I’m currently on an Amtrak train, headed back south from upstate New York, where I have been far away from exciting happenings in Greater Philadelphia. But I thought I’d take some time, while I’m in an appropriate spot, to think aloud about Amtrak, specifically about long-distance trains.
2013, to borrow phraseology from trite year-in-review articles, was the year in which I turned 30. The significance of which, as far as I can tell, is that I’m reaching the phase of life where overnight trips in coach are no longer worth the monetary savings. There are a few I might still do, if I was in a pinch and by myself, but this ship has, for the most part, sailed. It’s sleeper or bust.
I have a developing theory of sleeper trains, which is that they are essentially a point-to-point service. A sleeper passenger who is willing to pay a fare that is going to pay for most, or all, of her costs, wants a train that is leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning. Perhaps a short ride in daylight can cover more another market or two with the same departure, but the basic form is evening-morning. It requires two trainsets to operate the entire service. No sleeper service in the entire Amtrak system looks like this. The Auto Train, which is sui generis, comes closest, and doesn’t quite manage the late evening departure. This is largely not Amtrak’s fault, because the endpoints of trains in the National System are just so obnoxiously far apart. But the point stands that any stops made between 11:00pm and 6:00am are basically economically meaningless, and should be covered by another train that runs in daylight. If you don’t believe me, compare the passenger numbers for any station in Ohio, where Chicago-East Coast trains all pass through in the witching hour, with those from comparably-sized cities elsewhere. In the Buckeye State, trains might as well not exist.
There are plenty of trains that come close to the two-trainset overnight ideal on some part or another of their trip. For instance, the Crescent is almost perfect on the Washington-Atlanta segment, although it’s also the daylight train Atlanta-New Orleans, and lacks a daylight equivalent Lynchburg, VA-Atlanta. But all of the eastern routes have the critical problem of having at least one long segment in daylight, when sleepers are either empty or sold at uneconomic rates. Much as Atlantic City can’t pay for 12 months of services and infrastructure with 4 months of tourist revenue, sleepers can’t pay for 16-20 hours/trip of expenses with 8-9 hours/trip of revenue.
The morning arrival is the main appeal of the overnight trip; it doesn’t quite matter how fast or how slow one goes in the dark, as long as arrival is timed for when the sun comes up, before any possible same-day trip could have gotten in, and for less money than an evening flight and a hotel room at the destination. Oddly enough, despite it being by far Amtrak’s most popular market, a city that runs on its rails more than any other, and an exorbitantly expensive hotel market, there are no long-distance arrivals in New York until after 11:00am. While this makes some sense for trains coming from the south, since the tunnels under the Hudson River are at capacity during the morning rush, it discounts the possibility of a predawn arrival and a short wait in the station before reveille. It also does not explain why there is not an early morning arrival from Buffalo or Montreal via the Hudson Line and Empire Connection, which is busy but is not quite as completely crunched as the North River Tunnels.
Proper timing is about more than passenger convenience; it’s about cost containment. I touched on the expense involved in hauling around empty sleepers and extra trainsets during the day. There is also the matter of meal service. Amtrak includes diner meals in its sleeper fares, in order to ensure that its top-dollar passengers aren’t hungry and unhappy. Unfortunately, this practice leads to nearly the entirety of Amtrak’s infamous $72 million/year Food and Beverage losses. The Auto Train extends this expensive courtesy to coach passengers, in recognition of their end-to-end captive status; its financials are significantly worse for it. Conversely, a train that doesn’t leave until well after dinnertime doesn’t have to worry about serving dinner, or losing any money on it. And if breakfast becomes simple and Continental (or sandwichy), the expensive diner car and its expensive staffing requirements can be dispensed with entirely, in favor of the much cheaper and more profitable cafe car. Even switching to a voucher for a free, full Anglo-American-style breakfast stationside on arrival would be a significant savings for Amtrak’s ultrapremium commissary costs. Sleeper revenues are held down by the sheer lack of density possible per car, unless we go to Couchette or Slumbercoach setups, and long-distance trains as a whole are further hurt by the sheer number of non-revenue or low-revenue cars they must carry in addition to sleepers and coaches. It’s telling that, of the 130 cars in the initial Viewliner II order, only 25 are pure sleepers. It’s not that the baggage cars and diners are unimportant to Amtrak; they’re critical. (Most of Amtrak’s current bag cars and single-level diners predate its own 1971 founding.) But they will help Amtrak’s bottom line by saving expenses, not generating revenue.
So what I’d really love to see from Amtrak are sleeper trains that provide an extra option to the existing middle-distance corridors, especially the ones that have one end in New York. Buffalo-New York, Montreal-New York (agnostic as to Plattsburgh vs. St. Albans), Pittsburgh-New York, Raleigh-New York, Norfolk-Philadelphia, and Cleveland-Philadelphia, are all about the correct distance for a point-to-point sleeper service. Boston-Washington had sleeper service very recently, and Amtrak has all but explicitly promised to restore the solitary sleepers to trains 66 and 67, which would also restore sleepers-without-diners to the Amtrak system, in case anyone at 60 Mass Ave needs the reminder that it can be done.
Not all of those are equally ripe for startup today, and each comes with unique challenges. Buffalo-New York is almost ideal, with four daylight round trips already on the Empire West schedule, but nobody is going to resist the temptation to extend it to Chicago, giving Ohio its first daylight service, and given the insanities of the current Lake Shore Limited service, it’s not clear they should. That also avoids creating a new equipment base, which saves rolling stock just as much as aggressive short-turning. Similar for Philadelphia-Cleveland, although that route has zero direct trains today. The services coming from the NEC South all have to be navigated around the aforementioned blocked-out morning rush, either by sneaking in to Penn Station before the rush, or being held at 30th Street until after. Montreal only has the Adirondack and needs to finish its border preclearance station, although a sleeper schedule is a good way to get further use out of that investment.
Unfortunately, the regulatory environment for new sleeper services is complete hash, even as Amtrak seems to be entering an era of steady-state production of long-distance cars at the CAF assembly plant in Elmira. Some routes, like New York-Buffalo-Chicago, are longer than the 750-mile legal definition of long distance set out in PRIIA ’08, and are therefore at Amtrak’s discretion. But many of the routes I listed are shorter than that, and are required to have one or more state sponsors, which is going to be a very difficult political lift for what is basically a premium service. At least a state might be more willing than Amtrak itself to experiment with dinerless sleepers, especially New York on the Montreal route, whose anti-F&B frugality led to the death of cafe cars on the Empire South trains.
It will be a few years before Amtrak has to worry about any new sleeper service; it won’t have more than a handful of extra sleepers until 2015, and they are already earmarked to 66/67 and to lengthening existing trains, which is a very cost-efficient expansion of capacity. Sleepers also need to be accompanied by coaches, for the bottom (i.e. under-30) segment of the market, and Amtrak is short of single-level coaches for the foreseeable future. But if intercity rail has a future in America, then at least some of that will be long distance rail with attached sleeper cars; that is one sense in which we really are a spread-out nation. It’s worth thinking about ways in which the next generation of sleeper service can be better and more self-sustaining than the present one.
Several of the thoughts in this post have been percolating in my brain for a while, but specific ideas about where the revenue and expense centers are on a long-distance train were provoked by Paul Druce, who blogs at Reason & Rail, and has been running an occasional series on Amtrak financial performance, which is very much worth reading, even though he is coming from a very different place and reaches different conclusions than I do. Other positions included in this post were reached in view of the performance of Western Europe’s remaining sleeper services, especially DB’s City Night Line and ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper. It’s been fifteen years since my one ride on a CNL train, so I relied heavily on British rail expert Mark Smith, a/k/a The Man In Seat Sixty-One for guidance as to what’s worked and what hasn’t, in an environment where governments have been investing heavily into high speed rail and discount airlines have attacked the point-to-point long-distance market with a vengeance.