A Second Light Rail Line for Jerusalem

A little personal note before we get started: I know Israel-Palestine stuff is touchy, and while I’m not going to shy away from discussing a few of the political aspects of the Jerusalem light rail (because planning is ALWAYS political, dammit, but especially in the Holy City), I’m going to try to keep this mainly about technical aspects. Other disclosures: I spent two years living in Jerusalem (in 7th grade, and a gap year after high school), but I haven’t been there in nearly six years, so I haven’t actually seen the existing LRT system in operation. That being said, this blog is the “Itinerant Urbanist” for a reason, and my time in Jerusalem represents part of that itinerance (Chrome thinks that’s not a word, but I do). The city has been a major influence on my own planning ethos of walkability and density done well, which is not to minimize its massive social problems and inequities, which are undeniable regardless of your politics. 

Yesterday the Jerusalem municipality announced the opening of the process of building a second line of the city’s light-rail system. The line will run from the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University through the developing area around the city’s main intercity bus station and future high-speed rail station, then traverse Hebrew U’s secondary Givat Ram campus and several residential neighborhoods before terminating in the Gilo neighborhood. Here’s a route map, in Hebrew:

As you can see from the map, the line will, rather hilariously, be known as the Green Line. For those who may not be familiar with the intricacies of the Middle East, the term Green Line in Israel-Palestine discussions usually refers to the pre-1967 (and still legally important) border between Israel proper and the West Bank. The Green Line runs through modern Jerusalem, more or less dividing its Arab and Jewish neighborhoods from each other, though several Jewish neighborhoods developed since 1967 lie on the West Bank side of the line–including the Gilo terminus of the proposed Green Line and the Pisgat Ze’ev/Neve Yaakov northern terminus of the existing Red Line (which runs right along the dividing line in other areas). Israeli policymakers have rarely been accused of subtlety or political correctness. But I digress.

It sounds from the original Hebrew like the route hasn’t fully been decided upon, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise this far out. A quick’n’dirty translation of the press release’s route summary:

The route will extend from the southern extremity of the Gilo neighborhood to the French Hill neighborhood and the northern edge of the Mt. Scopus campus. On the way it will pass through Dov Yosef street, the Pat intersection, Herzog Street, the Bayt interchange, bisecting the campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram, the area of the entrance to the city, Shazar Boulevard, Nordau Boulevard, Sarei Yisrael [the princes of Israel] Street, Bar-Ilan street, Harel Brigade street, Zalman Shragai street, Levi Eshkol Boulevard, until the campus of Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus. Additionally, the line includes a branch to the business district in Talpiot which passes through the area of Ha’Parsah Street, Pierre Koenig street, Ha-tnufah street, and Rivkah street, at a length of 3.1 km.

If this seems like a route of rather extreme complexity just from the sheer variety of streets it runs on, well, yes and no. Jerusalem has got to be among the world’s least-gridded streets, and the route definitely reflects the curviness of the roads. But it also passes along a particular hilarity of street naming in the city (and elsewhere in Israel): many of the roads change names every 2-3 blocks despite full physical continuity. Just in the above paragraph, Nordau Boulevard and Sarei Yisrael Street are actually the same road, which also becomes Shamgar Street for one block before the line would turn onto Bar-Ilan (which then magically turns into Levi Eshkol Boulevard). My theory has always been that post-independence Israel authorities named streets this way to honor as many ancient and contemporary luminaries as possible (you could get a pretty good course in Zionist history just from looking up names of these streets), but it’s confusing as hell in real life.

But anyhow…the Green Line. The line will intersect with the Red Line at two points, near the central bus and future HSR station, and near French Hill. It is expected to carry 140,00-145,000 passengers per day, fairly close to opening expectations for the original line, which now carries about 150,000. By the time the Green Line opens, the Red Line will also be extended to Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital, or close to it.

But that map above is totally insufficient and abstract, and so you’re probably waiting for something clearer. Here’s something I put together quickly:

I highly suggest viewing that map with a background other than Google’s default. This is just a best guess of the route; there are a couple of areas where things don’t quite make sense to me, and I’m sure more will become clear over the coming years (the line is rumored to be theoretically scheduled for completion in 2021, but the first line was well behind schedule, so we’ll see).

The first thing that struck me about the line was also what first struck Alon:

Toward the southern end, the line splits off a branch line to the Talpiot business/industry district, which then (according to the map) itself splits into two dead-end branches, on the right (east) here:

talpiot branch

On the left (west), another possible future branch splits off and leads to the Malcha area, home of Jerusalem’s largest mall, a major stadium, and the station that serves the current, Ottoman-era, slow-as-hell intercity rail service. I have no insider information on what exactly is going on here, but I think that this is probably the beginning of an east-west shuttle route between Talpiot and Malcha that could then be extended in both directions; I sure hope it’s run that way and not as a branch off the main trunk. It’s possible (probable?) that these branches will use the right-of-way of the old Ottoman railroad, which is currently either a path or a junkyard, but who knows.

Frankly, this isn’t the route that I thought would have been next on the city’s or government’s list of priorities. Connecting the two Hebrew U campuses makes sense, and the areas between them are mostly extremely dense. Gilo is big, but it’s remote and there are long stretches without much density between it and the rest of the city–a legacy of Gilo’s siting across the Green Line and the presence of the once-split Palestinian village of Beit Safafa in between. Between Givat Ram and Gilo, the line is curvy and avoids the densest neighborhoods, with the exception of a brief stretch across Yaakov Pat street.

As a former resident of Talpiot, I suppose I’m biased, but for me the natural next line in the network would have run either down Derech Chevron (Hebron Road), the major arterial through southern Jerusalem, or down the old railroad ROW to Malcha. Before going forward, I should recommend that anyone who doesn’t know the city look at the Jerusalem Bus Map on Oren’s Transit Page–believe it or not, there is no “official” bus map even in this heavily bus-reliant city. Derech Chevron is bustling bus route with dedicated lanes in part that host local buses, express buses to West Bank settlements, and shared-cab and jitney services that largely serve a Palestinian market.

Derech Chevron at Rivka/Ein Gedi (the famous “Tzomet ha’Bankim,” or “intersection of the Banks,” because it used to have one on each corner or some such)

Derech Chevron doesn’t extend all the way to downtown Jerusalem or to a link with the original line, so there are complications in hooking up a potential LRT line down it, but it does seem to be the most natural alignment for a second line. The rail ROW, too, runs parallel to a busy bus route (Emek Refaim) and while it’s not particularly well-integrated into the city west of the intersection with Pierre Koenig, it offers the promise of much faster trip times on a grade-separated ROW and is anchored on a major traffic generator in Malcha.

So what does the Green Line being on the agenda mean for the future of the Jerusalem transit network? I fully expect to see a Derech Chevron LRT at some point in the future, and the weird branching on the Green Line seems to indicate a desire among planners for some kind of quick east-west connection across the southern part of the city. In the interests of exploring that, I added a third layer to the map I made above with a few suggestions for ways the network might develop in the future, which you can enable from the settings box at the upper left corner, or just peruse this JPEG:

sandy jerusalem map

This is already a really long post, so I’ll leave that here for now and perhaps discuss it more another time.

One more note:

As I said before, it’s impossible to discuss planning issues in Jerusalem without getting into politics. I will confess to using terms for Jerusalem (“the city,” etc) that might elide the area’s political and social complexity. Despite the rhetoric about an “eternal and undivided Jerusalem” that consistently emanates from both the Israeli and American Right, what exists today is undeniably a divided and inequitable city. Among other basic services, the transit systems in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods are almost wholly separate, so I’ve been considering here only the transit network in Jewish Jerusalem, often referred to as “West Jerusalem.” Even that doesn’t fully capture the complexity of the situation, as the Red Line runs through the Palestinian refugee camp of Shu’afat, and the Green Line will pass through Beit Safafa, but it’s a start.

People pushing streetcar projects in the US like to talk about the psychological important of the “permanence” of rails in the ground as opposed to bus stops that can be “easily moved.” There is, I think, a weird kind of parallelism to the “facts on the ground” approach long espoused by the Israeli settlement movement; in any case, a few years ago Alon translated on his blog a piece by Shalom Boguslavsky that captures some of the application of that approach to the initial siting of the Red Line in Jerusalem. I think Boguslavsky might be a little too politically deterministic, but let’s not forget that–conscious or not–there are always political statements behind the siting of infrastructure improvements in Jerusalem.  Whatever improvements the Green Line or any future LRT network might mean for residents of Jerusalem, we shouldn’t forget the crying need and increasing inequity that infects the rest of the Holy City.

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Other Places I’ve Been and Will Be, and More Schenectady Pics

It’s been a busy few weeks. As part of my internship with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, I’ve had the opportunity for my writing to show up in a couple of other places.

With the push on to fund the MTA capital plan, I had a piece in the Gotham Gazette about the need for political leadership to make a new plan happen. “Lead, dammit” is of course a cliched, boring thing to ask of lawmakers, but I think there’s some decent blame to be spread around here. And I make the argument that while the MTA is not sliding backwards into the 1970s, it may very well be slipping into the same kind of death spiral as WMATA is currently experiencing.

I also had a two-part series on Tri-State’s own Mobilizing the Region blog about the Capital District Transportation Authority’s BusPlus “Bus Rapid Transit” system, existing and planned. Originally written as one long post, it (correctly) got split into two to keep lengths manageable. The first post is a primer on BusPlus, including the existing line from Albany to Schenectady and the planned routes to UAlbany and Troy. The second (and for me, more interesting) post is about what various stakeholders can do to make BusPlus a truer BRT system.

I also have several posts coming up on Mobilizing the Region, including one about the economic impact of the MTA capital plan on Upstate that should be going up in the next few days. I’ll also be taking a look at the Capital Region MPO‘s long-range visioning plan and their just-getting-off-the-ground study of the future of the I-787 corridor along the Hudson waterfront.

As a total aside, I spent five hours traipsing around in the oppressive humidity at Union College in Schenectady for a site visit for a Jewish retreat I’m involved with. A few pictures:

The original site of the famed American Locomotive Company  is now a carwash.

The original site of the famed American Locomotive Company is now a carwash.

The headquarters of the Golub Corporation, a major brownfields project, has won multiple environmental awards, including LEED certification, despite being fairly  anti-urban and surrounded by parking lots.

The headquarters of the Golub Corporation, a major brownfields project, has won multiple environmental awards, including LEED certification, despite being fairly anti-urban and surrounded by parking lots.

Like many colleges in urban areas, Union is busy buying up all the property adjacent to campus it can get its hands on. Our guide described this teardown and new-build dorm as a "revitalization project" for the neighborhood.  I have mixed opinions on this.

Like many colleges in urban areas, Union is busy buying up all the property adjacent to campus it can get its hands on. Our guide described this teardown and new-build dorm at the corner of Roger Hull and Park Places as a “revitalization project” for the neighborhood. I have mixed opinions on this.

The interior of the unique, sixteen-sided Nott Memorial, the centerpiece of the Union campus, is really something. My picture certainly does not do this gorgeous building justice.

The interior of the unique, sixteen-sided Nott Memorial, the centerpiece of the Union campus, is really something. My picture certainly does not do this gorgeous building justice.

Is the Transit Coalition Fracturing?

While Albany has contorted itself into doing nothing about the expiration of New York City’s 421a rent regulations and the MTA capital plan, a different kind of political dysfunction has been unfolding down in the city. For the last several months, safe streets advocates and the gentle people of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents workers on NYC subways and buses, have been engaging in a vicious war of words over the city’s Vision Zero plan for pedestrian safety and in particular the Right of Way law, which targets drivers who injure or kill pedestrians or bicyclists who have the right of way.  In short, TWU’s complaint has been that bus drivers are professionals who should be exempt from the ROW law because they work long shifts and are exposed to possibly dangerous conflicts far more than the typical driver. There’s the kernel of a legitimate complaint in there, but any kind of productive conversation about protecting both transit workers AND pedestrians has been completely sabotaged by Local 100’s scorched-earth framing of the issue as a class war (tweets presented in chronological order):

Nevermind that, of course, in New York City as elsewhere people killed in traffic are disproportionately poor and of color. The ugliness has led to an increasing fracture between labor and the city’s broader progressive/alternative transportation community. Erstwhile allies like Tri-State Transportation Campaign (full disclosure, I’m interning with them currently) Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool (a former bus driver herself, albeit not in the city) have called out the union for its tactics. A few days ago, Local 100 gathered a coalition of other unions to support its campaign for an exemption from the Right-of-Way Law.

Via Streetsblog

The list of unions supporting TWU 100 and Streetsblog’s take on it

Some progressive transportation advocates haven’t been able to restrain themselves from lashing out in unproductive ways, of course:

Until now, though the issue has been gaining increasing media attention, it has stayed largely within a fairly insular circle of wonks and transportation advocates. With the involvement of major unions such as those listed above, the Vision Zero conflict threatens to break into wider consciousness. And that’s a particular issue because for the last 60 years organized labor has played a major role in the coalition pushing for stronger transit in the US. In an example I’m choosing mostly because it’s one I have researched extensively, construction unions played a key role in Philadelphia’s decision to build the Center City Commuter Tunnel (although admittedly, the opening of the tunnel played a role in open conflict between SEPTA management and the operating unions, but that’s a different story). Now, with TWU Local 100 playing the leading role in helping labor choose solidarity with itself over solidarity with the broader progressive movement, the coalition that has traditionally supported transit in this country threatens to fall apart.

Certainly, there are already some urbanist and transit wonks who think that’s not a bad thing:

There’s no doubt that labor has stood in the way of some needed innovations in American transit–operational techniques and technologies that are in wide distribution even in heavily-unionized European countries. At the same time, labor still offers unparalleled organization and muscle for getting out the vote and building support for transit, qualities that a new transit coalition will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. There is a tipping point, though, at which labor’s embrace of regressive politics and often Luddite approach to technological innovation outweighs its contribution to the transit coalition, and if we’re not there yet, clearly many feel we are heading in that direction.

There’s more than a whiff of Monty Python to the TWU/safe streets fight.

As Brian so futilely tries to point out to his struggling comrades, there’s a common enemy here, and that’s American car culture and the wasteful and unsafe spending on roads and highways that it gives birth to.  It’s worth remembering that Life of Brian was in part intended to satirize the fractious politics of the British Left, whose inability to come together got them massacred by the Romans (or rather by Margaret Thatcher, I suppose). At this point, it’s hard to anticipate a labor-transit wonk reconciliation. But if break up we must, can we at least try not to condemn the future we once could have built together?

If We Can’t Kill The O’Hare Airport Connector, Can We At Least Make It Useful?

Chicago’s business community has been screaming for a fast transit link to O’Hare airport for decades, and it seems that it’s the idea that just won’t die. Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch reports that recently re-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to revive the airport link yet again:

Emanuel has made repeated statements recently that Chicago should try again to launch a nonstop express passenger rail service between downtown and O’Hare, patterned after the premium express trains that for years have been operating between airports and city centers in Europe and Asia, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark.

To his credit, Hilkevitch seems skeptical of the proposal, reporting that there are no financing measures in place that could support such a service, and that the mayor’s staff wish he would talk it up a little less. Hilkevitch’s skepticism of this project’s feasibility is perhaps mirrored by the standard–and quite well argued–urbanist line that airport transit is overrated. Stephen Smith–certainly no bleeding-heart class warrior–perhaps put it best, in a New York City context:

Globetrotting elites might salivate over the possibility of stepping off of an airplane and into a train that will take them directly to a starchitect-designed Penn Station in midtown, but if the next mayor wants to make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, he should listen to the outer-borough residents who make up the majority of New Yorkers. Not landlords, business travelers and architecture critics in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn.

The proposition of a new airport connector is, if anything, somewhat more absurd in Chicago. Chicago already boasts one of North America’s premier rail-airport connections, with the Blue Line running directly into a terminal at O’Hare (sometimes a little too far) and the Orange Line terminating at Midway (though a decent, somewhat inconvenient walk from the terminal).  Sure, riding the Blue Line from the Loop to O’Hare is kind of slow, but riders are already seeing results from CTA’s nearly half-billion-dollar rehab project, and it’s generally faster than the amazingly clogged Kennedy Expressway regardless of time of day.

So no, Chicago doesn’t need a new airport connector so much as the city’s business elites are seeking to hijack the planning process and spend the city’s limited infrastructure resources on a luxury item for themselves (seriously, just check out the prices for comparable airport connectors listed in the Hilkevitch piece). But at least someone powerful is vocally advocating for new transit in Chicago. Is there a way to harness the energies of the business elite and yoke them to a plan that could benefit the city more broadly?

One plan that seems to be emerging along those lines is the CrossRail Chicago proposal pushed by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. At first glance, the CrossRail Chicago marketing plan appears cringeworthy in the same elite-focused way as other O’Hare express proposals, selling the project as bringing “New, electrified express trains linking O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago.” Can you imagine a more business class set of destinations in Chicago? Underneath the elite-focused language, though, there’s an element of significant promise to the CrossRail plan that deserves some attention from business elites and transit advocates alike.

The key element of the CrossRail plan is the idea of using existing run-through platforms at Chicago Union Station to connect the Metra Electric District, the highest-quality passenger corridor in the area, to other lines on the North Side, with an emphasis on a northwestern connection to O’Hare. (graphics from the PDF flyer)

crossrail chicago downtown

With this–relatively uncomplicated, although somewhat capacity-constrained–core connection made, the rest of the regional network, which would serve both local and intercity services, could be built out in phases as money becomes available.

crossrail chicago phases

The first phase would be the downtown connector and electrification of the Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National) tracks out to O’Hare. The entire distance would use existing right-of-way that primarily serves passenger trains, but sees significant freight traffic as well in some segments. I argued in my post on turning Metra into regional rail that the O’Hare connector would not be my first choice for a North Side connection to the Metra Electric District, but it does serve a significant need, and cost was a significant factor in my argument. In fact, the MD-W line serves one of the largest areas of Chicago currently completely unserved by high-quality fixed-guideway transit (apologies for the poor drawing).

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly traces the CrossRail path to O'Hare.

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly (variations may be blamed on my crappy trackpad and broken mouse) traces the CrossRail path to O’Hare.

Because of how industry, much of which has now moved out, historically clustered around the railroad tracks, there are plenty of opportunities for much-needed TOD projects along the MD-W path from the Loop to O’Hare. The adjacent neighborhoods aren’t among Chicago’s densest, but they’re diverse and still reasonably walkable and dense.

Would the CrossRail proposal, and the O’Hare connection it offers, be my first choice for Chicago’s next major transit expansion? No, probably not.  But it does offer significant new mobility potential for a large swath of the city, while potentially giving the business community the upgraded O’Hare connection they’ve always wanted. A CrossRail Chicago-like plan, assuming that it came with local as well as express service, could very well be a benefit to the larger population of Chicago in a way that other airport connectors have struggled to be. It would introduce the concept of regional rail upgrades to the extensive commuter network to the Chicago area, and indeed, has the potential to be the most promising regional rail project in the US, bettered in North America by Toronto’s efforts to turn Metrolinx into a Regional Express Rail. And it could do that while harnessing the energies of the business community, turning their self-centered desire to throw money around into something mutually and widely beneficial. And engaging the business community could–could–in turn bring support for a more extensive transit campaign, a strategy that the Transit Future campaign is clearly relying upon.

But that’s a lot of ifs. It’s a lot of conditions to be met. And it’s a lot of uncertainty. There would seem to be a way forward that could both satisfy the globally connected dreams of Chicago’s business elite and provide public benefit, but it is a path fraught with potential disagreement, waste, and acrimony. I would, tentatively, support an O’Hare connector project that followed these lines, and perhaps even name it one of the city’s top transit priorities. Chicago would do well to remember the experience of Philadelphia, which spent 25 years building perhaps the nation’s most advanced piece of regional rail infrastructure with significant backing from the business community, including (of course) an airport connector. In the meantime, the (much more heavily used) rest of the system fell to pieces, and the Center City Commuter Tunnel has never been used to its full, transformational potential.  A CrossRail-based O’Hare Connector might provide mobility to a large swath of Chicago that needs it. It might provide the vehicle by which the Metra Electric District finally becomes the rapid transit system it is destined to be. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to take sustained work, cooperation, backbone, political savvy, and not a small dose of luck.

Thoughts from #Sandyridesthelakeshore

Anyone who follows me on Twitter surely saw that 10 days ago (Thursday night the 21st into Friday the 22nd) G and I rode the Lake Shore Limited (hereafter abbreviated LSL) from Albany to Chicago. When I was an undergrad I took the LSL between Chicago and Penn Station in coach several times; with a massive bag allowance (assuming a few hands willing to help at either end), it’s a great way to move a ton of stuff between home and college. This time, heading out to Chicago for my little brother’s high school graduation, we were lucky enough to be able to book a Viewliner roomette for around $360 for both of us, which is a) well cheaper than flying two people from Albany to Chicago and b) a great price for an overnight sleeper. The schedule, leaving Albany at 7 PM and getting into Union Station (theoretically) at 9:45, works nicely as well. Being me (and having engaged in several educational Twitter discussions about saving Amtrak’s long-distance service in recent weeks), I decided to take some notes on the experience and pass them on in blog form. I’m only now getting the chance to write this up, so forgive that please. Without further ado, Sandy’s notes and lessons from the Lake Shore Limited:

Unbundle the Freaking Food Service Already

It’s well-known (particularly, it seems, to Congressional Republicans) that Amtrak loses money hand-over-fist on food service on its trains. [Quick aside for those who might never have been on one: Amtrak’s long-distance trains (roughly over 700 miles, according to the Congressional definition) usually have both a full-service sitdown dining car and a more informal cafe/lounge car. Meals in the dining car come bundled with the sleeper fare, but coach passengers have to pay per dish if they want the food.] The railroad has cycled through phases of trying to cut costs and trying to make the meals luxurious enough to attract people to the dining car, with the result that the food is both pretty mediocre and very, very expensive. All long-distance trains now serve the same menu, so if you (like the nice older couple from Northern California who sat across from us at dinner) are taking a multi-day cross-country itinerary, the dishes are going to get really old, really fast.

As sleeper passengers, we got two meals in the dining car (except not really, see below). Dinner–served in a vintage-1950s dining car with low lighting and a dingy, Spartan, almost Soviet (I see you, Rep. Mica) feel–was the very definition of “meh.” It featured a green salad with a small amount of iceberg lettuce, and the vegetarian entree was an incredibly insubstantial “trio of stuffed pasta shells” that sells to non-sleeper passengers for a whopping $15.75. To be fair, the meat options did look better, and the best part of dinner was the upside-down strawberry cheesecake I had for dessert. Though the menu explicitly promises that several of the lunch options are also available for dinner, we were told that was no way, no how a possibility, and the waiter, a generally nice guy, refused to account for the kitchen’s refusal to serve the published menu. Meals are served on throwaway plastic plates and cups (though the silverware is real), which undermines Amtrak’s professed image as the “green” way to travel by generating an enormous volume of waste, as well as the nostalgia for the glamorous age of railroad china and dining car meals that Amtrak relies upon to sell its bundled food service. And remember, despite all the cost-cutting and enormously high prices that sleeper passengers have no choice but to (literally) eat, Amtrak is still losing money on food service!

And we didn’t even get breakfast on the train, because the crew shuts down the dining car at 9 Eastern time, a full 1:45 out of the scheduled time into Chicago, and typically even further. Not that that was communicated clearly to us; our attendant told us that it would “be best” if we got there at 8:00, but didn’t specify further. The train switches to Central Time at Waterloo, Indiana:

So we showed up to the diner at 8:00 AM Central Time west of Waterloo, just as it was being shut down–because apparently, the diner functions on Eastern Time for the entire ride. Bad communication and customer-unfriendly practices (do they REALLY need almost two hours to clean out the dining car?) for the win! (loss) Worse, the microwave-centric cafe car shuts down at the same time. The dining car is willing to serve a continental breakfast after 9, but these are unforced errors that just make the rider experience more hostile for no good reason.

So what’s the solution? As with any complex problem, solving the death spiral of food service on long-distance trains is clearly going to be a multifaceted project. The first step is almost certainly to unbundle food service from sleeper fares, as Amtrak is planning to trial on the Silver Star starting this summer. The trial will involve eliminating the train’s full-size diner and restricting food service to the cafe car. Many riders–particularly romantics and the older “land cruise” set who Amtrak seems to target–will surely mourn for the lost elegance of the dining car, but at this point there’s clearly little elegance left. Unbundling food service is expected to reduce sleeper fares by 25-28%–a not at all insignificant savings that should attract plenty of demand, certainly enough to make up for the loss of people who really want bundled sit-down meals (though demand isn’t really Amtrak’s problem when it comes to sleepers). Unbundling is just the first step though; ultimately Amtrak is going to have to open up the provisioning of food to the digital age.The cafe car on our Lakeshore was prominently posted with signs prohibiting non-Amtrak-provisioned food, which is just an obnoxious practice that should stop. Amtrak is also experimenting with at-seat food service, a common amenity in Europe. I also really like an idea that Alon Levy has brought up on Twitter:

Building an app like that would allow Amtrak to replicate the functionality of the 19th-century Harvey Houses, getting riders fresh, variable meals without the bother and massive expense of actually preparing them on the train. Of course, it would require a level of digital literacy far beyond that currently sported on Amtrak trains, where diner attendants still require sleeper riders to fill out a complex paper form rather than using an iPhone to scan ticket barcodes like the conductors. Amtrak’s current food service paradigm may very well be in an irreversible death spiral. But there’s plenty of hope for the future, with some creative thinking.

Timekeeping?

Amtrak frequently, and generally justifiably, complains that the freight railroads and their dispatching are responsible for the chronic lateness of the long-distance trains. If our experience on the LSL was at all indicative, though, there is plenty of room for improvement in Amtrak’s own timekeeping practices. Station stops on the LSL can best be described as “leisurely,” and the crew often seem to have weird concerns–while trying to watch another train pull in on the neighboring track in Albany, I was told to stay well away from that entire side of the (wide) platform by an attendant who told me “You’re freaking the engineer out! He doesn’t know whether you might be suicidal!” For the record, I wasn’t even on the track-adjacent warning strip, and if the nerves of Amtrak engineers are that jumpy, let’s please make sure none of them get hired as New York City subway drivers any time soon!

Anyhow, about those leisurely stops, I timed a few. With the train leaving Albany already 27 minutes late, I figured there would be some attempt to make up time along the way. Not exactly:

Utica: 10-12 minutes

Syracuse: ~15 minutes (and Syracuse has high-level platforms! what could possibly take that long?)

Rochester: 17 minutes

Toledo (where I woke up the next morning): scheduled 30ish minute break, not at all shortened despite running an hour behind at that point.

It’s entirely possible that long stops at these stations were necessary to maintain the LSL’s slot in the parade of freight trains with which it shares tracks. It is, however, more likely that the long stops are because of the LSL crew’s bizarre (and against Amtrak standards) sometimes practice of checking every ticket on the platform, rather than on the train (scroll down to the comments for discussion). What’s clear is that there is plenty of room for improvement in crew attitudes about stop timeliness.

Cost Savings? Halve the sleeping car attendants.

Not literally, of course, but currently Amtrak assigns one attendant for every sleeper. In the roomettes at least, the beds really aren’t that hard to figure out, and we were able to get them down with no help and no trouble. Surely, some riders will need physical or organizational assistance, but it hardly seems necessary to have one attendant per sleeper. Cutting down to one attendant for every two sleepers or 2 for every 3 would not only cut costs but allow the sale of one more room for revenue (alternatively, it could be converted into a full-scale bathroom, which the Viewliners lack). There would be gaps to fill, particularly when it comes to things like signing up for dinner seatings, but the impact of the staff cuts could totally be mitigated by the fact that

Digital technology has the potential to transform the long-distance train experience

I’m not just talking about Amtrak’s ridiculously slow WiFi, which the LD trains don’t have but really should. My attitude about Amtrak’s WiFi problems is that of Bruce Springsteen’s character in Rosalita”–“Someday we’ll look back and it will all seem funny.”

Music Break!

As I mentioned above, Amtrak conductors have recently started carrying iPhones that they use to check tickets. It would be truly transformational for the sleeper experience at least if Amtrak could get a touch screen interface into each room, which could take food orders, make seating reservations (if, indeed, the sit-down diner persists), call an attendant when necessary, and play videos and TV shows like those available on airplanes. WiFi should be the first priority, obviously, but getting a real, easy-to-use digital interface into sleeper rooms (and really, onto seatbacks in coach too) should be a major priority for the long-distance fleet, and might allow significant crew cost-cutting.

Managing Demand and Different Markets

Despite all of the problems I’ve listed here, our experience on the LSL was generally very positive. The roomette experience is cramped but manageable for two people, even when one of them is a jumbo like me. We were 57 minutes late into Chicago Union Station, which for a train that had 30% on-time performance in the month of April is not that bad. The food wasn’t worth either the extra expense or the 3-car hike to the dining car, but we brought our own, so that wasn’t too much of an issue. The staff were generally friendly and kind, which isn’t always the case.

And–importantly–our train was nearly 100% sold out. When I checked the day before we left there were zero coach seats available and only one bedroom. It’s important to understand that for all of its warts Amtrak’s problem is generally NOT a lack of demand for its services. And that applies to the long-distance trains just as much as the corridor services. Not to be cliched, but the challenge is transforming a pattern of service and operation that dates back to the 19th century to a digital age that offers both danger and promise.

This trip was my first opportunity to sample Amtrak’s sleeper offerings since my 16th birthday present, a trip on the Coast Starlight from Salem, OR to Los Angeles, and it was clear that the sleeper attendants and staff weren’t used to dealing with twentysomething travelers who could fend for themselves. And that’s a problem. The land-cruise market of older Americans who are afraid of or can’t fly, and who remember the golden age of passenger rail, isn’t all that big, and is arguably (because of the last condition) shrinking, but Amtrak’s sleeper services remain entirely focused on them, from high staffing levels to mandatory meals.

That doesn’t have to be the case. Sleepers will always be expensive, but Amtrak should be selling them as a budget option competitive with flying from midpoint cities. Take the case of the LSL. Flying between New York City and Chicago is fairly cheap and generally will remain that way. But there are plenty of smaller cities in between with medium-sized airports, and in the current hub-and-spoke configuration of the airline network, it can be very expensive to fly into and out of those places (believe me, we flew back to Albany). Taking coach from Albany or Rochester to Chicago, or from Toledo or Erie to New York City, might suck too much to be worth consideration–but a sleeper compartment might very well provide a happy medium between the expense of flying and the pain of an Amfleet or Greyhound coach seat.

Of course, as currently configured sleepers are a luxury experience that comes only at considerable expense–we got very lucky to book at the price we did. But that’s not necessarily inherent in the sleeper experience. Sleepers will always be more expensive than coach, simple because you can fit a lot fewer people in them. But by reducing staffing levels to a budget-friendly level, streamlining the experience with digital technology, and marketing the train as a budget-friendly, yet comfortable, experience, I think Amtrak could capture a large slice of the college student and young adult market. Remember, indications are that Amtrak might be able to slash sleeper prices by as much as 25% just by allowing people to bring their own food on board. And, assuming your stop has checked-baggage service, you can bring a hell of a lot more stuff on a train than a plane.

Obviously as a fairly tech-savvy, and train-inclined, twentysomething I have a self-centered bias in what I think will work for Amtrak. But the way they’re doing things right now isn’t working for much of anyone, including the political overlords who hold Amtrak’s fate in their hands. Why not try something fresh and new?