Private car owners disappointed by new Amtrak policies

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Private cars bring up the rear on the westbound California Zephyr at Hinsdale, Ill.
TRAINS: David Lassen

WASHINGTON — Some private car owners say Amtrak’s new tariff rates and restrictions will make business more challenging and expensive, but at least they now have a written policy to work with.

Amtrak announced an increase in tariffs last week [“Amtrak raises tariffs for private cars,” News Wire, April 20], along with a new list of cities where private cars can be handled [“New Amtrak guidelines add details on private-car, special-train moves,” News Wire, April 19.]

Altiplano Railtours owner Adam Auxier tells Trains News Wire it’s better to have bad news you know than good news you don’t know. He also says the impact of the new policies will depend on what owners intend to do with their cars.

“In the private car world, all we want is certainty,” Auxier says. “Planable certainty. We need to plan [trips] roughly a year in advance.”

Auxier compares it to airline tickets, whose rates are published nearly a year in advance.

“Tickets open 330 days out,” he says. “I should know what my price is going to be. If we’re going to have a big change, we just need some sort of understanding of when that’s going to happen.”

Auxier says what Amtrak offers is still a highly valuable and important service and while the tariff information is helpful for planning, additional clarity is still needed with operational moves.

Railroad Passenger Car Alliance President Roger W. Fuehring says even though the private car world has received its first written policy on moves since movement denials started in late March, some of the information is disappointing.

He says getting rid of storage in Washington, D.C., and some of the mechanical services will hurt car operators, and the sudden tariff rate increase will make it even more difficult to plan. Fuehring says operators expected Amtrak to increase the tariff each October and planned accordingly, but now, the railroad can adjust those rates at its own discretion.

Amtrak increased its tariff more than 12 percent last week, in addition to a separate increase that took effect Oct. 1, 2017.

“How can anyone plan their business with such small margins when we don’t know what the tariff rates will be day to day?” Fuehring wonders. “What does the tariff matter if Amtrak has the ability to adjust the rates again?”

Burt Hermey, who owns four original California Zephyr cars and bases them out of Los Angeles, is experiencing this firsthand. He says the recent tariff increase puts owners, including himself, in the awkward position of having to go back to customers for more money.

Hermey had already organized and started selling a private car trip based on the October 2017 rates.

“Moreover, Amtrak set new rules for determining tariff increases. Now it’s at their discretion, rather being indexed to generally available formula that was spelled out in addenda one through five,” Hermey explains, referencing Amtrak’s previous formula, based on the Association of American Railroads’ wages and rates.

Hermey agreed with Fuehring that Amtrak’s new policies on mechanical services will also hurt.

“Mechanical services, for which we paid dearly, are now limited to those necessary to bring a car that is in the middle of a trip back into FRA compliance,” he says. “A strict reading of that would seem to indicate that defects identified during an annual inspection would need to be repaired elsewhere.”

Hermey also mentioned how doing away with several popular mid-point destinations will hurt business in places like Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Whitefish, Mont.

“Put together, it’s clear that the new Amtrak management wants us off the property,” he says, “despite the multiple millions of dollars we pay each year, most of which flows to their bottom line. It’s also clear how little they value that segment of their business.”

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