Amtrak may end maintenance of private cars

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Private cars gather at the 2014 AAPRCO convention in Portland, Maine. In the foreground is a former New York Central observation; to its right is a dome sleeper once used on B&O's Capitol Limited.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — As part of its ongoing reevaluation of its relationship with the private car industry, Amtrak is evaluating whether it will continue to offer mechanical services to private car owners. Loss of those services could be a blow to the private-varnish community.

The topic was part of a Tuesday conference call involving Amtrak officials and leaders of two groups representing private-car owners. [“Amtrak, private car groups discuss future of car moves,” News Wire, April 4.] In meeting notes provided to members of the private car community late Tuesday evening, Amtrak officials said the passenger railroad had been challenged to review its mechanical services, asking whether outside contractors would be better suited to perform repair work and upgrades on private cars.

Currently, Amtrak personnel and facilities handle some railcar repairs, specifically wheel and truck work and major mechanical overhauls. The work is performed throughout Amtrak’s network at key facilities. The railroad’s Beech Grove, Ind., facility also performs extensive overhauls. And the private car world would prefer to keep it that way.

“There are only a few high-quality, non-Amtrak shops left in the U.S. to do major work,” the private car industry indicated in its response to Amtrak. “Our desire would be to continue using Amtrak,” noting that if private car operators were to “lose Amtrak mechanical services as well, that makes a bad situation worse.”

The meeting notes indicate Amtrak’s Albany, N.Y., Beech Grove, Los Angeles, and Miami shops are the most valuable facilities to the private car world. And private car leaders wonder why Amtrak wouldn’t want to retain the supplemental income generated by private-car maintenance.

“Are you considering eliminating mechanical service?” the notes read, to which Amtrak responded: “We’ve been challenged to review the whole service. What would a case be where a contractor would work better?” the railroad asked.

Representatives from the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and Railroad Passenger Car Alliance responded by saying “makes sense to stay aligned with Amtrak” and that third-party shops mostly work out of their own vehicles. “We fully expect to pay full value for Amtrak services,” the organizations said.

The notes indicate private-car maintenance work generated about $300,000 for Amtrak in 2017, but private car experts say that number is low.

If Amtrak were to no longer allow its mechanical services to perform work on private cars, it could make those cars difficult to operate and maintain.

“If a private car has a defect before departing a terminal, or if an unforeseen defect occurs enroute on an Amtrak train, and private car operators are not allowed to use Amtrak’s mechanical services, it would make it impossible for our cars to be fixed,” says Joe Rosenthal, assistant general manager of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society.

Amtrak’s discussion of eliminating midpoint pickups — private-car moves originating at locations other than a train’s starting or final station — adds complexity to the situation. Rosenthal says doing away with midpoint pickups would force several car owners to relocate their cars. He says there would be no way to work on private cars if they are on Amtrak property and the railroad doesn’t allow mechanical services to work on the cars.

Currently, at midpoint locations, private inspectors and contractors can perform work on cars, like annual inspections and preventative maintenance. If those cars are forced to move to another location, those contractors may not be allowed on Amtrak property.

Rosenthal says Amtrak has strict policies about contractors using shop facilities and accessing railroad property.

With no definitive policy in place, the private car community is working with Amtrak on all aspects of the private-car business, with hopes of a favorable outcome.

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