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?