May 24, 2021 - TRA Newswire - Aboard the Texas Eagle -
Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody was aboard the Texas Eagle today and observed the good, the bad and the ugly.
Daily service on Amtrak's Texas Eagle was restored today, bringing the train back to life from three-time weekly service that was instituted last October at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Trains are becoming more crowded as pent up demand packs more passengers into seats. Today's Southbound #21 showed that it was 90% sold out as Amtrak has eased up on it's 50% seating capacity limit, while still requiring masks onboard.
However, Covid-19 stimulus funds that were approved by Congress and President Biden in March to get Amtrak through tough times and restore pre-pandemic service levels have not filtered down to the trains, if the Texas Eagle is shown as one of the first examples to return to daily duties.
The Eagle is still without its iconic Sightseer Lounge that serves multi-purposes for long-distance travelers. The glass viewing car offers room to move around with both tables and chairs and travelers can purchase snacks and beverages on the lower level. Informed sources say that Amtrak currently has 44 active Sightseer lounge cars in the system, but many of them are still parked in rail yards and not placed in service.
Food service continues to be problematic with fewer offerings available for both sleeping car and coach passengers and there are equipment issues that plague both passengers and crew. The Texas Eagle used to carry a minimum of three coaches and two sleeping cars that could accommodate over 275 passengers. Today's Northbound #22 had only four cars and a locomotive: one sleeper, one combo food-service car and two coaches. The skinny train was at about 50% capacity.
Amtrak's Larry Chestler, Long Distance Business Unit Vice-President told DC-based Rail Passengers Association that the return of the lounges and expanded and better food service is coming. Amtrak claims that an "equipment shortage in this car type", referring to the full length lounge cars, is only temporary and the cars will be returned to service "soon" on some routes. There is no timeline available for the popular Texas Eagle. One crew member interviewed today said that without the lounge car it is impossible to find seats for passengers on short runs between nearby stations when the long-distance train is technically sold out. The Sightseer lounge would serve as the overflow car, creating extra revenue that would otherwise be turned down.
The lack of menu items continues to haunt Texas Eagle passengers. The train operates with one combination coach and sleeper food-service car called the Cross Country Cafe. Amtrak created the Cafe car in the early 2000's but stopped production after a handful were rolled out because the concept was deemed awkward and not very functional by passengers and crew. With fewer tables than a full-size Amtrak dining car there is only one employee to serve both sleeping car and coach passengers from early morning through late evening. According to one employee the small Cafe, which is stocked in Chicago, can run out of food on its return run from San Antonio due to the lack of storage facilities. With some 200 passengers onboard train #21 yesterday out of Chicago the food choices can dwindle quickly.
Full-service dining is said to return by the end of June. In the meantime, sleeping car passengers have to eat their meals in shifts at the few available tables in the Cross Country Cafe. Coach passengers are bared from purchasing entrees, a change instituted by former Amtrak President Richard Anderson, that has not been reversed. Coach riders must choice from a limited menu while standing at a window at one end of the Cross Country Cafe. There are no tables available and coach passengers must return to their seats.
Equipment continues to be an issue on the Texas Eagle. Today's Northbound #22 had one coach with air conditioning problems, the coffee maker in the Cafe car did not work and neither did the icemaker. One un-named employee said that customer service has taken a big hit, "frankly, the company had most of its equipment off the road since last fall and should have had plenty of time to do basic maintenance".
The pandemic and service cuts has left Amtrak scrambling to find employees to fill positions across the country. A number of onboard employees that were furloughed last year, especially younger ones with little or no seniority, found work elsewhere and have not returned to their train positions.
While coach passenger ticket sales have taken more time to return to normal levels, sleeping car rooms that are priced at a premium have been a hot commodity. Travelers are able to close their door, remove their masks and feel safer about their journey, according to an Amtrak employee. The employee said that they usually are down to one vacant room or none available at all on most trips. If additional equipment could be made available the Texas Eagle would most likely be seeing a revenue increase, as it had been for almost 20 years before equipment cutbacks.
Passengers that take the combination Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle train that originates from the West Coast and splits at San Antonio during the night get a jolting surprise when they wake up in the morning. The Sunset Limited's Sightseer Lounge car and full dining car continues on to New Orleans while Eagle travelers are left with what was described by one passenger as second-class service from San Antonio to Chicago, onward a day and a half later. That has created a lot of customer service complaints from passengers, according to one Amtrak employee.
At Dallas Union Station and elsewhere a new Covid-19 check-in protocol was instituted today. Passengers are now required to take a picture of a QR-code with their phone, enter their name and reservation number and answer questions about their current health status before they can board a train.