Overnight coach or first class private bedroom? How about something in between?

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Last week, I discussed the inconsistencies in the level of service that Amtrak terms “business class” across its national network, and how it often fails to meet passengers’ expectations. Business class, however, is only available on shorter-distance trains that travel predominantly during the daytime (with the exception of overnight Northeast Regional trains 66 and 67). This week, I’ll explore several possibilities for improving accommodations on overnight trains, any of which Amtrak or any other company that may operate such trains in the US in the future would do well to consider.

Former New York Central, Northern Pacific and Amtrak Slumbercoach Loch Arkaig, at the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, GA. Photo by Josh Hallett/Wikimedia Commons.
In terms of overnight accommodations Amtrak currently offers (other than coach seating), the problem is not a failure to provide a level of service that is worth an extra fare, but the fact that only one such level of service is available — “first class” private sleeping compartments with full dining car meals included in the fare. (In this case, I am counting Roomettes and Bedrooms as part of the same class of service.) Per night, the extra fare (or “accommodation charge”) for these sleepers is generally higher than the average nightly rate for a hotel room in all but the largest and most visited American cities. While Amtrak coach fares are almost always cheaper than airfares and generally comparable to Greyhound, Amtrak sleeper fares tend to run higher than economy airfares (though considerably lower than first class airfares). 

So when someone who is accustomed to flying for longer-distance trips considers the train and finds the idea of an overnight coach seat unappealing but balks at the fare for a sleeper, he or she is likely to stick with flying. That is, unless he or she is fed up with airport security hassles and ever-shrinking seats and legroom on economy flights. Indeed, I have spoken with many fellow passengers on long-distance trains who decided to try the train because the misery of air travel had surpassed their breaking point.

Nevertheless, Amtrak often fills the bulk of its sleeper capacity, even at the substantial prices it charges, in part due to the limited supply of rooms as the railroad has not been able to acquire new equipment fast enough as ridership has risen. So an infusion of capital funding is necessary before most new concepts in overnight accommodations can be implemented. Before Congress or states put forward such funding, there will have to be consensus around a cohesive vision for a robust future for overnight national-network trains that goes beyond merely keeping the existing skeletal system in place. But that’s a topic for another column, perhaps multiple ones.

Here’s a short list of “novel” concepts for overnight accommodations (in the sense that they are not currently found in regular passenger service in the US). Some revive what used to exist on American trains, and others borrow from innovations in other travel modes, primarily air. It is by no means exhaustive and I welcome your additions and feedback in the comments.

  • Deluxe seats: Call it “business class” if you wish, but there is a segment of overnight travelers who would pay a small up-charge (similar to business class on day trains) for a seat that reclined even more than Superliner coach seats do, with a comfortable legrest, a pillow and a blanket (and perhaps an eye mask), in a car with the lights turned off (other than the bare minimum of lighting needed to make the aisle visible and allow emergency egress). These seats could feature adjustable headrests and adjustable heights, and perhaps something akin to memory foam padding. A car with such seating should also feature 2-and-1 seating.
  • Lie-flat seats on a Gulf Air A320ER. Photo by user Frans Zwart.
    Lie-flat seats: This borrows designs that airlines have already introduced to their business and first class customers, primarily on transoceanic flights. And Amtrak could introduce them without acquiring new equipment, simply by removing existing coach seats — perhaps from the lower levels of some Superliner coaches — and replacing them with three rows of seats that lie flat leaving a few inches between “beds,” with two aisles. Another configuration is for there to be two rows of “beds” perpendicular to the windows, with one aisle. Many passengers would be happy simply with a completely flat seat, a pillow and a blanket. But additions could be made, such as privacy curtains and at-seat entertainment centers, as airlines have. But to keep prices affordable (ideally, no more than $50 per night on top of the base rail fare), meals should not be included in the fare for lie-flat seats.
  • A typical European six-berth “couchette” compartment, seen on the CityNightLine. Photo by Fredrik Tellerup/Järnvä, via Wikimedia Commons.
    Shared compartments: This is a standard for economy sleepers in many other countries: compartments with four or six beds each, shared by randomly assigned strangers, generally of the same sex (unless a passenger pays the fare for all four or six beds in order to reserve a compartment for him or herself). There would likely be enough passengers who would sacrifice the privacy of their own compartment in order to save money. And the provisions in these sleepers could be bare-bones compared to the current sleepers (in most cars with large compartments, the bathrooms and shower are down the hall, with perhaps just a sink in each compartment), though beds would still have to be turned down. Perhaps Amtrak could experiment with selling the berths in a certain number of Roomettes or Bedrooms separately, at a steep discount, to passengers willing to share a room with a stranger. I, for one, would be willing to share a room with a stranger, particularly if there were an online service that would allow potential train-roommates to connect with one another based on their origin, destination and date of departure.
  • Open sections on a 1920s-era heavyweight sleeping car. Photo from “Trips Into History//Historic Sites.”
    Open sections: This type of accommodation was common on many US railroads’ trains in the heavyweight and streamliner eras, and can still be found on some of VIA Rail Canada’s trains. These feature two facing seats surrounding a window on either side of an aisle that are completely open during the day, but at night, the two seats fold down into a bed, and another bed comes down from on top, with curtains for privacy. Each berth can easily be sold separately, as it is not like sharing a compartment with another passenger, and the upper berth usually sells for less due to the lack of a window and the greater difficulty in accessing it (traditionally via a ladder that extends into the aisle). I found an open section lower berth on VIA Rail’s Canadian to be just as comfortable and private-feeling as an Amtrak Roomette, and VIA prices section berths similarly to Amtrak’s Roomettes.
  • Slumbercoaches: These were part of the Heritage sleeper fleet from predecessor railroads that Amtrak continued to operate into the 1990s. They were the highest-capacity sleeping cars ever operated in regular revenue service in the US, and fares were only slightly more than coach. They were particularly popular on the New York-Florida trains, all the way until they were retired from service. They consisted of small single-person compartments staggered so that some were on the high level (two or three steps up from the aisle) and some on the low level. Despite their small size, each compartment contained a toilet and a wash basin. Future railcar builders could adapt the Slumbercoach design to any number of configurations to maximize capacity — thus allowing for lower fares (perhaps with the option of paying more to bundle in dining car meals).

One of the beauties of trains is that they can carry a wide array of passengers in different types of accommodations paying different fares on the same highly efficient vehicle, sharing the same dining, lounge and observation cars. Adding a greater variety of overnight accommodations at different price points further leverages the train’s unique advantage over other forms of ground transportation: that they allow one to sleep comfortably and do any number of things while in motion that are difficult to do in a car or on a bus.

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