By Noel T. Braymer
There are several levels of service in any form of travel. A person traveling on business often wants a hassle free trip that starts in the morning and gets them home at night in time to be able to sleep in their own bed. For many people cost is a major issue and they will shop around for the lowest price no matter how long the trip takes. In between these there are also people for whom enjoying the trip is as much or more important than the destination. In the golden age of steam powered passenger liners before jet age passenger planes, these ships catered to several markets and offered several levels of service. Steerage passengers paid the least but were a major market for steamers crossing the Atlantic at one end. But the ocean liners also competed with other companies for customers willing to pay extra for the comforts of a hotel suite on a trip over the oceans at the other end with other choices in between. Most people today who travel on cruise ships do so not so much to go someplace, but to enjoy an out of the ordinary experiences while traveling.
Commercial airliners usually offer 2 or three classes of service. The main difference between classes is how comfortable your seat is and how quickly you can get on and off the plane. Buses today rarely have more than one class of service, but sometime offer prices to a few as low as $1 dollar for a trip. Intercity rail passenger service in this country has long served several markets on many routes. These markets not only differ in origin and destination, but also in why people want to travel by train. For a person unable or unwilling to drive, long distance trains are one of the few surface transportation options to places that don’t have air service. My first long distance train trip was from California to visit several cities on the east coast in winter. I didn’t want to drive, particularly in winter so I took the train, and it had a major impact on my life.
Rail passenger service carries passengers who have several reasons for traveling. But all passengers appreciate a good experience when they travel. Before World War 2 American railroads didn’t make a lot of money carrying passengers. But not only did many railroads take pride in their level of on board passenger service, but they realized that good service increased the revenues of their longer distance trains as well as it improved their image with the public. Railroads also discovered that ridership on their trains increased as they marketed new places to travel in areas that most people had never gone before. The person who helped the railroads the most to increase their passenger revenues with improved passenger service was Fred Harvey.
Fred Harvey came to the United States in 1853 from England at the age of 17. His first job when he arrived in New York was working in a restaurant, starting as a busboy and raising up the ranks to become a line cook. He worked over the years in a variety of jobs and as well with businesses that he owned. He more or less settled in the American West in Kansas. He made much of his early fortune working as a traveling agent/salesman for clients in Kansas such as local newspapers getting major companies to buy advertising space with the papers he represented. During this time he spent much of his time traveling on trains. It wasn’t until 1873 that he got into the railroad restaurant business. At this time there were no dining cars on trains. The trains would stop for a meal break at a station with a restaurant contracted to serve passengers for that railroad.The food and service at these railroad restaurant was generally bad.There were cases of restaurants deliberately serving the food late giving passengers little time to eat before getting back on their trains.These restaurants would then recycle the leftover food for the next batch of passengers coming on the next train.
From the first Fred Harvey stressed good service and good foods at a good price at his restaurants. He would jump off trains to run to his station restaurants to inspect them before the passengers arrived. If the restaurant wasn’t up to his standards, he wouldn’t allow his restaurant to open until it was. He would insure his restaurants always have fresh hot coffee and served pies cut in quarters and not in slices of eight. He is best known for his long relationship starting in 1876 with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Fred Harvey was not only in charge of the ATSF train station restaurants, but also much of the on-board dining car service and finally with hotels serving ATSF stations. It can be said that Fred Harvey and later after his death in 1901, the Fred Harvey Company created the hospitality industry in the United States. What the ATSF wanted were more passengers riding their trains, particularly passengers with the leisure and income for long trips.
Central to this was the construction of resort hotels by the Fred Harvey Company for passengers riding on the ATSF. During this time many people traveled to new National Parks like the Grand Canyon on the ATSF and often stayed at Fred Harvey hotels and ate at Fred Harvey restaurants. While much has changed in transportation in the last 100 years, there are still no one size fits all solutions when it comes to the travel market. One thing that is true on Amtrak today is their prices are rather high for sleeping car service. But the sleeping cars are usually full and many times if there were more sleepers, they would fill up too. What many people want when taking a sleeper, which is first class service on Amtrak trains today is not just transportation, but a good experience. This means watching the scenery from the train, meeting interesting people at the dining or lounge cars, enjoying good service from the train’s staff and enjoying a good sleep in a bed compared to trying to sleep in a chair car. Good service is not a cost as Fred Harvey showed, but an asset for a business. Good service increases revenues. In a time when we see videos of paying passengers being dragged off of planes when the airline overbooked the plane, people would prefer an alternative when it comes to service. There is an old expression with sales people that you sell the sizzle, not the steak. The idea behind this is the sizzle, the sound of the freshly cooked steak off the grill triggers the anticipation of eating the steak that excites people to want steak. To get more people on the train it helps to sell some sizzle.