Train in Vain, Part 2

Before you read this post, you should check out Part 1 here:

And now we come to the final section, the one where Amtrak can really beat out planes and buses if the other two criteria are met – comfort and experience. Trains already hold a massive advantage over those transportation options: at any point during the trip you can get up and walk around, visit the cafe car, or stare out the back of the train at the tracks retreating into the distance in beautiful parallel lines. So how can they take advantage of this initial leg-up in terms of comfort?

Amtrak led the way on access to wifi while traveling, but now they lag behind buses (and even planes in many routes). Even their best routes are inconsistent – and, more importantly, are perceived by the public as being inconsistent. Originally they needed wifi to snag the business crowd, but now it’s for everyone – even commuter rail lines have been adding it in recent years (see MBTA, etc). Amtrak needs to be known for consistent coverage, and if that’s impossible (like along routes where there are no cell towers, for example the Adirondack), they need to tell customers in advance. They will lose more repeat customers by promising wifi and not having it than they will by being upfront about coverage in the first place.

What about more basic human needs (although some would argue that wifi falls into this category)? Let’s talk about bathrooms. No form of mass transportation has figured out good, clean bathrooms. Buses are certainly the worst, followed close behind by planes, but trains aren’t great either. I don’t have specific ideas to fix this, but improving bathrooms on long routes to feel at least as clean as a non-mobile public bathroom needs to be a priority on the comfort front. Anyone who has tried to use an Amtrak bathroom 12 hours into a trip will undoubtably agree.

Next up is the cafe car – another area where Amtrak has the advantage over its competitors, but barely. At the very least they can step up their game by providing a more diverse set of food and drink selections with higher quality ingredients. If they want to make their food a selling point, they have the space available to make something really great, to really be a cafe – run the car like a small coffee shop with fresh (simple) sandwiches and salads instead of the terrible microwaved hamburgers and hotdogs that dominate the menu now. Offer fresh coffee and tea. At the moment, ordering food while you are traveling is a dismal prospect, and at the best you have a soggy processed sandwich. If Amtrak’s cafe car can get half-way to replicating the non-mobile eating experience that’s enough to be a selling point.

Past these basic fixes, Amtrak needs to get creative. For these longer routes it’s not just about moving people in an efficient way, but about creating a travel experience. Cars don’t need to look and feel like commuter rail. Depending on the route and the goal of most travelers, some cars can feel like a mobile office, with desk access and better lighting. Others can feel like a social space, with more tables and seats facing each other to facilitate conversation. Others can be quiet and private for travelers who’d like to read or sleep. And because it’s a train, travelers aren’t confined – if someone wants to work for three hours they can, then move over to a social car for lunch, then take a nap in the afternoon. Travel doesn’t have to be a waste of a day when it’s on a train, it can a goal in and of itself.

Aside from these practical changes, Amtrak could use a more spiritual shakeup. Trains still have an aura of romanticism about them that buses and planes can’t compete with. Amtrak can highlight that next time they renovate their cars – trains don’t need to be brutally modern tubes clearly designed to move people from one place to the next. They can be comforting environments that hearken back to the golden age of rail. Nostalgia is a powerful force in the modern world, and trains are well placed to capitalize on this.

Can Amtrak afford to do any of this? Probably not, but they also can’t afford the status quo. These specific ideas may be infeasible (not the bathroom one – that one is important), but it’s the sort of thinking Amtrak needs to engage in to compete. It’s an expensive initial investment, but I believe they’ll find the increased ridership that comes along with these changes would more than support the initial costs, and put them in a better position for the long run. Trains have a long way to go in terms of affordability, reliability, and comfort, but they aren’t out of the game yet – the right changes at Amtrak could usher in a much needed second age of rail in the United States.

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