Trains.com

Amtrak is surveying riders about new Long Haul cars

2185 views
10 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    January 2019
  • 59 posts
Amtrak is surveying riders about new Long Haul cars
Posted by Carl Fowler on Sunday, April 2, 2023 2:33 PM

I received a fascinating email Friday from Amtrak--seeking feedback on new long distance equipment and new potential marketing/operational approaches. More on that in a moment. I'm sharing the parts of the email that don't lead to a dead-end. This was adapted so only the intended participant could complete the questionaire. I have no problem with that--but I still think this deserves to be more widely explored.

So here are salient parts on the email. Only the direct link is omitted, as it will not work:

****************************************************

Dear Carl,

As Amtrak is contemplating important changes to its Long Distance service (trips of 250+ miles), we are now turning to our customers to help us better understand your experiences with our Long Distance service (trips of 250+ miles) so that we can determine what amenities and offerings to include in the future. Northstar Research/HarrisX, an opinion research group, is conducting a survey to that end.

We invite you to submit your feedback by April 3rd, 2023:

Because we value your insights and opinions, you have been selected to participate in this research study. Your comments in this survey are confidential and are extremely important to all of us at Amtrak.

<Inactive URL link to the survey>

Please note that this survey must be taken on a laptop/desktop/tablet because sketches/drawings of future amenities will be presented. It is NOT compatible with mobile devices. It should take approximately 20 minutes of your time to complete.

Receive 1000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points as our thanks for completing the survey. Bonus points will be awarded within 4-6 weeks. You must be an Amtrak Guest Rewards member to receive the points and your email address must match the address associated with your member account. If you are not yet a member, learn more and join the program at Amtrak.com/guestrewards.

Your feedback is crucial in helping us improve our service to you. We sincerely appreciate your time. We thank you for your continued ridership and look forward to welcoming you on board again soon.

Sincerely,

Amtrak Market Research & Analysis Department

30th & Market Streets, Mailbox #11

Philadelphia, PA 19104

***************************************************
Now my comments:

The survey mostly consisted of a series of questions about particular new car designs and how Amtrak might integrate and price services around those designs. There was some very interesting stuff here. Unfortunately I was unable to copy the pages in the design sections--so these basic descriptions are for now the best I can offer. I assure you if I find these sketches elsewhere I will share them.

Possibilities for entry-level coach replacement options ranged from a current-era adaptation of the leg-rest reclining seat coach, as on Amfleet II and the Superliners, to an upgraded overnight coach offering lie-flat bed seats. I have been hoping to see this design adopted by Amtrak (even by immediately retrofitting existing coaches) as a replacement for the lost and deeply missed Slumbercoach bargain priced/high capacity sleeper.

The Queensland Ry in Australia has been offering these lie-flat bed seats on its overnight Brisbane-Cairns Tilt-train (which is a narrow gauge service!) for a few years and the new Night Trains for Norway appear to have a variant included for their new overnight coach design (these cars are just ordered there).

For private rooms the full gambit of contemporary European designs was floated. There were possible single bed rooms, as well as multiple designs for doubles, some including not only spaces with private toilets but also showers. There was even an option for a Deluxe Suite that was almost a hotel option. While no design drawings of these options were provided, there were renderings in graphic sketches for each type of accommodation.

The evaluation process essentially had multiple stages. There are many pages offered and each is dense with real ideas and information.

First reviewers were asked to rank the seat/room designs by desirability and "would you consider this" responses, sometimes on a ranked numbered scale. Then multiple service/price examples were offered to be ranked against price/service/comfort levels. Key here was that the same seat/room designs appeared each time--but at very different pricing points (fares) and included different food service choices. Reviewers were also asked to rank the options against at least two airline seat/price options and against a bus option that I think was inspired by modern Greyhound coaches.

There was a lot to take in in each of these areas and I commend the thoroughness of the process. But there was at least one set of options that never appeared.

Across all of the service comparisons the coach travel choices either included only access (for purchased on-board food) to a cafe/lounge car or via some sort of at seat service and in a few cases no food service in coach at all. This included the lie-flat bed choices. In one or two versions even the least expensive sleeper room had only access to a cafe car. Proper dining car table-service meals would be still an exclusive perk of private room accommodation.

There was no choice offered that might have approximated traditional rail service where everyone could chose--if they wished--to visit a proper diner.

The final "summary" questions at last included a hint a dining car service choices for everyone via an echo of the just opened approach to coach dining on the western long-hauls--paying by the meal at table. Basically these survey questions asked if you, as a coach passenger, would be willing to pay $40, or/ and in a second option, $60 to be able to buy a dinner in the diner.

Sadly, throughout the survey there was a clear bias being expressed regarding food options, for following the current (in my view disastrous) practice of closely limiting/even banning access to the diner by coach passengers and that was a real disappointment.

Also, although more moderately priced options for sleeper accommodations appeared in several scenarios, there were also choices where a long haul sleeper space could have exceeded $3000 (or more) per person. I suspect this was to test the market for something like VIA Rail Canada's "Prestige Class" on the CANADIAN. But the options in these choices were very hard for me to swallow coming from a publicly-supported carrier about to spend on an entirely new publicly-financed fleet.

I do not want to overly bash this survey. Amtrak has some fascinating ideas here--not only for car-design but also for how it provide on-board service and how that should be priced. There was even an illusion to offering some sort of dedicated sightseeing car (grand-daughter of the vista-dome car--I hope?!?). It is very commendable they've reached out at least to Guest Rewards members for advanced feedback on this and it is also very positive that they shared so many service and design ideas.

If you get an opportunity to take this survey do not pass it by if you care about maintaining an truly national Amtrak. Read each page very carefully and pay close attention to the matrix suggested of comfort and price.

Unfortunately the survey does not include a free-form follow-up page for comments and/or further suggestions, but it does ask if you might be willing to talk directly to the survey team. You get a chance if you wish to share an email and/or phone--but this is NOT mandatory.

I hope you say yes.

They need to hear from passengers that America wants a truly national Amtrak that provides sanely priced service options, both in coach and sleeper cars and including quality food service access to all riders.

  • Member since
    June 2009
  • From: Dallas, TX
  • 6,898 posts
Posted by CMStPnP on Sunday, April 2, 2023 3:59 PM

My hope is that Siemens can coach Amtrak Management into making the right choices here as I suspect they are incapable of doing it by themselves.   Secondly I really, really hope they ask the crew members and most importantly the passenger car maintenence workers for features that increase the availabilty of the new cars so they are not sitting months or years on a siding in Indiana because Amtrak is low on funds because it is so expensive to make a basic change or upgrade to their existing rail passenger cars.

If not, then it is time I start price shopping for a private passenger car.

  • Member since
    September 2003
  • 21,535 posts
Posted by Overmod on Sunday, April 2, 2023 4:02 PM

This may be particularly interesting in the context that I believe an 'open comment' period on Amtrak long-distance sleeper options on the Web closed in late March.

I must preface this by saying that they did implore you to keep details of the survey 'confidential', and I would have replied to this via PM only had that option still been available here.  The comments that follow are more general in nature, and only peripherally address the actual alternatives that were brought up.

There will almost certainly have to be two broad types of replacement sleeper: one high-level, but with full current ADA access enablement, and a low-level car almost certainly a derivative of the PRIIA shell and suspension.  Truthfully (as with the Avelia Liberty sets as discussed by Joe and others) there does not need to be any enablement or capability above 125mph, and for high-level cars very likely 110mph, without either active suspension or active elements in the accommodations.

Lie-flat seats will almost certainly be worthless without full 'hover' capability in their bases.

No coach passenger is likely to pay $40 in money for a typical Amtrak meal.  If they were to go to Rocky Mountaineer standards, as in that $3000 or greater accommodation, the interesting possibility arises that the actual food cost for $3000 accommodations, per extra person, might be something that the $60 would cover... the entire cost of the chefs and sous-chefs, the service, and the other details being just as accommodated as on a cruise ship.  Only in that (frankly, unlikely for either Amtrak management or Amtrak current staff) circumstance would the quoted amounts have any particular 'take' for coach passengers.  What I'd tell them to try first is a luxury buffet (as there's no way you're going to adapt fine sit-down dining to coach seating on any sensible basis) on the order of what some fine hotels... or cruise lines... put out for, say, Sunday brunch, with the necessary precautions against food waste and greedy passengers.  The fallback would be an 'upscale' version of something like the Golden Corral model, where you get your plate (adapted for moving-train service) and go back to have portion-controlled amounts put on for you.  They will have to be very, very, very careful with cleanup and disposal, particularly since many passengers are likely to hoard food, and this may be precisely what Amtrak could never achieve competently without major revision or paradigm shift in their staffing.

They do need to look, very carefully, at reasonable multilevel lie-flat "tourist sleeper" accommodations (without the costly isolation tech) on long-distance trains where the clientele travels over one or more nights.  This might actually be as spartan as some of the 'hostel' style proposals that have been floated in Europe and Asia, as I think much of the current demographic is already charged too much for 'transportation' even at current discounted coach rates, and they're just not going to go for a 'business class' capsule sleeper of the kind used on long aircraft trips.

As with the Northeast Regional service, they need to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate on getting the amenities and service details right, and prioritize these over the coming 'design cycle' right up into the 2030s.  If anything, schedule-keeping and ride quality will only decrease over that prospective period, anywhere that Amtrak cannot achieve very direct and very comprehensive track quality and scheduled access over the significant majority of scheduled trips.  And no cruise-line experience -- as some have already noted and many more can be expected to emphasize -- is particularly appropriate for a Government-sponsored 'transportation alternative' that repeatedly, and erroneously, whines that it is in the business of 'transporting' people between actual destinations on a timely and pleasant basis.

  • Member since
    June 2009
  • From: Dallas, TX
  • 6,898 posts
Posted by CMStPnP on Sunday, April 2, 2023 4:03 PM

Carl Fowler
mtrak that provides sanely priced service options

When someone posts that in the Trains reader forums the image that goes through my head is "Waffle House" on rails.     The privately run railroads were smarter than Amtrak and did not need coaching from Congress on how to run an efficient dining car operation.    The dining car offerings matched the class of passenger on the trains.     If the train was considered First Class you had steak on the menu and the upper price points.   If the train was considered Economy you had sandwiches, burgers and the cheaper fare.     Mixed classes had a bit of each.

The difference of course between the private railroads and Amtrak was the private railroads were trying to minimize their dining car losses as a matter of good business.     Amtrak is only attempting to minimize losses because Congress passed a mandate.....and well it is not making much of an effort in that respect.

  • Member since
    June 2009
  • From: Dallas, TX
  • 6,898 posts
Posted by CMStPnP on Sunday, April 2, 2023 4:09 PM

Also, exactly how do "Lie Flat" seats meet ADA requirements?   What does someone do that requires a CPAP machine for example?   Upgrade to bedroom?    Also be curious how they get strangers to lie flat next to each other without at least a significant divider like the airlines use.

 

  • Member since
    June 2009
  • From: Dallas, TX
  • 6,898 posts
Posted by CMStPnP on Sunday, April 2, 2023 4:18 PM

Overmod
No coach passenger is likely to pay $40 in money for a typical Amtrak meal.  If they were to go to Rocky Mountaineer standards, as in that $3000 or greater accommodation, the interesting possibility arises that the actual food cost for $3000 accommodations, per extra person, might be something that the $60 would cover.

I would say $60 to $100 depending on the portion size.    You can get by with slightly smaller portions on a long distance train because there isn't a lot of opportunity to work up an appetite.    Look what Del Frisco charges for 10 person catering.    Granted they do not have the fixed costs a restaurant dining car has but then do we really need that?    Couldn't we just upgrade the warm-up tray concept or does it all have to be prepped from scratch on board (something the Rocky Mountaineer does not do).

https://www.ezcater.com/store/caterer/pvt/7373abce-4fa4-4db3-9e21-b5b08e777569?c=del-friscos-grille-plano

 Before everyone gets excited the $60-100 estimate would be for the upper tier menu offerings certainly we can throw a bone to the Waffle House crowd and keep the $18 Amtrak burger.

  • Member since
    September 2003
  • 21,535 posts
Posted by Overmod on Sunday, April 2, 2023 4:32 PM

The problem that's nonstarting on general Amtrak trains is that, except in very special circumstances Amtrak couldn't possibly hope to achieve, let alone sustain, the diners ran as massive loss-leaders to induce riders to spend their money with particular railroads.  Balt understands this far more instinctively than any of us, because he had a father that successfully understood and practiced how to do it for trains with different clientele 'price points'.

Note that on Pullman trains, many consists offered both formal dining-car service and 'buffet-lounge' service that could readily be adapted to the old 'hotel car' model of service if desired.  We need look no further than Electroburgers to see how the cheaper car arrangement can provide eminently popular service with only a limited range of menu choices that are easy to do well, cheap to remake if necessary, and with minimal waste or other actual eating-and-disposal considerations.

There is nothing even remotely comparable to Waffle House that Amtrak could execute.  They could not even keep tables open for the rolling equivalent of the magic 20, let alone keep up with the turns and maintenance necessary for our no-tooth servicepeople to get each table properly ready after each 20 with the people doing what they do at Waffle House tables.  And this the standards for one of the commonly-recognized least sanitary and most dubious food quality in that segment of the business.

We won't go into the aspects of Waffle House that wouldn't scale well: particularly the steaks.  There's careful attention that needs to be paid to things like the 57 varieties of hash browns in rings, or the proper muddling of cheese eggs, that aren't going to translate to a typical Amtrak diner kitchen... assuming one hasn't already been kludged to reheat microwavable or convection-convenience trays from the freezer.  As it happens, I know in detail what would be necessary to make 'that' trick work... and no Amtrak people are going to make it work, except as something even worse than the common stereotypical disaster.  (And note that I haven't gotten to how the dish machine would be run, or the various kinds of garbage accommodated, or the regular, frequent required cleanings (that so seldom get done) are implemented.

In my opinion it is quite possible to provide a good range of food options on board a train, and also a good range of options ordered via app for pickup and distribution from enroute restaurants and 'ghost kitchens'.  It might even be possible to 'minimize losses' a la PSR by setting hard "minimum" standards that still produce reasonably palatable options popular enough to produce demand.  I think there are plenty of LD passengers who'd be fine with a sack of gray McDonald's burgers if handed to them within 10 minutes of a corresponding stop...

Now, you'll notice that something that is abjectly, pathetically, but quite understandably missing from the survey as reported is what Amtrak proposes to do with food on trains that are delayed enroute, or grossly late, or suffer typical mechanical failures or the usual range of toilet woes.  I have the grim suspicion that a very great number of LD trains will be falling into that category, and all the clever loss-ridden commissary operations or frozen/ad-hoc food 'options' will even begin to help with this... at all.  If I were actually concerned with 'transportation' between two optimal points in available destination pairs, this would be one of the very first, and very most carefully addressed, situations.

  • Member since
    September 2003
  • 21,535 posts
Posted by Overmod on Sunday, April 2, 2023 4:40 PM

CMStPnP
Also, exactly how do "Lie Flat" seats meet ADA requirements? 

The ADA problem is less with the seats as with the aisles (and what can project into them).  The situation is greatly complicated if there is sufficient insulating structure in the car walls, unless the shells can be pushed out to full AAR plate... something that a great many routes or station facilities will not safely or inexpensively accommodate.  All this before the discussion of active-cant-deficiency systems for trains operating in excess of 79mph comes into the discussion somewhere...

I suspect that what you're envisioning is a pull-up partition between two nominal lie-flat seats, to provide both privacy and working 'isolation' between seatmates.  Whether you have a hard pull-up partition or a privacy curtain or screen that pulls down on the aisle is something different.  However, I'm pretty sure that anything that makes any sense to implement is one row per side, angled to reduce the effective seat-track spacing, as NO ONE is going to let the window passenger out to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and ever ever ride the train of stupidity again.  For this purpose, the business-class aircraft seats could be more or less readily adapted, including the necessary active isolation and cant.

  • Member since
    February 2016
  • From: Texas
  • 1,541 posts
Posted by PJS1 on Tuesday, April 11, 2023 8:24 AM
Approximately 85% of Amtrak’s long-distance passengers are in coach.  Most overnight passengers, including those in sleepers, are only on the train one night. 
 
If it were my decision, the long-distance trains would have business class and coach class cars as well as a food service car.  The business class car(s) would have pods like those found on overseas airline flights.  The coach class car(s) would have deep reclining seats. The food service car menu would offer items like those found at Applebee’s, Chilies, McDonalds, etc.
 
The cost (taxpayer subsidies) of the long-distance trains should be as low as possible. Business class pods and deep reclining seats can be adjusted by most passengers, which could reduce the number of on-board service personnel.  The prices in the food service car should cover the cost of the eats and drinks.
 
Whether the new equipment should be single level or bi-level is problematic.  One thing to evaluate, however, is the awkwardness of getting from the lower level to the upper level on the Superliners.  It is a challenge for many people, especially if they want to take their luggage to the upper level. 

Rio Grande Valley, CFI,CFII

  • Member since
    July 2014
  • 565 posts
Posted by Fred M Cain on Thursday, April 20, 2023 11:19 AM

You know, I got e-mails like this - twice - and it sure looked to me like a "phish".  I deleted them.

The way the e-mail address looked, it did not look like it had genuinely come from Amtrak.  Did it really?  Maybe.  If it did, it was my goof.

But if it really did come from Amtrak, they should have set it up so that it didn't look so "phishy".

You have to be careful.  You know, I get these e-mails from time to time that look all the world like they came from Amazon or Pay Pal, or whatever.

"There is a problem with your account that you need to clear up".  Or, words to that effect.  "Just click here".

Right. Then they gotchya ~ !

When I get an e-mail like that, I look at the actual e-mail address and usually it looks goofy.  That tells me that it really did not come from Yahoo!, Pay Pal, Amazon or whatever at all.  It's a phish, that's all.

Caveat Emptor ~ !

  • Member since
    September 2003
  • 21,535 posts
Posted by Overmod on Thursday, April 20, 2023 5:32 PM

Many survey companies that contract to run 'surveys' like this have multiple redirects through some very dodgy URLs.  In part this is to guarantee that the person who received the e-mail is the one answering; in part it is so people can't 'double-dip' (or game the results through many replies) once they've completed the thing.

I have as little to do with Amtrak as I can (other than watching their trains) so I don't expect them to send me a survey.  But I would expect they'd get a company familiar with the mechanics of surveys for government entities to do the market/focus research for them, ensure a decent sample, and crunch the statistics.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy