How to accentuate train travel’s singularity

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Amtrak announced the retirement of its lone surviving dome car, the former Great Northern Railway Great Dome dubbed Ocean View, from its fleet last month. To mollify disappointed passengers who were looking forward to the dome’s annual thrice-weekly autumnal appearance north of Albany on the New York-Montreal Adirondack, one of the most scenic routes in the east, the passenger carrier’s press release promised that the Adirondack would soon be reequipped with new coaches offering larger windows. 

Panorama inside a Superliner Sightseer Lounge car on one of Amtrak's western overnight trains, taken March 4, 2012. Photo by user Hitchster.
Preferably, mid-20th-century dome cars would be refurbished and maintained in service as they are in Canada. Nevertheless, it is good to see Amtrak acknowledging how central the viewing of the passing landscape is to the train travel experience — it is a key to what makes riding a train more enjoyable than flying, driving and riding a bus. Passenger railroads, Amtrak especially, often seem to lose sight of what is special about their product and do little to build upon train travel’s inherent strengths.

As Amtrak and the states that support much of its short-distance service consider and plan the design elements they will ask manufacturers to incorporate into their next orders of passenger railcars, I offer some suggestions from the perspective of a frequent train rider who appreciates what makes train travel uniquely attractive.

Short-distance/daytime trains would benefit from:

  • Big undivided windows and no seat without a window: Some of my favorite coach cars to travel in are the state-owned 1960s-built and 1990s and 2000s-refurbished coaches used on North Carolina’s Piedmont corridor, the Talgos used on the Amtrak Cascades, and VIA Rail Canada’s stainless steel and LRC fleets. All of these boast large windows without the vertical partition down the middle that is present on the vast majority of Amtrak’s cars (Amfleet, Superliner and Viewliner). Some of the Piedmont and LRC coaches have a window for each seat, unlike most Amtrak coaches, in which some seats are misaligned with windows. The windows on Siemens’ newest coaches, used by Brightline, are not as large, but are more pleasant to view through than Amfleet windows.
  • A more comfortable, inviting cafe car or dinette with ample lounge space: A worthy model is the Cascades Talgos’ Bistro car, whose warm atmosphere invites passengers to linger and relax, unlike the comparatively drab and industrial atmosphere of Amfleet cafe cars. On busy Northeast Regionals and other corridor trains, space in the cafe car is at a premium. This should indicate passengers’ desire to have a ‘third space’ on a train in which to spread out, enjoy a meal or drinks, and not feel confined to a coach seat.
  • Interior of one of the Piedmont corridor coaches owned by the State of North Carolina, taken in 2014. Photo by Jonathan Hinely.
    Ergonomically designed seats: Coach seats should better fit the contours of the body and offer adequate cushioning so that one does not feel sore after an hours-long ride. The average coach seat on VIA Rail’s Corridor is more comfortable than the average Amtrak seat. Headrests should make it comfortable to sleep or nap sitting up and there should be enough room to stretch one’s legs out (particularly those who are long-legged like me) beneath the seat in front of you.
  • Ability to reserve a specific seat upon booking: This requires changes and/or upgrades to the reservation system rather than physical changes to the design of coaches. Despite that the presence of multiple en-route stops makes this a bit more complex than it is with airlines, current technology should make advance seat reservation possible. This would smooth the boarding process and make sure most passengers get the kind of seat they want. On many Amtrak trains, crews tend to sit passengers traveling to the same destination together in clusters for the crew’s own convenience. Ideally, the passenger’s preference should be given greater weight — not just as to window or aisle or front, middle or rear of the car, but also as to which car to sit in — closer to the locomotive(s) or closer to the rear of the train.
  • Fast, reliable WiFi: I know railroads are working on this, but on-board WiFi on most trains is frustratingly slow and unreliable, even in urbanized areas where there is good cellular data coverage like along the Northeast Corridor. Wireless network speed and coverage are sure to improve with time, and it shouldn’t be as high a priority as the other features discussed here, but Internet connectivity is important to many travelers.

For long-distance/overnight trains, I would recommend:

  • Example of a type of lie-flat seat that could be installed in a passenger railcar, taken in 2010. Photo by Jason Lawton /
    Various types of sleeping accommodations at different price points, from lie-flat seats to sections to solo roomettes to luxury rooms with double-sized beds. Currently, American overnight passengers’ only choices are coach seats or two types of private sleeping accommodation that are most often as expensive as, or more costly than, first-class flights between the same city pair. There are many kinds of travelers with many tastes and budgets and overnight trains are capable of accommodating them all. Some just want to be able to lie down flat but don’t care about privacy or amenities, while others want to treat themselves to an all-inclusive package and top-quality accommodations. The same vehicle can cater to all these demands and more.
  • A malleable, comfortable food service car that can handle multiple kinds of economical dining configurations, all offering hot meals and plenty of fresh, healthy menu choices, including more than one vegetarian or vegan option. Passenger carriers shouldn’t let their food service car’s design preclude future improvements to food offerings as the technology for cost-effectively stocking, storing and cooking/heating food while retaining freshness and consistency improves. While I am personally a fan of the traditional dining car with community seating and meals cooked on board, I realize that this isn’t everyone’s preference. Carriers should be able to experiment with various types of offerings without it feeling like a cheapening of the experience that many have grown accustomed to. All of a train’s dining options should always be available to both coach and premium-class passengers, all of whom should have the option of having it included in the ticket price (for an extra charge) or not. The cafe/snack car doesn’t necessarily have to be separate from the dining car.
  • A longe car, separate from the food service car(s), with plenty of space for both socializing, playing card and board games, and enjoying the scenery. A dome car would be ideal, but short of that, wrap-around window cars like those made by Colorado Railcar used on the Alaska Railroad and Rocky Mountaineer would do nicely. Lounge and observation car design should take maximal advantage of the experience of landscape and easy camaraderie that train travel offers. One possibility is to revive the idea of a rear-end observation car.
  • Coaches with deep-reclining seats, individual window shades, and night lighting that sufficiently illuminates the aisle without disturbing sleep. These could be similar to the daytime coaches described above, but with more legroom and more recline. It should be possible to sleep in a reclined seat without feeling sore and crooked the next morning.
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