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Train town: Texas Eagle gains highest passenger increase

By Ken Hedler
March 18, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

Travelers board a train Wednesday at the Longview Amtrak Station. Almost 29,500 Texas Eagle passengers came through the local station last year.

Passengers bound for as far away as Chicago began arriving shortly before 6 p.m. one evening last week at the Longview Amtrak Station, filling seats in the lobby or waiting outside.

Many arrived via an Amtrak Thruway bus that had departed Galveston at 11:30 a.m. Even after station agent Pat Calton announced the Texas Eagle was running about 15 minutes late, none complained about the wait.

They were set for a trip on the line that's seen the highest percentage rate of increase in passengers among Amtrak's 15 long-distance Southeast routes from October through January compared with year-earlier traffic, according to data Amtrak released Thursday.

Texas Eagle ridership increased 23.2 percent to 110,970 passengers during the period, up from 90,099 a year ago. Amtrak had projected a 9.4 percent increase.

Revenues neared $7.95 million, up $75,782, or 14 percent, from a year ago.

The revenue increase ranked second behind a 16.1 percent gain on the Palmetto, which runs from New York City to Savannah, Georgia.

But the Eagle would slide into first place if February figures were included, Texas Eagle Revenue Manager Griff Hubbard said last week. Amtrak has not released February results.

'We've moved up'

The gains signal an impressive turnaround for the Texas Eagle, which suffered declines for the past few years blamed on projects that have hampered the flow of rail traffic west of Longview.

"We come from the very bottom, from the worst performer on the list, to the top performer" since May, Hubbard said. "We've moved up 14 places."

Hubbard, a 43-year Amtrak employee who has been revenue manager for 17 years, said the Texas Eagle had slipped to the bottom because ridership took a nosedive during a project to upgrade the busy Tower 55 rail intersection in Fort Worth and a higher-speed rail project between St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago.

Those forced passengers to ride buses more than 30 percent of the time while the projects were under way, Hubbard said.

He also attributed the top performance in Longview to it having on-site revenue management, while Amtrak handles revenue for the 14 other lines out of corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C.,

"We think it is an advantage because of hands-on, on site," said Hubbard, whose office is at the depot. "You are here every day. You get the ebb and flow, the feel of the train. It helps greatly to be able to price the inventory on the train."

Outpacing Houston

Whatever the reason, Longview is back near the top as a Texas train town. The city's depot ranked fifth in boardings and alightings among Amtrak's 12 locations in Texas — higher even than Houston, which is the fourth-most populous city in the U.S.

Longview ridership totaled 29,448 passenger in the 2016 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.

Houston ridership during that period totaled 19,767, and a number of people who arrived in Longview by bus from Houston were among those waiting to catch the Texas Eagle last week.

In fact, Hubbard estimated 55 percent of the ridership in Longview was from passengers who boarded the bus that starts in Galveston and another that arrives from Shreveport. The top three travel destinations from Longview in order are Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Cora Hill, one of last week's Houston passengers, said she was traveling to Little Rock, Arkansas, to visit her sister and mother.

"I didn't want to drive because I don't want to drive alone," said Hill, who is disabled. She said she rides Amtrak three or four times a year and enjoys the convenience. "I sit back and relax," she said.

Others said they prefer to leave the driving to someone else.

Comfort and service

Dominique Lewis, a bartender in St. Louis who was returning from a two-month stay with family in Houston, said she has ridden Amtrak for 15 years and travels by train six or seven times a year.

She described the train as being comfortable and "relaxing" — even in coach — in contrast to "bunched-up, loud" seating in coach travel on airline.

Flying — and driving — is out of the question for Eric Ellis, a Navy veteran returning from his daughter's wedding in Houston to Newport News, Virginia.

"I can't fly because I recently had eye surgery," he said.

He rode in a sleeper car on the way to Houston.

"It was pretty good," Ellis said. "I was assisted everywhere I went (on Amtrak) because I am legally blind."

The 28-year Navy veteran who was riding Amtrak for the first time said he was impressed with the level of service.

A trip last week marked the second on Amtrak for Ron Coe, who was traveling with his wife and son to St. Louis. The Coes, who live in Gilmer, were making their first trip to the city with the giant Gateway Arch across the Mississippi River.

Though planes usually reach their destinations more quickly, Coe said, flying is a "pain" that sometimes winds up taking as long overall as the train.

The heavy equipment mechanic factored in the two-hour drive to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, plus the check-in time through airport security.

"You will be two hours early," Coe said. "You will kill two hours, and you have not been on the plane yet."

The Texas Eagle offers coaches (reservations required), sleeping cars, dining, a sight-seer lounge and checked baggage at various locations.

Hubbard said Longview is one of few medium-sized cities in America that still offer the "big three" of commercial air, commercial bus and passenger rail.

"Passenger rail is the economic and mobility generator for the next generation," he said, predicting changes ahead for commuter air service. "It (rail) is going to be mandatory. Airlines want out of the short (flight) markets."

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