After spending three days in uncomfortable Amtrak seats and eating mediocre Amtrak food during my travels from Washington DC to Los Angeles, I was ready to condemn the entire operation. But then the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Portland made up for it all.
I started out on the Cardinal, a three-day-a-week train that goes from New York to Chicago via Washington, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. This train uses Amfleet cars, which were originally designed for short-distance travel such as New York to Washington. They are noisy and bumpy–sometimes I felt like a jackhammer was operating next to my head–and the food service is inferior to most other long-distance trains.
The train is also slow, taking 24 hours to get from DC to Chicago compared with 18 on the Capital Limited. Other than the fact that it serves several cities not reached by other Amtrak trains, the train’s main redeeming feature is that it goes through the highly scenic New River Gorge–but in the westbound direction it does so at night. Unlike the Capital Limited, the Cardinal also has wifi.
From Chicago I took the Southwest Chief to L.A., which mostly follows the route of the Super Chief and other Santa Fe trains. The Santa Fe was able to run trains between the two cities in less than 40 hours, but Amtrak takes about 44, mainly because of longer stops for crew changes and to allow people to smoke. This train is the only overnight train in the West that goes 90 miles per hour for much of its journey; the others are limited to 79 mph.
The bi-level Superliner cars used on this and many other overnight trains (but not the Cardinal) are quieter and heavier than Amfleet, which means they aren’t as bumpy. But, as I previously complained, the seats are the same: designed for four-hour trips, they are totally unsuited for overnight travel. I ended up bedding down in the lounge car on the second night, getting about three hours of sleep, whereas I don’t remember sleeping at all on the Cardinal or the first night on the Southwest Chief.
For my last night from Los Angeles to Portland I treated myself to a sleeping car, but as I noted last week the beds in the sleeping cars are only comfortable relative to the seats. The mattresses are more like futons and are narrow as well as thin.
However, the Coast Starlight has something found on no other Amtrak train: a parlor car. Amtrak refurbished the lounge cars from the Santa Fe El Capitan, which were built in 1955, to be a special car exclusively for sleeping car passengers. Since there were only five such cars, and Amtrak’s two-night trains require six trainsets while the Coast Starlight requires only four, Amtrak dedicated these cars to the Starlight.
As the above picture shows, one end of the car has eight extremely comfortable parlor seats (six of which are shown in the photo) that swivel 360 degrees. Just beyond the parlor seats is a steam table for serving breakfast items such as scrambled eggs and French toast. Then there are some bench seats that face the center of the car and several tables and chairs for serving lunch and dinner. Finally there is a little bar and kitchen. Downstairs, which originally was a small lounge, has been turned into a movie theater with a large-screen television and 20 seats.
Sleeping car passengers have a choice of eating meals in the diner or in the Pacific Parlor car, as the car is known. The dining car menus are identical to those on the Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, and other trains with full-service diners. But the parlor car has a completely different menu that is a cut above the dining car menus. The food is still mostly pre-prepared, but sandwiches, for example, may be made with olive bread instead of plain white bread and served with pesto instead of mayonnaise. Beverages include a variety of wines and cocktails, while soft drinks include ginger beer and black cherry in addition to the Pepsi products found on other Amtrak trains.
This car was so comfortable and the food so refreshing that it almost made up for the discomforts of the previous three nights. I certainly didn’t mind that this train was three hours late, while most of the other trains I was on were on time.
This raises the interesting question of what Amtrak is for. Is it mainly to provide people with necessary transportation or is it a luxury service for relatively high-income elites? The Coast Starlight I rode on had two coaches that were less than half full, a business-class coach that was nearly empty, and four sleeping cars that were nearly full. This means it quite possibly carried more sleeping car passengers than coach passengers.
Fares on Amtrak sleeping cars tend to be three times coach fares. If you can get a coach ticket on Amtrak from the West Coast to Chicago for $200, the same trip in a sleeping car would be $600. The $400 surcharge would be only $200 per person if they shared a room (meaning one took the upper berth, as the beds are too narrow to comfortably sleep two unless both are skinny and they like to sleep very close to one another). But even with a shared room, a coast-to-coast trip in an Amtrak sleeping car is considerably more than the cost of flying.
Although Amtrak probably has better information, my sense is that sleeping car passengers are fairly price insensitive: Amtrak could tack another $100 onto the fares and probably would still be able to fill the rooms up. Coach passengers are much more price sensitive: most are taking Amtrak because it is less expensive than flying or they are going to or from somewhere that isn’t near a commercial airport.
Counting just operating costs, the Coast Starlight loses about $100 per rider. I don’t know, but I suspect this loss applies to sleeping car as well as coach passengers. Although sleeping car passengers pay a lot more, they have more people attending to their needs and get all their meals for free.
As a passenger, I wish that all Amtrak long-distance trains could have a car like the Pacific Parlor car. As a taxpayer, however, I wonder why people think it is necessary to subsidize people who are willing to pay more than the cost of flying to ride in sleeping cars.
I think that Amtrak does a disservice to its coach passengers by offering such uncomfortable seats when comfortable ones wouldn’t have cost any more when the company first ordered its long-distance train cars. It further does a disservice to sleeping car passengers by offering mediocre food and lounge facilities on trains other than the Coast Starlight. Amtrak could offer better coach seats at little extra cost and better first-class facilities that could be paid for by increased sleeping-car fares.
These problems are compounded by the fact that Amtrak long-distance (and most short-distance) equipment is near or passed the end of its service life. Most of Amtrak’s passenger cars today are older than the cars in Amtrak’s 1971 fleet that it took over from the railroads, and replacing these older cars will cost a couple of billion dollars.
The changes I would recommend probably cannot solve Amtrak’s basic problem, which is that fares on all its trains cover only about half of their total costs including depreciation. To become profitable, Amtrak would have to significantly jack up sleeping car fares and somehow reduce coach costs so that both classes pay for themselves. Although I’ll take a closer look over the next few months, I doubt this is possible. Just about everything necessary to make Amtrak and useful operation–replacement of worn-out equipment, more comfortable seats, better food, and so forth–would increase costs without necessarily increasing revenues. That’s not a formula for success.