U.S., Creating A New, Better Superliner Sleeping Car Fleet

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; September 3, 2021

It’s past time to reimagine sleeping cars in North America. Superliner sleeping cars should be about more than just transportation. They 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.

Probably the best sleeping cars on the continent are the six decade old Budd-built sleeping cars operating on VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian today. The combination of bedrooms, roomettes, Prestige Class rooms and associated lounges provide the best choices for meeting the needs of the broadest variety of passengers. The equipment emphasizes larger, more comfortable spaces than roomettes. While roomettes are still offered, they are in a minority compared to bedrooms and Prestige Class rooms. The Canadian also offers a high level of amenities including a near-gourmet dining car and lounge cars exclusively for sleeping car passengers.

In the first half of the 20th Century when the Pullman Company was at its peak it operated over 8,000 heavyweight sleeping cars and over half of those cars had a layout of 12 open sections with community changing and restrooms and one drawing room. Twelve sections held a maximum of 24 passengers and the drawing room was for three passengers for a total of 27 passengers. The Pullman Porter had a separate, highly Spartan accommodation.

During the heavyweight period the majority of passengers were business travelers, traveling by themselves. The modern concept of “vacations” had not yet been invented for the average working man and family; travel as we broadly know it today was not common.

After World War II the new streamliners were fairly standardized with 10/6 sleeping cars: 10 roomettes for one passenger and six bedrooms/compartments for 12 passengers, totaling 22 passengers, a reduction of carrying capacity by five. The Pullman Porter by this time actually had a cubbyhole space to sleep. The railroads still designed the majority of their space in sleeping cars with roomettes for individual business travelers. The invention of the private roomette, complete with in-room toilet and sink was considered luxurious travel. Every private space – bedroom, compartment, roomette – enjoyed a sink and toilet for passengers, some in enclosed lavatories.

A few other sleeping car floor plans were used, the other most common was for either a six bedroom/five compartment car for 11 revenue spaces for 22 passengers (same passenger load as the 10/6 sleepers) or another combination which featured fewer bedrooms and compartments but included a drawing room in the middle of the car. These cars carried 21 passengers. Each space had a private lavatory.

Showers were not common on these cars; a few specialty feature cars on western all-Pullman sleeper transcontinental trains offered a public shower by prior appointment through the car attendant.

Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971, and by 1973 Amtrak issued a request for proposals for a new car design that in the end was an update of the highly successful Budd-built Hi-Level fleet the Santa Fe had pioneered for bi-level cars in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Conceived in the Nixon Administration and the design born in the early days of the Ford Administration in 1974, the unnamed Superliner I fleet went out to bid and Pullman-Standard began construction in April of 1975. Delivery of the newly christened Superliner fleet occurred during the Carter Administration in 1978 and 1979.

For those keeping score, 1978 was 43 years ago.

Americans have changed in the past 43 years: we’re both on average taller and wider than we were in the 1970s. Those smaller Superliner spaces, such as lavatories which were tight then are now nearly impossible for many passengers.

When the Superliner II fleet was delivered in the late 1990s the floor plan designs stayed much the same, but with better interior colors for seating, carpeting and wall coverings.

A Superliner sleeping car has five bedrooms, A through E with B and C plus D and E available for ensuite configurations to provide space for either four passengers or lower bunks for two passengers. Bedroom A, because of the configuration of the hallway and passageway door to the next car is the smallest bedroom. Each of the lavatories in these five spaces offered a combination toilet/shower space with a sink just inside the accommodation’s main door.

Superliners have one family bedroom designed for up to five passengers – as long as two of them are small children in short beds and one child shares a berth with an adult – but no private lavatory or running water. The accessible bedroom is designed for two passengers, one either in a wheelchair or other type of mobility assistance. The accessible room has its own toilet and sink behind a cloth-pull curtain.

Superliners have 14 roomettes, one which is assigned to the sleeping car attendant. Similar to the open section heavyweight Pullman sleeping cars, the roomettes have no plumbing of any type; it’s down the hall for a drink of water, use of a public lavatory or use of the car’s public shower.

With 13 available roomettes, space is offered for a total of 26 passengers. The bedrooms hold another 10 passengers, up to five in the family bedroom, and two more in the accessible bedroom for a total of 43 revenue passengers.

Superliners carry twice as many passengers as a single level 10/6 sleeping car, need only one car attendant instead of two, have the maintenance car day/car mile costs of one car instead of two, and have a better view for passengers out of the windows on the upper levels. Radical for their time, the Superliners have provided solid service for over four decades.

Six Superliners were built – and are in use on Auto Train – with 10 deluxe bedrooms on the upper level, four roomettes on the lower level, the family bedroom and the accessible bedroom. These cars can host 33 passengers, assuming one of the roomettes is used for the car attendant.

Superliners are great, but they need to be replaced with a better design because they are simply inefficient and just about every space in the car is too small for many passengers.

When designing passenger cars generally two paramount issues are addressed: the need for the highest number of revenue passengers per car creating the highest reasonable revenue and the parallel need for the comfort and convenience of passengers. That second need seems to have taken a lesser place than the first one.

Detour for a moment to the design of the latest Viewliner II single level sleeping cars. Viewliner I sleepers have one accessible bedroom for two, two deluxe bedrooms for two passengers each and 12 roomettes for two passengers each, all self-contained with sinks and toilets and showers in the accessible and deluxe bedrooms. A single community shower for roomette passengers is included.

The Viewliner II design keeps the accessible bedroom and two deluxe bedrooms with a slightly different accessible bedroom design. The number of roomettes was reduced to 11 because in-room toilets were eliminated (the in-room sinks remain) and two public toilets were added at the end of the car, which translates to a maximum of 22 passengers sharing only two toilets. One must presume the early morning rush must be well choreographed to meet the needs of all passengers. (Modern coaches are even worse – two restrooms for 50+ passengers; if there isn’t a attentive coach attendant, these two critical amenities often turn foul quickly.)

The Viewliners I and II are an example of poor planning. Ask any sleeping car attendant on any long distance/inter-regional train and they will tell you the deluxe bedrooms sell out first, even at the current over-the-top, outrageous prices Amtrak currently charges. As one former passenger rail planner said 30 years ago, passengers are willing to pay for their own plumbing.

There is always a debate about whether or not roomettes should be equipped with toilets. Opinions are about evenly split. The single good solution no one seems to figure out is split the roomette count in two; half with toilets and half without. Charge more for the roomettes with toilets. It’s not a difficult conclusion to reach.

One lesson obvious from pandemic times is the desirability of passenger train travel versus other types of common carriers. Throughout the pandemic, Amtrak’s long distance/inter-regional network of trains has both financially and operationally outperformed daylight corridor trains and especially the Northeast Corridor trains.

There is an understanding passengers trains offer more personal space than any other type of surface or air transportation thus providing a healthier environment, including private room accommodations. As new cars are designed the lesson of the pandemic must be remembered and acted upon: less crowding, more private space, more healthy breathing room.

Going forward with new designs this new mantra will include the need to break up long tubes in coaches into smaller spaces with fewer passengers and reconfigure dining cars, offering seating beyond the current rigid four-by-four seat tables. It’s time to reintroduce two-seat tables as an option in dining cars.

For a good combination of passenger demand flexibility, passenger comfort and highest reasonable revenue Superliners need to be redesigned with more deluxe bedrooms, fewer roomettes, more plumbing throughout and, most importantly the reintroduction of perhaps the most needed accommodation (which VIA Rail Canada never eliminated): the drawing room for three passengers.

The advantages of drawing rooms are many, including two lower beds for passengers who choose not to – or are unable to – attempt to climb into an upper berth. Currently, when that need is met, two deluxe bedrooms are opened ensuite, with two upper revenue berths not being used, denying space to potential paying passengers.

Drawing rooms also have only one lavatory, cutting down on the amount of necessary space for plumbing.

At this point it’s important to address the need for more “elbow room” in sleeping car accommodations. As noted above, Americans, compared to the early 1970s when Superliners were first designed, are both taller and wider. It’s not a discussion of the weight and body mass issues facing Americans, it’s an issue to meet the comfort needs of these passengers. It’s unlikely within the next year or so Americans are suddenly going to become slimmer.

The tightest spots are in the lavatories and public restrooms. Six more inches of width would make a tremendous difference for the comfort and convenience of many passengers.

Where to find this extra space? For deluxe bedrooms on the upper level, reduce the count from five to three and add one drawing room.

At the opposite end of the upper level, eliminate all roomettes, follow the example of the deluxe sleepers and add four deluxe bedrooms with the larger lavatories in place of roomettes. For the leftover space in place of a fifth deluxe bedroom, design the space as an amenities area to provide a self-serve continental breakfast for passengers so desiring, and later in the day provide available snacks, desserts and a limited beverage offering. Keep the public lavatory near the stairway.

The downside of this new upper level arrangement? The car attendant loses their upper level space and are relegated to a newly designed space on the lower level; they will do a lot more climbing up the stairs to take care of passengers.

The lower level needs complete reimagining.

The accessible bedroom is often used for passengers in wheelchairs. Having an upper berth for the second passenger makes little sense since passengers in this accommodation are often older. Having an elderly passenger climb into an upper berth while traveling and taking care of a wheelchair bound passenger defeats much of the purpose of the room. The accessible room needs to be expanded to offer two lower berths and one upper berth, similar to a drawing room concept, but with easy toilet and sink and shower access for the wheelchair-bound passenger.

At the opposite end, redesign the family bedroom to include a private lavatory and more floor space. The current space is woefully inadequate for up to three children traveling in one space with two adults.

As on the upper level, ditch the lower level roomettes and replace them with another full drawing room.

Since there will be no more roomettes without plumbing, there is not a need for more than a single public lavatory on the lower level. Keep one lavatory, keep the shower and changing area, use some of the space for the expanded accessible bedroom and some of the saved space for the car attendant’s space that was taken away on the upper level.

In all of the accommodations and in the passageway areas the windows cry out to be larger. The Viewliner design has correctly taught us more sunlight and views – hence, the name – is desirable. Sightseer lounge cars proved the popularity – and necessity – of big windows as a passenger amenity. Seaboard Air Line’s innovative Pullman Sun Lounges and the Santa Fe Hi-Level fleet lounge cars, both with windows extended into the roof were the grandfathers of the Superliner Sightseer lounge. It’s time to take the design beyond just the lounge car. VIA Rail Canada on its transcontinental Canadian offering the Prestige Class service has redesigned Budd stainless steel cars with huge new windows in individual accommodations to accompany the huge new prices of the service.

What’s the new passenger count with this design? Seven bedrooms for two adds up to 14 passengers. Two drawing rooms add another six passengers. Three for the accessible bedroom and five for the family bedroom makes a total possibility of 28 passengers plus the car attendant.

Why is this better than the current possibility of 43 passengers in a Superliner with roomettes and 33 passengers in a deluxe bedroom Superliner?

Amtrak’s current stratospheric pricing for sleeping accommodations is not likely to remain forever into the future. At some point price elasticity principles will kick in and the ceiling will be found and bookings will decline. That is the point accommodations charges will drop in order to fill berths.

VIA Rail Canada’s new Prestige Class service is perhaps the height of an amenities-rich overnight trip. Plenty of onboard services personnel to answer every passenger whim, specialty food and drink in the Park dome/lounge/observation car and exclusiveness. For night travel when the Canadian scenery is dark VIA has even included large wall-mounted video screens for viewing a selection of movies.

While VIA, like every other common carrier has peak, shoulder and off-season pricing for the Canadian, it never has anything but peak pricing for Prestige Class. And, it sells. VIA has recognized and capitalized on this upper end market to great success.

A new Superliner design with drawing rooms with appropriate pricing can achieve the same goal. While pricing may fluctuate seasonally for deluxe bedrooms and the accessible accommodation, drawing room pricing can remain steady – as long as all of this is marketed properly.

A redesign of a single type of Superliner will not be enough. Some type of lower-end, private sleeping accommodation will have to be offered in another type of car. These other cars can be a combination of private rooms (not full deluxe bedrooms) and a separate service with individual pods found in business and first class on international airlines. This service can still be marketed as an accommodations ticket which includes all meals and the cars still have showers available, but the exclusiveness of the deluxe bedroom sleepers can be absent. Consider this an offshoot of the former Slumbercoach sleeping cars. Still a private room, but at a lower price.

Another design possibility for at least one sleeping car is to include half of the upper level as a sleeping car lounge car similar to what the Pullman Company did before Amtrak. A sleeper with deluxe bedrooms and other services, but also an open lounge area for all sleeping car passengers.

More amenities, more special spaces for sleeping car passengers such as a restricted lounge area all allow for higher pricing and higher revenue. Therefore, the loss of the number of separate revenue spaces available for sale in a single car can be superseded by a better offering of high-end spaces selling for higher prices. Consist revenues won’t go down, they will go up without a noticeable increase in overall expenses.

No one will ever argue the 1970s need to return. It’s time to retire 1970s designs and replace them with designs showing foresight, more passenger choices and comfort and the ability to generate better revenue streams in the long run.

It can’t be a culture of “we can’t do that because” but a design culture of “let’s do that because not only is it the right thing to do, it’s what is best for both the passengers and the railroad.”

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