Onboard analysis: Slimmed down 'California Zephyr' is stretched thin

Western trip on Amtrak national network shows pandemic measures are working, but revenue opportunities are being lost
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Sleeping-car passengers traveling together are wearing masks and occupy every other table in the California Zephyr’s dining car out of Chicago.


Bob Johnston

First in a series

CHICAGO — Judging from an October Trains News Wire journey on the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder, Amtrak’s onboard service plans for its cross-country passenger trains during the COVID-19 pandemic are providing a safe environment for travelers.

Crews are enforcing mandatory mask-wearing rules, generally without passenger complaints; dining areas incorporate social distancing at tables; solo coach passengers can spread out on a seat by themselves for overnight travel, rather than being jammed together with strangers; and roomette and bedroom travelers can stay in their rooms for their entire trip if they are so inclined.

All these factors gain importance as prospective customers weigh travel options while coronavirus cases rise with the holidays approaching.

Yet it’s easy to see how a cost-focused management team’s limited interest and experience in maximizing revenue and customer satisfaction is shortchanging all the unique elements rail travel has to offer and turning away business with reduced capacity.

Here are some observations:  

More first-time passengers. Settling into a California Zephyr roomette at Chicago Union Station is strangely comforting in a world otherwise turned upside down. Familiar to a veteran rider are the sound the reading-light button makes when pressed; decisions on what to retrieve from the suitcase on the luggage rack downstairs for a two-night trip; and the instructions sleeping car attendant Michael gives to the couple across the hall after he ascertains they are first-time riders are all familiar to veteran riders.

A traveler bound for Grand Junction, Colo., is greeted by his car attendant at Galesburg, Ill. 
Bob Johnston

“Over half of the passengers with me in this car haven’t been on an overnight train before, so they need to know what to expect and how everything in their room works,” explains the 32-year onboard service veteran.

With staff furloughs looming Nov. 1 resulting from cutbacks to triweekly service, Michael’s seniority might protect his ability to keep serving customers; an attendant encountered on the Empire Builder to Chicago a week later had been bumped from his Zephyr job because he hadn’t worked for Amtrak as long.

Limited availability: The decision to drop the transition sleeper, and failure to add a third coach while restricting capacity to 50% of coach seating, stifles the trains ability to generate revenue and weakens its overall bottom line. This becomes clear from watching travelers come and go in the two Superliner sleepers, and noting intermediate stops listed on passengers’ seat checks in the two coaches throughout the trip from Chicago to Reno, Nev.

Amtrak says, “Adding equipment adds costs, and we are conserving funds” [See “Analysis: Amtrak triweeklies, with smaller consists, see sellouts, high fares,” Trains News Wire, Oct. 9, 2020]. But sidelining revenue-producing railcars on a train whose clientele’s origins and destinations continuously overlap is a questionable business decision.

When the train operated with the transition sleeper, it accommodated the onboard service employees and provided eight additional roomettes to sell. Now, four roomettes in one of the remaining sleepers can’t be sold because they are reserved for crew. At $400 per roomette per night — well below the average fare currently displayed between the route’s overnight city pairs — selling 12 additional room could generate almost $5,000 nightly.

An Amish family traveling from Pennsylvania to Osceola, Iowa, gets some fresh air at Ottumwa, Iowa, on Oct. 14, 2020
Bob Johnston

West of Galesburg, Ill., only a handful of coach passengers are California-bound, but virtually every seat is occupied with people going to Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado stops. They are replaced later with others headed to Denver, but also to Grand Junction, Colo.; Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City in Utah; plus Sacramento, Martinez, and Emeryville in California.       

This Zephyr departure had sold out all sleeping-car and coach space between Denver and Glenwood Springs, Colo., for weeks in advance. Fortunately, a roomette became available in that segment, but securing it originally required switching between three different rooms in the two cars before a savvy Amtrak reservation agent figured out how to eliminate one change.

“I’m putting you in No. 3 out of Denver, not No. 5, so someone else doesn’t have to move twice,” attendant Michael would later strategize enroute.

Time to reassess?:  On April 3, before the strength of long-distance train revenue relative to Northeast and state-supported corridors was demonstrated over the following six months, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Operations and Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner looked to the future. He told employees on a town-hall conference call, “Service will come back incrementally — it’s not like [what happens after] a snowstorm — and will depend on what we see in demand. But we need to pay attention to this and be nimble because there might be areas of strong demand that will come back quickly.”

Gardner was thinking of short-distance corridors when adding, “We will be working with our state partners, who will determine how much service we have on the routes they help support.”

Though Amtrak insists daily service on cross-country trains like the California Zephyr won’t be restored before next spring — unless Congress appropriates additional funding in the interim — it’s not too late for management to fulfill its “nimble” promise by adding more capacity to the service it has committed to run.

Next: Deadheading crews and challenged staff

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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