Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Some Ideas For Amtrak From A Rider's View

A $15 Billion Amtrak Bill sailed through the House Wednesday as lawmakers rallied around an alternative for travelers burdened with soaring gas prices.

The bipartisan bill would authorize funding for the national passenger railroad over the next five years. Some of the money would go to a program of matching grants to help states set up or expand rail service.

Besides the $14.9 billion provided for Amtrak and intercity rail, an amendment to the bill would authorize $1.5 billion for Washington's Metro transit system over the next 10 years.

This is all good news for us that enjoy traveling by train. But I wonder if there is a better way to fund Amtrak than through our tax dollars.

As I was on my latest train excursion...through the Northwest from Southern California to Seattle, I was reminded of what the nation's passenger rail service, Amtrak, is and I thought about what it could be.

First of all, the scenery from Los Angeles to Seattle, as seen from the comfort of the Amtrak observation lounge rivals the best in the country. From the ocean views to the Northern California and Oregon mountains to the lushness of Northern Oregon into Washington and the Puget Sound area near's hard to beat for breathtaking beauty not only in the US but in the world.

The people I met on this journey were incredible. People from Northern California and the Northwest are generally generous, educated, and progressive, and this makes for wonderful and interesting conversation. And since you have to sit with somebody at the dining car you have the opportunity to get into some wonderful discussions with fascinating people.

But, those are all the benefits of taking the train...anywhere. What I want to talk about is what Amtrak is doing right and where they fall short.

I was actually on two trains this trip through the northwest. For those who were not following the trip on this webzine as it was happening, my son Felix and I took the Coast Starlight from Fullerton, CA to San Francisco...stayed two days in San back on the CS and went to Eugene, OR where we stayed with my good friends Mark and Greg. After we left Eugene we switched to the Cascades which is the run from Eugene to Seattle. The two trains were like night and day.

First of all, in all fairness, the train they use for the Coast Starlight is similar to the trains they use on the Southwest Chief (LA to Chicago) or the Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco). These trains were built in the 70's in an era where there were no cel phones, no laptops, no personal DVD players. So there are very few electrical outlets and the first thing that everybody looks for is an outlet but with an average of one or two per car it's tough going.

The second thing, I noticed was the service is suffering and I had wonderful experiences last year on the Zephyr and Southwest Chief. I think it has to do with teams that they put on the train. All it takes is a couple of disgruntled employees to permeate the group and the experience becomes less than satisfactory. The service from LA to Oakland fell into the less than satisfactory category. But the Emeryville to Eugene ride was much better.

On the LA to Oakland run, the Amtrak employees were rude, obnoxious, and let you know that they were understaffed and overwhelmed. OK that last part is probably true...but it doesn't mean you have to take it out on the customers. We're trying to have a good time and get to where we need to go...lose the attitude and work out whatever differences you have with your employer.

I was particulary disappointed in the service in the dining room. Plastic eating utensils, high prices, paper table cloths, less than satisfactory food and again waiters with bad attitudes. What happened to the golden age of train travel where you had wonderful service, china, cloth table cloths, and beautiful silverware and glasses for your drinks? No wonder people don't like taking the trains anymore.

Then the lounge is not showing movies anymore because the motion picture industry wants a cut for them showing the movies. Give me a break.

Contrast that with what I experienced on the Amtrak Cascades train from Eugene, OR to Seattle, WA. This train service is a cooperative between the states of Oregon, Washington and Amtrak. It's all the things Amtrak does right. First of all the train is always generally on time because they split the ride in two trips. One train starts in Eugene and runs to Portland. Then another train takes you to Seattle. Also, I understand they don't have the freight train right of way issues that are experienced in other parts of the country.

This train was built within the last couple of years and they did it right. An electrical outlet at every seat, tv screens for movies in every car with plugs on the console for headsets to listen to the movie, a wonderful lounge and Bistro, large and beautiful bathrooms, an onboard systems for telling you time, weather, how far ahead or behind the train is on schedule. This is on when the movies are not going. And by the way, with every Amtrak train I've been on...much more leg room than an airline seat. And the crew on this train were happy, neatly dressed, and extremely helpful.

And now comes my modest proposal.

Why can't they run Amtrak like National Public Radio or Public Television? Since it is a government subsidized service, get corporate sponsorships and have fundraisers to create more money. Here's some ideas what you could do with corporate and individual involvement.

Have a major restaurant run the Dining Room. Have Outback Steakhouse, as an example, be responsible for the dining room. They would staff it, they would design the inside of the rolling restaurant, they could have their menu. And they would do a great job, because it would be a great advertisement for their traditional restaurants.

Create free enterprise aboard the train. There could be a mini McDonalds, a Starbucks, some small shops like a mini-mall all on the train. Can you imagine the bidding war companies would get into to get those spots and how much more money it would generate for the railroad?

Yes, have a movie theatre, sponsored by AMC or another chain or at least do what they did in the Northwest with a screen in view near the seats with a plug to listen at your seat.

Get an interior designer to sponsor a redesign of the interiors of the trains. Again, a bidding war would insue and the winning bidder would generate a lot of publicity. And of course, put an electrical plug at every seat and hook up the trains for wi-fi. Because of these innovations, train travel would be fun and sexy again.

There is so much that could be done with the current Train system in America. We have a beautiful country and traveling by train is a wonderful way to meet the people and see the sights of this great land. Europe and other countries are way ahead of the US on this So any investment we put into this venture is going to pay dividends in the economy as more people get out and spend more money in the areas around the country.

By Allen Bacon, Editor, The Daily Bosco

Photo: California Zephyr by Truckee River in Nevada.

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