Guest Post: Let Them Eat Cake.
By Jim Mathews
President & CEO
National Association of Railroad Passengers
Let’s begin by saying up-front that I have tremendous sympathy for Amtrak’s management, especially those who wear the Food & Beverage Bullseye on their backs. Unfortunately, what’s happening on the Silver Service is likely to disappoint everyone.
The premise is that because the two Silver Service trains – the Meteor and the Star – run roughly similar routes, dropping the diner from the Star and lowering the corresponding Sleeper charge is a good way to prove or disprove what most of us have been saying for years: that without a reasonable food option, long-distance revenue crumbles.
Further, it turns out that nearly 31,000 sleeper passengers last year on that route were worth roughly twice as much to Amtrak on a per-mile basis – that’s yield, not gross. Targeting the highest-value passengers for a downgrade seems likely to produce fewer high-value passengers, and that’s going to hurt the financial performance of the train.
Instead of just drastically cutting food service, let’s have Amtrak try a different experiment: on the City of New Orleans, see if we can source high quality locally procured food with contractors or caterers, and figure out how to get it to the traveling public in a way that makes better financial sense to Amtrak’s bottom line.
If we want Amtrak to behave more like a business, it has to have the freedom and flexibility to try new and different things; the experiment described above protects many good-paying existing jobs at Amtrak, while opening up some opportunities for enterprising local businesses. Of course there are regulatory and logistical problems to solve, but that’s not a reason to ignore the opportunity and it’s certainly better than making half a train’s riders live off microwaved hot dogs for more than 500 miles.
Meanwhile, drop us an email at NARP (email@example.com) to let us know what you think. We’re gathering your reactions to pass along not only to Amtrak, but to Congress—especially to those more obsessed with the price of a hamburger than with building the 21st Century transportation network that A Connected America deserves.
(NOTE: A longer version of this post was featured recently in Passenger Train Journal.)
In essence, the real question NARP and the supporters of passenger rail service in the U.S. must now ask, and demand an explicit answer from their senators and representatives is:
1) What was the intention for Amtrak in 1970/71; how has it changed; what is the purpose of Amtrak today?
2) Was Amtrak to merely be a caretaker over a few selected long distance routes; to preside over the diminishing potential for intercity rail in the U.S., until buried by the burden to operate as a “for profit” entity? If not, why has there been no increase in such long distance runs, beyond the “Auto Train” in 1983?
3) What are the criteria and metrics to evaluate the success of Amtrak per route? For example, how relevant is it to measure success by acknowledging the average trip per miles is now 800? Therefore, the actual metric should be in passenger miles per route; to measure number of turnover of seats and compartments en route.
4) Depending upon the answers received, than the concerned public has a right to inquire why Amtrak has been denied a consistent level of funding to facilitate long-range planning, service enhancements, equipment acquisition and rehabilitation, as well as the expansion of routes, and increased frequencies?
5) Despite the current breast-beating of the Northeastern congressional delegation, where were they when they were in the majority–in both houses; yet, once they satisfied their demands for the Northeast Corridor serving their commuter lines, they quite willingly “kicked the can down the road” re the national system. Why?
6) Now, given the growing needs of the NEC infrastructure and Hudson River tunnels, how do these same NE politicians expect to make these parochial regional issues they embraced of national consequence?
As I learned long ago to benchmark across a broad spectrum of history and industry to identify similarities to find the right answer, my fear is to question why Congress continues to tolerate the antics of Representative Mica and his incessant, sordid comments against Amtrak? In Vietnam, the NVA’s General Giap turned our attention to his encirclement and threat to Khe Sanh in 1967, while he prepared and launched his larger attack throughout South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Accordingly, is Mica merely a diversionary attack to distract us from the real battle to come? The inevitable battle has already started with the diners (“Silver Star,” flowers, Denny’s-like menus, etc); we know historically that when you eliminate the diners and lounges, you push away the higher yield of sleeping car passengers. Unlike the past, with no mail or REA to help subsidize the route, coach only long distance trains cannot survive for long.
A very real caveat to this scenario is to learn from Canada. In 1990, in a smoke-filled boardroom on Bay Street in Toronto or, on Rue Saint Antoine/Peel in Montreal, “The Canadian” was pushed off of its historic, more populated, and better scenic route on the CP between Toronto-Vancouver thru Banff/Lake Louise. VIA Rail Canada was also forced to give up its own creation, the original “Rocky Mountaineer” to a private firm very friendly with the Canadian Pacific. Pushed to the CN’s northerly route, “The Canadian” lost revenue and was soon cutback to but twice per week for over half the year; forced recvnetly to add a fourth night of travel due to the inability to have its schedule respected by the CN. As bad as that all was, what is most salient here is the point that the owner of the “Rocky Mountaineer” persistently detracted VIA Rail and politically pushed to takeover “The Canadian,” with the idea of operating it across Canada on a daylight schedule, minus sleepers and diners, relying on hotels for every night. Benchmarking to history and industry parallels can be quite revealing…