Good “Experientials” or Bad?

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

VIA Rail Canadian at Jasper. VIA Rail photo.

Ever since he came to Amtrak from the airline industry, President and CEO Richard Anderson has “railed” against so-called “experiential” trains, an expression he often uses in disparaging the roughly 15 long-distance trains in Amtrak’s skeletal national network. Anderson clearly prefers corridors, and many members of the rider advocacy community also like them, but Anderson seems determined to expand those corridors by eliminating long-distance trains in what he and his followers perceive as a zero-sum game. While he often uses the word to describe his company’s long-haul trains, it does not seem clear what he dislikes about them, or whom he believes they serve and with what sort of experience.

During the past year, this writer rode two trains that certainly fit into the category of “experiential” trains and were promoted as such, although without ever using that controversial word. One is the narrow-gauge Durango & Silverton in the Colorado Rockies, and the other is the VIA Rail Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver. The two trains could not be more different from each other, nor could they be more different from today’s long-distance Amtrak trains. The only point of commonality among the three is that they run on rails.

Merriam-Webster resorts to circularity in defining “experiential” as “relating to, derived from, or providing experience” (emphasis in original). So all we can discern from that definition is that the trains Anderson disparages provide an experience, at least from his point of view. Does that include seeing beautiful scenery as the train goes by? Amtrak has no control over the scenery along the railroad. If it is attractive, that is essentially a public good. If not, it is still part of the “experience.”

Does it mean the food? Meals can be “experiential” in their own right, but whether or not the food tastes good or is served in a pleasing manner constitute part of the experience, for better or worse. Amtrak still operates dining cars west of Chicago and New Orleans (for the moment, anyway), and all of them feature standardized, factory-produced Aramark food. Further east, there are only standardized, factory-produced, pre-packaged meals that are given to sleeping car passengers on a tray, rather than served.

Yetch!!

This writer has seen and heard much criticism of those meals, including a recent blast by contributor Andrew Selden here in Railway Age (“Garbage Served, Garbage Generated” posted Jan. 4), but no favorable reviews. The food on those trains is “experiential,” albeit a negative experience. Coach passengers are not subjected to it. All they have is the opportunity to buy lounge-car snacks. Also part of the “experiential” component of Amtrak’s long-distance trains is the thrill of waiting, perhaps for hours beyond scheduled time, to get on or off the train. On-time performance on Amtrak’s long-haul trains has been plummeting lately.

Today’s Amtrak stands in sharp contrast to the Amtrak of the past, when trains operated for the purpose of taking people from one place to another, and management believed the amenities that created a positive experience should also be part of the trip. Until 2005, Amtrak’s dining cars served freshly prepared food to both sleeping car and coach passengers, even featuring regional specialties on certain trains, like Rocky Mountain trout (a tradition of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad) on the California Zephyr and gumbo on trains bound for New Orleans.

So why is attacking the rider’s “experience” such an important part of Amtrak’s retrenchment strategy? Since Amtrak cannot eliminate scenery as part of that experience without painting windows opaque, maybe the word itself is part of that strategy. Railway Age contributor and longtime Chicago advocate F.K. Plous thinks so. Last year, in a blog post, Plous wrote: “I grossly dislike the expression ‘experiential’ trains. It is every bit as dismissive as when [former Union Pacific CEO] Dick Davidson called passenger trains ‘boutique transportation.’”

This leads to the question of who is supposed to “experience” rail travel, and what is the purpose of that experience, besides generating revenue for the railroad.

To examine that issue, we look at a train that provides a travel experience that was more common 60 years ago, and then another train that provides a travel experience that attempts to replicate one from the late 1800s.

VIA RAIL CANADIAN

VIA Rail photo

It is common knowledge that Amtrak is fragmented into three components: the skeletal network of long-distance trains, state-supported trains and corridors, and the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and its branches. There are no provincially supported corridors in Canada, so VIA Rail has only two similar components. One is the corridor network centered on Montreal and Toronto, which does not extend east of Quebec City or west of Walkerville (near Windsor), Ontario. The remaining long-distance network is even more skeletal than Amtrak’s, and no train outside VIA Rail’s Ontario and Quebec corridors runs more frequently than three times per week. Some trains only run twice per week in each direction.

Canada’s great “experiential” train is one of them. It is the Canadian, named not for its route, but for its equipment. That equipment is truly magnificent: beautiful stainless steel streamlined cars built by the Budd Company, introduced into service in 1954, modernized, and meticulously maintained. It started as Canadian Pacific’s premier long-distance train (much like the New York Central 20th Century Limited, Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited, Union Pacific City of Los Angeles, and Santa Fe Super Chief), until VIA Rail took over in 1977. The train ran on the CP main line until 1990, when VIA Rail eliminated that route and many others. Today it runs on the CN main, north of its original route, and where CN once ran the Super-Continental and the Continental Limited.

Santa Fe Super Chief
PRR Broadway Limited
New York Central 20th Century Limited, 1938
Actor Ronald Regan—who later as President of the United States tried to shut down Amtrak—frequented UP’s City of Los Angeles and actually promoted his “experiential” travel.

The Canadian is an “experiential” train at its finest, at least for passengers in the sleeping cars. Those cars have lower and upper berths, in addition to roomettes and bedrooms, a feature than had disappeared from trains in the United States by the early 1970s. To support the multiplicity of sleeping cars in the consist, the train also carries several dome-lounge cars (which VIA Rail calls Skyline cars), dining cars, and an observation car at the rear of the train (which VIA Rail calls a Park or Parc car, depending on whether you prefer English or French).

VIA Rail Canadian

In a sense, the Canadian is part of the cultural museum of rail travel. It essentially replicates rail travel as it was a half-century ago, and which this writer remembers from the days before Amtrak and in the early 1970s. Beyond the time warp, the trip and its amenities are truly spectacular, even if for no other reason than it is not available on Amtrak, or even on other VIA Rail trains.

VIA Rail Canadian. Now that’s real dining, not the warmed-over, pre-packaged TV dinners Amtrak serves.

The main courses of the meals served in the dining car are freshly prepared. Lunches and dinners include soup and dessert. Dinners include salad, too. There is a different soup for almost every meal and a variety of desserts, although they may have come from other suppliers, rather than being prepared in the car’s kitchen. Every meal brings a new set of menu choices, with very little repetition—a far cry from the paucity of selections that Amtrak offers repetitiously on every train, with boring monotony.

On a recent trip, the people seated with me at the table were always interesting, and this writer’s mealtime companions included some retired railroad executives, an astute businesswoman of French heritage from Ottawa, and a law student who was going to Vancouver for his final semester. That component of the experience was a triumph for the “community seating” that was a staple of rail travel in its heyday, and which Anderson now decries as obsolete and out of line with “contemporary” custom and taste.

VIA Rail Canadian dining car—the real deal!

The lounge car experience is memorable, too. Dome cars have not been featured on a regular basis on Amtrak since the 1970s, and there are not many left in Canada, either. Sitting seven steps above everybody else in the lounge car is a great experience no longer available on other trains, so it is separate and distinct from “normal” rail travel today. There are numerous activities in the lounge cars for sleeping car passengers throughout the trip: presentations about subjects such as the train and places along its route, games, beer and wine tastings (Canada has some good offerings), videos (including one from the Budd Company that promoted the equipment), and even a folksinger who “worked his passage” by entertaining the riders.

There is nothing like that on Amtrak, nor has there been for many years, if ever. The closest Amtrak ever came was the “Pacific Parlor Car,” a separate lounge car for sleeping car passengers on the Coast Starlight using a 1950s-vintage car that ran on the Santa Fe.

Ironically, Anderson often argues that only 6% of riders on Amtrak’s long-distance trains ride the entire route, from end to end. Whether he intended to imply it or not, the clear inference from his statistic is that the other 94% are taking an Amtrak train to get to their destinations, and not merely to experience the route. This writer has ridden hundreds of thousands of miles on Amtrak’s long-distance trains, and it does appear that most people are riding to go somewhere. They include Carolinians or Floridians taking a short ride on a Florida train, Midwesterners riding for a few hours to spend a few days in Chicago, and oil workers going back to the Bakken fields near Williston, North Dakota on the Empire Builder to their old and difficult grind. They may enjoy the ride, but that is not their primary objective.

The Canadian is different. According to VIA Rail, 16% of riders are going all the way, between Vancouver and Toronto, and not to an intermediate stop. The trip takes four days, more than twice as long as the longest scheduled trip on Amtrak. Those riders, especially in the sleeping cars, want the experience that only this particular train has to offer, and they are willing to spend thousands of dollars to get it.

DURANGO & SILVERTON

Durango & Silverton

The other “experiential” train this writer rode last year was on the Durango & Silverton (D&S; its official name is the “Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad”), a tourist railroad in the southwestern corner of Colorado, near the “Four Corners” where four states meet. The line goes through some of the most rugged country in the Colorado Rockies. It is one of America’s best-known tourist railroads, and it offers a glimpse of what mountain railroading was like a century or more ago.

The line opened for service in 1881, with a three-foot (914 mm) gauge. It runs today with steam locomotives that were built about 100 years ago. Some of the coaches were original to the line and still have plush seats with flip-over backs. The Durango depot is original, too, having opened in 1882. There is no freight on the line today, but some old gondola cars have been converted to open-air “coaches” with old bus seats installed along the center line of the cars, facing outward. Even though the line is only 47 miles long, the trip from Durango to Silverton takes about 3½ hours each way. There are also “parlor cars” for riders willing to pay the extra fare. One consist includes a sleeper-lounge car from the period, while the other carries a rear-end observation car, with a bar at the front and an open observation platform at the rear.

Passengers do not ride the D&S just to get to Silverton; they ride for the experience, which includes the towns at both ends, as well as the ride between them. The railroad is justly famous, and the mountain scenery is impressive. It is also impressive and sobering to contemplate that the line, which traverses some of the most inhospitable mountain country in the nation, was built by hand with 1880s technology.

At one time, it was possible to go from Denver to Silverton by rail, all on the D&RGW. There were trains southbound from Denver, through Colorado Springs and Pueblo, to Alamosa. At Alamosa, there was a westbound line, also partially standard gauge and partially narrow gauge, that went to Durango. From there, passengers could change for the narrow-gauge line to Silverton. That routing has not been available for decades.

Today, the only way to get to Durango is to take a bus from Grand Junction (served by Amtrak’s California Zephyr) that runs once a day and is operated by Bustang Outlier, a unit of the Colorado Department of Transportation. This writer spent the Memorial Day 2019 weekend in Durango, and observed that nobody on the bus from Grand Junction on Friday, or returning on Monday, had had also ridden the train. In other words, it seems certain that everybody else who rode the train on one of the busiest weekends of the year arrived and left by private automobile, without exception.

Yes, the D&S is a tourist railroad, and many tourist railroads provide an experience that is only available to motorists, because there is no access to them by public transportation, whether by rail or bus. At least there is some non-automobile access to Durango, even though it is difficult. If that does not describe an “experiential” train, it is hard to imagine what would.

As if this writer’s experience on the D&S were not enough, there were other features of the trip that made it an unforgettable adventure. Thursday’s scheduled overnight Greyhound bus from Denver to Grand Junction was canceled, which necessitated an overnight stay in the Denver bus terminal. There was a Bustang Outlier bus to Grand Junction (another once-a-day run) early in the morning, which was scheduled to connect with the Durango bus. That part of the trip went smoothly, but the segment to Durango did not. A rock the size of a house had rolled down from a mountain and landed on the highway, blocking it completely. Had that incident occurred about two hours earlier, everyone on the bus probably would have been killed. A supervisor from the highway department took the few Durango passengers there in a private vehicle, going through Dolores and catching a glimpse of a “Galloping Goose,” a rail vehicle built in the 1930s with part of a bus body at the front and a truck body at the rear, for local passenger and freight service, and currently preserved at the former train station. It was all part of the experience.

There was plenty to explore in Durango, and Saturday was the day to do it. Downtown has a number of buildings that have stood since the “Old West” era of the 1880s and ’90s. There is a local history museum, and the D&S trip includes its railroad museum, which is packed with narrow-gauge railroad equipment and other transportation memorabilia. Sunday was the day for the ride and a few hours in Silverton, an old mining town situated about 9,300 feet above sea level. It was chilly at the end of May, but Silverton also retained the flavor of the Old West. The town had streets “paved” with gravel, a local museum built inside the old jail, a historic hotel (in operation since 1884) and lots of buildings dating back to the early days of the town, when the train was the only way to get in and out.

The bus ride back to Grand Junction on Memorial Day Monday was an adventure, too. The highway where the rock had embedded itself was shut down for the long term, so the bus was rerouted through mountain passes. The adventure included a blizzard, with the snow coming down so fast that there was no visibility. The weather in Grand Junction was much warmer, and it was very welcome at the end of such an “experiential” weekend.

CLASS SEGREGATION

VIA Rail’s Canadian train is not as “experiential” or as much of an adventure as the D&S and everything that surrounds it, but the question remains of whether it can be used for transportation purposes, as Amtrak trains and VIA Rail’s corridor trains further east are. The answer is yes, but it is not easy. There are usually two coaches in a consist of up to 30 cars for “economy class” passengers, and on many runs, only one is open. Because the train only runs twice a week, the schedule does not work for many people.

Still, there are no more buses plying the east-west route between Sudbury, Ontario and Vancouver, so the train does carry some coach passengers. They have a Skyline car(dome-lounge) of their own, so they can still enjoy the scenery, but without the amenities that sleeping car passengers have. There is food available, mostly plebeian fare like sandwiches, but fresher than the lounge-car items on Amtrak. “Economy class” passengers are not allowed to eat in the dining car on VIA Rail or to visit the lounge cars reserved for sleeping car passengers. Class segregation is strictly enforced; at least that is what the Customer Service people say. So, as “experiential” as the VIA Canadian might be, much of the experience is not available to folks in coach.

Amtrak photo.

As bad as Amtrak has become in recent years, it was never segregated by class in that manner. Amtrak never operated separate dining cars for coach and sleeping car passengers, or even segregated the classes in different parts of the car, which meant that riders from both classes of accommodation could eat together. This writer ate many meals on Amtrak while riding in coach before 2005, when most of the freshly prepared food, including all the regional dishes, were removed from the menus. That included many instances when sleeping car passengers sat at the same table, and none of them ever balked about eating with coach passengers. Meeting new people, any of whom might become friends, was always one of the memorable features of rail travel. Except until recently on the Coast Starlight, Amtrak never ran class-segregated lounge cars. Again, sleeping car and coach passengers sit in proximity to each other and can strike up a conversation.

Amtrak photo.

Is this one of the pleasant aspects of rail travel that Anderson appears to deplore? Does he begrudge Amtrak passengers the scenery they can enjoy on certain routes, an amenity not available on the airlines? As much as Anderson and Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner like corridors, they must face the fact that there are some scenic places along those corridors, too. Those include a bit of the Chesapeake Bay, a view of the New York skyline from the Hell Gate Bridge, the Connecticut Shoreline on the NEC, the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers on the Empire Line, and views of the beach on the Surf Line near San Diego and Santa Barbara. Those views are “experiential” in their own way.

Whether Anderson likes it or not, riding a train provides an experience, as does every other activity. Flying does not, unless one is in First Class. Whether that experience is pleasant or unpleasant depends on the entity that provides it. This writer remembers one particularly “experiential” train from the late 1960s. It was the Sunset Limited the way the Southern Pacific (SP) ran it in those days. The running time between New Orleans and Los Angeles was about the same as it is today (about 46 hours), but the train had no sleeping cars. It also had no dining car or lounge car, but instead carried an “Automat” car, where riders could buy food from vending machines and warm it up in a microwave oven. The entire consist included only that car, and four coaches. The coaches were comfortable, but they may have been the only ones available, as it is reasonable to assume that all of the “commuter” coaches that the SP had were in San Francisco, for the local Peninsula Service trains that operated before the line became Caltrain.

Southern Pacific Sunset Limited in better days, before it was bastardized into an Automat car and four coaches.

This writer took the Sunset Limited only from New Orleans to Houston, about one-sixth of the entire route, time-wise. It was a very “experiential” train, still not forgotten a half-century later, particularly the vending-machine car. At least there was food available in Houston. If that relatively short ride is any indication, a ride from one end to the other would have been so “experiential” that it is difficult to fathom how anybody could have tolerated it.

F.K. Plous wants Amtrak to take action to improve the customer experience. He told this writer: “At some point, Amtrak will need to acknowledge that most of its customers are simply seeking (and expecting) basic transportation, and that providing them with acceptable food and drink in pleasant surroundings is part of the company’s mandate. Eating in a dining car is not some kind of novel once-in-a-lifetime ‘experience.’ It is an amenity of civilized travel that no other mode can replicate and that Amtrak ought to be exploiting as a selling point to attract trade. All businesses employ loss leaders. That is no disgrace—and no threat to the bottom line—when a railroad does the same thing and manages its numbers correctly.”

Plous called on Congress to take action, too: “Congress needs to provide Amtrak with a mission, and that mission needs to be growth. Absent a clear mission, managers will never establish sound practices or hold themselves or their employees to account and will dither over the price of a cheeseburger to make themselves serious. When growing is not an obligation, cutting begins to look like an accomplishment.”

Maybe the parts of the “experience” that Anderson, as an airline man, appears to disdain is the comfort that passengers enjoy on Superliner equipment in the West. The seats are wide, and there is plenty of legroom. Amtrak does not have the sort of crowded conditions associated with narrow seats and the short pitch between rows that have become common on airliners. Even the Amfleet I cars in the NEC and some other places are more comfortable than seats on a plane.

Airline man Richard Anderson, who seems to have no understanding or appreciation of passenger railroads.

Maybe Anderson’s objections have nothing to do with any of these features of rail travel, or maybe it is all of them together. Traveling by train has a different atmosphere and a different feel than traveling by air. There is no need to make the long and uncomfortable journey to and from the airport, to wait there for a long time, or to endure the intrusive security screening required before boarding. The riders on a train are different than their counterparts on the airlines; they are a more diverse group, and they tend to be more interesting. As for comparing rail travel to a bus, anybody who has ever ridden on a long-distance bus knows that mere words cannot adequately describe the contrast between the two.

Then-Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson in May 2013. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Like everything else, rail travel is an experience. People take Amtrak trains to go somewhere, and the better the experience, the more likely they are to ride the trains regularly. The more riders, the more revenue Amtrak receives. It should go without saying that it would benefit Amtrak to make the travel experience as pleasant as possible, but Anderson and his minions do not seem to think that way. Maybe they are so used to promoting air travel, which is an experience that most passengers do not seem to like, they they cannot imagine that any travel experience could be enjoyable. Amtrak’s riders can, though, and some remember when Amtrak provided a more pleasant experience than it does today. Of course, Amtrak’s top managers could start listening to their riders and their advocates, and improve the on-board experience. Maybe they will do that someday, but for now, it seems like too much to expect.

Editor’s note: Segregating passengers is how airlines operate. First Class and Economy passengers do not mix. First Class passengers board first and leave the aircraft first—which is fine, because they pay extra for the privilege. Economy passengers do not have the option of purchasing First-Class food. Economy passengers are discouraged from using First-Class washrooms, etc., etc. A train is not a plane. Do it right, or don’t do it all. – William C. Vantuono

David Peter Alan is past Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

Categories: High Performance, Intercity, Passenger Tags: , , ,