Amtrak’s decision to degrade service threatens its future

— Published with Permission of —

In February, Amtrak deeply downgraded Northwest sleeper service on the Coast Starlight, its most heavily used long-distance train. The train’s elegant Pacific Parlour Car (the dedicated sleeper diner/lounge), was removed.

While the train retains the coach diner/lounge (now for all riders), this train is so popular that the addition of 100 sleeper passengers at each meal overwhelms those cars, degrading service for all. Sleeper fares are three to five times higher than in coach. On June 15 a Seattle-Los Angeles coach seat costs only $186, while the least expensive sleeper is $523. Now much worse cuts have fallen on Amtrak’s east coast to Chicago trains.

Starting June 1, Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited (the only daily service from New York and Boston to Chicago) and its Capitol Limited (the only daily train from Washington to Chicago) will no longer offer sleeping car passengers their currently included hot food choices!

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Amtrak promises “New and Contemporary” dining instead: a “free” cold boxed sandwich or salad dinner, delivered to the passenger’s room. Breakfast will include only one boxed “choice”: day-old cold breads and yogurt with sliced fruit. No “Railroad French Toast” anymore!

Sleeper passengers paying hundreds of dollars more than the coach fare will receive one free alcoholic beverage with their cold boxes, but that’s not much compensation. If this “experiment” is seen as successful by Amtrak, when will it spread west? History shows sleeper riders (the highest revenue customers) insist on decent food on a multi-day trip and will not go by train without it.

When Amtrak was created in 1971, one of its first challenges was to recover from the terrible on-board service many railroads had provided in the late 1960s.

Faced with the financial loss of the mail contracts and competition from the interstate highways, carriers such as the Southern Pacific systematically degraded their remaining passenger trains using tactics which included removing the diner and lounge cars. The hope was this would so upset riders that they would cease to travel by train, and the carrier could get federal permission to end service. A notorious example was the train called the Sunset Limited, which from 1968-1970 offered only vending machine food on a two-day run!

Amtrak quickly restored proper food and beverage offerings, advertising “We’re Making the Trains Worth Riding Again”. Unfortunately, Amtrak recently has begun to copy these 1960s tactics, degrading the on-board experience which it knows will discourage ridership.

Why is this occurring? Amtrak is under pressure from Congress to eliminate food service losses, but this approach is unreasonable and unnecessary. Do the cruise lines or airlines attempt to make money on food? Of course not; these costs are built into their fares. Amtrak has been doing this as well. Railroad diners never made money; they attracted business. If riders are asked to accept only microwaved burgers and pizza on a two-night/three-day EMPIRE BUILDER trip, we know ridership will implode.

“Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

Amtrak knows what happened in the past when the railroads systematically cut back amenities. Ridership collapsed. For fiscal year 2018, Amtrak just received the largest Congressional appropriation for its National Network in history ($1.3 billion). It needs to explain to Congress that not providing quality food service on the Coast Starlight is no more an option than on a cruise ship. Millions of Amtrak passengers recall “dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer…”. Cold sandwiches just don’t make the grade!

Carl Fowler is the retired President of Rail Travel Center/Rail Travel Adventures. He worked full time for over 35 years selling rail travel worldwide, including Amtrak. Mr. Fowler is a Vice-Chair of the Rail Passenger Association/NARP. These are his personal views.

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