Let's save Amtrak!

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What follow is my column in the May issue of Trains. But it occurred to me it also belongs online, and not just for the benefit of non-subscribers. The piece cries for discussion, punch and counter-punch. Already I've gotten some feedback, not all of it warm and cuddly (Oh Fred, one friend writes, how could you mention Rocky Mountaineer, because Peter Armstrong and his people are so immoral?) Stuff like that. What I realized is that I had just done what I like best, which is get people excited/mad/passionate/expressive/incoherent/whatever. So share your opinions, contribute your ideas and let's get some blood moving.-- FWF

Been on an Amtrak long-distance train lately? If so, maybe you’ve had the same feeling I do. The equipment feels old and threadbare, the crews tired. This happens when you don’t pay attend to your product. Therefore, let’s help Richard Anderson. What I want you to do is close your eyes and play a game with me. Think of things that could make passenger trains more fun and financially successful. Such things as . . .

            Overnight business class. Imagine a Superliner coach whose seats recline to become flat, like a bed. Add a free pillow and blanket. Put a low barrier behind the seat for a bit of privacy. Now you have something you can sell, a distinct class of service that’s between standard coach and a sleeping car room and priced the same way. The place to employ these first are the shorter overnight runs—Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited.

            Hotels, not sleeping cars. Or go the other direction. Peter Armstrong got rich pleasing people who fork over more than $2,000 to ride his Rocky Mountaineer between Banff, Alta., and Vancouver, B.C.—and they spend the night halfway there in a motel! You do this by delivering spectacular scenery, rich breakfasts and lunches and amusing commentaries from car hosts. Amtrak might consider doing the same thing between Salt Lake City and Denver, reserving rooms in Grand Junction, Colo., for the night. This Union Pacific line is so underutilized that Uncle Pete might appreciate the business.

            Attract the 1 percent. VIA Rail Canada showed the way when it added Prestige class to the Canadian in 2015—only six rooms in a rebuilt Chateau-class sleeper. But oh my. . . great big windows, pulldown full-size bed, in-suite shower, monitor for watching movies at night, a fridge to hold your complimentary Canadian wines. VIA did this because it wasn’t attracting the “1 percent,” those who can afford about anything. It costs a bundle, roughly $6,000 U.S. for those four days and four nights. Yet it has proven quite popular, often selling out all eight rooms (two are in the observation car). Between 2014 and 2017, the Canadian’s loss dropped from $55 million to $41 million, and the subsidy per passenger plummeted from $550 to $393. You can credit slightly more riders or the reduced frequency from October to April. But I also credit the Prestige offering. Try it on the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder.

            Daylight departures. Please, Amtrak, don’t show up in the middle of the night. I’ve said this before, but what’s so bad about breaking up the Chicago-New Orleans run by parking the City of New Orleans each way overnight in Memphis? Your hotel room will be part of the fare, and a lot cheaper than a sleeping car. Amtrak could do the same between New York and Miami, overnighting in Savannah. Of course, the present Palmetto does just that north of Savannah, and is it a coincidence that it comes closest to recovering its cost of all long-distance trains?

            The diner, reinvented.  My friend Mike Weinman calls attention to how the German firm Elvetino AG caters food aboard trains between Hamburg, Cologne, Basel, and Zurich: “There are usually 12 cars, with almost 700 seats, and a full diner. The car is open continually, come in any time. A full menu for all three meals is offered, and it can be a snack or a full course affair. You are seated at a table with white tablecloth and silver, a waiter takes your order and quickly delivers it, and then clears your place and takes payment.  How many employees are used? One, or two for dinner. He or she does all this and prepares the food, which is brought on aboard trolleys. The food is cook-chill, individual portions.” What’s not to like about this? Kiss food-service losses good-bye.

            McDonald’s rest rooms. You know what I mean. You don’t think I go there for the Quarter Pounder, do you? Actually, I do, but you can count on something else at McDonald’s. All it takes is a little effort.

            Get rid of the damn thing. That’s right, spin off the long distance network. I’m tired of hearing that’s it’s a money sump. Or that the trains are actually cash cows. Let’s find out. Call it Amtrak Long Distance. You can book a trip through Amtrak.com or Amtrak’s call center. You’d want Amtrak Long Distance to be adequately capitalized and free to make intelligent business decisions. It would certainly lose money, maybe what Amtrak says the network does now. But these trains would be swimming for their lives, and that inspires the imagination of the bosses.

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