The Demise of the Pacific Parlour Cars
(An Interview with the Architect of the Parlour-Brian Rosenwald)
By M.E. Singer
Remembering how Churchill so aptly described Stalin and his Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” I have quickly tired of relying upon Amtrak’s perfidious approach to their obvious decision by refusing to provide accurate, timely, and complete information on the now annual question “will the Pacific Parlour Cars operate again?” (Note how even a Trains News Wire of 12/04/17 indicated the Parlours were to be pulled 01/08/18 merely for mechanical work and to be returned to service 03/14/18). Acknowledging how so many competent Amtrak managers have been pushed out of their roles since 2008 by the Praetorian Guard that swore allegiance to ex-CEO Boardman–over the passenger; even today those who survived the latest purge of management mirrored a devout coterie to the Board’s focus on the Northeast Corridor (NEC)–over the national system, it was not difficult to interpret the tea leaves about the future of the Pacific Parlours.
To appreciate the real essence of the Parlour concept-funding, design, services, battles to preserve their uniqueness, I went to the best possible source who could provide the facts, minus the excuses and rationalizations. I interviewed Brian Rosenwald, Amtrak’s former General Manager for the “Coast Starlight”/”San Diegans” for almost two hours on 20 January 2018. Rosenwald cogently explained how the Parlour concept evolved, relevant details of training and services that clearly impacted ridership and revenues, overcoming accounting issues, as well as improving Amtrak’s overall image. It should be known how he answered every question and freely offered his thoughts without any rancor towards Amtrak. However, listening to how Rosenwald spoke from memory evoking his heart and soul on the evolution of this project, I quickly sensed how the acidic political environment that was allowed to percolate at Amtrak’s HQ cost the passenger dearly in the lost art of customer experience, as personified by Rosenwald’s passion. From this timely interview, we can better learn what has been slowly whittled away by an organization that never appreciated what it had; to view the long distance routes are considered but a stepchild to the main arena, the NEC. Given a history of Amtrak CEOs since 2005 giving lip service to the importance of the long distance trains, while they diverted funding and revenues to shore-up their NEC, the exigencies of the long distance trains, as exemplified by the demise of the Pacific Parlour Car, now requires meaningful action; well beyond the words of support from so many past decades.
Development of the Parlour: Concept Rationale
Unlike the problem Wick Moorman inherited as Amtrak’s interim CEO (2016-2017) of managers finding excuses not to get away from their desks and ride the trains to understand what they were responsible for, as the General Manager “Coast Starlight/San Diegans,” Rosenwald clearly understood the only competent manner to evaluate his trains, crews, services, and passenger experiences was to actually ride the trains. Rather than merely relying on reports, Rosenwald observed and listened to his crews about the persistent issue of insufficient space in the feature cars of the “Coast Starlight,” particularly during peak travel periods-summer, Christmas/winter holidays, and Easter/spring weeks. He evaluated that operating with 4-5 coaches, how the limited space in the Sightseer Car (approx. 40 seats) quickly filled-up with coach passengers eagerly rushing in, who never left. Why should they, with such spectacular scenery? And their were no rules regarding seat time. However, “this created a dilemma for the 2-3 sleepers whose passengers paid a premium, but typically found they were quarantined to their compartments, finding the Sightseer to be SRO.” As well, the diner required a “pressure reliever” during peak travel periods.
Joining Amtrak as a reservation agent in 1973 as an employee in those days very much enthralled with passenger trains, coming up through the ranks, fast forward to Rosenwald given the opportunity in 1995 to approach the product development of the Parlour. His approach combined an infusion of personalized service for a unique passenger experience; applied his well-honed knowledge of food & beverage, particularly wine, to re-create a true first class lounge concept. The 5 hi-level coffee shop/lounge cars (built by Budd for the 1956 re-introduction of AT&SF’s “El Capitan” with the Kachina Coffee Shop) had recently been withdrawn from service by Amtrak and sent to Beech Grove shops for disposition. When questioned of what I had been informed by an Amtrak official years ago how the Parlours blew their budget, Rosenwald was quick to explain that a great effort went into re-building these cars mechanically, and in their interior design. One unanticipated cost problem was installing the theatre on the lower level requiring re-enforcement of its ceiling. New piping was also required. Interestingly, Rosenwald pointed out how the design team at Beech Grove back than still had the appreciation for how such first class lounges used to appear; which explains their terrific work focused on swivel seats, beveled glass; importantly, an open-style bar the way it used to be on trains, instead of the little chrome pillbox Amtrak had developed. According to Rosenwald, each Parlour was re-built and re-decorated at a cost of $650,000-$700,000 each. Yet, from their initial introduction, the unique Parlours fulfilled their expectation, as we shall soon see. As Rosenwald summarized, “the Pacific Parlour paid homage to the wonderful quality cars of the 1950s.”
Pacific Parlour: Cultivating a Customer Experience-Staff Training and Environmental Injection of How to Give Passengers a Memorable Trip
Locating in the fleet a potentially unique feature car, re-building it mechanically, and decorating it with such an innovative panache for Amtrak was just the beginning of this renaissance of first class. Under Rosenwald’s direction, every on-board crew member of the “Coast Starlight” underwent a thoroughly new, reinvigorating training program, as recounted by Rosenwald, “by training the very best and to be more effective and responsible, to have them train the others.” According to Rosenwald, as the Parlour denoted “a special class of service throughout the year,” the LSAs running the Parlour were trained with an obsession towards customer service. This included classes on wine–to be able to pour correctly, intelligently discuss the wine product; the ability to up-sell bottles. As well, the Parlour offered its own special menu different from the standardized menu in the diner, with the only requirement that in lieu of not having a grill, all items had to be baked in a convection oven. As Rosenwald explained, he was able to “offer many cool things, such as beef stroganoff.”
When it came to bartending and cocktails, Rosenwald quickly learned he could not go forward with his proposal to actually have bottles of liquors, as done aboard cruise ships, but no longer on trains and planes (although VIA’s “The Canadian” has always had bottles of vermouth in the Park car to craft a Martini in a glass kept in the frig.) Instead, what Rosenwald determined was to teach mixology to the LSAs, and to provide them specific mixers not available in the standard Sightseer car, e.g., Manhattan, Martini, Margarita, etc. For a while, special Martini-type glassware was utilized, including kept in the frig; however, this approach to cocktails was soon eliminated within 1-1.5 years after introduction due to cost of breakage. The free wine tasting was eventually eliminated as well, despite it being a true first class experience. What I never understood is why Amtrak never followed up on the eagerness of regional vineyards en route (Washington, Oregon, California) to offer their products complementary for the wine tasting. Also, why no inroads with the various regional craft breweries who would be eager to offer products complementary.
Imagine how popular it was to so thoughtfully provide each disembarking First Class revenue passenger with a complementary mug, with the train’s logo as their keepsake? Of course, accounting quickly looked at such amenities as superfluous to immediately cut, in the same class as olives in Bloody Marys. One key component to improving the passenger experience that totally impressed me was Rosenwald’s acute knowledge of the intricate details of customer experience. So, this meant that the Parlour and Sightseer cars were open for service upon boarding passengers at their bumper posts in LA and Seattle, instead of waiting the usual sixty or more minutes for conductors to lift tickets and make their all clear announcement on the PA. Amazing! Remember that is how it used to be! Rosenwald assured no revenue loss by having tickets lifted at the boarding gate; even coach seats were assigned there. Talk about ‘back to the future!’
The Pacific Parlour: Accountant’s Cost Center or Marketing’s Answer to Increasing Ridership and Revenues?
Although Amtrak could not, or would not, analyze the metrics to accurately measure the contribution to revenues of the Pacific Parlour Car, for those who understand the demand dynamics in transportation, it is interesting to note the following data:
With the introduction of the Parlour, first class achieved higher loads vs. coach, as obviously many in coach were keenly interested to experience the Parlour to move-up to first class. Despite the great debate within Amtrak, how does Amtrak explain the continued inclusion of a third sleeper in the consist, but for the Parlour? Has anyone at Amtrak HQ competently explained the difference between the alleged expenses attributed to the Parlour vs. the investment in service, the unique value, and favorable passenger experience? To what extent has Amtrak’s Finance persistently believed that although the Parlour has been “nice,” it was not a factor towards increasing ridership and revenues? If so, how did Finance explain that the “Coast Starlight” consistently achieved the highest CSI (Customer Service Index)?
To understand the Food/Beverage cost structure, the Parlour was unlike the formula for the diner that all sales are allocated to a First Class Transfer, which explains the extraordinary high prices, 100% is a credit against the transportation revenue. Only coach passengers who wangle a reservation pay full price, which goes towards the General Ledger. However, meals in the Parlour are separately accounted for in LA. Although the Parlour was not considered a pure cost center; however A/C mechanical issues triggered cost analysis to review all components, including F&B, finance, mechanical, bar, LSA labor/benefits, fuel incremental charge. Eventually, the “green eye shades” who have no perspective of marketing and customer experience, have won out.
Looking back at his architectural marvel, Rosenwald commented in our discussion on 20 January 2018, “the Pacific Parlour has lasted an amazing 23 years, despite at least four prior attempts to kill it.”
Whatever Happened to the Proven Concept of Service Delivery: How Customer Experience is the Real Definition of Customer-Facing Marketing?
Given this background, who will explain to Amtrak going forward what its mission is expected to be; who will convince Amtrak to invest creatively to build a reputation for customer experience? How will Amtrak change its perception of a mixed bag of service? The Pacific Parlour Car was indeed a one of a kind, apparently not to be repeated. Interesting how in the last cost control campaign even the “AutoTrain” lost its separate first class diner and lounge cars. The lack of marketing savvy is evidenced everywhere. Too bad Amtrak has not figured out that instead of keeping its off-season Auto Train cars in the yard at Sanford, FL, a marketing/financial guru set could approach the likes of Colorado to establish a summer-season “Auto Train” between Chicago-Denver; perhaps, Colorado Springs. What better way to serve the vast market desiring to visit the western national parks, but to avoid the monotonous long drive across the Plains?
As the “Architect of the Pacific Parlour Car,” Rosenwald gave railroad history a sense of respect that had been long ignored, as he re-created the unique personalized, enjoyment of first class rail travel. I fear Amtrak no longer includes rail advocates and historians in its ranks of decision-makers, but rather, sycophants in a servile gesture to those who hold the power–the Board of Directors and their Northeastern political patrons facing east of the Potomac focused on the Northeast Corridor. Those with a true passion for the passenger train have been replaced by a sterile approach lacking any imagination, verve, or gusto. Actually, this “sterile” approach to opportunity is too polite. The failure of Amtrak, as epitomized by its persistent “shell game” played just over the Parlours, has laid the foundation for the dire need to, at a minimum, outsource all first class services-sleepers, dining, and lounge.
What the privately-owned railroads got right in their understanding of the marketplace was in their development of All Pullman and All Coach trains on the same route and almost same carding; but offering food/beverage services that fit each economic mode. Indeed, to further refine this grasp of the differentiated marketplace, the western railroads further perfected this concept with postwar streamliners operating combined first and coach, but with separate and distinctive lounges, grills, and diners. Note the NP’s “North Coast Limited” Lewis & Clark Traveler’s Rest Lounge Car; GN’s“Empire Builder” Ranch Car; GN’s “Western Star” Coffee Shop/Grill/Lounge Car; AT&SF “El Capitan” Kachina Coffee Shop Car; AT&SF “Super Chief” Pleasure Dome/Turquoise Lounge Car; CB&Q“Denver Zephyr” Chuck Wagon Coffee Shop Car; CB&Q “California Zephyr” Cable Car Room Coffee Shop Car; SP “Sunset Limited” Pride of Texas Coffee Shop Car. We also know that these roads provided discreet first class lounge sections in combined trains, in 6DBR/bar cars (e.g., “The General, “Silver Meteor,” “Silver Star,” “East/West Coast Champions”). Just as these railroads understood how to serve their different trades–first class carriage and coach, what part of this relevant concept does Amtrak persistently fail to understand? The AT&SF even went further to define this concept of defining travel by class by expanding the first class “Super Chief” to include during peak summer/winter seasons in the “Super’s” consist a dedicated coach section (at least 4 coaches) forward with its own diner and lounge. To this day, only VIA gets it, and maintains that successful concept, as VIA Rail continues to operate “The Canadian” with a first class diner and a Skyline Dome coffee shop car for coach passengers. Imagine if VIA dumped the Park Cars? Why bother riding!
In respect to these coffee shop/grill cars to augment the diners, these western trains were still able to comfortably serve all their passengers (first and coach) in 36-48 seat diners. The CB&Q’/DRG&W/WP “California Zephyr” actually served on its second (full day) out breakfast continuously into lunch for those Pullman passengers desiring to sleep in late. So, why is it Amtrak cannot accommodate coach passengers on its western trains, despite the size of its Superliner diners? Also, why is it that Amtrak elects for the convenience of its staff over customer satisfaction and experience to negate an un-rushed breakfast and/or lunch on arrival day, due to Amtrak penny-pinching to force staff to take-down the diner 4-5 hours before arrival? Who decided at Amtrak that the “Express Meal” is a new version of Customer Experience???
From what I have witnessed, frankly I think Amtrak’s CEO Anderson intends to stage an orderly retreat from the long distance trains; to homogenize down to its most basic level of standardized, sterile, indifferent transport; just as our airlines have became. Such decisions always emanate from the top, as evidenced by history. Let us not forget the direct intervention of railroad CEOs in the past–1962, New York Central’s Alfred Perlman had to approve a financial request to refurbish equipment for the “Century.” In 1973, AT&SF’s John Reed revoked permission for Amtrak to continue using the the “Chief” nomenclature when separate first and coach dining and lounge facilities were eliminated on the “Super Chief”/”El Capitan;” downgrading the now combined train to an unacceptable level of service.
Amtrak’s perspective is quite ironic, considering how now even US airlines, although slow to the game, have learned to appreciate the potential for increased revenues by improving cabins and the customer experience–Premium Economy and Business. Despite this marketing/financial epiphany for the airlines, Amtrak goes in the complete opposite direction, as if it operates on a circular 027 track that was provided with our original Lionel layouts. Despite Amtrak pulling in the opposite direction, with its final coup to eliminate the Pacific Parlour, in the end, it is indeed all about the customer experience.