U.S., Canada: Beyond Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak, glimpses of hope for future passenger trains

A circa late 1950s photo of Santa Fe’s Chief in Southern California near Pasadena, passing over an early-design freeway. In many respects the Santa Fe Railway set the standard for various superb levels of passenger service, all delivered with great corporate pride. For the senior executives and managers, it was their names attached to the performance of the trains in addition to the company’s name and reputation. The Santa Fe lives on: Southern California’s Pacific Surfliners were once a Santa Fe route. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief is a descendant of the Super Chief and Chief. Santa Fe operated everything from Rail Diesel Car (RDC) services to branch line service to overnight sleeper trains to transcontinental superlatives such as the Super Chief with the famed Turquoise Room, distinguished Fred Harvey dining cars, Pullman Sleeping Cars, domes, and chair cars. Most other railroads called them coaches, but on the Santa Fe, they were chair cars. The Santa Fe, along with the Budd Company, invented entire new types of passenger equipment such as the Hi-Level fleet of bi-level passenger cars for the El Capitan, which became the inspiration and prototype for Amtrak’s Superliner fleet. Internet photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on April 15, 2021 and has been updated with photographs added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; July 19, 2022

A few random glimpses into the future of passenger rail in North America:

• There will be more than one passenger train company on many routes, restoring pre-Amtrak competition on competitive routes. The traveling public will have choices of departures, arrivals, accommodations and onboard services.

• Different levels of service will be available.

– There will be a restoration of high-amenities premium service trains, particularly on scenic routes where the train trip itself is the destination.

VIA Rail Canada introduced Prestige Service earlier this decade on the Canadian. Extremely expensive, very rarely discounted in price, VIA Rail has set a standard of excellence with this high-end service for those willing to pay for extra amenities and exclusivity. VIA Rail Canada publicity photo.
Large beds, large windows, large rooms and large fares define VIA Rail Canada’s Prestige Service on the Canadian. VIA Rail Canada publicity photo.

– A new level of “standard” service will be unveiled, similar to what is found today on Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak, but done better. These trains will provide transportation in a welcoming, pleasant environment with different levels of service including sleeping cars, business class/parlor cars, first class coach and standard coach. A much desired amenity will be baggage handling at every station with no restrictions on how much baggage a passenger may check as long as they are willing to pay per piece after an initial free amount.

– Corridor trains will provide short distance, feeder service to the long distance/inter-regional trains.

Corridor Rail Development Corporation illustration featuring Hi-Level fleet equipment.

• Night trains will again become common.

Nightjet service in Europe. Europe is rapidly developing new overnight sleeper trains between major markets, replacing for many travelers, airline travel. Nightjet publicity photo.
A Pullman heavyweight sleeping car assigned to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Steel heavyweight passenger cars were first introduced in 1910 and became ubiquitous all over North and Central America with thousands of the cars built with a myriad of floor plans. The cars featured a combination of open sections and compartments and saw heavy service through two world wars and the Great Depression. Many of the cars were not withdrawn from service until lightweight streamliners were introduced in the post-war era of the late 1940s and 1950s; some railroads kept heavyweight cars in service on their secondary trains until Amtrak Day in 1971. These heavyweight cars provided the bulk of original overnight sleeper train service through “car lines” which were subtracted from trains at intermediate station stops and left on station house tracks so the passengers could sleep until the next morning without having to detrain at uncivilized hours as the main body of the train passed through various enroute cities and towns. Wikimadia photo.

• A mix of conventional-speed, higher-speed and high-speed passenger train services will be part of a nationwide service matrix. Higher-speed and high-speed trains will be available where commercially viable, but conventional-speed trains will be the bulk of the national system, feeding faster trains as appropriate.

• There will be a return of more long distance routes, both east-west and north-south. Intersecting routes will validate the matrix theory as each route feeds a crossing route. Both passengers and through-cars will conveniently change trains to reach a huge number of city-pairs.

• The embarrassing food fight over onboard food service will disappear and the realization will dawn on passenger train managers that food is a basic necessity of life which must be treated with greater respect than is afforded today.

• Passenger train stations will once again become centers of both transportation and commerce. The temples and palaces of the past will not be rebuilt, but a more sensible combination of stations and services as found today on Brightline in South Florida will become the standard template.

• Trains crossing the U.S./Canadian border will become more common in more border crossing locations. VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak and any combination of private Canadian and American passenger rail companies will work together to provide international service which will have terminals and service far beyond those of the few trains today.

A contemporary view of privately-owned Dover Harbor on a station house track as it would be spotted to either entrain passengers and then to be added to a passing train during the night at a very late evening or very early morning hour or for sleeping passengers to slumber in peace after the car is cut off of a passing night sleeper train at an equally inconvenient hour for passengers to awaken and detrain while still dark. At one point during the heavyweight era the Pullman Company bragged in its public advertisements that its Pullman Porters made up more beds every night than any major hotel chain of the era. In its original form, Dover Harbor would have had original air lines only, no HEP power cable as shown above, and direct-dump sinks and toilets. In a station setting such as this, sanitary buckets would have been attached to each car sewer outlet. The original end-of-car diaphragms have been replaced in the car above with rubber diaphragms. Internet photo.

• The Canadian Parliament will realize the restraints placed on VIA Rail Canada by not having a policy in place to give passenger trains some clout over freight train dispatching, either by improved train mile payments or negotiating a long-term agreement between VIA and the freights for passenger train fair access.

• VIA Rail Canada will figure out how to quell opposition to returning the Canadian to daily service, at least during seasonal peak times. Both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National will move beyond the constraints placed on their respective railroads by the initial horrors of precision scheduled railroading and as their systems become more fluid there will be more opportunities for better passenger train handling. A second frequency will be paired with the Canadian offering more of a transportation and less premium-service option.

• As time moves on, the last freight railroad executives and managers who believed passenger trains are nothing but a nuisance will either be retired or dead. As has already begun to happen, host railroad executives have become more and more friendly to passenger trains as a source of dependable revenue. New negotiations will take place which resolve differences between host railroads and passenger trains and new agreements will be made which are beneficial to both parties, including a higher and fairer level of train mile and dispatching compensation for the host railroads.

A small-city Amtrak station in Port Huron, Michigan, mid-2010s. Internet photo.
New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal – NOUPT – built in 1954 consolidated several pre-Amtrak railroads in a single station. It was the last of the major city railroad stations built in the United States. It is now owned by the City of New Orleans and has undergone many renovations. Today, it is the eastern terminus of Stephen Gardner’s Sunset Limited, the southern terminus of the City of New Orleans, and the western/southern terminus of the Crescent. Wikipedia photo.
Modern interior view of New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. This view of the waiting room is from the front entrance hall. To the right, not shown in this photo is the elevator hall which has a permanent bronze plaque commemorating the Amtrak employees’ and passengers’ lives lost in the Big Bayou Canot accident involving the Sunset Limited on September 22, 1993 east of Mobile, Alabama. Scenes from the 2010 Bruce Willis/John Malkovich/Helen Mirren/Mary-Louise Parker/Morgan Freeman movie Red were filmed at NOUPT. Wikipedia photo.
Brightline in South Florida is redefining passenger train terminals and stations with modern, passenger friendly designs. This exterior view of the intermediate station stop of West Palm Beach shows the general design of all Brightline stations. Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline’s Orlando International Airport terminal under construction. The station is attached to the main airport terminal and will allow passengers to pass seamlessly from air to rail and everything in between. The station will open as the northern Brightline terminal late in 2022 and after the planned extension to Tampa is completed will become an intermediate stop station. Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline’s planned Aventura station in Miami-Dade County. The Aventura station will serve both Brightline and local commuter service trains. Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station lounge for Select passengers. Passengers are offered refreshments in addition to a quiet lounge area. Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station Smart lounge for passengers. All Brightline stations have separate waiting areas. Brightline publicity photo.
The children’s play area at Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station. All Brightline stations have similar play areas. Brightline publicity photo.

• The most important realization of all will rise to the surface: One size, one philosophy, one level of service of any kind does not fit all. Passengers are willing to pay for services they need and desire. Passenger train operators will stop leaving money on the table and instead seek to reasonably meet the different needs of as many types of passengers as possible.

• The printed timetable, available onboard every train and in an improved, more informative format, will make a comeback as a travel necessity.

• Passenger trains will stop being political footballs and instead become recognized as the economic generators the results constantly demonstrate them to be.

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