11.7.18

ABANDONING THEIR INITIAL MISSION?

When Amtrak got started, their publicity included the tagline "We're making the trains worth traveling again."  Santa Fe might have had nothing of it: Northeast Corridor passengers, and Michigan passengers, and passengers subject to the tender mercies of Missouri Pacific or Penn Central or Southern Pacific might have seen improvements.

These days, not so much.  The etiolated food service on the eastern trains wins no friends.

"No way to run a railroad," argues long-time Passenger Rail advocate Andrew Selden.
A small part of the issue is that Amtrak’s senior managers foolishly misapprehend the character of its customers on long-distance trains as consisting of “discretionary,” “leisure” or “experiential” travelers. These customers, according to Amtrak’s strategy, seemingly also are “dispensable.”

That view would be a rude surprise to management at Carnival (or a dozen other cruise ship operators), scores of tourist railroads (like the Durango & Silverton), or any of a dozen airlines that are growing as fast as they can finance new aircraft. All of these carriers are adding amenities, not subtracting them. They staff their stations, feed their customers, build their fleets, and haul away the money they make. But not Amtrak.

To the extent that “discretionary” and “experiential” demand exists for Amtrak’s service, stripping out the “experience” dimension of the travel experience seems a particularly counterproductive way to attract and retain customers. Successful, growing, non-subsidy-dependent purveyors of experiential travel in the rail sector are not trying to starve themselves into prosperity. Even VIA Rail Canada, which like Amtrak is dependent upon government support, has aggressively enhanced its travel experience.

Manage costs? Of course. Every business does that. But stripping out the features that make the travel experience uniquely attractive to customers, and that generate repeat business and favorable word-of- mouth marketing, is exactly the wrong way to manage the enterprise. The same thing is true in other sectors as well. All classes of service on Anderson’s previous employer, Delta Air Lines, even in domestic markets, enjoy enhanced and ever-growing amenities and features. The same is true on all cruise ship lines.
Yes, and making it more difficult for charter and private-car operators to run their cars on Amtrak's trains doesn't make any sense.  Perhaps a public authority can make a case in equity for operating a standard, bare-bones coach service with more legroom than a bus, and leave the carriage trade to the carriage operators.  But the carriage operators are not in a good position to negotiate with the freight railroads for paths to run the deluxe trains.

Marx Brothers revival, suggests Railway Age's Frank Wilner.  So much, he notes, for positioning the carrier as a bare-bones coach service operation.  "On the Northeast Corridor ... Amtrak brags of dominating the air/rail market, ignoring bus operators that increasingly poach Amtrak passengers by offering lower fares, more frequent departures and competitive trip times."

Finally, longtime Washington-based rail columnist Don Phillips, who was recently poached from Trains by Passenger Train Journal has sources referring to whatever headquarters is doing as "stupid."

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