Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dinner in the diner....

...nothing can be finer.

A line from "Chattanooga Choo-choo", but it's true.  If you've never eaten a meal on a train in a dining car, you're missing out on a unique experience.

Once upon a time, it was a staple of train travel.  But, as long distance train travel has become a novelty, so has "dinner in the diner".  Most people have never experienced it.

Dinner trains and tourist trains.  

Just about every tourist rail line has a dining experience.  Some have full dinner trains where you ride just to have a meal.  Some have a dining car where you can have lunch during the regular trip.  It's fun.  The scenery goes by, usually slowly - most tourist lines don't exceed 25 mph.  The food is good - usually provided by a local restaurant and delivered to the train just before departure.  But, the emphasis is on the "Dinner" part and not the "Train" part. This is first and foremost a dining or tourist experience - not transportation.

It's nice, but everyone you meet is there for the same reason you are.  Fun and food - and that's it.  Not that that's bad - there are some really terrific ones out there.  Take a look at the Napa Valley Wine train or the Rocky Mountaineer for example.  (Both on my "to do" list!) They are first-rate and then some, but still a very homogeneous experience.

The Amtrak experience.  

Amtrak operates a skeletal network of  trains that cover long distances on overnight journeys.  These are the last remnant of the trains that used to blanket the country before it was common to fly or drive long distances.  They have sleeping cars with small bedrooms, a lounge car for snacks and sightseeing and a dining car.

The railroads tried hard to hang onto the long distance traveler  Here's an old Santa Fe news reel ad for the Super Chief.

The Santa Fe and other roads were fighting a losing battle.  The airplane siphoned off the lucrative business traveler and the highway got the rest.  Most of these trains disappeared in the 1950s and 60s.  The best of the remnant were saved by Amtrak in 1971 and most continue to this day.

The Amtrak long distance trains aren't much different from the Super Chief (stay calm, my railfan friends...)  They all carry coaches - there are no more "all first class" trains today, and the level of luxury is a bit lower.  There are only roomettes and bedrooms to choose from and there is no barbershop (not sure I'd want a haircut on a moving vehicle, anyway!).  In fact, Amtrak's Southwest Limited covers nearly the same route every day.  It takes 43:15 instead of 39:45, though as there are a few more stops and more freight traffic on the route.  But, they all have full service dining cars.

The route of the Southwest Chief crowed with freight trains (2004)

When you travel by car, you are in your own cocoon and don't have to interact with anyone along the way at any kind of personal level.  Even when you stop for meals, you might talk to your server a bit, but other than that, you are in your own world at your own table.

You won't starve, but you won't meet anyone.

When you fly, even though you are packed into an aluminum tube at maximum density, it's rare that people chat with the strangers next to them all that much.  Flights are usually quick.  The attitude is "lets get this over with!" The seating arrangement already imposes on your personal space - trying to maintain what's left of it takes some effort.  And, it's loud.  And, there aren't any readily available conversation starters. So, you sit there and read your book and listen to your iPod.  On international flights, you still get "food" - delivered to your already overcroweded space.  Try not to drop you coffee on anyone!  (It makes them mad.  I found this out once.)


The train is different.  You are on for a long time, you have some space and there is an element of shared experience.  Long distance train travel is not a common occurrence for most people.

Amtrak's Empire Builder (April 1973)

The dining car is not quite like going to a restaurant.  You do wait to be seated, just like a restaurant, but since space is at a premium on a train, you are likely will be seated at a table with other people.  This is a good thing!  Unless you are planning to spend your meal time staring at your iPhone, it is very likely that you will wind up talking to those other people at your table. It would be rude, not to!

The most common first question is "Where are you headed?" followed by, "Where did you get on?" and "why are you travelling?"  That's just the start.  Usually, you spend almost as much time chatting as you do chewing.

Who will you be sitting with?  Typically, the diner draws more patrons from the sleepers than the coaches.  You'll find senior citizens travelling for fun, vacationers, people from the small towns en route that don't have nearby airports, students, aero-phobes, railfans and people who just wanted to try the train for the experience.  Pretty much a good cross section of the US.

Lounge car people on the California Zephyr (May 2006)

The other attraction of eating in the dining car is that the view out the window is constantly changing.  Sometimes, it's astonishingly stunning, rolling along a river valley, through a gorge or over a snow-capped mountain range.  Sometimes, it's the forgotten side of a dirty, old town.  But, it's all part of the trip.  You can't ride one of these trains without becoming more wise about the US and it's people.

Rolling through Nevada (May 2006)

The menu is more limited than a restaurant, typically a half dozen or so choices, but much of it is prepared on the train in the kitchen of the dining car.  Fine cuisine?  No.  A decent meal?  Yes.  And, the price is reasonable.

Amtrak meal (photo from

Uh, oh.

Which brings us to the future.  The price of the food is reasonable.  The cost to deliver it to your table is not.  Amtrak loses a bundle of money on their long distance trains.  A lot of it is in the food service area.  Not only does that dining car take up space on the train and fuel to haul it around, the cook and dining car attendants live on the train and need their own sleeping space - usually part of a sleeping car - which is the most valuable space on the train.  Plus, you need to stock the train at the beginning of each run. In the whole, it is a very labor and cost intensive operation.

Somewhere down the line, push will come to shove and Amtrak will be either drop a lot of their long distance trains or have to modify the service quite a bit.  The dining car as it has historically existed, may be a casualty.

So, if you want an unique experience, get it while you still can.  You might even consider a out-and-back day trip on a long distance train, just so you can try the dining car.

I could take the Crescent to Birmingham and back.  Breakfast on the way out. Dinner on the way back. Hmmmm...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A frequently asked question...part 2

In Part 1, we answered the question  "Why don't we have trains like they do in Europe and Japan?"

The quick answer is that it is really the wrong question to be asking.  The right question is, "Do trains have a place in US, and if so, what should we be doing about it?"

Here's what!

1. Fix Amtrak:  There has been lots of talk over the years about "privatizing Amtrak".  Baloney!  It's all just hot air!  Amtrak is what we have.  It is what the freight RRs are comfortable with.  There is no palatable political path forward that doesn't include Amtrak.  So, the first step is to improve Amtrak.

What trains do best.  Batch mode transportation!  NEC train on Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Define the mission.  Push them out of their cave and shine a light into the dark corners. Benchmark.  Depoliticize.  Outsource.  

Amtrak started in 1971 and really just supervised the trains still being run by the existing railroads.  That slowly changed.  Over the years Amtrak took over the actual operation of the trains, maintenance of the equipment, ownership of the large stations and most of the track between Boston and Washington DC (the NEC - NorthEast Corridor).  The original employees are now almost all retired.  Amtrak's employees are largely those who started their career with Amtrak.  

The National Limited from Kansas City to Washington DC.  Three cars. Why bother?

What this means is Amtrak has lost it's connection with the railroads that host its trains.  It's also become ingrown and isolated.

For much of it's history, Amtrak has had no secure source of funding and has had to fight year to year to get enough subsidy to survive.  This has shaped their corporate culture to the point where they believe that's what they are in business for:  to run the same trains they ran yesterday and collect a subsidy for it.  They don't question where their trains go and why they are running them.  They don't question the manner and method of running them.  They don't question how they fit into an ever-changing national demand for transportation.  This is particularly true of the once-a-day long distance trains that traverse the country.

Headed to Chicago...eventually.  The Broadway Limited in Bristol PA shortly before it's demise.
This is no way to run a railroad.  

The first step for fixing Amtrak is to define the mission.  What is Amtrak supposed to be?  Something like: "Amtrak's mission is to be a vital, cost-effective portion of the United States' intercity transportation network, constantly seeking to enter and serve markets well suited for passenger rail travel and to continuously seek to improve their performance in those markets."

Second step is to de-politicize Amtrak.  Amtrak's board is appointed by the US President.  Consequently, Amtrak's focus and short term goals are often dictated by the political whims of the party in power.  Amtrak also has to work Capitol Hill every year to see how much money they will have to work with the following year.  No real business can operate this way.  

"Boutique Service"  What trains do poorly.  Once a day, short train. The Pennsylvanian snakes it's way over the Susquehanna River on the way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

Change the board so that there are fixed terms that are long and non-integral with election cycles - say 7 years.  Stagger them.  Replacements get nominated by the existing board and can be approved by the President and/or the Senate.  This will help control the micro-management by politicians.

Change the funding cycle.  Go to rolling 7 year cycles.  Define the operating subsidy in terms of farebox recovery.  Dole out capital in steady chunks.  Let Amtrak figure out how to spend it to best effect.  This allows Amtrak to think in terms of markets rather than trains and gives them funding to make changes.

Change the internal culture.  Set financial and operational goals.  Farebox recovery.  Ridership.  Trains operated on time.  Customer satisfaction.  Start rewarding all the employees when the company makes goals.  Get everyone thinking about costs and service everyday.  Remove rewards for "empire building".  This should help control costs, improve service and properly position the company.

Benchmark every facet of the operations.  Amtrak is a passenger railroad so benchmark against other passenger railroads in the world.  Most of these are government owned, but don't stop there.

Amtrak has functions very similar to the freight railroads - locomotive maintenance, car repair, train operations, crew dispatching.  Benchmark against the US freight railroads.  They have some functions similar to airlines - scheduled network operations, ticketing, baggage handling, etc.  Benchmark against the world's airlines.

Amtrak is also a hotel and a food service company, so benchmark hotel chains, restaurant chains, cruise ship lines and ferry operators just for starters.

Then there are the regular G&A functions that Amtrak shares with every other company in existence.  Get a management consultant to provide benchmarks in these areas.

Take the benchmarking results and figure out what functions to keep and focus on and what can be outsourced or sub-contracted.  How about Darden food on the trains?  How about roomettes by Hilton or Marriott? This will create a much leaner Amtrak, focused on core competencies, one of which will most likely be performance contract administration.     

2. Focus on what works.  

What are they doing right now that seems to work?  

Amtrak borrowed this train from Sweden.  It lead to Amtrak's successful Acela trainsets.

The NEC.  For a whole bunch of reasons, the NEC performs pretty well.  Amtrak seems to understand the market and provides service to fit. Amtrak also seems to have an operational culture that is focused on providing reliable, dependable service.  Amtrak has name recognition, farebox recovery greater than 100% (an actual profit -  before accounting for capital expenses) and a pretty good reputation.  Spread this joy around.  It's already worked on the new train to Lynchburg VA, the new train to Norfolk VA, the extra train to Richmond VA, service to Harrisburg PA and it's about to on the Springfield MA branch.  Keep it up!

Slow, diesel hauled trains are now fast electric trains.  Ridership has doubled.
How about those state partnerships?  California and North Carolina are the best examples.  Corridor focus with frequent service layered in a bit at a time.  Decent performance with a plan for growth.

Are there more places in the US that can benefit from these approaches?  You bet.  Florida is the fourth largest state with big destination cities in the 100-300 mile "sweet spot" for passenger rail service.  The Piedmont in the Carolinas and Georgia.  The near mid-west out of Chicago.  The Texas Traingle.  

So, let's get going.  Amtrak has locomotives and cars. Abandon the legacy train service and move into the present!  Deploy the existing equipment to best advantage.  Grow from there.

Amtrak California Surfliner at Santa Barbara.  Crowded freeway + lightly used freight line = success!

3. Fit into the highway/air network.  

Let's face it.  We drive everywhere.  If it's too far, we fly.  It's how we've been raised.  Our whole society is organized around driving.  We came out of World War II in one piece with money in our pockets.  We bought cars and houses in the suburbs.  Drove to work.  Work moved into the suburbs, too.  Office parks.  Free parking!  

The government built highways.  We want them to.  We wanted good roads to drive on.  There was lots of oil in Texas.  Refining techniques got better and better.  Gas was cheap. (still is!) Life was good.

All those pilots came back from the war.  Airbases were everywhere with no work to do.  Thousand of Army Air Corp  C-41 were lying around with nothing to do.  They were really just DC-3s, so put seats in them, convert the airbases and put the pilots to work.  It was a big jump start for commercial aviation.  You could fly from NY to Chicago in the morning, attend a meeting, and fly home in the evening!  Sure beat two nights on the train, away from the family.

Living the American Dream!  

Lost in the shuffle were the railroads.  In the post-war era, they saw the pent up demand for travel and spent lavishly on new, fast, shiny trains. Streamliners, they were called.   They were wonderful, but American life was changing fast and they were soon left in the dust.  Trains were "old".  Cars and planes were "new".  The 1950s were future focused.  Chrome and steel.  Space race.  Aluminum Christmas trees, even!  "Progress" is what sold.  "Progress" was what we wanted!  

Cars got better. Smoother. Faster. More powerful. Air conditioned!  The highway network grew and grew.  Planes got faster.  Airports got bigger. Gasoline stayed cheap.  Airline tickets got cheaper.  It was "Progress"!

Except, all that "Progress" came at a cost.  The suburbs sprawled.  The highways got congested.  Airports got crowded.  Flying got scary...and uncomfortable.  The novelty and fun of driving on highways and flying in jets wore off.  It's "old" now.

It appears that we might have been a bit hasty throwing those "old" trains out of the mix. So, where do trains fit in this landscape?  They can't be the "one size fits all" that they were in the late 19th and early 20th century, taking everyone everyplace.  They have to fit into the niches where they work best.  

Those places include:

  • Where highway congestion is terrible
  • Where there is good local options for first and last mile (NYC, Phila, DC, Boston), that is, good transit.
  • Where it is easy to and from get to the train station (suburban P&R)
  • Where there is good connectivity to the air network (Phila, Newark...)
  • Where the air network is congested (LA, NY, Chicago, Atlanta.)
  • Where implementing or improving train service fits easily into the existing rail network (North Carolina and California).
  • Where new/improved train service fits well with the existing network (NEC extensions).

"How" is important.  

Make it visible.  Who would ride a train if they didn't know it was there?  People in the Northeast know about Amtrak.  This really isn't true many other places in the US.  Passenger trains have been gone so long that baby boomers don't even give Amtrak a thought.  

When you are planning a trip and you use a travel web site like Travelocity, Amtrak schedules don't appear, but European train schedules do.  Why not?  This is a simple fix. Amtrak needs to "get on board" with SABRE.     Amtrak schedules DO show up in Google Maps - if you select "transit" as your routing option.  This is good, but not obvious.

Make it seamless.  When you are trying to get from A to B, the last thing you want to do is to have to figure out how, where and when all the piece of your trip fit together, including how much and where to pay for tickets.  

Example:  You want to go from Chicago to Lancaster PA.  If you were "train savvy" you'd know you could fly to Philadelphia, take a SEPTA train to 30th St. Station and then an Amtrak Keystone train to Lancaster.  Can you see this trip at one website?  No.  You have to do the air piece one place, look up the SEPTA piece on their web site (and buy your ticket a the airport on arrival) and the Amtrak piece at their web site, carefully checking schedules along the way to make sure your trip is feasible.

SEPTA shares track with Amtrak, but you can't buy a through ticket

At the very least, Amtrak needs to "code share" with commuter railroads.  That is, integrate schedules and sell through tickets.  The Germans do it on a much more complicated network.  Maybe Amtrak needs to hire the Germans to show them how?  Better yet, code share with the railroads.  One ticket, three "boarding passes" for that Chicago to Lancaster trip.

In Germany, suburban, regional and intercity trains all use the same network.  One reservation/ticket purchase can get you between any two points on the network.
For areas with weak or non-existent suburban transit, how easy is it to get to the train station?   How easy is it to get from the station to your final destination?  Are there even any suburban stops that are convenient?  Is there good, secure parking?  Can you pick up a ZipCar?  Is a car rental agency on call?  Bike rentals, perhaps? Can you cajole a developer into a mixed use development around the train station?

Grow it organically.  Big dreams are good.  Some envision a network of 220 mph trains linking all areas of the country.  That might be a good idea, in the long run.  But, we don't know enough to gamble that kind of money right now.  Dedicated right of way for High Speed Rail (HSR) is very, very expensive.  Nobody in the world except China jumped in and did this from scratch.  Everywhere else HSR exists, it's been on the back of a strong passenger rail network to start with.  Then, rural HSR links were added in, one at a time, best routes first, and a network is slowly emerging.  Along the way, the trains have been shown that they can earn back nearly all the capital it cost to build the lines.

That approach makes good sense here, however, we have quite a bit of "plowing" to do before we will be ready to "plant" much HSR.  There is some "plowing" being done already.  There have been some successful extensions of the NEC using "conventional" (80 mph) trains and speeds.  The most recent is a daily train to Norfolk that is exceeding it's ridership projections by double.  There are "emerging corridors" from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit where "higher" speeds are being developed (110 mph).  Also, Philadelphia to Harrisburg.  Then there is the California HSR project that started out as dedicated, separated LA to SF route, but now, wisely has been cut back at the ends and integrated into the existing rail network at each end.

Old and slow Chicago to St Louis train.  Not very sucessful!.  This line is presently being upgraded to 110 mph. Speed + frequency = success!

How these projects work out will tell us a lot about how passenger trains can fit into our transportation network, what their costs and benefits are, and guide us to "what's next".

So, in summary:

1. Fix Amtrak - it's easier than starting from scratch.
2. Focus on what works now - not on what used to be.
3. Fit into the air/rail network by making trains visible, making travel seamless, and growing the network organically.