Dear Mr. Anderson: I am writing you both as a long-time believer in and user of Amtrak as well as a frequent passenger on our nation’s air transportation system.
First, I want to commend you for your commitment to making Amtrak a truly safe mode of transportation. Second, I want to compliment you for seeking to make Amtrak a reliable mode of transportation. Passenger rail punctuality has deteriorated markedly from the days when the New York Central refunded $25 to each passenger any time The Twentieth Century Limited was more than 30 minutes late. Third, I agree with your statements that you want to improve customer satisfaction. However, some of your recent actions such as retiring the Pacific Parlor Car without offering a replacement and a further downgrading of dining car service on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited belie that goal. That said, I want to make some suggestions:
- Amtrak must be a truly national system offering service at convenient service times to every populated location in every State. Unlike Delta Airlines, Amtrak depends upon support from 535 members of Congress. No congressman from the Plains States or the Deep South will support an expensive and needed upgrade for the Northeast Corridor unless his or her constituents have service that is relevant and accessible to their needs.
- I agree with you that Amtrak’s system map and train routes are no longer relevant to today’s travelling public. America’s population has shifted dramatically since 1971, but Amtrak’s national route map has not. “Magnet” cities that are attracting Millennials such as Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Phoenix have only one train per day, if any at all. Moreover, Amtrak asserts it cannot add the sort of multi-frequency “short haul” service that these markets need, absent 100% state financial capital and operating support. This view forever dooms these cities and many others to little or no service, absent major political changes. The solution: Seek repeal of that provision of the Amtrak law defining long-distance and short-distance service, or obtain legislation that redefines the short haul/long haul demarcation as something that comports with reality: 300-500 miles. Where a state refuses to support a service for a route with a demonstrated market, why not contract with cities, consortiums of public authorities, resorts or even universities served by the line? The Greenbrier Hotel recently negotiated a contract with a major airline to provide service. Amtrak should have done that for The Cardinal.
- There is a significant disconnect between what many passengers want and the equipment provided and the onboard services offered, with the result that many passengers come away disappointed or don’t use the train again. Amtrak can offer intermediate point service, scenery and more relaxed on-board service. Amtrak’s ridership is more diverse than that of airlines. That means that Amtrak’s equipment must be designed to appeal to a more diverse ridership. The solution: Offer three classes of accommodations on daylight trains as is common on many European trains. For the budget-minded customers that might otherwise drive or use Megabus, there could be a budget coach service. For coach passengers wanting a more comfortable service, but at a higher price, Amtrak would provide a premium economy service with larger seats, more legroom, specific seat assignments, lounge space and free snacks. Finally, those who prefer luxury would get traditional club car service with at-seat meals, including on routes outside the Northeast. On overnight trains, Amtrak needs to offer and market a budget sleeping accommodation like a European couchette, an American slumbercoach or business class “lie down” seats. Amtrak should redesign its sleepers to accommodate thicker mattresses, smoother ride quality and better sound insulation. The “heritage” cars still used in Canada are better!
- Amtrak fares are too high. Many times I have heard someone say “I was going to take the train but the fare was too high so I drove, flew, etc.” There is anecdotal evidence that lower fares would actually improve Amtrak’s revenues and lower its deficit.
- Amtrak has adopted the airline philosophy of cutting customer amenities as a way of improving its bottom line. Nowhere is this more obvious than food service. But Amtrak’s food service generally does not reflect the changes in American food tastes for healthier and more sophisticated alternatives. There is a surprising lack of vegetarian or fish options on the new café menus just introduced in the Northeast.
- Amtrak’s rolling stock looks (and is) dated inside and out. The need is even more urgent than it was the last time Amtrak had an opportunity during the Obama Administration. How to finance that equipment? You need look no further than the airline industry for the solution. Lease it. How many airlines actually own their planes? Leasing may not work for specialized cars such as diners or sleepers, but it should work for coaches and locomotives, which represent the bulk of equipment needed.
- Amtrak has had a history of poor train reliability, especially on some (but not all) long-distance routes. Develop a list of routes to be served, desired frequency levels (no less than daily or even twice daily on long-haul routes and at least thrice daily on corridor routes), schedules competitive with driving or even flying, and sit down with the host railroads to discuss the infrastructure needed to accomplish those objectives without harming freight service. This is how California worked collaboratively with BNSF and Union Pacific on corridors there, as have some commuter authorities with their host railroads. Knowing that some freight railroads like to “gold plate” their lines, you should invite the Federal Railroad Administration and even members of Congress to observe the negotiations so they understand the funding required.
- The little things count. Amtrak needs to pay more attention to such details as clean windows, clean bathrooms, clean locomotives, train doors that open at the right place, attentive crews, clearly articulated announcements and smooth train handling. Addressing such things would go a long way to changing negative perceptions and improving crew morale. Increased revenues from passenger satisfaction should cover those costs.
- Rumor suggests that you perceive load factors to be very low. My experience on some long-distance trains confirms that in coach but not in sleepers, which tend to run full. But poor load factors are a function of unreliable and inconsistent service, inadequate frequencies, uncompetitive high fares and inadequate or nonexistent advertising, among other things. Amtrak does not do the hard work needed to develop ridership, especially on long-distance routes. Where are the camp specials, high school trips, destination-specific marketing, Fall Foliage specials and trips to the Greenbrier? Frequently, local residents don’t even know train service exists. Your marketing department’s goal should be to fill every seat, every bed, every day.
- Amtrak’s limited network is a major reason for low ridership on many routes in the middle of the country. People perceive they can’t get from here to there without a circuitous routing. Remember Midwest Express? I suspect it died due to a lack of connections. Perhaps that was a motivation behind the consolidation of Virgin Airlines into Alaska Airlines.
- Southwest Airline employees used to say they would walk through fire for its legendary former Chairman Herb Kelleher. Most Amtrak crews want to please their passengers but feel disrespected and ignored by management. On a trip two years ago, I noticed that Amtrak had removed its tasty tuna fish sandwich from the café car menu. I asked the attendant why. She responded that it was one of the most popular choices and she had no idea as to why it was removed. She observed that management rarely consults with the train crews about service, operations or passenger needs.
Thanks in part to the airline industry, highway congestion and the changing transportation desires of Millennials, there is a great market. The more Amtrak strives to reach that market, the more likely its political problems will resolve themselves.
John Heffner is Senior Counsel in the Washington, D.C., office of Clark Hill Strasburger, and a long-time supporter of freight and passenger rail service. During his more than 40 years of private practice, he has built a diverse portfolio of transportation clients representing private short line and regional freight railroads as well as public agencies and railroad industry vendors. Heffner has been a pioneer in identifying and meeting the legal needs of the regional and short line rail carriers that emerged when the major North American railroads divested many of their branch lines after deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s. Besides handling commercial transactions for such carriers and for the state and local transportation agencies that often provide financial assistance to them, Heffner also represents these clients before the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the Federal Railroad Administration, the United States Railroad Retirement Board and the federal courts. Heffner has followed passenger rail for his entire career. His work experience at the United States Railway Association (USRA) in the 1970s included negotiating with Amtrak and various northeastern commuter rail agencies for the takeover of passenger service formerly provided by the bankrupt eastern carriers. After leaving USRA, he represented the National Association of Railroad Passengers before the Interstate Commerce Commission, where he obtained a decision denying the discontinuance of the Southern Railway’s Southern Crescent. He currently represents two clients that provide and seek to provide private passenger service in conjunction with Amtrak. Most recently, he served as a subconsultant to the AECOM consulting firm in connection with the Northeast Corridor Commission’s study for allocating liability between the various users of the NEC. Heffner is a graduate of the University of Virginia and holds a law degree from Emory University. He is admitted to the District of Columbia Bar as well as to practice before the United States Courts of Appeal for the Second, Third, Seventh, and District of Columbia Circuits and the United States Supreme Court. He began his legal career as a staff attorney with the ICC Office of Proceedings after which he joined USRA’s legal staff, where he was involved with the reorganization of the bankrupt eastern railroads.