How Amtrak, Excursion Trains, and Good Marketing could all coexist in the German Style

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Seaboard92

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I was discussing the best ways to grow Amtrak with a friend today when I remembered something from my last few German Vacations.

In Germany the group BahnNostalgie Thüringen rosters an incredible 2-8-2 Steam locomotive but doesn't have cars. Mikado Gera.jpg

The group partners with Deutsche Bahn the state owned railway to provide rolling stock for their trips which is where it gets interesting. Deutsche Bahn owns and maintains the rolling stock but it is in a special subfleet that is only for excursion service as the Nostalgia Zug (Zug Meaning train in German) that is painted in the livery of the Deutsche Reichsbahn (DDR) from the 70s and 80s when steam was still in regular service.

Now what makes this interesting the group likes to run some longer trips from an outlying city to their home base meaning they have to deadhead the locomotive and equipment to and fro. What Deutsche Bahn and the Group do that I think should be copied by Amtrak is their solution to this problem.

They offer a one way excursion on the train marketed at schools, daycares, and families with school aged children (Elementary school). It departs around 9:30 AM and usually is about a two to three hour trip with multiple intermediate stops (yes you can board and detrain at these stations).

The schedule is designed in a way to connect with the other Deutsche Bahn trains on the route so that school groups, and other people taking the trip can connect to the excursion in order to arrive or leave from the excursion.

Mikado Meeting a Regio.jpg
Here is a cross platform connection with a DB Regio Train at Jena from the family friendly excursion at an intermediate station.

On board the train if you didn't know the power was a steam engine you wouldn't really know it was a steam excursion but you could tell it was a special event. Deutsche Bahn conductors lift all of the tickets, and they will sell you a ticket back to your origination point from your destination. Once the tickets have been lifted the Deutsche Bahn conductors come around the train with a basket of candy. It is not regular candy however because every item has the Deutsche Bahn logo on it either on the package, or stamped into the chocolate. Shortly after that the conductors come back by with Deutsche Bahn gifts for the families and children (DB Crayons, coloring books, hats, disposable sunglasses) just basic relatively cheap things that make a lasting memory. The most important part is the DB logo is on each item given out which is giving them brand awareness.

DB Conductor .jpg
A DB Conductor looking to see if any passengers are boarding at an intermediate point.

Mikado Jena.jpg
There are four Deutsche Bahn conductors in this photo that were assigned to work on this trip. All are in the latest uniform, all give excellent customer service, and all are helpful.

At some point on this trip Deutsche Bahn has recruited characters and magicians to do story telling for all the kids. However these are the older style passenger cars that are all compartment cars so the entertainers have to come to each room. By the time the trip ends you know it was a Deutsche Bahn program because you should have at least six DB items in your hands, and you've seen half a dozen different DB employees on board.

Most importantly the trip leads a lasting impression in everyone who rides regardless of age.

Now imagine if Amtrak would do something like this over here. In Germany everyone knows the train is an option for traveling whereas in small town America a lot of people are surprised when they even see a passenger train much less find out it stops in their town daily. If Amtrak were to operate these trains they could potentially reach a whole new generation of rail riders. The most important marketing Amtrak can do is to put butts in seats because when people realize how much legroom is in coach, or the fact you can walk around the train you make lifelong riders. You take something that people don't see as an option and turn it into an option. In college I took multiple groups of people on the Piedmont from Charlotte to Salisbury and back which is an 80 mile round trip and I made lifelong Amtrak riders out of that.

The first comment was always about "My god this is better than first class on an airplane" and that was in coach. If Amtrak were to offer trips like this you would get a market who are looking for an experience, or to do something fun with their children and turn them into future passengers. It is a form of marketing that while a bit unconventional is very effective.

New meets Old Erfurt.jpg
This photo demonstrates that the excursions can coexist without delaying the regularly scheduled services relatively easily. You don't have to reinvent the wheel to run these trains.

Now that the brand new Venture Cars are arriving in the midwest and displacing the Horizon fleet a good move for Amtrak to retain an eight car fleet of coaches (DBs is six) and set them aside for charters and excursions. One it grows that business market and at one time there was a plan high up in Amtrak from what I've heard to set aside some Amfleets and restore a few F40s before the last auction got rid of the remaining ones and make that the charter train. Unfortunately Richard Anderson got rid of that program before it started. And with the P42s getting ready for retirement why not keep a small fleet ready to be used as power for these trips.

One by having the charter fleet you can target larger group travel with customizable trips, but also you can do these "Marketing Trips" to schools, daycares, and weekend family trips. You have the added benefit that one could also teach good rail safety on board while you have a captive audience on board. For schools especially elementary schools a train ride is a very educational thing from the laws of motion to proper safety around a train. It would be a fun field trip students wouldn't soon forget.

For the class ones if you are doing it with the railroad safety and educational motive it could potentially be written off as a tax deduction as a public service. It behooves them as well because they could just as easily slap their logos on some of the materials given out on board giving them positive brand recognition.

Lastly it would help groups like the Friends of the 261, Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, the Oregon Railroad Heritage Foundation, among others because it would allow them an opportunity to run their engines, while having a corporative partner in Amtrak. It also would allow those groups to run trips further away from their base of operation by using those one way deadheads as a potential money making trip.

I'm not saying Amtrak should provide these trains for free. They should definitely charge a small fare to ride these trips. It shouldn't be something outrageous like North American Excursions tend to be, but more along the lines of $20 which is what DB and their steam operator charge for their trips. In this country we have enough school buses it wouldn't be hard for the students to be bussed to the train station, have some sort of tour of the train station. And while the kids are touring the station and riding the train the school bus could go up to the next station along the line to pick them back up. It really is not that hard of a concept and would prove to be really good marketing for Amtrak.

It is a marketing campaign that wouldn't cost Amtrak much because they would be charging a small fare causing some cost recovery, but would potentially create thousands of new riders in the future if they did them regularly all over the country.

It would cost Amtrak little and create a large amount of positive brand recognition all over the country.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this.

Here are some other photos from that trip as well.

Mikado Erfurt.jpg
The train with one of the costumed characters taking a photo next to the engine.

Mikado Gera-2.jpg
The train standing at the Gera Hauptbahnhof.
 

Seaboard92

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I stand corrected I just reread the trip posting for the trip I'm referencing and now they are including the return trip on a DB Regio service along the same route. Again thats an amazing program.
 

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We were in Germany/Netherlands 2 years ago. Got the pack of candies on 2 out of 3 ICE trips and a pack of DB-branded pretzels with my draft beer on one. Between that and the DB coasters under the glasses there was no doubt who you were travelling with.
 

me_little_me

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Amtrak is contemplating doing it for Christmas. Only their version will have Ebeneezer Scrooge (before he turned nice) tell the schoolkids they should be in workhouses and he'll feed them flex menus as punishment! :)

Flynn will play Scrooge. Anderson will play Marley. They'll get a few passengers or employees to play the Cratchit family.

I just can't help myself! But I promise to TRY to be a good boy if Amtrak brings back decent food in the East. 👺
 

Seaboard92

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We were in Germany/Netherlands 2 years ago. Got the pack of candies on 2 out of 3 ICE trips and a pack of DB-branded pretzels with my draft beer on one. Between that and the DB coasters under the glasses there was no doubt who you were travelling with.
Deutsche Bahn runs a really classy act. My favorite thing DB had last time I was there was a chocolate cake. If I could import that to the USA I would be a happy person.

Germany is one of the most active countries in the world for steam operations too. I think it is Germany and then Russia who run the most mainline steam excursions.
 

MARC Rider

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1. There was an old MAD Magazine item back in the mid '60s where they suggested that what the railroads should do is mothball the diesel streamliners and reintroduce steam trains, as it seemed that even back then, steam excursions always drew a lot of interest. They were being satirical, but, who knows?

2. Perhaps there should be a line item in the Congressional appropriation for this sort of thing, pitched as a marketing/familiarization tool to increase interest in rail travel in parts of the country where people aren't familiar with rail travel. Given the reluctance of current management for "frills" like this, you'd probably need some pretty specific language in the appropriation. I would suspect that the actual amount of money needed is chump-change, even relative to the magnitude of the current Amtrak budget. I mean the government pends $$$ on military bands giving public performances, Federal Agency museums for the public, and other stuff that might not be strictly necessary for the operation of the agency, but which provide important public outreach to connect the citizens with the agency.

3. The U.S. government actually owns a bunch of steam locomotives at Steamtown National Historic Park. Yet every time I've visited Steamtown, only the diesels seem to be operating. In any even, it's all interesting historical equipment. Maybe Steamtown should not only be providing the locomotives for more widespread excursions, but perhaps they should be tasked (by Congress, with a suitable appropriation) to coordinate public excursions with Amtrak ,other passenger rail operations, and other private owners of heritage equipment.
 

MARC Rider

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I should point out that in the fall of 2019, I was riding the Cardinal and saw a group of schoolchildren who were taking an excursion from Prince, WV to White Sulfur Springs, WV. I have no idea a bout the details of the excursion, but I saw them lined up on the platform in Prince and getting off at White Sulfur Springs. When I saw the kids line up, mny immediate thought was "kindergarten walk!" :)
 
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I should point out that in the fall of 2019, I was riding the Cardinal and saw a group of schoolchildren who were taking an excursion from Prince, WV to White Sulfur Springs, WV. I have no idea a bout the details of the excursion, but I saw them lined up on the platform in Prince and getting off at White Sulfur Springs. When I saw the kids line up, mny immediate thought was "kindergarten walk!" :)
Amtrak has been carrying schoolchildren on its regular trains since it began. Most of these kids are on their first ever train ride. In most parts of the country, it has to be a one-way ride, usually with a school bus meeting the train to bring them back home. Seeing the look of wonder and excitement on the kids faces, beneath their colorful paper engineer's cap, as the crew and their chaperones take them on a tour of the train is priceless...:cool:
 

Seaboard92

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Amtrak has been carrying schoolchildren on its regular trains since it began. Most of these kids are on their first ever train ride. In most parts of the country, it has to be a one-way ride, usually with a school bus meeting the train to bring them back home. Seeing the look of wonder and excitement on the kids faces, beneath their colorful paper engineer's cap, as the crew and their chaperones take them on a tour of the train is priceless...:cool:
My idea is Amtrak should expand on this but instead of using revenue trains that are already running to use Extras because so much of the country is passed in the middle of the night. Like in my city of Columbia, SC you could easily operate something like this on the S line because it has no real freight traffic whatsoever and would provide a great deal of brand recognition here.

In busier places like Charlotte, NC just partner with the local shortline to run the field trip trains on the NS Secondary in Charlotte. You aren't interfering with any freight service and Amtrak's crews are qualified on it because they wye trains on it already.

All over the country this would make sense because like you said its a priceless memory for someone to watch the field trips. But imagine how it is for the people on the field trip.
 

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When I was a kid in Elementary School, we would catch a Katy Train ( MKT) to San Antonio every April , and School Buses would pick us up @ the Mopac/Katy Station and we would go to Breckenridge Park to eat a Sack Lunch and then ride the Bus back to San Marcos.( the Train was much more fun!) The Fare was 25 cents, which was lots of money in the 1950s!😄

Up until the Pandemic, Austin ISD would bus Elementary and Middle School Kids to the Amtrak Station over several days in May, and they would board the Texas Eagle #22 in their own Coach on the end of the Train( usually it was dead headed on most trips) and ride up to Taylor, the First Stop North of Austin.

The Conductors and Crews on this Route were kid friendly and went out of their way to talk with the kids and make this trip a Wonderful Memory!

School buses would meet them, take them to the Nice City Park where they had Lunch, played and then rode the bus the 30 miles back to Austin.

Just like we were, the kids were always so excited!🤩
 
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Hoping to not start another dabate for and against it:rolleyes:, but the ultimate school train ride was the annual Palm Beach Safety Patrol trip to Washington, DC...
 

Seaboard92

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My ideal proposal would be on my home line just because I know it like the back of my hand.

Here is my basic example for Kershaw County Schools and Richland County Schools.

Merge the Kershaw County Schools trip with a visit to our state capitol which is a few blocks away from the Amtrak Station in Columbia.

Group 1 Meet at the Camden Amtrak Station which is in the middle of the district.
Group 2 Takes the School Buses to Columbia

KC Group 1
DP CAM 9:30 AM
AR CLB 10:30 AM

Richland County Schools visit the Revolutionary War Park in Camden which is about a mile from the Amtrak Station
Group 1: Takes School Buses to Camden
Group 2: Meets at the Columbia Amtrak Station

RC Group 2
DP CLB 11:00 AM
AR CAM 12:00 PM

RC Group 1
DP CAM 12:30 PM
AR CLB 1:30 PM

Kershaw County Schools
KC Group 2
DP CLB 1:50 PM
AR CAM 2:50 PM

Doing it this way with an 8 car Horizon Trainset gives you 544 Seats per run or a total of 2,176 Students in a day. If you charged the standard fare for CAM-CLB which is $7 Amtrak would bring in $15,232 which would at least cover the train crew, and fuel. It might even cover the track access charges if my friend's information is correct. Personally I would charge $20 just because that isn't an exorbitant amount of money which would bring in $43,520 which would cover all of the costs.

If it were up to me I would actually switch a cafe, a diner, and a single sleeper in to show the kids as well.

The best way to do something like this is to add an extra item to the curriculum as well which is what I did in my example. That way there is something other than just the train as part of the field trip. In smaller rural counties like Kershaw County you would likely only need to do one day of trips to reach the entire elementary school population. For this example you could also bus kids in from Lee County, and Lancaster County to Camden for it as well.

It is doable wouldn't cost that much money for Amtrak to do it, and it would be great marketing for Amtrak and the Class one partners.
 

MARC Rider

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Well, we have more Amtrak infrastructure in our part of the world, but I could see Baltimore and Philadelphia schools partnering on dual field trips: The Baltimore students ride up to Philly and tour Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, etc. (a quick ride from 30th St. Station on the Market-Frankford Line). The Philadelphia students would ride down to Baltimore and see the Inner Harbor (USS Constellation, etc.) and Ft. McHenry (the site of one of only two sustained attacks on an American city by a foreign Power, and the inspiration for our National Anthem). They can ride down from the station on the free Charm City Circulator bus.

The train ride is about an hour and 10 minutes. They could just add some cars to an existing Northeast Regional for this. An alternate plan would be to ride the train one way, and return home on a charter bus, thus being able to compare and contrast the experience of the one hour train ride with the two-hour return trip.

Similar field trips could be arranged between Baltimore and Washington.
 

John Bredin

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In Illinois, school field trips to Springfield for the Lincoln sites are a near-universal ritual. Using Amtrak for this from Chicago-area schools would be great!

If Amtrak had the equipment to routinely run a special or extra train for the purpose, the need to take school buses downtown to Union Station could be avoided by having the special begin at another metro-area Amtrak station -- for example, Glenview on a certain day, or Naperville on another, or Homewood on another -- then go to Union Station, take a brief tour of the facilities there, and go on to Springfield.

Fleshing this out a bit more, once Illinois DOT receives enough of the new trainsets, a trainset of Amfleets or Horizons could be dedicated to a regular Chicago area-Springfield field trip service. (I don't think kids will mind as much if it isn't the latest rolling stock.) If heavily promoted to schools and priced right, which would fall to IDOT as it has experience promoting Amtrak travel, the train could have enough business to run on weekdays during the school year. Five or six cars would allow the train to handle multiple class groups on each run, and a few more cars would be better if the traffic supported it.

The group fare could include a boxed breakfast in the morning and boxed dinner on the return trip for each kid and chaperone. Age-appropriate Amtrak Illinois-branded tchotchkes would be included as souvenirs.

Each weekday, the train would start on a different line as I said above: Glenview one day, Naperville and LaGrange Rd. another day, Homewood another day, and one of those repeated based on whichever route turns out to be busiest. The train would go to Union Station where more school groups would board, then run non-stop to Springfield. One day a week the train would start at Union Station then stop at Summit and Joliet and then Springfield.

UP providing another Amtrak slot, especially for a fast train making no stops between metro Chicago and Springfield, would be the possible sticky wicket. A train on a reliable weekday schedule, versus a sporadic chartered basis, would ease that. Another possible issue would be going into Chicago in the morning: a train too early would conflict with rush-hour (assuming that's still a thing in the future) but I imagine a train picking up too long after rush-hour would have to take full advantage of the non-stop thing to give the kids long enough time in Springfield to see the Lincoln sites and/or the Capitol and still have the return train leave far enough ahead of the 5pm-ish regular Lincoln Service.
 
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MARC Rider

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When I was a kid, I went to a summer camp in the Berkshires for three years. One of the treats was riding up from New York on the "Camp Train." My parents took me up to New York on the Pennsy, and we spent the night at the Statler-Hilton (now the Hotel Pennsylvania. it was a nicer hotel back then.) The next morning we went over to Grand Central Terminal, and I boarded the train with my fellow campers. It wasn't just my camp -- all the camps located along the rail line between Danbury and Pittsfield chartered space on the train, and the train stopped at a bunch of different towns along the way. (We got off in Great Barrington, and chartered school buses took us to camp.) It was my first ride on a non-PRR train, this being the New Haven. I seem to remember that the coaches they assigned to us were a little beat-up and had dirty windows. Not that there was much to see in Park Ave. Tunnel coming out of Grand Central. There was a long stop in Danbury, where I believe they switched from an electric to diesel locomotive, and they also passed out cartons of milk for us as a refreshment. (No cafe car or diner on this train!)

The next time I rode from New York to go to a summer camp (a different one), it was on a charter bus from the Port Authority bus terminal. The train was much more fun.
 

Seaboard92

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I'm just thinking back to my childhood we never did any field trips with a train leg partially because it doesn't run in my area at a decent time. Despite the state having reasonably decent service more or less. With three routes in the state and two more routes a 90 minute drive away in North Carolina.

Thinking back to the amount of times we crowded into school buses and went to Columbia for the ballet, the state fair, the state museum, some random state park (I still don't know where that is to this day), and a few other places in that general area. Then going into high school we had conventions downtown at the USC Campus for journalism as well.

If Amtrak would try they might even win the contract from the charter bus operators that our district has for the Williamsburg, VA, Washington, DC, Orlando, FL, and New York, NY trips that the school district does. But to try they have to get people on the train to see how comfortable it actually is.
 
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There was a long stop in Danbury, where I believe they switched from an electric to diesel locomotive,
Was your ride prior to 1961? From that point on, they used FL-9's since they removed the catenary between Norwalk and Danbury.
 

sttom

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I have a few thoughts on the matter and have had some over the years.

On the subject of running steam and other heritage runs, I think its a good idea. Not sure how Amtrak could swing it, but it would generate good will and publicity.

I have thought about the prospect of Amtrak working with short lines that run passenger trains to run through cars on them for tourist connections. Like running a coach and sleeper through to the Grand Canyon and where ever else in the country there is overlap for this. I know the perennial issue of equipment comes up, but it is still something worth investigating.

I do think charter services or extras would make the most sense for Amtrak. Whether its school trips, tour groups or local governments testing the waters for new services. I think it would be better for Amtrak to keep the Amfleet cars around for this. Even the tepid plans for corridor expansion would likely eat up the Horizon cars and probably need some of the Amfleet cars too. And this is me assuming there will be no expansion in the Midwest.

As for getting the public to use Amtrak again and view it as a viable means of transportation, my personal opinion is that Amtrak should fight for funding to give everyone in the US a voucher to ride Amtrak post pandemic. Something like a 10 ride pass for places with corridor service or a cash voucher in other parts of the country. Doing this would give some widespread public pressure to expand Amtrak so people can use their vouchers without having to make long trips to take the train.
 

MARC Rider

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Was your ride prior to 1961? From that point on, they used FL-9's since they removed the catenary between Norwalk and Danbury.
I believe I went to this camp during the summer of 1961, 1962, and 1963. All I remember is that we had a every long stop in Danbury, presumably to pick up the milk cartons for the kids. But maybe we had a long stop at Norwalk to change engines there. BTW, do current passengers riding to Danbury have to change trains at Norwalk? The wiki article about the Danbury branch isn't clear on that.
 
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I think Metro North runs some thru trains from Grand Central Terminal to Danbury, using P32AC-DM's, other times change at South Norwalk. Looks like they don't do the same for the Bridgeport-Waterbury branch....
 

Seaboard92

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I have a few thoughts on the matter and have had some over the years.

On the subject of running steam and other heritage runs, I think its a good idea. Not sure how Amtrak could swing it, but it would generate good will and publicity.

I have thought about the prospect of Amtrak working with short lines that run passenger trains to run through cars on them for tourist connections. Like running a coach and sleeper through to the Grand Canyon and where ever else in the country there is overlap for this. I know the perennial issue of equipment comes up, but it is still something worth investigating.

I do think charter services or extras would make the most sense for Amtrak. Whether its school trips, tour groups or local governments testing the waters for new services. I think it would be better for Amtrak to keep the Amfleet cars around for this. Even the tepid plans for corridor expansion would likely eat up the Horizon cars and probably need some of the Amfleet cars too. And this is me assuming there will be no expansion in the Midwest.

As for getting the public to use Amtrak again and view it as a viable means of transportation, my personal opinion is that Amtrak should fight for funding to give everyone in the US a voucher to ride Amtrak post pandemic. Something like a 10 ride pass for places with corridor service or a cash voucher in other parts of the country. Doing this would give some widespread public pressure to expand Amtrak so people can use their vouchers without having to make long trips to take the train.
You actually have a very interesting idea with switching on a thru sleeper/coach onto the Grand Canyon Railroad. In Russia the only daily steam train in the country the Ruskeala Express to Ruskeala Mountain Park runs between Sortalava and the Park which is about an hour or so long trip one way. RZD times a Lastochka (New branded commuter train) with the train in both directions to take you to/from St. Petersburg. However RZD also operates two thru cars on the Steam train from Moscow and St. Petersburg on the steam train as well. So that is definitely not an unheard of principal to run thru cars to popular destinations even when on a tourist train.

Equipment would be an issue but that might be able to be remedied to a degree. The bigger issue you get is you'll have to cut the cars and add them in an area without an Amtrak station and the Grand Canyon Railroad would need rights onto BNSF to receive the cars.

I think the Horizons would be good mostly because they already are available this year. Whereas the Amfleet I Replacements haven't been ordered yet much less delivered.
 

Seaboard92

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I think Metro North runs some thru trains from Grand Central Terminal to Danbury, using P32AC-DM's, other times change at South Norwalk. Looks like they don't do the same for the Bridgeport-Waterbury branch....
They do run a few thru trains to Danbury. I thought they used to Waterbury too.
 

me_little_me

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I have thought about the prospect of Amtrak working with short lines that run passenger trains to run through cars on them for tourist connections. Like running a coach and sleeper through to the Grand Canyon and where ever else in the country there is overlap for this. I know the perennial issue of equipment comes up, but it is still something worth investigating.
What would it gain to have sleepers through to the Grand Canyon?

The sleeper doesn't provide any great view as compared to the daytime tourist train.

Amtrak would have to disconnect the sleeper from the SWC (with temporary loss of power and more time lost) to connect to a different train that would need to supply a lot more electricity than the existing cars or run its engine on up the GCR tracks.

Assuming they do get the sleeper up there. People stay overnight? At Amtrak prices, the wonderful El Tovar would look like a bargain and it's right at the edge of the Canyon.

Better might be to cut a deal with the GCR to provide an Amtrak package where people and their bags would be picked up at the Amtrak station, put up at the hotel in Williams Overnight then take the GCR then be provided with the return and meet the Amtrak train.

I don't see your point? I must be missing something. How would you envision the through-sleeper concept would work?

And, I believe, the GCR, the hotel in Williams and all the hotels in the Canyon are managed by a National Park contractor.
 
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