U.S., Amtrak: What’s the overall best value for passengers, a ‘land cruise’ or sea cruise?

Amtrak’s Empire Builder at Havre, Montana. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Andrew Selden, Guest Commentator; June 6, 2023

We recently saw an amazing Amtrak fare on Amtrak’s Empire Builder for a 22-hour trip in July from St. Paul to Glacier National Park, in a Bedroom, leaving on July 4th. For this one-day outing, including meals in the diner with one glass of wine at dinner, Amtrak is asking $1,600. (A Roomette fare for the same trip, and meals, is about $550, and a coach seat with nothing more is about $175.)

Amtrak’s Empire Builder at St. Paul Union Depot in the capital city of Minnesota. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Let’s do an apples-to-oranges comparison to see what kind of value Amtrak is providing, and to test the Amtrak tenet that Amtrak loses money on Superliner sleeping car passengers.

Amtrak Superliner bedroom, daytime configuration. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak Superliner bedroom, nighttime configuration. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak Superliner roomette for two passengers, daytime configuration. Wikimedia Commons photo.
New style Amfleet I coach seating. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak Superliner dining car set for next morning’s breakfast service. Wikimedia Commons photo.

A high-end cruise operator, like Regent or SilverSea, usually gets about $1,000 per person per day, for cruises that last seven to 30 days. That adds up to a pretty pricey boat ride. But when you look closely at what the passenger gets for the fare, it’s a whole different proposition.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises Master Suite. Regent photo.
La Dame dining, Silversea Sliver Muse cruise ship. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Regent fare typically includes: passage on the ship; business class airfare between home airport and ports of embarkation and debarkation (on most airlines, “business class” means the big seats up in the front of the plane, what you and I would call “First Class”), even on international itineraries where the airline’s walk-up cash fare is many thousands of dollars per person; gourmet real meals on board, cooked on site from fresh, real food, served on china and linens by professional waitstaff (in large numbers, plus sommeliers and managers), in multiple restaurants; unlimited free wine and spirits at every meal; open bars all over the ship, all the time; 24-hour room service (also served on real china and linens); a mini-fridge in your cabin, restocked daily; daily fresh fruit and canapes in your cabin; your choice of two bottles of premium liquor in your cabin, also replenished as needed; shows every night; entertainers in two or three of the bars every afternoon and evening; all transfers including all baggage handling from hotel to cabin and cabin to hotel; pre- and post-cruise nights in high-end hotels; most shore excursions; personal laundry on board; ample public lounge spaces all over the ship; discounted rates on bookings for future cruises (saving Regent the travel agent commission); concierge and destination services desks; and a dedicated butler/cabin attendant in addition to the normal housekeeping staff.

Most cabins are in the range of 350 to 400 square feet. In the pre-departure hotel, and again upon disembarkation, Regent hires local staff to be concierges, manage everything and answer questions, arrange tours, transfer bags, etc.

The passenger to crew ratio is about 1.3-to-1.

Given all the stuff that’s included, it’s easy to wonder what’s left over to pay docking fees and fuel for the ship, or the captain’s salary.

For $1,600 a day on Amtrak, you get … hmmm … transportation; about 65 square feet in the crowded room; boil-in-a-bag meals, on Amtrak’s schedule, not when you want to eat, served on throw-away plastic picnic plates; one glass of wine at dinner; room service, but only at designated meal times, also on Amtrak’s schedule, not yours, served on plastic out of a plastic bag; and on some but not all trains, one café/lounge car with no added services and not enough seats for half the passengers on the train. Your car attendant will help with your room, whenever s/he can. The car attendant may be responsible for as many as about 70 people (the Car Attendant on the 730 sleeper on the Empire Builder, for example, has to service the 730 car and the eight overflow Roomettes in the crew dormitory car, for a passenger-crew ratio that can reach 70-to-1). Overall, the passenger-crew ratio for the train might be 25-to-1. Nothing at all before or after your trip, and at many stops not so much as a roof over your head to wait for the (possibly late) train because there’s no station, and no agent to help with information, reservations, ticketing, boarding or luggage. Baggage can be checked only at a few stations.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises ship; Regent ships are smaller and more intimate than many of today’s oversized cruise liners carrying thousands of passengers. Internet photo.

Which price and experience drives the better value?

Another obvious conclusion: anyone who thinks Amtrak loses money on $1,600/day sleeping car fares is delusional. Corollary: Every western Superliner train should carry at least one, and in peak periods two, all-Bedroom sleeping cars (like those on Auto Train) in addition to the FULL normal complement of sleepers. And provide a separate on-board sleeping car lounge space with free snacks and beverages.

Silversea’s Silver Cloud at Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Think a comparison to a luxury cruise ship is unfair? Rocky Mountaineer does pretty much everything the high-end cruise ships do, including off-train hotels and all transfers before, during and after a trip, all included. Rocky Mountaineer specifically models their business after the high-end cruise ships. VIA Rail Canada, to a degree, does a lot of the same things in their often sold-out deluxe premium fare peak period service on Trains 1 and 2, the Canadian.

Rocky Mountaineer offers luxury passenger train travel in both Canada and the United States. Rocky Mountaineer promotional photo.
VIA Rail Canada’s classic streamliner, the Canadian, the only regularly scheduled transcontinental intercity passenger train which offers dome cars. Internet photo.

One small nuance: a second passenger in the Amtrak Bedroom can travel for an incremental cost of the coach fare (in our example, about $175 on top of the $1,600 Bedroom fare, which doesn’t change). On the ship, the second passenger pays a full $1,000/day fare, but also gets all of the many free add-ons, and the cruise companies constantly run promotions of one sort or another (two-category cabin upgrades worth thousands of dollars, and two-for-one pricing offers, are common). When was the last time you saw Amtrak advertise sleeper fare promotions or discounts? When was the last time you saw a non-online Amtrak ad for the Empire Builder at all?

Amtrak office car 10001, Beech Grove. The car, originally an Amfleet coach, was rebuilt into an office car after it has been involved in a derailment. Beech Grove has a sitting area, bedrooms, kitchen and dining room. File photo from Wikimedia Commons.
File illustration.

Our conclusion is that Amtrak doesn’t take the Empire Builder and its sister western trains and other inter-regional trains seriously. That’s not news—senior managers don’t acknowledge that these trains are their biggest business segment and their most commercially-successful trains. And it appears they sure don’t ride them as regular passengers. In April Amtrak’s two most-senior managers did make a combined trip from Washington to Los Angeles on the Cardinal, Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, but did so in the Beech Grove business car attached to the rear of each of those trains. So, it comes as no surprise that Amtrak does next to nothing to grow the business, and to make travel in an Amtrak sleeping car a better value by enhancing the service package to make the trip worth what passengers pay for. But, perhaps if Amtrak did that, they would be under heavy market pressure to expand the train service they offer, not shrink it by cutting consist sizes and annulling trains due to lack of available equipment.

About the author:

Andrew Selden of Minneapolis, Minnesota is President of United Rail Passenger Alliance and Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. Mr. Selden is a retired nationally known franchise law attorney and is the author of a book and numerous scholarly articles on the subject.

Andrew Selden has served as a National Park Service Ranger Guide on the Empire Builder. Photo provided by Andrew Selden.

In a 1998 Amtrak Board of Directors vote, Mr. Selden lost out to George Warrington to become the new CEO of Amtrak.

In January 1986 Trains Magazine published Mr. Selden’s article “How to get Amtrak out of the woods.” Editor David P. Morgan labeled Mr. Selden “The dean of pro-passenger Amtrak critics.”

The biographical information for Mr. Selden accompanying the 1986 article said, “Andrew C. Selden … graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1971… A lifelong railroad enthusiast (a painting of the running gear of a streamlined NYC 4-6-4 hangs on an office wall), he became seriously concerned with Amtrak’s future after the 1979 route cutbacks of the Carter Administration. … Selden has taken issue with Amtrak accounting procedures and management/marketing strategies in numerous privately circulated white papers. His “The High Cost of Amtrak Accounting,” a three-part analysis co-authored with. Dr. E.P. Hamilton III, a Texas professional engineer, appeared in the August/September, October, and November 1984 issues of Passenger Train Journal, and elicited a feature-length response by Amtrak Vice President-Corporate Planning and Development Timothy P. Gardner in February 1986 PTJ. Selden gratefully acknowledges the technical assistance of the Surface Transportation Systems Institute, Nordberg-Herzog & Associates, Inc. and The Balcones Group in preparation of this (1986) article for Trains.”

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