By Noel T, Braymer
Good service runs the gambit from basic to extraordinary. At its most basic level, rail passenger service should pick up people near where they are and take them where they want to go, when they want to go and bring them back when and where they want. We have a long way to go to fulfill that basic level of service in this Country. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Nashville,Louisville and Columbus are all major cities without rail passenger service. As of now Palm Springs, Tucson and Houston have rail passenger service: 3 times a week. To get more people to ride the train, you need to provide rail service when and where people want to travel. If a person needs to be somewhere by 9 AM and the nearest a train arrives is at 9:15 AM, train travel is not a viable option.
Frequent rail service is the best way to serve the most people at times they want to travel. Not only do passengers want a train to arrive at the time they want, but also to leave at the best time as well. It has been noticed for some time that running trains late at night while not carrying many passengers, assure passengers they won’t be stranded if they miss their preferred train. When late night trains have been cut to save money in the past, ridership on the other night trains dropped. When frequencies are increased on a rail service, ridership often goes up. But when service is cut back, ridership often falls more than expected. For long distance trains daily service is the minimum service that should be expected. Less than daily service doesn’t save money because overhead cost are generally the same for both but revenues are lower with less than daily service compared to daily service. Three daily trains is optimum service on most long distance routes, while for regional services frequencies depend on the needs of the market.
Of course frequent service doesn’t work if the trains are not on time or aren’t running at all. The Capitol Corridors service has frequent service running between San Jose-Sacramento with the best on-time performance of any train on Amtrak. It also has some of the shortest scheduled station stops and faster running times than most Amtrak trains. The Capitol Corridor’s secret to their success is simple. They spend extra money upgrading the tracks their trains run on and pay attention to the maintenance of the trains they run. The Capitol Corridor Joint Power Agency which oversees the Capitol Corridor service pays the Union Pacific extra money to maintain the tracks their trains run on to a high level. The State of California owns the train equipment used on the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin Trains. Amtrak is under contract to repair and maintain this equipment. But the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Agency has a major oversight role insuring these trains are maintained and in good shape. Good maintenance prevent problems for the trains that cause delays and breakdowns.
A common problem, at least in this county on trains are problems with heating, air conditioning and toilets. Even if your train is going when and where you want to go, its not much of a service if the car is too hot, too cold or the toilets are not working. Many of these problems go back to poor preventive maintenance for trains in this country. Often with Amtrak, it is the lack of communications between departments. Often problems with equipment are reported repeatedly by on board crews, only to be ignored at the yard and have the equipment put back in service without fixing the problems time and time again.
When people travel, particularly by train one size doesn’t fit all. For some people the trip is as important, if not more important than the destination. Ships, planes and trains have long offered different classes of services for those willing to pay more for more room, quieter spaces and more personal service. This is good business because this increases revenues for passenger services when done right. Premium service usually include larger, more comfortable seating and easier access to food service. Often these includes more personal service with attendants. A major part of premium service is enhanced food service. Eating at restaurants is as much or more about presentation and entertainment as nutrition. Even McDonald’s and many other fast food places often offer playgrounds to entice their younger customers to eat there with their parents and offer toys with their meals. Atmosphere at popular and successful restaurants is at least if not more important as the food that is served. So it needs to be for successful food service on trains.
Recently I found on YouTube a three minute video called “Experience the Refurbished Enterprise Train”. It was in fact a 3 minute commercial for the train service in Ireland between Dublin and Belfast. This train runs roughly the same distance as between Los Angeles and San Diego and serves an Island with a population of just over 6 million people. This is about the population of Orange and San Diego Counties combined. The point of this video was to show the improved service for this relaunched service in 2015 staring with a complete overhauls of the 1997 trainsets with a new paint scheme, redone interiors, improved electronic on-board signage and more. A major point of this video was the high level of service for a train with many business travelers. Much of this centered around improved food service. This included a full meal service dining car with meals brought to your table. The video included a scene of a chief preparing meals on the train. This for a service with a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. It would be difficult to find anything close to this for rail corridor service anywhere in this country. Most of the week the Irish Enterprise train service runs 8 trains a day. There is discussion of expanding this to hourly service.
For Long Distance Rail Passenger service, this country still has some of the longest routes in the World. Food service on these trains is a necessity, not an option. This is particularly true of sleeping car passengers. Sleeping car passengers often travel longer distances and transfer between trains. A major attraction for train travel for sleeping car passengers is to enjoy high levels of passenger service. Also when spending 2 to 3 days and nights at a time on a train for up to 8 or 9 meals, the food can get monotonous without variety on the menu between trains. Food service on Long Distance Trains in this country was rarely expected to make money by itself in the past. But high standards of food service was central to the railroads in the past to attract high end passengers to 1st class service and in general to give an excellent public image of the railroads to the general population.