Editor’s Note: Frequent guest commentator Russ Jackson, the venerable retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review, is joined by his wife, Susan Jackson, for this commentary. – Corridorrail.com Editor
By Russ and Susan Jackson, Guest Commentators; October 11, 2021
Everyone who has ridden an Amtrak western long distance train in the past 40 years has traveled in a Superliner car, whether it is a Coach or Sleeping Car. Forty years is a long time for any rail car, and it is way past time to look at what might (make that should) be the replacement. While there is no doubt that these bi-level workhorses can last longer if properly maintained and upgraded, discussion has been on-going about not only that they should be replaced, but what the replacement should be like.
As veteran riders, going back to the first years the Superliner I cars were introduced, we feel qualified to involve ourselves in the conversation. Our first Superliner trips were in the summer of 1980 when we rode round trips on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles Union Station to Flagstaff, Arizona to take our young daughter to see the Grand Canyon, and a few weeks later to Chicago to visit relatives in Michigan. We were sold on these new cars! They were our first trips in the Deluxe Bedrooms, too, where the three of us were comfortable, the new Dining Cars were great and resembled what we had experienced riding Coach on Amtrak’s version of the Santa Fe’s El Capitan. More about the latter in another article.
Moving to 2021: As you may have read in our latest trip report, (On this platform, September 29, 2021) we rode round trip on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles in September. The Superliner experience can be a bit different now. Our Sleeping Car, 32063, being one that has been upgraded, the Bedroom layout is the same, but the shower/toilet/sink module has been re-designed somewhat. The sink faucets are much easier to use. However, it is the same size unit as before. There are new linens (very nice) and new blankets (which we found to be warm enough but too slippery compared to the old warm blankets), LED lighting, and new paneling throughout replacing the wall carpeting, which gives a generally cleaner appearance.
Recently, Bruce Richardson has written two analyses of what the future Superliner replacement should be like and why. He writes that “It’s past time to re-imagine sleeping cars in North America. Superliner sleeping cars should be about more than just transportation.” In a 1986 article for the Western Rail Passenger Review, titled “Design Considerations for a Western Corridor Service Car,” Dr. Adrian Herzog pointed out that “cars need to be designed to maximize seat miles (revenue) while minimizing gross weight per seat (operating cost).” The Superliner was accomplishing that goal in the years after their introduction. Richardson points out that these cars “should be about a comfortable space on a multi-night transcontinental journey such as the California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, or Coast Starlight and providing a highly desirable service, causing passengers to come back again and again.” We totally agree: Every Amtrak train must deliver the passenger safely, reliably, in a clean environment, have suitable food availability, and be comfortable so as to encourage, not discourage, return travel.
But…While accidents/incidents can occur, Amtrak’s on time performance is usually less than optimal, the clean environment is subject to the performance of the Amtrak crews and the personal habits of the passengers, food availability has improved but must continue to do so, the “comfort” is up to the management at Amtrak to design and maintain the vehicles to maximize that factor. The present Superliner Sleeping Car has flaws. As Richardson interestingly points out, on average Americans today are “taller and wider than we were in the 1970s, and those Superliner spaces, such as lavatories which were tight then are now nearly impossible for many passengers.” He suggests a six-inch wider facility.
Superliner Sleeping Cars each have five bedrooms, 14 roomettes, a family room and an accessible bedroom. The Auto Train back east has cars with 10 bedrooms upstairs, and those cars bring in high revenue. Why hasn’t Amtrak in its remodeling phases built more of these cars and placed them on the really scenic western routes like the California Zephyr or the Coast Starlight as extra cars above the current consists? Yes, it would require hiring a car attendant and probably another worker in the Dining Car, but at the stratospheric high rates now charged the revenue passenger miles for each train would explode.
We caution that with the current attitude at Amtrak in Washington, D.C. they would not be interested in such a bold move. The fiscal year 2020 – 2021 financial results showed the long distance routes did better during the pandemic’s first year than the other services and the Auto Train did the best of all, fitting into our narrative here; first of all because it continued to be daily and it provided a service unlike anything else available during the health crisis. Now there’s the fear by many rail advocates that tri-weekly service on the western trains could return, whether justified or not.
Newly designed cars for the future, ten plus years ahead assuming these trains remain part of the system, must take care of several factors, many of which are discussed in Bruce Richardson’s two articles. From our personal experience we emphasize these improvements that must occur: Find answers to the sliding doors opening unexpectedly between bedrooms; find an answer to the ongoing problem of climate control inside the cars: too often too hot or too COLD (our problem on our recent trip); and the sudden unavailability of the flush control. A question from us, and we asked Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald about it years ago, was why the clothing hooks that were in Superliner I bedrooms were not in Superliner II’s. He didn’t know. Richardson points out that “seasoned Amtrak travelers – particularly sleeping car passengers – all have personal checklists of critical items to pack including an all-purpose tool which can tighten loose screws and trim loose threads, a small can of spray disinfectant, a small flashlight, AND always a roll of duct-type tape to help remedy rattles and over-enthusiastic cold air vents.” While there is a maintenance log in each car, getting things repaired between runs is never a guarantee. Our COLD car 32063 was back on the rails the next trip out of Chicago. Was it warmer?
The future comfort of passengers must be a factor not only in getting people of all ages to ride Amtrak trains, they must cater to ALL age groups present and future. On October 11th Bob Johnston wrote on the Trains magazine Newswire: “Now it’s up to Amtrak management to keep the momentum going by making enough equipment available at optimum price levels for everyone who wants to ride.” Hear! Hear!