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Without additional funding, how can Amtrak improve the LD trains?

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Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 25, 2019
Messages
264
Location
Michigan
Before we begin, please don't beat up on Flex Dining here, there's a nice 20 page thread for that already.

What I'm interested in discussing here are specific, actionable ideas that don't require a major increase in funding.

How feasible they are is debatable. However, since we're in a do-more-with-less era where anything might go, I figured I'd throw some of these things out there:
  • Have the Department of Justice go after host railroads that do not prioritize passenger traffic. Assess the fines and enforce the law.
  • Computerize all the OBS systems. The conductors have handheld devices for scanning tickets, why not issue similar tech to the OBS staff that works with a localized mesh network on the train? From the call button on up.
  • Develop a better service culture with OBS. Hold OBS accountable using the same customer service metrics used everywhere else in the industry. Transition out bad OBS, reward good OBS.
  • Make the LSA actual management responsible for supervising all aspects of OBS staff
  • Cross-train OBS staff and change operating procedures to maximize the use of OBS hours.
  • Work with local food providers to offer different dining options at crew change stops.
  • Work with Private Car owners to develop "land cruise" options and develop special packages with better food and other items (to demonstrate demand for these services)
What are your ideas?
 

Qapla

Conductor
Joined
Jul 15, 2019
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1,215
Location
Gator Country Florida
Find some room in the budget for advertising on "prime-time" TV - even if you have to take that money from executive bonuses. More exposure would put the idea of taking the train into more peoples plans - right now many (most) people don't think about it because they don't even realize it is a viable option. (out of sight - out of mind)

Remove the blatant ads from the Amtrak website and make the top of the page for booking trips with an easier to use interface (right now you have to "dig" to find the senior and handicapped discounts) with a clearer breakdown of the train choices. The interface they removed was better than the one currently on the site.

If they MUST go to a triweekly schedule, add the stops that some of the non-running trains would stop at ... case in point - some of the Florida stops are for the SM and others for the SS ... with only having one train each day have them both service ALL the stops (ie - Okeechobee)
 

Seaboard92

Conductor
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Dec 31, 2014
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South Carolina
The problem about working with private car owners is if it's a regular service you have to 238 the car I believe which can be very costly. I'm not completely positive on whats involved in doing that to a car but I believe it might be required. I know when they 238ed the IPH Dome for the Hoosier State they had to remove the massive genset from the car, and associated items. And most owners don't want to remove their gensets.

That being said I would be open to them working better with PV owners.

Something I think could work is better fleet utilization. If you move the SM departure from NYP to just after Rush Hour going south you can drop down to three trainsets instead of the four used. Which means you could redeploy the three Viewliner Sleepers, Diner, Amfleet II cafe, and Four to five Amfleet II Coaches to other routes to either increase capacity. A train like the Crescent could use a third sleeper north of Atlanta usually. Or you could start the Thru cars from CHI-PGH-NYP with that fleet.
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
Joined
Oct 21, 2015
Messages
2,720
Consistent customer service.

The LSA’s seem to be some of the worst in customer service and attitude in my experience. Making them “managers” would not be a good idea imho.

Most of your ideas would cost money. How do you not spend money and still rent a bunch of private cars and staff them?
 
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Bob Dylan

Conductor
Joined
May 31, 2009
Messages
20,301
Location
Austin Texas
Consistent customer service.

The LSA’s seem to be some of the worst in customer service and attitude in my experience. Making them “managers” would not be a good idea imho.

Most of your ideas would cost money. How do you not spend money and still rent a bunch of private cars and staff them?
The Train " Manager" needs to be an Exempt Person who is not a craft Union Member.

The problem with this position before was buddy,buddy stuff by these people with lazy and incompetent OBS.
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 25, 2019
Messages
264
Location
Michigan
Most of your ideas would cost money. How do you not spend money and still rent a bunch of private cars and staff them?
They're all within the realm of possibility. Computerization is well within equipment maintenance budgets and would save paper/fuel.

As far as the private cars go, I imagine if Amtrak provided the free advertising to their customers or allowed special packages for Guest Reward points, they could make something happen. The point is: Work with your potential fan base as opposed to cutting them out of the picture.
 

lyke99

Service Attendant
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Aug 10, 2009
Messages
132
Location
Rochester, MN
Not truly no-cost items, but a decade ago a sleeping car space came with a lot more amenities - many of them relatively low cost such as toiletries, some sort of welcome "gift," a daily newspaper (although they are becoming harder to find), coffee and juice all day. Not everyone will utilize all of them, but they make a person feel they are gaining some value for their fare.

Improving the quality of the bedding would help too. VIA's sheets and blankets are so much nicer than Amtrak's. These are wear items that need periodic replacement. Again, not a no-cost item, but low cost.
 

Qapla

Conductor
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Jul 15, 2019
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Gator Country Florida
Or .... run the SM daily and run a separate train (could be called the Silver Star Express) from Tampa to Miami daily with connection to the SM in Miami and/or Lakeland - in fact, you could run the SS twice daily (MIA - TPA) and cost less than running two trains to NYP each day.
 

MARC Rider

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Apr 5, 2011
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Baltimore. MD
Most important -- making the trains reliably on-time, so that a traveler can better plan their trip. That would require enforcement of the laws to prioritize passenger traffic. It's possible if this were done, some of the schedule padding could be removed, and the trains would be considered more useful as reliable transportation in competition with driving, especially for shorter trip segments.

Upgrade the national cafe car menu to be at least as good as the NEC cafe car menu. The cafe cars should also offer full meal plates.

I think anything else will cost additional money, but the returns in increased revenue would probably justify the spending.
 

Lonestar648

Conductor
AU Supporter
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May 17, 2015
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A simple two-way radio system, with an alert system when “call button” is pressed for the SCA or the Coach Attendant. The Train Manager could be easily and quickly contacted. The DC could notify attendants when orders were ready for pick up. Emergencies could be quickly responded to. Amenities in the Sleepers are inexpensive, and give the passengers a sense of being special. On Time Performance is critical to any success and a prerequisite to any of the above discussion making a difference.
 

John Santos

Train Attendant
Joined
Jun 24, 2018
Messages
87
Reliable WiFi on all the Long Distance trains would cost very little in the great scheme of things and would be very attractive for families and especially younger passengers who expect this.

SpaceX's Starlink should be available next year. It would probably be about $100-$300/month for each base station (I would think one for each LD train set would suffice, so the cost would be about 50*$200/month, or about $120,000 per year, for luxury-grade mobile WiFi.

The biggest cost would be installation labor, I think. The base stations are expected to be about $200-$300 each, plus one WiFi router per car ($50-$75 each, probably much cheaper in bulk.) They would need some way to tie the WiFi routers to the base station. I don't know what they use today (WiFi repeaters? Ethernet or Fiber between cars? Power-line Ethernet over the AC power (which works pretty well and is cheap, but something in the AC power distribution might interfere with it.) The could also use the rails themselves as a data transmission medium, but that would require special equipment.) Whatever they use, I expect it would be less than $100 in equipment per car. The cost to design and test the system would probably exceed the equipment cost (I would do it cheap, but it would require extensive testing on all routes (hint hint ;)). I expect by far the biggest cost would be the labor to install the equipment. They would also have to train a few maintenance personnel in installation, maintenance, and how to diagnose and replace broken equipment. They would need to train on-board personnel in how to reset or reboot the equipment and report problems if it breaks. This would only be a few hours at most of training, but there are lots of OBS to be trained.

Gold-plated service that worked in tunnels, especially in the wilderness out west, would require more on board equipment and much more installation costs to install repeaters in all the tunnels. It would be much cheaper and more cost-effective to design the apps uses by SCAs, LSAs, dining car staff and conductors to use store-and-forward messaging to ride out brief outages and a dead car. (Just by walking to another car, the OBS devices could transmit and receive and info entered in a dead zone, such as meal orders and reservations.

A checked-baggage tracking app could possibly make baggage handling more cost-effective, so the could restore baggage service on all trains (and put all those brand-new Viewliner II baggage cars to use!) and maybe even restore baggage service to more stations that haven't had it in years.
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
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Oct 21, 2015
Messages
2,720
As far as the private cars go, I imagine if Amtrak provided the free advertising to their customers or allowed special packages for Guest Reward points, they could make something happen. The point is: Work with your potential fan base as opposed to cutting them out of the picture.
Well they just sold off the parlour cars and the dome.... but if they wanted to do a 1st class sevice they could doll up a SSL and use it as a parlour car. Attach a recently refurbished sleeper and make sure Gul is the attendant and your done. 1st class service.
 

Seaboard92

Conductor
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Dec 31, 2014
Messages
3,638
Location
South Carolina
A simple two-way radio system, with an alert system when “call button” is pressed for the SCA or the Coach Attendant. The Train Manager could be easily and quickly contacted. The DC could notify attendants when orders were ready for pick up. Emergencies could be quickly responded to. Amenities in the Sleepers are inexpensive, and give the passengers a sense of being special. On Time Performance is critical to any success and a prerequisite to any of the above discussion making a difference.
VIA Rail Canada already uses a two way radio system for the OBS on all trains. It's a rather fascinating channel to listen to actually if you have a scanner. It's also used for what you mentioned notifying on pick up orders, when to call which call for the diner, if there is a disruptive passenger, or a medical emergency. It wouldn't be a cost free addition but low cost. And it would greatly aid in service.


Well they just sold off the parlour cars and the dome.... but if they wanted to do a 1st class sevice they could doll up a SSL and use it as a parlour car. Attach a recently refurbished sleeper and make sure Gul is the attendant and your done. 1st class service.
They do have some spare SSLs sitting in Beech Grove right now. It would be doable.
 

IndyLions

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Nov 6, 2016
Messages
337
Location
Brownsburg IN
Summary:

1. On time emphasis
2. Fix the labor/management problem
3. Bring back product line managers.
4. Expanded cafe car menu
5. Pre-Covid Acela-style meals (eastern only)
6. Business Class / Quiet Car all LD routes

First of all, because long-distance service is very often used by point-to-point travelers, the on-time performance is critical for improvement. Absolutely the host railroads must be taken to task for not prioritizing passenger trains as is dictated. I personally sat on the siding for over two hours as five container trains were prioritized over our passenger train that was on time and in our time slot. That utter disregard must be punished. The current system obviously doesn’t work.

The next improvement is they must fix their labor problem. No, I’m not talking about firing everyone and rehiring at unlivable wages. They need to figure out how to aggressively retire with pension as many jaded old-timers as possible while retaining the ones who really care about their jobs. Put the cream of the (experienced) crop in positions of influence over new younger hires and change the culture.

The next fix to the labor problem is to eliminate a layer of management in there somewhere – and bring back the product line / route managers. During the short period they were in place, there was a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and innovation that resulted in real improvements to the individual routes. That happened because there were people who were thinking about the routes, taking customer feedback, and truly trying to improve them.

On the food side of things, I would greatly expand the lounge car menu. Oh, I would keep the concession stand standards that average America loves – the hotdogs, hamburgers, chips, and microwave pizza. But I would add more upscale options like high quality pre-packaged salads, more upscale sandwiches, craft beers, etc. The focus should be adding high revenue items that people have proven they will pay for.

For meal service, on the eastern routes I would experiment with the pre-Covid Acela first class food model. Unlike Acela, I would also give customers the option of eating in the dining car, their room or their seat. I can’t imagine that this is going to cost much more (if anything) than the current contemporary meal approach.

Finally, I would offer the equivalent of an Acela quiet car on all long-distance routes and call it business class. The additional perk could be that it also includes full meal service.
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 25, 2019
Messages
264
Location
Michigan
That being said I would be open to them working better with PV owners.
There's clearly a demand for a luxury food product and a less crowded lounge.

How feasible do you think it would be to demonstrate this market with a refurbished transition sleeper and a private dining/lounge/some sleeper car?
 

railiner

Conductor
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Mar 20, 2009
Messages
8,158
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South Florida
They would need some way to tie the WiFi routers to the base station. I don't know what they use today (WiFi repeaters? Ethernet or Fiber between cars?
Not sure, but I believe each car has its own independent wifi...not as good as what you describe, but better redundancy if the main transceiver happens to fail...
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 25, 2019
Messages
264
Location
Michigan
They do have some spare SSLs sitting in Beech Grove right now. It would be doable.
Could you add enough temporary equipment downstairs and revive the upstairs bar in order to provide the dining experience in that car sufficient to meet the demands of this group?
 

Trogdor

Conductor
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Aug 3, 2004
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Here
Not sure, but I believe each car has its own independent wifi...not as good as what you describe, but better redundancy if the main transceiver happens to fail...
As of a couple of years ago, WiFi on trains used the cafe car as a “brain car” (with the modem) with the coaches having WiFi routers/repeaters that spread the connectivity to the rest of the train. Not sure if that has changed since then.
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Dec 25, 2019
Messages
264
Location
Michigan
Reliable WiFi on all the Long Distance trains would cost very little in the great scheme of things and would be very attractive for families and especially younger passengers who expect this.
Putting a local wifi network on the train (for connecting OBS devices, offering cached entetrtainment on board, etc) is not terribly difficult. If the devices can't communicate directly you can adapt the IC on the train for the task.

Providing internet connectivity in areas not served well by existing cellular data is actually quite cost prohibitive. Just look at cruise ships, for example. Starlink is already oversold and I don't think we have equipment that would make it work reliably. The two networks available to airlines would be an option, but that's incredibly expensive as well.

I'm sure it's possible to get iffy service throughout with a combination of specialized antennas on the train and adding cells to the host railroads.

Also--it's not really a huge value add relative to cost on the trains. The best you could get without a substantial investment is iffy service for most of the routes.

Cell service is also getting better throughout the country. I never really feel totally disconnected on any LD train.
 
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