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By Andrew Selden

“This train has got the disappearin’ railroad blues,” wrote Steve Goodman in 1971, and Joe Boardman evidently has set out in 2015 to prove Goodman right.

The CNO, Amtrak trains 58 and 59, connects Chicago and New Orleans via Memphis and Jackson. This is a route with a rich history and a strong, natural traffic flow. I-55 carries the great majority of that traffic, and the airlines offer about 800 seats a day each way on end-point non-stops (and thousands more on multi-stop and intermediate point itineraries). Amtrak provides about 200 coach seats and 50 first class berths on its once-a-day service, fewer seats than two A-320 or 737 departures. This train averages about 164 passenger miles per train mile.

Amtrak, however, has created a service in the CNO that is certain to fail.

The train offers too few seats and berths either to accommodate latent demand (Amtrak does not advertise or promote the train, and does not add cars to sold-out trains) or—more importantly—to generate sufficient revenue to justify the effort to run this train and maintain its several terminals.

According to Amtrak, in FY2014, the CNO generated $22 million in revenue. No one–including Amtrak—knows what its costs were because Amtrak’s cost accounting systems don’t track and report any route’s actual costs; rather, they collect system costs into category national aggregates and then allocate the totals back out to each route based on management assumptions. This system is notoriously inaccurate. Amtrak still hasn’t released its 2014 annual report due to accounting irregularities, and its financial officers have emphasized in the past that reported route costs are “not additive” (meaning that the total is less than the sum of the stated parts). Amtrak’s make-believe accounting system assigned more than $46.5 million in system costs to the CNO in FY14.

A train with only three coaches and 1 ½ sleepers cannot hope to earn enough revenue to cover its costs, whatever they might be.

So structurally the train is doomed. But Joe Boardman has gone the extra mile to seal its fate by instituting a food “service” on the CNO that is certain to drive away its most lucrative passengers, the ultra-high revenue sleeping car passengers.

The average trip length on this train is 443 miles, about two-thirds the western average, because the train’s itinerary is much shorter than average. Both trains run overnight between Chicago and Memphis, and part of a day south of Memphis. Northbound, the schedule covers dinnertime and a truncated breakfast; southbound, breakfast and a truncated lunch. Meals are included in sleeping car fares, and the timetable promises “Full meal service” in the dining car.

Amtrak breaks that promise on every trip.

To provide food service on the CNO, Amtrak runs a “Cross Country Café” car (“CCC”), which is a former dining car hull that was rebuilt in 2010 into a diner/snack bar configuration. The dining car galley on the lower deck was left as-is. (The Sightseer Lounge car on the CNO is unstaffed, and the crews have appropriated its lower deck snack bar and seating area as their own crew lounge). The snack bar end of the CCC car sells the usual assortment of snacks and beverages, and is staffed with a single employee, who is rarely very busy.

While many have criticized the design of these CCC cars, the issue with their use on the CNO is not the car but its staffing. To serve dinner and breakfast on #58, and breakfast and lunch on 59, Amtrak is now assigning just one employee to do everything: greet and seat passengers, provide and explain menus, take orders, set and clear tables, microwave and plate meals (in the galley), serve meals (up and down the stairs many times), collect payment from coach passengers, make adjustments for passengers who have complaints, procure and serve alcoholic beverages from the snack bar end of the car, and do the necessary record-keeping with meal checks and inventories. On many trips, when passenger loads meet or exceed the average, one employee, despite heroic effort, simply cannot accomplish this. The result is terrible service, combined with mediocre food served on cheap throw-away dishes and glassware. The snack bar employee provides no assistance to the dining car employee; occasionally, the sleeping car attendant will step back into the diner and help clear and re-set tables.

The “Full meal service” promise is further compromised by the highly truncated second meal on each train. To enable the by-then exhausted employee to leave the train immediately upon arrival at its endpoint, food service usually is suspended 90 minutes or more before arrival. Thus, breakfast on #58 consists of a “continental” breakfast where the only passenger choice is of juice and the selection of one of three cold cereals. This is NOT a “Full meal service” as promised, or paid for. A similarly abbreviated and limited “lunch” is offered on 59 approaching New Orleans.

This frustration of passenger expectations is certain to deter repeat business. Worse, passengers (who have paid Amtrak’s amazing sleeping car fares, in part in the expectation of enjoying “Full meal service” in a dining car) who are not familiar with Amtrak’s other dining cars are likely to generalize their miserable “meal” experience on the City of New Orleans into a perception of the dining car experience on other Amtrak trains, and share those perceptions with all of their friends.

Amtrak, in other words, has gone to considerable lengths with the CNO to tarnish and disparage its own brand, and thus drive away the repeat business upon which any organization depends for its survival. The City of New Orleans in particular will die a slow death under this scheme, as sleeping car passengers in particular decide to stay away and not return to the train for their next trip, on this route and possibly others as well.

There is an old adage in business that the farmer cannot prosper by starving his horse in order to manage feed costs. Evidently, Joe Boardman has never learned that lesson.

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