What should Amtrak change?

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This forum complains a lot about Amtrak. Though I think we all share a love of what we have been given (no matter how much it may test our love), we will all admit that the company has its shortcomings.

I think most on this forum would agree however, that many of Amtrak’s issues do actually stem from being starved of cash. Moreover, Amtrak is forced to do what most other transportation modes are incapable of doing. Run a company, and pay for most of its infrastructure. Now however, Amtrak is flush with cash, and poised to make some monumental changes.

Therefore, what are three major things you would change, or actions that you would take, post 66 billion to improve Amtrak on the whole? Let’s try to avoid too much talk of dining (we have 100 pages of that already).
 
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Qapla

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Twice daily trains (in both directions) on routes with once daily service - like the Silvers
Lower rates on sleeper travel
A direct daily route from JAX to ATL in both directions


Now, these ideas may not be what some think - but you did say we should suggest things "we" would change .... and I didn't mention food
 

Trogdor

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For one thing, and this doesn’t cost $66 billion (really shouldn’t cost a million to develop and implement), some reasonable set of standardization for passenger experience. I don’t necessarily mean a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all service level as there are lots of practical obstacles to that. But you ought to have some expectation of what you’re going to get from route to route based on the name of what you’re buying.

One of my pet peeves is business class. It’s a class of service available on tons of trains throughout the system, yet what you get is different on nearly every train. Even on the NEC, Acela Business Class is different from Regional Business Class in terms of seating and amenities. On the west coast, Business Class is different on the Cascades vs. the Surfliner vs. the Starlight. And those are different from BC on midwestern trains. If it requires coming up with a couple of other names to describe the classes of service in order to allow differentiation, so be it. But lumping 12 different experiences under the generic term “business class” is confusing and can lead to disappointment and unmet expectations if Amtrak passengers from one region wind up trying Amtrak in another region.

Also, while you can never really get a consistent boarding experience because there are a bunch of different station designs/track layouts, they could put some effort into making the experience a bit more consistent at the larger terminals. Get rid of the “kindergarten walks” at CUS, and replace it with a priority boarding area of those specifically needing assistance (which they kind of already have). Otherwise, open up the platform access as soon as the train is ready for boarding and let passengers board at their leisure like they do on pretty much every commuter train system in the US and most other passenger railroads in the world.

The $66 billion of course should go to equipment replacement, station upgrades and route upgrades, and there’s been plenty of discussion/debate already on how to work that. Having the service run reliably will require some kind of government intervention in railroad operations, and/or building separate rights of way (and the latter will run through the $66 billion really fast).

Relatively minor improvements also include things like speeding up trains by reducing dwell. The NEC and California already do this with their open platforms and trainlined doors. The other corridors should do this as well. Again, have one designated spot on the platform for passengers who will need assistance. Otherwise, passengers are on their own to get themselves on and off the train. Again, virtually every other passenger railroad system in the world (including commuter systems in the US) manage to do this. Yet we funnel all the passengers through the one manually operated door with a conductor, adding several minutes to the dwell at busier stops.

If we assign seats (I am of mixed opinion on this, due to capacity optimization issues associated with potentially losing the ability to sell through tickets on routes with turnover), charts or signs on the platform can tell passengers where their car will be spotted. Common in Europe, but supposedly impossible to do here because “we don’t know what kind of equipment will be on the train or which way the consist will be facing” and all that garbage. Also, make cars and consists face the same way. Amtrak manages to do it with the single-level LDs because of the vestibule arrangement. No reason the rest of the system can’t do it as well. This would also enable passengers in sleepers to know ahead of time which side of the train their room will be. Amtrak could even make a few extra bucks then by charging an extra fee for the ability to pre-select a specific room. No point in doing that now if you’re just going to disappoint the passenger that spent the extra $100 or so to wind up on the wrong side of the train for the scenery.

There’s a bunch of other stuff, too. But for me, a lot of it comes down to corporate and operational discipline, and removing the general sense of “whatever”ness that allows each region, terminal and crew district to basically make up their own rules.

Maybe add one more thing that would improve the customer experience: do what VIA did, put two folks in the locomotive, and have a “train manager” or whatever responsible for passenger interaction. Far too many on-board customer service issues are because of conductors with a God complex.
 

87YJ

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Look at the ASMAD times for the SL the last 2months. On time is the only problem for a train that stops 6 times a week in MRC. And people think a rail link to PHX will solve the problem. I see up to 4 hrs late doing wonders for return customers at a PHX station or MRC
Upgrade the interiors would be nice.
Clean windows also nice.
I live close to MRC, so!
 

west point

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Twice daily trains (in both directions) on routes with once daily service - like the Silvers
Lower rates on sleeper travel
A direct daily route from JAX to ATL in both directions

As your videos of Brightline are complete you appear on spot for these proposals.
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The direct daily route from ATL <> JAX has may possibilities. If it connects with the Crescent from the west that give a route from NOL - BHM and intermediate cities to Florida. IMHO departure times from NOL need to be no later than 0600 - 0700. Based on prior timetable times that would only be about 4 hours more than the Sunset route from NOL. New miles much less with both various CSX and NS routes thru south Georgia being signaled except possible NS Macon - Savannah. If the Nashville - ATL regional comes into use that gives more possible stations to Florida.

Your twice daily trains and these new trains means that Amtrak will have to refurbish those Amfleets still capable for the needed capacity instead of retiring them.
 
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sttom

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I agree with that was already mentioned is standardization of business class across the system. It's kind of a shame how much it varies across the system and that needs to end.

An overnight business option is also a must.

I would also say that any Thruway bus route that has a parallel rail route that could be run with at comparable times to be replaced by trains. I would put them on first to get replaced. They already are successful enough and would be a good start.
 

jis

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It would take some really fast talking but moving one of the Silvers to the tracks that go through Ocala and Waldo to JAX would bring train travel back to Ocala and Gainesville ...
How will that bring train service to Gainesville? There is no railroad other than a terminating branch coming in from the north west left in Gainesville. It will take way more than fast talking, as in restoring or building many miles of railroad tracks before any passenger service can be restored to Gainesville.

Of course even to move anything to Ocala-Waldo first your first born will have to be sacrificed at the altar of CSX too :D And on this one appeals to STB is unlikely to work too well since that line was given up in exchange for CFRC (SunRail) to take over the line between Deland and Poinciana. It was a deal entered into by consenting adults where FDOT was party to the agreement.
 

Qapla

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There may not be any tracks to Gainesville to support a train actually going to the city - but Waldo is a lot closer than Palatka (it's only 15 miles from the depot to UF) and would provide access for Gainesville

The OP did not ask for options that MUST be possible, it asked what would we like to see
 

Rambling Robert

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One. BOOKING Two. LOOKING
Three. COOKING

BOOKING
Amtrak Execs should try to book online and by phone. There’s still a glitch in the APP to set on date (my device is an iPhone XI). There’s almost always AT LEAST a two hour wait to book by phone. Also I took an informal survey and 90% of phone agents HAVE NEVER BEEN ON AMTRAK - give each agent a trip by on Coach, sleeper, bus... nearly all would love this!

LOOKING
Crossings should be monitored at a needed time / camera turned on and images digitally sent down the rails. Also, somehow a look ahead as train travels - maybe a continuous drone image. Motion detection. I know an engineer locally who hit and killed a person on the tracks. The engineer retired early. Tragic.

COOKING
.... nuff said...
 
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As for making trains run on time, outside of the NEC I don't see this as happening short of nationalizing the rail infrastructure. Someday maybe this will happen so that rail is on the same level as every other transportation mode in the country, but this won't happen for a while. In the meantime we should be able to at least get the NEC to be more reliable. More money spent on equipment maintenance perhaps?

Otherwise, making all of the triweekly routes daily as a start. Then adding shorter distance day trains on portions of overnight routes e.g. Chicago - Cleveland, Chicago - Kansas City.

Thirdly, more uniformity in practices, so that a customer has a uniform experience throughout the system as was previously mentioned.
 

neroden

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In terms of things which are within Amtrak's unilateral control (since on-time performance is more of a Congressional / Surface Transportation Board action):
-- Get customer service, and particularly *information*, up to normal standards, since it is currently badly substandard. Publish the timetables. Publish the ingredients lists for the food. Make the website work properly, consistently. Get the people in the call centers the information they need and have enough of them. If Amtrak can't make business class consistent, at least it can make it clear what is in business class on any given train (which it does not currently do). Make sure there's a consistent and functional process, nationwide for updating customers with information when there is a disruption in operations -- currently there isn't such a process.
-- Start complying with disability law consistently. Put the money, manpower, and attention in to actually make the stations ADA-accessible. Make reasonable accomodations, consistently. Publish the ingredients lists for the food. Provide enough Red Caps to provide the ADA-mandated services at Chicago (which Amtrak does not currently do). Make sure there are benches on the several-block-long platforms at places like Chicago for people with mobility impairments who don't have their own wheelchairs.
-- Get control of internal departments which have been mismanaged for years and decades, such as Chicago Mechanical, which has a reputation for taking in cars with defect lists, and sending them back out with exactly the same defects and falsified defect reports. Generally, get some good managers in, who are willing to settle in for the long term and make the department *work*, and give them the support and resources they need to make the department *work*. Stop doing mindless, idiotic, brain-damaged "management buyouts" in the mindless, brain-damaged, idiotic "cost-cutting" mentality (Amtrak did another one of these rounds of self-lobotomization in 2020, and whoever proposed it -- possibly Gardner -- should be fired for cause and fined.)
 
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As for making trains run on time, outside of the NEC I don't see this as happening short of nationalizing the rail infrastructure. Someday maybe this will happen so that rail is on the same level as every other transportation mode in the country, but this won't happen for a while. In the meantime we should be able to at least get the NEC to be more reliable. More money spent on equipment maintenance perhaps?

Otherwise, making all of the triweekly routes daily as a start. Then adding shorter distance day trains on portions of overnight routes e.g. Chicago - Cleveland, Chicago - Kansas City.

Thirdly, more uniformity in practices, so that a customer has a uniform experience throughout the system as was previously mentioned.

I’ve seen a pattern on this forum of overly slamming Amtrak, even when it may not be so true.

For the most part, the Acelas and NE regionals DO run on time in the BOS-WAS section (especially given how many of them there are); a late train is a rare thing. Of course things could be better, but I wouldn’t call it a huge problem.
 
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In terms of things which are within Amtrak's unilateral control (since on-time performance is more of a Congressional / Surface Transportation Board action):

Well, some of the delays are caused by the mechanical condition of the equipment, and that is under Amtrak's control. As you said, reform of some of the mechanical departments; also obtaining new, hopefully reliable, rolling stock.
 
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1. Improved customer service, as Neroden expounded on. Not "white glove" Lucius Beebee, stuff, but fundamentals, like timetables, agents that know what they are talking about, on-board staff that doesn't make up restrictive rules on the fly for their convenience, etc.

2. Increased frequency of service on most routes.

3. Either totally eliminate dynamic pricing ("buckets") or narrow the range between the lowest and highest bucket. Amtrak's goal should be maximizing ridership and getting people out of their cars, not managing scarcity by raising fares. To maintain revenue, they'll need to obtain more rolling stock to be able to handle rush periods without selling out. They really should be aiming to make passenger rail, at least in the corridor markets, a major player in transportation mode share along the route. The average American should know that taking a train is a viable transportation option in much of the country.
 

jis

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I’ve seen a pattern on this forum of overly slamming Amtrak, even when it may not be so true.

For the most part, the Acelas and NE regionals DO run on time in the BOS-WAS section (especially given how many of them there are); a late train is a rare thing. Of course things could be better, but I wouldn’t call it a huge problem.
I just stumbled upon this nice bar chart talking about Amtrak OTP in the year 2016-17...


Interestingly, in that year, the NEC Spine services did not have the best OTP in the system.
 
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I just stumbled upon this nice bar chart talking about Amtrak OTP in the year 2016-17...


Interestingly, in that year, the NEC Spine services did not have the best OTP in the system.
Of course, "on time performance" is a slippery term, hard to really define in a global manner. The stats posted by Jis are basically on-time performance at the terminal. For multiple trains, it's the number of trains that arrive at the terminal station divided by the total number of trains on the route. Some of these routes have only 1-4 trains per day, whereas other have 10-20 trains per day. The number of trains on the route thus strongly affects the OTP statistic, even if the number of late trains on the route are the same.

Another consideration is the OTP between intermediate stations. For example, if I'm going to New York, I really don't care when the train eventually gets to Boston, as long as it gets me to New York on time. One recent example I had was the Palmetto, which left Richmond 4 minutes behind schedule (which means more or less "on time"), but arrived in Alexandria over an hour late, and then departed Washington 20 minutes behind schedule. A traveler from the south to Richmond would praise the "on-time performance," but one going to Alexandria would say nasty things about Amtrak's "late trains." And they're both talking about the same train!
 

jis

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Indeed. Getting LD trains to be on time everywhere I suspect is a fool's errand. The thing to shoot for is to get them on time at the so called "Division Points" and allow some limited variation in between, not the wild craziness that is common on what is euphemistically referred to as "Precision Scheduled" railroads which are really neither "scheduled" and nor "precision" by any definition of the term. Sounds good for marketing though. They could learn a few things about both from many of the lowly railways in the rest of the world, who have not been consistently losing customers and custom for decades, once they get off their oh so high horses of "perfection".
 

jebr

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They could learn a few things about both from many of the lowly railways in the rest of the world, who have not been consistently losing customers and custom for decades, once they get off their oh so high horses of "perfection".

But that would mean acknowledging that American Exceptionalism isn't always exceptional! And who would want to do that?
 
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I'm sure this has been discussed already, but from a business standpoint, wouldn't it make sense to significantly lower fares across the board to attract more frequent ridership?

To be frank, most Americans (myself included) are mindful of their spending habits and always try to seek out the least-expensive option. Lots of working class people simply cannot afford a the high cost of an Amtrak fare. Flying is faster and cheaper than train travel, so most people opt for that. In reality, the only people who travel by train outside of the NEC are those who have lots of money to spend, lots of time to kill, or live somewhere without access to an airport.

If Amtrak lowers fares to be less than air travel and markets to the most profitable audience (eco-conscious millennials, Gen Z, Gen X), they could fill more seats, increase repeated ridership, improve public perception, and generate profit.
 
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