By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 13, 2023
Those three well-established definitions of what would have happened in some circumstances, what could have happened in some circumstances and what should happen in some circumstances often rule our lives, personally, business-wise, and politically.
We can woulda, coulda, shoulda about 2022 for decades to come, but let’s move fully into 2023 instead. Let’s talk about the shoulda for this year.
In calendar year 2023, passenger rail in the United States should:
• Build on the advantages highlighted from the late, unfortunate pandemic. There was a lot to learn about true travel preferences, what passengers were and were not pleased to endure and how much they are willing to pay for a service. The most important lesson learned was passengers are willing to pay for privacy and the ability to be alone when traveling versus being part of a herd in a big, open space. Amtrak for months now has been admirably advertising sleeping car space and the traveling public is responding. Don’t stop now.
• Bring back parlor car seating on most trains. Parlor car seating could perhaps in these modern times be classified as business class seating, but that is a bit of a stretch. Beyond the cost today of the ticket there are few differences in coach seating and business class seating, although business class seating does tend to have less noisy passengers than coach passengers. In a time long ago, there were free newspapers for business class passengers. Wait, what’s a newspaper? Was a newspaper that flimsy paper thing that was hours old with even older news before it ever reached a reader?
Perhaps the greatest civilized part of parlor car seating was it was all individual swivel seats. No two-by-two, just individual chairs. Many will wrongly wail that parlor car seating is inefficient and use of it will only contributed to greater losses.
Look at history and let that guide you. In a time when passenger railroads offered parlor car seating, the cost of a parlor car seat was higher than a coach seat, but less than a semi-private seat in a heavyweight Pullman open section sleeping car or roomette. The idea of a parlor car was a comfortable, controlled atmosphere with good service, a certain amount of “elbow room” and the ability for those traveling solo to be left alone if they so chose.
Just as it is true that many passengers have always been willing to “pay for in-room plumbing” in sleeping cars, business class passengers have been willing to pay for a more exclusive atmosphere, such as used to be found on Northeast Regional trains when business class seats were found curtained off from coach passengers in another part of a car and a gracious car attendant served edibles and beverages.
If priced correctly and correct levels of service are offered, parlor cars have great potential to attract a broad range of passengers who seek a travel experience upgraded from a coach or coach-like experience as often found in business class.
• Reinvent exclusive sleeping car lounge space. The Pullman Company did very well operating single level lounge/sleepers with half of the car dedicated to five bedrooms and half of the car where roomettes would otherwise be having a large open lounge space, decked out similar to an upscale, small private club.
The Pullman lounge cars served a wide variety of hard and soft beverages, sold playing cards and had a too limited food service offering, unless packaged peanuts were your idea of a sufficient offering.
A single Pullman porter handled the entire car, from greeting passengers, helping entrain and detrain, making beds, mixing and serving drinks, collecting cash (there was no such thing as a credit card) for sales and keeping the lounge area tidy. It was usually a gentleman with high seniority which held this job.
This same template should be used, with the only principal change being a wider variety of bar and snack food being sold, and the space being used for a continental breakfast offering in the mornings. Packaged food service has happily come a long way since the glory days of the Pullman Company and a variety of food offerings would be easy to offer.
This concept creates high revenue from two standpoints: Bedrooms, which demand the highest prices are plentiful, and food and beverage revenue for thirsty and snack-hungry sleeping car passengers is never a disappointment. Just ask the folks at VIA Rail Canada who operate the Canadian. Alcohol and related revenue is an important part of that train’s revenues.
• Truly open dining cars to all passengers. One of the reasons sleeping car prices are sky high is currently the dining car accrues all of its revenue from sleeping car passengers. Everything from the car day/car mile maintenance costs to the cost of food to the employee costs are covered by revenue transferred from sleeping car prices to the dining car account.
Opening dining cars to all passengers allows some of the burden of these costs to be spread out over a greater number of passengers. Here’s what will change when coach passengers are humanely allowed in dining cars: The cost of the food they consume will marginally go up because there is more food purchased and most likely more employees will be needed at some point, which means marginally higher labor costs. But, both of those costs should be more than offset by revenues from coach passengers purchasing food.
Bonus: More traditional food service in the dining car will mean less congestion in the lounge/café car, allowing for a more pleasant experience for everyone involved.
Bigger Bonus: Without sleeping car revenues exclusively paying for all dining car costs, that should allow sleeping car fares to be lower, which as a yet an additional bonus should make sleeping car travel more affordable, opening travel opportunities to a broader range of passenger.
• Find a better onboard working space for conductors and assistant conductors. Conductors and assistant conductors on Amtrak are often onboard homeless souls, searching for a suitable spot to land with their paperwork and as a moving headquarters for their onboard duties.
Most of these bosses of the train choose one or two tables of scarce space in lounge/café cars, keeping paying passengers for the full use and enjoyment of the single common space on many trains.
The conductors and A/Cs will tell you it’s a centrally located spot where they have vision out of windows of both sides of the train, have a flat, hard surface for paperwork and its where passengers can find them in a time of need.
That is all true on single level trains and eastern long distance/inter-regional trains. There are even a few modified café cars where a walled-off working space for conductors has been created.
On western, Superliner-equipped trains with a crew dorm car, conductors and A/Cs have two dedicated spaces to call their own. On the upper level, just inside the passageway door leading to the rest of the trailing train there is a specific space built as a conductor’s office. Those of us who have used it as a non-conductor, regular impromptu workspace can tell you it is comfortable and convenient. On the lower level is the space designated as the crew lounge. It has two tables as found in a dining car and offers plenty of room for conductors and A/Cs to have working space.
Most people also don’t know that at the front of the crew dorm car on the upper level above the stairs leading down to the passageway door usually open to the baggage car is a room specially designed for use by a chief of onboard services, complete with a bunk and small work space. It is a less-than-comfortable space.
In the past, conductors often used an open roomette for their on-duty perch, but in the past two or three decades the lounge/café car tables have been the preferred space.
Train and engine crews and passengers deserve better on the single level trains or trains without a crew dorm car. Onboard professional T&E crew members should have some sort of designated workspace. Passengers which are paying for tickets on full service trains should not be denied space for enjoyment, be it on a single level regional train or a bi-level Superliner Cross Country Café car with limited space for passenger use.
• Make more use of the concept of “multi.” Unless you are referring to swarms of ravenous mosquitos, congregations of cranky alligators or an assortment of lesser vermin, the concept of “multi” is good, especially when referring to uses for passenger rail and associated rail cars.
Again, go to the past and look at what private passenger railroads did when the only revenues and subsidies came from what their own equipment, marketing and service provided.
Pullman lounge cars which had a combination of bedrooms and lounge space. Mail and baggage cars. Crew cars that included baggage car space. Lounge and baggage cars. Coaches with half the car as a lounge car. The possibilities were endless, and most of the combinations were good ones.
The last Viewliner order included 10 crew dormitory/baggage cars, offering a necessary private space for onboard services crew members to have a restful sleeping and bathing space and half of the car for baggage service. A great concept that accomplished two things and still had to potential for creating baggage revenue. At times these cars have been used to offer revenue sleeping car space in place of crew space.
On the Northeast Corridor in the past there have been combination business class and lounge cars, with the lounge space open to all passengers.
In the mid-20th century, many trains, such as the heralded Coast Daylight from Southern Pacific Railroad in California, had one private day-space drawing room in each lounge car, sold for revenue space. People were willing to pay for exclusivity and privacy, even on a day train.
On the opposite coast at the same time on Pennsylvania Railroad’s Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York City, Congressional Service trains offered day space in Pullman sleeping cars, complete with room service for meals.
Between the two coast, The Milwaukee Road’s Skytop lounge cars also had one exclusive private drawing room for sale as day space.
Over the recent years, lounge cars have devolved from a recreation/conversation/socializing space car with occasional-style seating to all-café cars with only table seating available (the few spaces not monopolized by T&E crew members or otherwise used as a pantry for sale goods).
We need to return to the concept of conviviality and random seating versus the rigidity of all-booth seating which discourages multi-party use.
It’s time to return occasional-style seating to café cars and return the cars to a combination lounge and café car, where both food and beverage choices are sold as an alternative to the dining car versus a no-choice option for food service for coach passengers.
The Cross Country Café Superliner car is a good concept which needs tweaking. The idea of a semi-separate lounge are for before- or after-dinner drinks is both efficient and appealing (and, nothing new; New York Central and others had lounge areas in dining cars). The concept of the Cross Country Café achieves this concept, but the concept is defeated when the available lounge space is not used as lounge space for passengers. Instead of a Cross Country Café being the only food service and lounge car in a consist, adding a Sightseer lounge car in conjunction to a Cross Country Café provides adequate lounge space for all passengers. The Sightseer lounge car does not necessarily need to be staffed, just open for use by passengers. The Cross Country Café – if properly staffed – should be able to handle all lounge and dining needs in conjunction with available space in the adjacent car.
A Cross Country Café should not replace a full dining car on a full-size train, but adequately works on smaller consists when travel demand is lighter.
To sum it all up:
– More combination crew and baggage cars are needed
– Return of sleeping car lounge cars; half bedrooms, half lounge space with full beverage and limited food service
– Return of lounge/baggage cars
– For day trains, add at least one exclusive private room in a designated car
– Day space sold in sleeping cars
– Reconvert café cars to lounge and café cars
– Pair a Cross Country Café car with a non-staffed Sightseer lounge car to provide adequate dining and lounge space on each train when a full dining car is not necessary due to a smaller consist.
• Have full flexibility to add and subtract cars as necessary to meet passenger demand. Passenger trains are the most flexible form of transportation when it comes to adding or subtracting capacity.
Airplanes (depending on the plane model) come in one of four sizes: large, medium, small and puddle-jumper. If there is heavy demand for a holiday or other surge, an airplane has a static number of seats. Once the seats are gone, they are gone and everyone else looking to travel has to choose another time or another carrier.
The same is true for intercity buses, which also come in three sizes: big, medium sized and a passenger van masquerading as a bus.
Cruise ships these days really don’t offer basic transportation, but are very accomplished as floating resorts going to vacation destinations. Occasional trans-Atlantic and trans-pacific departures take place, but none that would qualify as regularly scheduled service as a form of getting from Port A to Port B. Cruise ships also come in a variety of sizes, from the newest carrying 7,500 passengers to smaller river cruise ships carrying a few dozen.
A choice of private vehicle transportation (can’t just say “automobile” in these days of SUVs, pick-up trucks which never see a workday in their entire existence and hybrids of all sorts) is mostly efficient for setting one’s own travel schedule and door-to-door transportation, but those conveniences are accompanied by outrageous fuel costs, often crowded highways and interstates and sometimes questionable roadside eateries.
All of that brings us back to the marvelous flexibility of passenger trains, from very large to medium size to small, but still flexible. Let’s look at some post-war history of what has worked for passenger train flexibility.
In the streamlined diesel era, efficient locomotives hauled long strings of passenger cars. Included in those consists were mail and express and baggage cars, crew cars, sleeping cars, coaches, sleeping car lounge cars, coach lounge cars and diners of different types, either offering full meals or perhaps a grill car which resembled counter service found at the local Woolworth’s dime store, but with passing scenery outside of the windows.
Not often was a “standard” consist operated, because consists were adjusted by demand, be it seasonal, special event or weather-related. The passenger railroads planned for such events when ordering new equipment and deciding what older/heavyweight equipment to maintain in their fleets. Because there were healthy extra boards for onboard services and train and engine employees, again, not often, where the senior employees with an assigned run were paid hefty, union contract mandated overtime because they had to cover for someone who either marked off on a departure or if extra equipment was added because of any demand reason.
Those of us who remember traveling in the late 1950s and 60s recall the stark different between a streamlined car in regular service and a heavyweight pulled out of the coach yard to substitute either for a bad-order car or simply augment a consist because of demand.
During the fall football season many railroads regularly scheduled football special train movements, often using extra heavyweight equipment. For known special events such as presidential inaugurals in Washington, D.C., the Pennsylvania Railroad from the north, along with the Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, Southern and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads all managed to run special trains and lots of extra equipment to Washington Union Station. The Pullman Company created temporary, medium-sized cities as Washington Union Station of heavyweight Pullman sleeping cars for use as hotel space for the inaugurals every four years.
The point is, passenger railroads understood good use of assets, both current and at end-of-useful-life. Older equipment sat, at the ready, in coach yards as necessary back-up when either catastrophe or demand warranted. There was no wholesale scrapping of equipment to keep it out of the hands of possible rivals. There was no cancellation of a train because of lack of serviceable equipment. There was a plan in place to keep passengers accommodated in an acceptable way, even if the pungent aroma of mothballs was in the air.
The other good use of assets was meeting seasonal demand by moving equipment around the country by seasons. In 1964 there were over 5,000 passengers cars in service in the United States. In the summer, demand out west was high on routes like the Great Northern’s Empire Builder, the Northern Pacific’s Vista-Dome North Coast Limited and the multi-railroad operated California Zephyr among others. In the winter, demand was higher on the east when tourists headed to Florida and other sunnier destinations and some of that western equipment headed to the eastern trains, such as the North Coast Limited domes operated on the Panama Limited and other equipment to the City of Miami.
Because the Pullman Company controlled all of that equipment it was fairly easy to assign excess equipment from one railroad to another, even though it required two fresh coats of exterior paint, one from the original road to the borrowing road, and then back again to the original road. But, that was a time when fresh exterior paint was considered essential, because image was important. It was the railroad’s name and reputation on the exterior of the cars, and that meant something in the commercial world.
Every train car has a coupler on both ends (including round-end observation cars). Adding and subtracting cars at terminals is a normal activity and should be encouraged. No other form of transportation has the flexibility of a passenger train. To not take advantage of that innate flexibility is to leave money on the table when more space can be sold during heavy travel demand times.
• Be the year a certain amount of graciousness returns to the passenger train travel experience. Brightline in South Florida has been leading the way on this important effort. Everyone else should watch and learn.
As callous as travel had become prior to the pandemic (See: 21st century airline travel), the various isolation methods employed during the pandemic only made things worse.
The best hotel and resort chains successfully embed a sense of gracious in all of their employees, and even the occasional airline employee can exhibit some graciousness.
Smiles, minimal words of thanks, offers of help and exertion of facial muscles beyond a frown come only at a cost of thoughtfulness. Employees who just come to work to put in their shift hours and leave may accomplish some good, but do little to add graciousness to the travel experience.
This is not a cultural problem, it is a management problem. Brightline has figured it out and there are pockets of hope all over the country. But, 2023 should be the year when all passengers are welcomed with a smile and a thank you for traveling with us.
It has been known for decades that passengers who travel dressed more appropriately for public view rather than what some vaguely define as personal comfort always received better treatment than their more slovenly brethren. The same is true for companies which consistently provide gracious service, be it a roadside diner serving burgers and fries, an airline, hotel or any other business. Graciousness is both consciously and subconsciously appreciated by most, and craved by many. Graciousness is a money-maker and passenger-pleaser.
• Build more suburban stations and intermediate stations in addition to existing stations where demand exists. Most passenger train stations are products of station development in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. While the railroad tracks may not have moved since the stations were built, many urban and suburban areas where the stations are located have changed, often not for the better.
In Southern California and Southern Florida, multiple station locations are thriving which were established in that time period. The urban areas around the stations have continued to grow, supporting the need for the stations even though they are less than 25 miles apart. Too much of the opposite is true.
In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul there is only a single Amtrak station, the magnificent St. Paul Union Depot. The full metropolitan area of the Twin Cities clocks in at 4,078,788 people. Certainly, with that much potential for passengers discovering Amtrak, there could be more than one station in such a huge metropolitan area encompassing two major cities sprawled out over two separate counties. In 2019, Amtrak hosted 90,961 passengers entraining/detraining at St. Paul Union Depot. The math on that works out to ridership for the Empire Builder of 0.02230098% of the local population. While the former Midway Amtrak station was in a spot between the two huge cities, that location was not much of an improvement of SPUD.
Brightline – while partnering with local governments – is building new stations where the population is and near popular destinations. Brightline operates at an efficient level and stations with small dwell times but have good passenger loads are optimum for Brightline’s – and any other passenger railroad’s – bottom line and passenger satisfaction.
A brief clip from Progressive Railroading magazine online on Friday, January 13, 2023 makes the point:
“Last month, Florida passenger-rail company Brightline logged an 87% increase in ridership and a 205% increase in ticket revenue compared with December 2021 figures, according to a recent financial report.
“Excluding special event trains, ridership rose 70% in December. The ridership growth was driven in part by new stations in Boca Raton and Aventura, which opened Dec. 21 and Dec. 24, 2022, respectively. Those stations are expected to be “strong contributors to ridership growth throughout 2023,” the company’s financial report stated.
“Rides by monthly pass holders climbed 107% in December, demonstrating a trend toward normal commuting patterns for an increasing share of Brightline’s market, according to the report. In November 2022, the company raised the price of a monthly pass by 15%.
“For all of 2022, the railroad transported 1,230,494 riders, up from 159,474 in 2021. Last year was the company’s first full year of operation since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.”
One day when there are at least three frequencies on every major route than the concept of express trains can return. Until then, it’s more important to have multiple stops at convenient stations to accommodate passengers – the main reason for having passenger trains.
Convenient stations are stations that are used by passengers. Stations which are spaced at a mandatory distance apart by a mileage figure no one can remember why it was implemented are failures.
• Move beyond modal-envy and envy of international trains. The uselessness of modal envy accomplishes nothing. Those who moan and whine about how much government largess the airlines and highways constantly receive seem to demand their favored form of transportation (most often, passenger trains) have constant access to the same endless trough of taxpayer monies.
The reality is, the other forms of transportation generating all of the envy from the have-nots simply have devised and maintained a better form of access to government hand-out managers. It’s not a matter they have a better form of transportation, it’s a matter they have a better battle plan when approaching government and asking for funding. Don’t get mad and discouraged, get a better plan for the future and better lobbyists who can successfully work the levers of government.
Politicians and railfans constantly look with envy on foreign passenger train systems. Look at the frequencies! Look at the routes! Look at the spiffy equipment! Look at how many people ride the trains!
Yep. All of that is generally true, passenger trains in foreign countries are often considered better than passenger trains in the United States. Not so long ago, it was passenger trains in the United States which led the way for the rest of the world to emulate. It’s time to stop envying the rest of the world and make long term decisions for what is best for the United States, not what is best in the rest of the world. Countries that have multiple daily frequencies between urban centers also don’t have as developed of a highway system as the United States has today. Most of those countries also don’t have the car culture of the United States.
Until the car culture is changed and the highways become so untenable, then for at least a couple of upcoming generations things will only slowly improve. It’s also important to realize that urban passenger train solutions have little hope of working well in smaller urban areas because in those areas the complication of first-mile/last-mile solutions has a far greater impact.
Stop the envy, start finding realistic solutions in our own country. It’s always amusing how many American’s look with envy on the superior service of VIA Rail Canada. Yet, many Canadians look at Amtrak and wish they had a system even half as large as Amtrak. You know, the grass is always greener …
• Stop automatically saying “no” to any innovation or improvement. Anyone who has been on the inside of Amtrak knows that when the company wants to do something, it can usually find a way. Sometimes it’s a matter of moving around some budget money, or perhaps simply starting something new at the end of a budget year so it gets charged to the next budget year. It’s a matter of will and willingness. With the exception of hare-brained requests from unthinking railfans, it’s time to consider thoughtful, meaningful advances to the future, even if they require some additional thought, planning, and short-term inconvenience.
Say “no” to always saying “no.”
• Repopulate extra boards. Eternal misguidance that fewer employees is the answer to every budget problem has only led to severe shortages of willing workers and acceptable passenger service levels. Asking employees with regular assignments to also cover for absent other employees leads to burn-out, stress and unsafe conditions due to exhaustion. Stop admiring that one employee who takes every extra assignment because they want the extra money to buy a boat. That employee is not representative of the full universe of employees. Employees need predictable schedules to run their own lives and the lives of their families in an orderly fashion. Repopulate the extra boards. There is a reason extra boards were in place for decades before the budget cutters thought they were an easy target for elimination.
• Start building to scale both for now and in the future. For too long, pessimists have determined size and scale to important facilities such as passenger train stations and service facilities based on the assumption the passenger train industry will always be stagnant or be in retreat. Central planners made huge mistakes in places like Charlottesville, Virginia and San Antonio, Texas by downsizing station facilities to those of a small-town intermediate station stop, ignoring potential near-term growth. The result? Stations built in the late 1990s which are bursting at the seams with passengers and unable to meet future demand as just two examples.
The same is true for new equipment orders and determining how much of existing fleets should be retained for refurbishment and use as back-up or overflow equipment.
Passenger train scale of development should be a combination of optimism and reality, not a combination of pessimism and doom.
• Take a certain amount of leap of faith based on market forces and make some decisions based on market realities versus ALWAYS having to do what seems like endless studies before committing to a future path. If you have competent management versed in their industry, then not every decision requires a study to validate a decision. Make an executive decision. Change the color on the restroom walls from off-white to light beige without first doing three studies to determine the outcome. Time lost doing endless studies is also opportunity time lost.
• Give the marketing folks an equal voice when determining passenger train schedules. As critical as they are, the mechanical and operating departments are not the final voice of authority when it comes to determining optimal schedules. It may be more convenient for a train to depart at noon instead of 9 a.m. so the mechanical forces have a less rigid schedule to follow when turning equipment at a terminal, but more passengers will ride the train departing at 9 a.m. because it meets their needs for time at the arriving destination. Mechanical and operating employees may argue for more time in any given instance, but history shows us when schedules are managed efficiently and properly, all sorts of good things occur.
• Follow the good example of Canada and put American flag emblems on the exterior of passenger cars and motive power. It’s who we are.
• Always have hope for the future. Passenger rail was supposed to have died in North America half a century ago, yet in the present there is already one successful private passenger railroad operating and it has aggressive expansion plans. There are more entrepreneurs out there plotting and planning and girding their loins for a future with more successful passenger trains to more places.