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    "The Last Great City of the East," St. Paul, MN

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  1. Exploring some alternatives to driving down to Osceola, IA to catch the Zephyr (just in case my primary plan falls through,) I noticed that while the timing of the Jefferson Lines buses would make taking them down to Osceola possible, the stops are nearly two miles apart, with no sidewalks for a decent portion of the walk. Further exploration made me realize that connecting to the 5 and from the 6 (trains to/from destinations west of Osceola) is actually quite possible with a little bit of cooperation between Amtrak and Jefferson Lines. Even connecting to/from destinations east of Osceola is possible, though requires a bit more work. FWIW, Jefferson Lines is already Amtrak e-ticket capable for the Duluth route and their Wisconsin route. Here's the current schedule. Changes to the schedule to allow easy Amtrak connections (other than moving the stop to the Amtrak station) are noted in bold. While these buses start in Kansas City, I'm not noting those times to keep the connection times clear. (Connections to/from the SWC could be made in Galesburg.) The additions do not immediately appear to cause disruption to connecting bus service (that I'm aware of.) No time was added to the Osceola stop if the stop was already served; Google suggests the round-trip difference in travel time to/from the current stop to the Amtrak stop is 2 minutes. JL 0804 - connect from AMTK 6 (7:40 AM) and to AMTK 7 (10:20 PM) Osceola, IA 10:40 AM Des Moines 11:25 AM arrive/11:40 AM depart Ames 12:20 PM arrive/12:25 PM depart Williams 1:05 PM Dudley's Corner 1:20 PM Mason City 2:05 PM Albert Lea, MN 2:50 PM arrive/3:10 PM depart Owatonna 3:45 PM Fairbault 4:10 PM Burnsville 4:45 PM St. Paul 5:10 PM Stop added for easy access to St. Paul Union Depot Minneapolis 5:15 PM (5:45 PM) JL 0802 - connect from AMTK 5 (8:09 PM) and to AMTK 8 (8:00 AM) Osceola, IA 10:05 PM Currently bypassed, adds 10 minutes to current schedule. Des Moines 10:45 PM (10:55 PM) arrive/11:30 PM depart Ames 12:10 AM arrive/12:15 AM depart Clear Lake 1:40 AM arrive/2:00 AM depart Albert Lea, MN 2:30 AM Burnsville 3:40 AM St. Paul 4:20 AM Minneapolis 4:45 AM JL 0803 - connect to AMTK 5 (8:09 PM) and from AMTK 8 (7:43 AM) St. Paul, MN 11:05 AM Added for easy access from St. Paul Union Depot Minneapolis 11:40 AM arrive/12:01 PM depart MSP Airport 12:20 PM Burnsville 12:40 PM Fairbault 1:20 PM Owatonna 1:45 PM Albert Lea 2:15 PM arrive/2:30 PM depart Mason City, IA 3:20 PM arrive/3:25 PM depart Dudley's Corner 3:55 PM Williams 4:15 PM arrive/4:20 PM depart Ames 5:00 PM Des Moines 5:45 PM arrive/6:15 PM depart Osceola 7:00 PM JL 0805 - connect to AMTK 6 (7:40 AM) and from AMTK 7 (10:03 AM) St. Paul, MN 11:15 PM Added for easy access from St. Paul Union Depot, though I'd imagine connecting traffic from AMTK 7 is small Minneapolis 11:45 PM arrive/12:01 AM depart Clear Lake, IA 1:55 AM arrive/2:10 AM depart Ames 3:35 AM arrive/3:40 AM depart Added for connections to Iowa State University Des Moines 4:00 AM (4:25 AM) arrival/4:10 AM (4:35 AM) depart Osceola, IA 5:00 AM/5:25 AM Currently bypassed, adds 10 minutes to current schedule. The final one is the trickiest, especially with the added Ames stop as well. The bus currently continues to Cameron, MO and Kansas City, MO. A 10-to-35 minute addition to the schedule may not be worth it, given that most of those destinations already have service to Chicago and most of the larger destinations via a daylight bus route. I think the extra 10 minutes for a stop is justified, but it might not be worth the additional 25 above that to connect Ames. Thoughts? Maybe Amtrak or Jefferson Lines will see this and hash out an agreement.
  2. jebr

    Trip to MKE in Coach

    Sorry to hear about your issues sleeping in coach. As for getting left at stations, I wouldn't worry about it, even in the middle of the night, as long as you stay trainside near the doors (or walk alongside the train.) Keep an eye out for the staff telling you to get back on, or simply just walk in a little circle near the door (within 10-20 feet of the door.) That said, I certainly don't blame you for flying home. Given the options, that was probably your best choice.
  3. It's still frustrating to have a number of not-terribly-edge-case situations where someone would need to call in. There's been a few times where I've had to call in because the website simply won't book an AGR redemption (it'll pull the cost fine, but then simply error out at the final checkout screen.) Also, any request for a specific room requires calling in; it really should be on the website and until that's done I'd expect a fair amount of calls to come in on it. Open sleeper tickets also require an agent; while that's more of an edge case it's still a ticket type that simply can't be booked online. As long as those limitations are in place, paired with the general lack of penalty for calling in, I'd expect Amtrak to have a higher-than-average call volume for a transportation company, and for those agents to need a higher-than-average training need and skill set for a call center employee. While 30-35% of people booking through alternate means seems a bit high, I could see that if the call center-sourced figure (of 65-70% booking online) is only looking at Amtrak.com/Amtrak app bookings. If the Amtrak marketing figure is referring to reservations received without Amtrak agent assistance, that leaves about 20-25% that are booked through either a travel agency, Concur or similar business travel software, or some other third-party means. Most of those probably would appear to Amtrak as "online" transactions in terms of booking. (It's also possible the figure is coming from number of calls vs. number of tickets sold, ignoring that some people may make multiple calls or may call in for information without actually booking online.)
  4. jebr

    Fire Richard Anderson Campaign?

    First, the states that are "net contributors" to the federal government is a lot more varied than the typical urban/rural divide in terms of states. There's a good Atlantic article about it here. Kansas and Nebraska, two states generally considered very rural, are net contributors to federal coffers. In fact, nine of the 14 states that are net contributors to the federal government are "inland," and as such I take issue with the claim that the coasts are funneling money inland. That's not to say that some of that money isn't well spent, or that there won't be ebbs and flows, but it's frankly false to boil down the net contributors to the federal tax coffers to "urbanized states" vs. "rural states," especially when that definition seems to be coastal vs. inland. At any rate, if we want a system that even purports to be national, we're going to have to have a few long-distance trains, and I think it's hard to find the current long-distance network as much more than a skeletal, bare-bones system as it is. The Empire Builder has a few corridors on the ends (Spokane to Seattle and Portland, along with Minnesota to Chicago,) and the middle seems to do a fairly effective job at serving as essential transportation while building a link from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest via rail. The California Zephyr has enough overlapping corridors to pretty much serve as a single train serving as multiple corridor trains (Chicago - Denver, Denver - Salt Lake City, and Reno - Emeryville/San Francisco.) The only part not covered there, Salt Lake City - Reno, is legitimately essential transportation; even Greyhound doesn't run buses through there anymore and transfers passengers onto Amtrak! I'm less familiar with the SWC and TE/SL, but the SWC has Kansas City - Chicago and Albuquerque - Los Angeles for sure, and the middle part seems to have enough state support that will fund a fair amount of trackage costs. I don't think there's a problem with using buses where they fit, but I think it's foolish for us to write off LD trains or trains through rural areas just because they seem to be too large to do the job; in the right corridors (which, based on ridership, the EB, CZ, and the SWC seem to be) they can even work well in the western, less-dense states. Feeder buses could make that even better; people may be more willing to overnight if needed on a train than a bus, and bus service running a few hours to different train stations could expand the reach of those trains significantly. At that point, the train is serving as the high-capacity corridor service, with feeder buses branching off serving smaller and off-route towns within a few hours of each train station.
  5. Part of the problem with outsourcing (or trying to find an overflow call answering service) is that Amtrak forces people to call in for many complex transactions or semi-complex transactions (think reserving a specific room on the train, or even a number of AGR redemptions that involve connections.) At some point, if Amtrak can get it to the point where calling isn't required for the vast majority of transactions, then perhaps an outsourced firm to handle overflow makes sense (since most calls could be handled without extensive training as long as reference material was available.) But in the era where many calls are for more complex needs, overflow doesn't work well (since many people would simply have to be patched through to permanent/full-time staff vs. overflow staff.)
  6. jebr

    Fire Richard Anderson Campaign?

    Exactly. It's one thing to look at BNSF's desire to no longer maintain the Raton route and find it makes more sense to push on BNSF for a reroute on the transcon instead of paying millions to maintain that portion of the route for two trains a day. That's a case where it could be argued that a reroute with connecting bus service for those going to/from bypassed stations makes the most sense. (And yes, I still think that if BNSF wants to abandon the Raton route that they should be obliged to offer similar speed/frequency on an alternate route at a similar price.) It's quite another to look at the situation and push for an option that doesn't have any clear path to improved connectivity and actively harms connectivity for many passengers. After all, it doesn't seem like there'd be enough trainsets freed up to really do anything in terms of improved service (we'd gain back, at best, one to two trainsets.) It also doesn't do anything to improve connectivity (a single bus each day isn't any better than a single train each day, and there wasn't any mention I can recall of improved frequency with bus service.) However, it actively reduces ease of use for anyone traveling through the connecting points and would almost certainly have a negative impact on through ridership.
  7. jebr

    Fire Richard Anderson Campaign?

    Maybe rural connectivity alone isn't justification for the trains, but that, along with larger-city connectivity and connecting regional rail networks to each other, certainly make them relatively useful and necessary on the whole. It's the totality of what those trains do, not just the individual aspects, that make them worthwhile. Are they perfect? Certainly not, and there's instances where I think there's better alternatives; as but one example, if BNSF wants to abandon the Raton line, Amtrak should be pushing for a reroute onto the southern transcon and using connecting bus service only for the bypassed communities to connect to the rerouted SWC. That still preserves the general connectivity of the system, ensures some service for every community that currently has it, and seems to be a good way to minimize long-term costs for the current frequency in the area. As for funding, the current amount is frankly minuscule for the size of country we have, and either a small increase in taxes or cuts to other parts of the federal budget could certainly provide enough funding for a both/and situation across the country. It requires lobbying for more money for intercity ground transportation, sure, but that seems to be a much better course of action than trying to find a way to parcel out the very limited funds in a way that would actually provide comprehensive connectivity; the funds seem so limited that doing so seems like a fool's errand.
  8. jebr

    Fire Richard Anderson Campaign?

    No, not here in Iowa. that's what dial a ride is for. Every region has one here in Iowa. They will get you to the big city or the place with nearest facilities. It is not uncommon to see those vans/minibuses at the local grocery stores and medical facilities. In rural areas you're talking about a very small number of people. At least the last time I looked, the dial-a-ride for northwest Iowa only provides service "around town," at least in some towns, with no way to connect to the larger world. I have a friend who lives there and doesn't have a car (and can't legally drive) and he has to rely on other people when he wants to leave town. He can walk around town easily enough, but getting to Sioux City or Sioux Falls to catch intercity transportation requires the kindness of friends in the area. In Minnesota many rural dial-a-rides are similar, though some at least offer once-a-week (or, in some cases, once-a-month!) transportation to the larger city. Once-a-month transportation works for appointments if you can schedule them well in advance, but it does little to connect to the wider world (most people don't want to take a month-long trip somewhere!)
  9. jebr

    Fire Richard Anderson Campaign?

    Comparing specifically LD train passengers to the entirety of motor vehicle travel is a pretty stacked comparison in favor of vehicle travel. Certainly, LD train travel has a pretty small market share (thanks to its lack of frequency, cost compared to nominal cost of driving, among other things,) but there's a lot of motor vehicle trips that would make no sense trying to switch to a LD train even if our goal was to get as many trips as possible onto trains. The vast majority of trips would likely fall into that category (commuter trips or trips to the grocery or hardware store, for example, would almost never make sense as part of a LD train's market.) I'd generally agree that LD trains, in and of themselves, are a pretty poor form of local transit, but that's not what they're designed to do. It'd be better to compare them to something closer to essential air service. There also has to be an intercity system for people to connect to in order for a bus connecting to those modes of transportation to work for those longer trips; it's pretty hard to have an intercity bus connect to a national rail network if that national rail network doesn't exist! It really needs to be a "both/and" conversation, not an "either/or." They both have their strong suits, and as long as we have some semblance of a national rail network there's always going to be a few rural towns that are along the way and that make sense to serve as an "along the way" destination even if that city needs other forms of transportation in order to fully connect their residents to the wider world. In general, rail also makes sense once you have capacity that buses can't meet, but it's much harder to justify that when the rail network is primarily privately owned and the road network is primarily publicly owned and doesn't charge a direct fee (or toll) in most cases.
  10. jebr

    Fire Richard Anderson Campaign?

    Yeah, I think even if most rural residents would want a rural expressway over train service, there's a certain amount of people that can't drive or can't afford to own a vehicle. Given how much tax money goes into roads (beyond that collected via gas tax,) it seems fair to make sure everyone can get places even if they can't use the roads with their own vehicle. That said, depending on the cost I think there's an argument to be made that most of those people would rather see a few well-timed buses connecting them throughout their region, with connections available to nationwide bus, rail, and air networks, versus having an once-a-day train, especially if that train stops in the middle of the night. That, however, would require us making a strong effort to build those connections and making it simple to use, and having it coordinated much more than the rural intercity bus subsidies currently are. It'd also still require a network for people to connect to, and having no rail network connecting the East Coast to Chicago, or Chicago to the West Coast, would make that a difficult proposition.
  11. jebr

    Unsold sleepers

    Because Amtrak doesn't want to sell it for lower than the high fare? Without seeing actual inventory numbers, it's hard to say how many sleepers Amtrak has open, and Amtrak seems to want to generally hold at least some sleeper inventory at high bucket in hopes of getting top dollar for the room.
  12. jebr

    Unsold sleepers

    I haven't been at the point where I've been able to get a free upgrade, though I have gotten offers for upgrades to first class at check-in (though more than I was willing to pay, usually.) That particular practice has me wondering how long it'll take before Amtrak will start offering those upgrades for shorter journeys, especially for day trips or overnight trips where there's a lot of unsold capacity. I doubt Amtrak would offer a full Chicago - Seattle upgrade below low bucket even if there was a lot of unsold capacity, but shorter segments like Chicago - St. Paul, Omaha - Denver, or Kansas City - La Junta would make sense for such a program. Amtrak could probably tell what kind of sales they'd expect to get before that particular destination and determine whether to keep some open just in case someone wants to buy a last-minute sleeper along that portion. However, it'd avoid selling a room that still could get resold at a standard rate further down the line. While there's no check-in process at many stations (and basically none that uses a kiosk for all passengers,) the Amtrak app could push out a notification saying that discounted upgrades are available, or Amtrak could send an email to those traveling notifying them of the upgrade options (hopefully with at least an opt-out option for those that don't want that upsell.) I'm not sure if it'd be something to have OBS push as well, though it certainly could be if the process is made simple for OBS to do. A more advanced version of this could allow for certain elite members or upgrade coupons to be used for these shorter distances, along with selling shorter-length upgrades along a longer trip (so if someone's traveling the full length of a Chicago - Emeryville Zephyr run, but Amtrak has significant unsold capacity just from Omaha - Denver, Amtrak could still try to push upgrades to coach passengers for that particular night.)
  13. jebr

    Uber vs. a regular taxicab

    I'm no fan of the Uber/Lyft model of building their business on the backs of the drivers (classifying them as independent contractors so they don't have to worry about labor laws, etc.) That said, most taxi companies, from what I've heard, weren't much better in that regard, especially with them often leasing out taxis to drivers and the drivers would have to figure out how to make their money from there (often making barely minimum wage after expenses are factored in.) To me, that's basically a net neutral. Taxi companies, however, can't seem to figure out how to build a remotely usable ride-hail app, at least when I last tried a year or two ago. The couple of times I tried the ride wouldn't confirm even after waiting 5ish minutes, or it would claim it was booked but the ETA would keep climbing and the car in the app wouldn't show movement at all. This was during afternoon rush in an inner-ring suburb, which shouldn't have issues finding a driver. When Uber and Lyft can provide confirmation of a ride heading your way in seconds, maybe a minute or two at most, not being able to confirm that ride and actually have the driver head your way if/when it does confirm seems like a major oversight. They very much seem to be stuck in the mindset of a 30 minute to an hour wait before getting a taxi dispatched is okay; when the competition can do it in minutes (with confirmation in seconds) that doesn't hold up.
  14. jebr

    Extra checked baggage fee question

    Correct. You'll need to check them in early so they can make it to the destination by the time you will on checked-baggage trains. (Though if they route it a different way, your baggage may be earlier than you are, especially if a connection is missed! It's not a big issue, but a bit funny to think about.)
  15. jebr

    Three in, Three out.

    Eh, at that point I'd aim for interurban rail over commuter rail. If there's only the option for 3 trips a day, I'd rather try to serve the commuter market with more frequent buses and use rail for longer distances. With that in mind, I'd probably go for 6 am, noon, and 6 pm from the smaller city into the bigger city. Outbound would be 7 am, 5:30 pm, and 10:30 pm (to try and catch those attending evening events in town.)