I've always liked the romance of train travel, but not any old train travel, Cary Grant "North by Northwest" train travel. Comfy bedroom compartments, well-appointed dining cars with full kitchens to cook your meals from scratch, club cars with big easy chairs and table lamps and curtains where you can relax, read the paper, have a drink (in a real bar glass, not plastic), and maybe make eye contact with the beautiful mysterious lady sitting across from you in the floppy wide-brimmed hat.
On my fantasy train the passengers are all clean and dressed well; men in suits, ties, and hats; women in cocktail dresses, hats, gloves, and high heels. People are cordial, well mannered, and polite. Train porters are happy, courteous, and are always around when you need help with anything. "Turn down your bed, sir? Yes, sir. Another pillow, sir? May I get you a nightcap, sir? Oh, one other thing, sir. The young lady in compartment B has requested that you join her in the club car."
In my romantic fantasy world train travel, especially a cross-country trip is exciting, relaxing, and just a bit mysterious. The reality of passenger rail service in 2014, of course, doesn't come close. If anything, Amtrak has been in steep decline for years and the surly dispositions of the workers on board sadly, reflect that.
But romantic notions are hard things to shake off, even when faced with the vulgar realities of today. So when I observed the headline of a news article recently in The Wall Street Journal declaring, "AMTRAK: GETTING BACK ON TRACK" my little heart held out a scintilla of hope.
The piece began with the promising news that Amtrak's "operating loss has fallen to the lowest level in four decades amid growing ridership, down 37% from the previous year. The railroad's revenue grew 8% to $3.2 billion from the previous fiscal year amid what transportation planners see as a long-term shift favoring mass transit and passenger rail." The story went on, "Amtrak saw ridership of 31 million in fiscal 2014, up from 24 million in 2005, and growth across its three major operating divisions: the Northeast Corridor, shorter regional routes and long-distance routes."
Amtrak officials said they've been trying to trim costs and boost revenue by raising ticket prices along the high-density Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston. That route has always been one of the busiest and most lucrative for the railroad said Chairman Anthony Coscia, who pointed to that corridor as a sign of strong passenger demand for the railroad.
Although things are looking up, Amtrak still faces long-term financial problems and is looking for money in other ways such as attempting to increase contributions from state governments as well as generate more revenue from sales of real estate and other assets. One big challenge for them is trying to find a way of turning around its money-losing long-distance routes, such as its Sunset Limited line between New Orleans and Los Angeles.
When any business is in a losing money situation, certainly the first thing management looks to do is to cut costs somewhere. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the cost cutting is done in a smart way; trimming fat, eliminating excesses. The shorter commuter corridor trains are nothing but transportation pure and simple. The long-distance train routes, the trips that can take anywhere from 24 hours to two or three days are the routes that many people romance about. The long-distance routes can be and should be designed as adventures and fantasies.
These train adventures should not be simply about getting from point A to point B (although that is part of it naturally) but mini vacations in themselves. The long-distance train trip experience for the passenger is exactly where Amtrak SHOULD NOT cut costs. If anything they need to look for ways to make it more satisfying to their passengers.
How to do that?
First upgrade the sleeping compartments and keep them CLEAN.
Next, it's all about SERVICE. SERVICE, SERVICE.
Bring back the full service dining car, galley and all.
Add some cool, retro club cars with full service barmen on duty.
Hire more porters, redcaps, waiters, and other personal whose job it is to pamper the passengers on board.
Train the employees who have direct contact with passengers to develop sunny dispositions, to be helpful and try to give each passenger a pleasurable experience.
Teach them how to handle stressful situations without losing their cool. They need to realize that even though they are government workers they should try not to act like it. They should think of themselves as working in the hospitality business, not at the DMV or IRS.
Do that, Amtrak, and I'll be back on board. On my way to New York in a New York minute. Save me a cold martini.