A Daring Marketing Idea for Amtrak.

With very little thought, and without any consideration as to the practical aspects of the scheme, I have come up with an idea that could turn everything around for Amtrak. 

We start with the fact that food service on Amtrak’s eastern trains today is a disgrace. It’s not just that it’s a frozen dinner . . . not just that the meals themselves are barely edible. It’s also because you have to make the same four choices for both launch and dinner.  I rode a Florida train down and back from Washington last Fall and then took the Crescent to New Orleans. All three of my car attendants said most of the food served to sleeping car passengers was uneaten and ended up being thrown out. Yes, it really is that bad!

But put all that aside for the moment and hear me out, because I think I’ve come up with a way for Amtrak to turn things around.

They do it with very good food and excellent service. But they do it one train at a time!

Passengers enjoying a prepared-from-scratch-on-board lunch on VIA Rail’s train, The Canadian.

And I mean that literally. They start with one dining car and they run that diner on one of their long-distance trains one day a week. And that dining car has a real steward and two real chefs who prepare a variety of high quality dishes that are unique to that one train.

And here’s what will make this idea work:

 Amtrak increases fares—whatever it takes to provide that excellent food and that great service, but only for that one train and only on the days it operates with that dining car and that crew.

So, hypothetically, on the first and third Monday of every month, passengers on the California Zephyr get truly excellent food and great service on those trains on those days. And the fares those passengers pay are 50 percent higher than on every “normal” day and Amtrak launches an advertising campaign promoting the high quality of the food served in the dining car on just that one train on just those two days every month.

And pretty soon, almost before you know it, those trains are paying for themselves and Amtrak is able to reduce the cost of that great food and excellent service by 25-percent. And still before you know it, Amtrak increases the number of days that better food is available until all meals on all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains are of restaurant quality.

Why do I think this marketing tactic will work? Because for more than a hundred years, railroad passengers have been willing to pay extra for a quality dining car experience.

What’s more, they’re still doing it . . . on four trips a week between Toronto and Vancouver by VIA Rail Canada’s flagship train, The Canadian.

We keep forgetting a simple truth: People are happy to pay for quality.