Amtrak's Business Class too often isn't worth the extra fare

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Let’s pretend that you have little or no experience with train travel in the United States and you’re booking a trip on Amtrak’s website. You’re given a choice between “Reserved Coach” and “Business Class” (for $20 to $50 on top of the base fare). What kind of accommodations and perks would you expect to get for that extra fare? Perhaps a bigger, more comfortable seat with more legroom? Perhaps 2-and-1 seating, giving a solo traveler the option of not having a seat mate? Maybe some food or beverage included in the fare? Maybe priority boarding, or the ability to reserve a specific seat when booking? 

2-and-1 Business Class section of an Amfleet I cafe car on a Wolverine train on January 25, 2012. Photo by user Seat 2A.
Amtrak, in fact, offers all of these perks to those willing to pay the up-charge for Business Class (hereinafter BC, for brevity’s sake) — just not uniformly on every train on which BC is offered. The only guarantees that are given to BC passengers systemwide are a roomier seat (the degree to which it is roomier than a standard coach seat varies, though), at least one complimentary beverage, a few extra Amtrak Guest Rewards points, and the ability to cancel the reservation any time before scheduled departure for a full refund. Beyond that, however, the level of accommodation offered on-board and in the station to BC passengers varies widely by route. (Note: I am largely excluding Acela Express from this discussion, as its base class of service is termed “Business Class” and an upgrade is available to First Class, which includes full at-seat meal and beverage service, plus newspaper.)

On the New York-Charlotte Carolinian, BC passengers have at-seat complimentary (non-alcoholic) beverage service from an attendant assigned to the BC car, a newspaper and a pillow. On the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver Cascades, BC passengers are assigned seats upon checking in at the station and are each given one coupon for a complimentary beverage in the Bistro car (including alcohol), and enjoy 2-and-1 seating, as do “Pacific Business Class” customers on the San Diego-Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo Pacific Surfliners, where BC seats are similar to those once used on Acela Express. On Illinois, Missouri and Michigan corridor trains (and, as of November, the Hoosier State), BC offers 2-and-1 leather-upholstered seating in half of the cafe car, and permits each passenger one complimentary non-alcoholic beverage by displaying his or her ticket to the cafe car attendant. The same is true on the Boston-Portland-Brunswick Downeaster, the Washington-St. Albans Vermonter, and the New York-Savannah Palmetto.

However, on every Amtrak train that serves New York Penn Station other than Acela Express, Carolinian and Palmetto, BC feels like a bit of a rip-off. Unless you’re lucky enough to be on a train where BC is 2-and-1 seating (which includes most upstate New York trains and the overnight Northeast Regional formerly known as the Night Owl or Twilight Shoreliner, trains 66 and 67), the seats aren’t that much more comfortable or roomier than in Reserved Coach. Yes, your BC ticket entitles you to at least one complimentary beverage, but you must walk to the Cafe Car to get it by showing your BC ticket to the attendant. (Upstate New York trains that do not travel north or west of Albany lack on-board food & beverage service, so no included drinks). Complimentary newspapers and pillows are hardly ever available on these trains. Yet the up-charge for BC on a Northeast Regional (or Empire Service, Maple Leaf, Ethan Allen, Vermonter or Pennsylvanian) is roughly the same as that for BC on the Carolinian, which offers many more amenities to BC customers.

Interior of the type of Amfleet I Business Class car typically used on Northeast Regionals and other East Coast trains. Photo: Ben Schumin/Wikimedia Commons
There are also some stations where a BC ticket entitles you to access to an exclusive lounge, including Raleigh, Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles — but not Washington, Philadelphia, New York or Boston. And priority boarding is offered to BC customers at some stations, but not others.

It is clear that the discretion that the states that sponsor short-distance Amtrak services outside the Northeast Corridor exercise over service quality issues accounts for much of the variability in BC amenities throughout the national passenger train network. This also partly explains the presence of BC on some corridor trains and its absence on others, such as the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins and Adirondack. But Amtrak should make more of an effort to make BC truly worth paying extra fare for, particularly on Northeast Regionals, which do not enjoy state support (other than those that serve Virginia). 

After trying it once, I never again have upgraded to BC on a Regional — even using a Free Upgrade Coupon from Amtrak Guest Rewards — because it is simply not worth it. If a BC ticket on a Regional gave me a newspaper, pillow, at-seat beverage service and access to ClubAcela lounges, then I might consider it worth the price. It would be even better if BC on Regionals always offered 2-and-1 seating and the ability to reserve a specific seat when booking, as on most airlines.

Of course, making Business Class worth the extra fare is only one way in which on-board offerings on America’s passenger trains are in great need of innovation. There is no reason why there can’t be multiple classes of service on any given train — Amtrak passengers are usually only offered two choices: Coach or Business, Coach or First Class Sleeper (on long-distance trains), and Business or First Class (on Acela). In my next post, I’ll discuss some ideas for different kinds of more affordable overnight accommodations

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