Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson
This is a tale of two long distance Amtrak trains that are having “experiments” play out on them this summer and into this fall. One is a positive and the other is a huge negative. Just how these experiments are going is yet to be finally determined, but it doesn’t take much guessing to draw some conclusions.
This writer has several areas of primary interest, as you have no doubt realized if you have followed previous writings, revolving mostly around the Amtrak long distance trains. The RailPAC board is to be complimented for creating the position of VP Long Distance Development, with long time VP South James Smith filling that position. James is highly qualified, as he travels frequently on these trains, knows many of the crews and station workers, and has contributed to this report.
Trains 11/14, the Coast Starlight
The West Coast’s premier passenger train, the Coast Starlight, has been traveling between Los Angeles and Seattle daily since 1971. Oh, the first few years the schedule varied from tri-weekly, but it has been daily most of its life. As for current on time performance, the Starlight has been doing better than the other western trains. In June, 2015, its endpoint OTP was 71.7%. That compares with 1.7% for the California Zephyr, 10% for the Southwest Chief, and 36% for the Sunset Limited. An interesting comparison finds the Empire Builder at just under 36% is doing better this year after having a horrible OTP last year. Storms, washouts, heat, railroad summer track maintenance, human and animal fatalities, and the usual Amtrak maintenance failures all have contributed to late trains crossing the mid-western U.S. See http://www.railpac.org, The Unreported Meltdown on the Route of the California Zephyr by Noel Braymer.
This summer Amtrak announced some enhanced services for the Starlight. “Business Class” upgrade is now available as an option for Coach travelers until the “experiment” ends September 30. There are only 12 reserved seats available on each train, in the lower level of Car 11 where the video games were. That option includes access to the Pacific Parlour car but only for the wine and cheese tasting; access to the Metropolitan Lounges in Los Angeles Union Station and Portland; a $6 food & beverage coupon good in the Dining Car, Sightseer Lounge, or Parlour Car (the wine and cheese costs more than that); and complimentary Wi-Fi access. That sounds good, but is hardly an attraction for other than short-day travelers, as many of the longer-day riders now reserve one of the Roomettes and have full access to the items mentioned. The new business class fares start as low as $39 one-way between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and $172 between LAUS and Seattle. While this business class could free up some more roomettes, it must be seen if this inducement will succeed.
On July 17 a rider on the southbound Starlight leaving San Jose wrote, “They just made the lunch reservation announcement and one of the offerings for coach passengers is lunch at your seat.” A check of the Amtrak summer timetable shows that the Starlight is the only train that lists “at-seat meal service upon request” for Coach passengers. While that service has always been available for handicapped passengers, we found that the rider mentioned above had found something new. James Smith reports that it is a two-month experiment that is only publicized on board the train. A special meal, for all Coach passengers only, can be ordered and delivered to the rider. A $9 box lunch of a BLT, with chips and pickle, and an $11 dinner box of a Salisbury steak with a small salad, are available. We have heard that these meals may change daily, with a grilled cheese sandwich as an option, although those have always been an option on the Childrens’ menu (and available only to children). Food service has returned to the Pacific Parlour car, with two choices again available (short ribs is one), after that service was dropped in the springtime economy crunch. These revenue enhancing ideas are commendable, and regular readers know that this writer has thundered for BLTs and Grilled Cheese options for everyone in the Dining Car. While this “experiment” lasts only for two months, and will be tried on the Southwest Chief next month, it’s a step in the right direction. The Starlight has suffered a decline in revenue since the Parlour Car was downgraded. Now all they have to do is let people know about it; it’s well and good that these experiments are offered to folks who already are riding, but apparently will disappear before new riders can be attracted.
Train 91/92 the Silver Star
At least all Coast Starlight riders, whether in the Coaches or the Sleeping Cars, still have access to the Dining Car at meal times, to order off the regular menu. That is not true on the New York to Florida Silver Star. Instead of having inducements such as are on the Starlight, the Star’s Dining Car was removed entirely in a six-month “experiment,” with riders only having the Sightseer Lounge menu items for purchase. In exchange, Sleeping Car fares have been reduced. While a second lounge car attendant is on most of the trains, it is a bad idea for the riders. Most of the people riding on this train reserved their spaces before this change was announced, have had their e-tickets, and are looking forward to their trips. That’s particularly true of those who want to go to the Tampa Bay area, as this is the only train that serves that area. While the bean counters in Amtrak’s DC HQ feel this is a legitimate “experiment” to compare what happens on the Star with the results on the Silver Meteor which runs parallel, to Miami but not Tampa Bay. Are the costs comparable? For one thing, the Meteor runs with more sleeping cars. They must check to see when the ticket was purchased when they evaluate this deal. What have passengers said about this surprise which they discovered upon boarding the train and encountered long lines in the Lounge with its very restricted menu? One writer suggested a better name for the train would be the “Junk Food Star.” Gene Poon sent a comment from a lady who rode from North Carolina to Florida on the Star, and said the lack of food was a “real bummer” and although there was “stuff” in the café car, the line was long, the service was strained, and the food was not good, so next time she will fly. Poon says, “Scratch one passenger.” Another writer suggested that since Amtrak’s long distance trains are “hotels on wheels” the dining car must be restored, and like many hotels in this country and in Europe Amtrak should offer free breakfast to ALL passengers.
Is Amtrak listening? Apparently someone who is a disciple of Amtrak’s retired VP Brian Rosenwald, the founder of the original enhancements on the Coast Starlight, came up with the “experiments” for that train and should be promoted, but whoever came up with the elimination of the Dining Car on the Silver Star should be relegated to counting the beans somewhere else as soon as possible. Unfortunately, those positives on the Starlight will likely disappear in a cloud of 14 reasons of why they “failed.” But, the Silver Star experiment is “too big to fail,” so to show Congressional critics that they are doing meaningful cost reductions, that Dining Car will be history. The precedent is set and as this writer commented in the last writing that we should watch out for what comes next. Will riders and/or advocates be consulted about changes under consideration or be asked for new ideas? HA. Have they ever? We will keep pounding away here, and hopefully the Amtrak long distance trains will someday get the support their financial status proves is the only service that truly deserves more support. As Andrew Selden has factually pointed out, those few long distance trains produce each year half-again the annual output of passenger transport as the entire Northeast Corridor, have a higher load factor and nearly double the market share of the NEC where the capital requirement achieves a negative rate of return.
Russ Jackson is Editor Emeritus of the Rail Passenger Association of California, and while he lives in Texas now still rides and writes whenever possible.