Monday, July 13, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

The Northbound AmtrakImage by Rob Shenk via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak; July 13, 2009

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail •

Volume 6, Number 22

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) It’s 10:30 A.M. on any morning of the year, and Amtrak train number 97, the southbound Silver Meteor, is racing southward through Northeast Florida on its way to the barn in Miami, due in the Hialeah/Miami suburb station more than eight hours later. Once the flagship train – complete with the trademark Pullman Sun Lounge – of Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s Silver Fleet, the Meteor is traveling over SAL’s once arch rival’s Atlantic Coast Line main line south of Jacksonville. Today, the Meteor is hosted by SAL/ACL successor CSX.

The Silver Meteor has a baggage car, sleeping cars, full diner, lounge, and coaches. It’s the coach passengers who have that look of quiet desperation, just waiting for their station stop to come so they can get off the train. Orlando, home of Walt Disney World and other Central Florida world-famous attractions is still two and a half hours away. Many of the train’s passengers will detrain at the Orlando station, with visions of Mickey Mouse dancing in their heads. A surprising number of passengers will also board in Orlando, headed south into Florida’s cattle and orange grove country, on the way to South Florida’s Gold Coast and the solid metropolitan area from north of West Palm Beach all the way to Miami and beyond.

The diner has been closed after breakfast for more than an hour, and the lounge car has its typical denizens, some working on their first – or second or third – morning eye-opener. Everywhere you look, passengers and crew look weary. The train and engine crew are fresh, having boarded in Jacksonville for the trip to Miami after a good night’s sleep. The onboard services crew is on the last eight hours of their shift which began several days before at the Miami crew base for their northbound trip to New York City, and the turn to come home on the southbound Silver Meteor. By union contract in these modern times, each of these employees which are designated as safety employees, are entitled to four hours of sleep the previous night. Some get more, some of the sleeping car attendants get less if they have entraining or detraining passengers along the route during their designated sleep periods.

You can look at the coach passengers and easily say to yourself, this group of people needs a bath. The passengers who boarded in New York City at Penn Station have been on the train for more than 19 consecutive hours, the Washington, D.C. passengers 15 hours, and the Richmond, Virginia passengers 13 hours. If the coach was full, these people were trying to sleep with 53 of their new best friends, some sitting next to total strangers, crying or restless children, or fidgeting smokers on a non-smoking train. No one got a good night’s sleep, and this morning, the coach itself looks like it’s been hosting people for the 1,000 miles its traveled. The floors are messy, the trash bins are getting full, and the restrooms could use some attention.

For coach passengers, there are no showers, and the tiny restroom offers some opportunity to clean up a bit, but only if you’re not a large person.

Are we there yet? is written on everyone’s face.

The Silver Meteor’s sleeping car passengers are faring somewhat better. They each had a bed with real linens and blankets and soft pillows for the night, and most passengers took advantage of the gentle rocking motion of the car, pretending they were back in an infant’s cradle. Each sleeping car has a community shower for the roomette passengers, those traveling in full bedrooms have their own individual shower. There is plenty of hot water for bathing and cleaning up, and fresh clothes come out of the suitcases. Upon awakening, coffee or orange juice along with a newspaper was available from the sleeping car attendant to help brace for the day before the full breakfast in the dining car which was included in the price of the sleeping accommodation.

Sleeping car passengers, too, look a bit road-weary, but they can comfortably nap in their private accommodation without worry of someone waking them up, other than for the call to luncheon.

Detraining coach passengers gather their belongings and step off the train relieved to be at their destination. Sleeping car passengers tip the car attendant and gather their bags on the platform and go in search of their local transportation, ready to face the day at their destination.

Does this sound like class warfare? Nah, it’s just the very real difference between traveling on Amtrak in coach or in a sleeping car.

Coach travel is fine for daylight travel if you really like being in a long, silver tub with dozens of other strangers and travelers, just like on an airplane or in a bus.

But, for overnight travel, it’s tough to beat the comforts and conveniences of sleeping cars.

The difference in fares is dramatic. New York City to Orlando on the Silver Meteor for two people in coach, one-way costs a total of $308.00. In a full bedroom, the same two travelers taking the same trip would pay $973.00. Both of these fares are based on summer season travel in August.

There is a huge difference of $665 for the same 21+ hour trip. For the extra cost dinner and breakfast is included, and lunch, too, if you eat quickly enough to finish before the train arrives in Orlando at the scheduled time of 12:55 P.M. You get two beds, a shower, toilet, sink, towels, and all of the other usual comforts of a rolling hotel room, including most importantly the ability to close the door, turn off the light, and go to sleep in a bed with pillows, fresh sheets, and blankets.

Too rich for your blood? Yes, it’s pricey, but Amtrak regularly fills the sleeping cars on the Silver Meteor and its sister train, the Silver Star. In fact, sleeping car business does well on all Amtrak long distance trains, with the full, more expensive bedrooms usually selling out before the smaller roomettes designed for one regular size person or two very small people.

Amtrak, always feeling like it must be proletariat, seldom has placed much emphasis on its sleeping car business, and has always focused on the much less desirable, and lower revenue generating coaches. When calling an Amtrak reservations center, often only coach seats are offered; passengers have to ask about sleeping cars.

VIA Rail Canada, Amtrak’s cold country cousin to the north, however, has always placed a high emphasis on its sleeping car business and offers a variety of sleeping car accommodations choices, ranging from the very old Pullman Company-style open berths to elegant drawing rooms, designed with two lower berths and one upper berth. On VIA, it’s the drawing rooms which sell out first.

Amtrak, as it’s ordering new single-level Viewliner sleeping cars and hopefully planning to order new Superliner sleeping cars, needs to revisit the wonders and many advantages of drawing rooms.

Looking at the demographics of Amtrak’s sleeping car passengers, much of the business comes from middle-aged and older traveling couples, people who want two lower berths in their sleeping accommodation, not one upper and one lower. To make this happen, wealthier passengers often pay for two full bedrooms which open en suite to offer a single space with two lower berths.

Amtrak doesn’t care if two people buy space designed for four people, because the cost to feed four people has been factored into the fare (Money Amtrak keeps without complaining when it only has to feed two people.), and the high revenue from selling two bedrooms instead of one looks pretty good.

Well, actually, it’s not so good, because if that same space had been sold to four passengers instead of two passengers, an additional $234 in rail fare (Amtrak charges sleeping car passengers the lowest bucket rail fares in addition to the accommodations charges for each passenger.) would have been collected. If a new design was hatched for sleeping cars which reshuffled priorities to maximize revenue and passenger satisfaction, each sleeping car would have at least four bedrooms, one drawing room, and perhaps seven or eight roomettes.

When the Viewliners were designed, three basic mistakes were made in this experimental car. First, no public restroom was included in the design. When the toilet facilities in any given room are non-functioning, and all accommodations are sold, passengers either have to impose on the facilities of the car attendant (not a good idea) or go to a restroom in another car. All in all, very inconvenient and unprofessional in the design. Second, instead of the former six full bedrooms which were found in the predecessor Heritage 10 roomette, six bedroom cars, only three full bedroom were included, one being a handicapped room. Third, no drawing rooms with three berths were included.

When the original 10/6 sleeping cars were designed during the World War II era, roomettes for one passenger were primarily designed for traveling businessmen. If a passenger was a midnight sailor and had to make use of the toilet, he had to get out of bed, open the door to the room, and back into the hallway inside of a closed curtain to raise the bed which folded down over the toilet, and then repeat the process to go back to bed. In the Viewliners, smaller beds are used and allegedly passengers can access the micro-size toilet which is not covered by the bed when the beds are in use. This, however, does require a certain knowledge of gymnastics to accomplish that feat.

In the process of all of this, Viewliners have fewer full bedrooms, and more roomettes, which contain two beds instead of one bed as found in the 10/6 roomettes. However, since the overall floor space remains about the same as the old roomettes, trying to squeeze two normal sized adults into this space leaves much to the imagination and to be desired, not to mention you have two people using non-private toilet facilities, which harkens back to some Pullman accommodations on western trains prior to World War II. In the Heritage fleet, as in the fleets of all of the pre-Amtrak passenger railroads, a number of all-bedroom cars were found, offering a choice of bedrooms, drawing rooms, and compartments, but no roomettes.

When Amtrak ordered the Viewliners, only 50 were purchased, replacing nearly double that number of Heritage sleepers, allegedly, again, because Viewliners held more passengers so fewer cars were needed. In reality, Amtrak made a conscious decision to restrict the number of sleepers in its fleet, and have less accommodations for sale overall, thereby restricting sleeping car revenues.

Prior to the arrival of the Viewliners in the mid-90s, it was common for the Florida long distance trains and the Crescent between New York and New Orleans to have five or more sleeping cars per train. Today, five cars have been replaced by two or three sleeping cars per train, with dramatically fewer bedrooms for sale, and fewer roomettes, too.

Let’s stop for a moment and do a quick comparison. Amtrak and its many True Believers, egalitarian to the core and non-believers that those who wish to pay for better accommodations should suffer along with the rest, for years made the claim the company makes more money from coach passengers than from sleeping car passengers. Oh, really? Well, no, it doesn’t.

Let us stick to our same trip model, from New York City’s Penn Station or Orlando, Florida. Just for comparison purposes, using fares quoted today for travel in about a month’s time in August, weigh the income from a full coach with 54 passengers to a full Viewliner sleeping car with all accommodations sold. The fully sold out coach brings in ticket revenue of $8,316. The fully sold out sleeping car brings in ticket and accommodations revenue of $10,433, more than $2,000 more in revenue.

And, yes, each of those sleeping car passengers will consume food in the dining car that’s included in the cost of the accommodation. However, it’s doubtful even the most ravenous group of sleeping car passengers, eating full dinners and breakfasts, will consume $2,000 worth of food.

And, yes, many of those coach passengers will also find their way into the dining car, adding extra revenues. Even if every coach passenger spent a total of $25 on dinner and breakfast in the dining car, they would only spend an additional $1,350, still not adding up to the additional revenue from the sleeping car.

Remember, those sleeping car passengers will have other opportunities (Although limited by Amtrak.) to spend money on the train in for form of alcohol sales in the dining car and alcohol and snacks sales in the lounge car. Plus, travelers in sleeping cars are also more likely to have a higher amount of disposable income to spend on the train in the diner and lounge than coach passengers.

Overall, if Amtrak took a page from the VIA Rail Canada book and understood the high value of sleeping and dining car business, it would be eager to operate more sleeping cars, instead of scoffing at sleepers as something that are somehow unpatriotic to operate because of egalitarian concerns.

2) The ideal train – whether long distance or short distance – has a variety of accommodations. Back in the days prior to Amtrak of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Congressional Service (The Pennsy was the builder and original owner of what is today Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.) between New York City’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station and Washington, D.C., passengers had a choice of coach seats, parlour car seating, or private accommodations in sleeping cars set up for day use. The Pennsylvania recognized not one size fits all for travel accommodations, and a good number of passengers were willing and able to pay additional fares for larger seats in less crowded cars, or completely private accommodations with private plumbing in each accommodation. This wasn’t class warfare, this was a recognition of the marketplace and the proper exploitation of the marketplace for (Gasp!) profit.

Congressional Service trains also had a combination of full dining cars, parlour bar lounges, coffee shop taverns, and grill cars. Depending on the size of the train, time of day operated, or level of service advertised, there were drinking and dining choices appropriate for the service.

Amtrak’s Metroliners had first class seating which was three across: one seat, an aisle, and then two larger than normal coach seats. The Metroliners, which were also originally designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, intentionally recognized the different tastes of travelers, and how accommodations charges could be both profitable and fun.

There is little reason why today’s Amtrak long distance trains cannot have some innovation in coach seating with a few modifications to existing equipment to create a first class/parlour car service with accompanying accommodations charge.

The installation of showers in first class coaches would be a great improvement, and a shower service could either be included in the accommodation price or sold separately onboard by the car attendant when providing towels and bathing articles.

Changing seating from four across to three across is another simple innovation for part of the cars; adding special areas for family travel where five or six seats are clustered together for large groups or families is also an inviting concept.

Adding a self-service food service area, offering 24-hour coffee, cold drinks, and light snacks and perhaps newspapers enhances the experience without dramatically taking away from lounge car sales. Including dining car meals in the price of a first class coach seat adds instant, guaranteed revenue for the dining car and an excellent perk for passengers.

Working on the same principle as for sleeping cars which produce higher revenue for every car carried, first class coach, with fewer coach seats per car, but higher fares for additional parlour car/first class coach seating would serve two excellent purposes: First, those not wishing to spend the costs of full sleeping car accommodations would have a good second choice for travel comfort, and second, fewer passengers in an upscale environment make for a much more pleasant trip overall then being jammed in a long distance coach with 53 of your closest, new best friends.

Coach class could remain for those taking shorter trips or those seeking truly budget accommodations.

3) The idea is to create a broader market for passenger train travel, higher revenues for Amtrak, and a better travel environment.

No one will dispute the annoyance and discomfort of air travel. What was once glamorous has become more than annoying and almost punitive. Today’s air travel is today’s agony. It’s not uncommon for someone to wonder if flying is really “worth it” for all of the hassles one has to go through, from the removal of shoes before you can be allowed to board the aircraft to a total restriction of what you can carry with you on the airplane. Speed does not always trump every other consideration.

Amtrak has a golden opportunity to become the carrier of comfort and convenience, and the carrier of value.

As said before in this space, Europeans are often shocked at the low cost of Amtrak coach travel; if Amtrak chooses to upgrade its service and accommodations offerings, based on how well sleeping car accommodations are sold today, Amtrak has a grand opportunity to become a carrier of first choice instead of a carrier of last choice – or even worse, the forgotten carrier. Amtrak remains America’s best kept secret. Imagine the demand if even a third of Americans knew passenger rail service was available to them.

4) >From Amtrak This Week, that OTHER publication, not to be confused with This Week at Amtrak. Amtrak This Week is the company’s employee news and information publication.

[Begin quote]

July 13, 2009

First Stimulus-Funded Car Returning to Service

Today, President and CEO Joe Boardman, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) and other elected officials were in Wilmington, Del., as the first car refurbished with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act departs Bear Car Shops on its way back to the active fleet.

“The real story today is about people – the Amtrak passengers who will ride in these rehabilitated cars and the workers who are doing a great job bringing them back to life,” said Boardman, noting that the additional seating capacity on its trains will help connect families, further business relationships, and position Amtrak for expected future growth in ridership.

The car, Amfleet II Coach 25103, was built in 1982 but has been out of service since April 2005, when it was damaged in a rail yard accident in Florida. It is the first of 60 Amfleet cars that will be returned to service by early 2011. The Amfleet I and II cars in the project are either being converted, rehabilitated from wreck status or undergoing a Level 3 overhaul. The cost per unit ranges from $615,000 to $1.4 million depending on the level of work being done.

Two additional ARRA-funded projects will put 15 diesel locomotives and 21 long-distance cars back in the fleet over the same time period. The combined cost of the three projects is $91 million.

“An expanded fleet is a critical part of our ability to grow,” said Vice President of Policy and Development Stephen Gardner. “We need these cars as we pursue new service in partnership with states and also to increase capacity along existing routes where demand exceeds what we can currently offer.”

To meet the labor needs of refurbishing and overhauling nearly 100 cars in under two years, the Mechanical department has expanded its force by adding 160 new positions between facilities in Wilmington and Beech Grove, Ind. Competition was extremely high, as the company received 3,200 applications and conducted more than 400interviews to fill the 160 positions.

[End quote]

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J. Bruce Richardson


United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203

Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739

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Dawn Bazely said...

What an excellent article. I have just booked a trip for our family from NY Penn to Ft. Lauderdale on the train, with sleeper accomodation (roomettes), and found your comparisons between Amtrak and Via Rail very interesting. We live in Toronto, and use Via for business travel, mainly to reduce our carbon footprint. Plus, business people use Via in Canada for daytrips because you get a lot more work done on the train than in the airport and planes for short trips! Train travel is also very educational, and our teenaged children will really appreciate the nature of the distance from NY to Florida. However, it's frustrating that finding out about and planning rail travel is so much more challenging than finding flights.
dawn bazely