pictures of 50s-60s trains with multiple railroads' cars and captions that say something like "railroad 1 had rented sleepers from railroad 2 because of a convention in city x". And I know Pullman moved parts of its fleet around based on demand (to the western national parks in summer, to Florida in winter, etc. Amtrak does this ever so slightly by using Superliners for the Winter Park Ski Train in winter when (a) there's snow and (b) there's less demand, or at least fewer cars, on the western LD trains.

Question: are there any seasonal rushes left that don't happen at the same time all over the country? Mass schools have Feb and April vacations instead of one March Spring Break; do those vacations cause extra traffic on the NEC (doubtful, but maybe one of you knows). I suspect that more people go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras; anyone know if Amtrak adds cars to the City of New Orleans, the Crescent, or the Sunset Ltd.? It is, after all, the season of shorter western trains so they might have cars. I think they used to add baggage cars to the Builder to carry motorcycles to Sturgis; did they add coaches, too?

Where I'm going is this: Even if owning a big surge fleet only for big nationwide holidays turns out not to make sense, owning a smaller surge fleet to handle many different surges on different routes at different times might make sense. I realize there are other challenges: a longer train might just mean a bigger operating loss, especially if it means more fuel, more locomotives (assuming such are even available), or more conductors; it might actually make better financial sense and better sense for the long-term health of the system to just raise the peak-period prices until most trains last seat sells just before departure. States pay for x coaches and Amtrak might not be willing to add cars even if doing so would pay for itself, so as not to give states the experience of getting more service for free. Moving cars around isn't free. Single-level vs. bilevel. But if Amtrak had a couple dozen extra coaches, some bilevel, some single, and had frequent enough surges to keep any given car in use say half the time, that might really start to make sense.

Imagine four or five extra coaches assigned to Chicago, ready to be sent out on whichever corridor train is nearly sold out a couple of days ahead. Might it work?
  by gokeefe
Arborwayfan wrote: Mon Nov 18, 2019 6:58 pmQuestion: are there any seasonal rushes left that don't happen at the same time all over the country? Mass schools have Feb and April vacations instead of one March Spring Break; do those vacations cause extra traffic on the NEC (doubtful, but maybe one of you knows).
Yes, they absolutely do. That schedule is adhered to by Northern New England as well (VT, NH, ME).

Take a look at the Silver Meteor and Auto Train fares around that time of year and you will see what I mean.

I would note that the Horizon cars seem the least likely to be sold at all. They are near perfect cars for surge/reserve use given their 125 MPH capabilities and relative youth.
  by east point
Although not available AFAIK the PRIIA report said the Meteor would gain $700.000 per extra coach revenue. Now what an additional sleeper would provide unable to guess. Until Amtrak changes its same consists for the eastern LD routes nothing will not be changed. Cardinal is an exception. It may be that additional cars end up requiring more OVS personnel that Amtrak does not want to schedule for ?
  by mtuandrew
“Not enough people” is something we don’t discuss enough. If Amtrak can’t staff its trains with more than today’s amount of cars, it doesn’t matter if it has extra cars to put on the train.

I don’t know how to solve that issue when holiday rush travel is already a no-vacation period, other than assigning cafe and dining car personnel as car attendants during the rush periods. Maybe Amtrak could subcontract some Corridor OBS service to NJT or other outfits, to Metra staff on Chicago hub trains, and to one of the California lines for LAX hub.
  by east point
Someone who is an OBS will need to explain the ins and outs of the bidding and assignments of OBS crews and T&E personnel . The only solution as I see it is for Amtrak to somehow cut the crews home layovers to have more personnel to man the extra equipment.
How does Amtrak handle the extra NEC cars and trains during the Thanksgiving and Christmas present surges ?
  by JoeG
In the case of coaches, putting aside diners and sleepers, you would need at most an additional assistant conductor. It might be that the unions would allow an extra car without additional crew (if an additional AC would usually be required) in return for extra payment to the existing crew. I agree that extra sleepers and food cars would be much more complicated and expensive.
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