Let’s Experiment with the Zephyr.
Here’s a thought … a trial balloon … a wild idea … and it sprang from a provocative question posed the other day: If VIA Rail has essentially the same financing and equipment issues that face Amtrak, how can they continue to operate the most spectacular train in North America—a train considered one of the five or ten best in the world?
The reference, of course, was to VIA’s flagship train, the Canadian, which runs either two or three days a week, depending on the time of year, between Toronto and Vancouver.
One answer to the question—the obvious one—is that VIA charges top dollar to sleeping car passengers. I’m traveling on that train near the end of April and my fare is just over US$1,100 for a roomette. (And that includes the 10-percent discount I get for being a member of NARP.)
And what am I getting for my money? Spectacular scenery, comfortable accommodations, and three excellent meals a day, prepared on board by VIA chefs, served on china dishes set upon linen tablecloths. And how is the food, you ask? Take a look . . .
(Left) One of the several luncheon choices: a seafood salad with shrimps and scallops on skewers. (Below) For dinner there are four options of which rack of lamb is one.
So here’s my crazy idea:
Amtrak’s designates the California Zephyr as its flagship train … its equivalent to The Canadian.
That’s not a far-fetched idea, either. The Zephyr travels through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, across the Nevada deserts, and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California by way of Donner Pass—some of the best scenery the United States has to offer.
The Zephyr’s accommodations are standard for all Superliners, but we can help make up for that with a few amenities: a couple of small chilled bottles of champagne, maybe a souvenir coffee mug, and a nice four-color booklet describing the route and the scenery. (Sound familiar?)
Now here’s the hard part : the re-born Zephyr has a dining car that serves food of the same high quality that we get on VIA Rail’s Canadian. In fact, the Zephyr now has two dining cars—one with a limited and fairly inexpensive menu for coach passengers and another diner serving really high quality food, prepared on board, and served on real china. And to accompany these gourmet meals, there’s a decent selection of wines from which guests may chose. And everything on this train having to do with the passengers’ total experience is supervised by an on-board train manager.
And how does Amtrak make all this happen? Today, the fare for a roomette on the Zephyr from Chicago to the Bay Area in early April is about $475. With the terrific new dining car, the new fare could be $690. Or, if I’m traveling at a more popular time of the year—let’s say around the middle of June—instead of $690, we’ll bump the fare 30-percent to $965.
With this new and truly first class dining experience, would the Zephyr continue to attract passengers if fares were some 40-percent higher than they are today? The Canadian does!