But wait, there's less! — In the Face of Congressional Cuts, Amtrak Slashes On-Board Amenities

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"It's as if I'm watching one of those infomercials in reverse, and the spokesperson is saying, 'But wait — there's less!'"

These were the words of Dave Kraminer, a regular patron of Amtrak’s Auto Train service (Lorton, VA – Sanford, FL), in a recent USA Today article. The piece examines trends negatively impacting the onboard experience of Amtrak passengers—an issue that has been lighting up phones in the NARP office for weeks.

Increased prices for previously standard services, paired with broad amenities cuts, are becoming increasingly prevalent. This idea has pursued most aggressively by airlines looking to squeeze profits from every point of contact with customers (and sometimes just squeezing customers). Now this idea has made its way to the national train network. Just last week, Amtrak cut its complimentary amenity kits from its Empire Builder service—the pillow, blanket, night mask and earplugs which were previously allotted to every passenger will now cost customers an $8 fee. Similarly, the Southwest Chief faces cuts from its complimentary wine and cheese service. Multiple routes, including the Lake Shore Limited, Empire Builder and Coast Starlight will no longer see flowers on their tables nor complimentary chocolate.

The service cuts on Amtrak come from Washington lawmakers, who are pairing starvation-level budgets with an increased push for profitability and efficiency. Just yesterday Senate appropriators passed a budget that allocated $1.39 billion for Amtrak, freezing investment at 2014 levels. From the tone of the Senate press release—which promise to ensure the ability of Amtrak to “make investments in the state-of-good repair infrastructure projects and to operate a safe and reliable passenger rail network for the nation”—it’s clear passenger train advocates are supposed to be happy with these numbers. It’s certainly better than the House Appropriations Committee FY 2015 bill, which cuts $200 million from Amtrak’s budget.

However, we should be clear: $1.39 billion is simply not enough money to address the capital investment backlog America’s passenger rail system faces. Amtrak will need more to upgrade critical infrastructure and order the new train cars the national network so desperately required. While Senate policy makers might congratulate themselves for being better than their House counterparts, they are only slightly less guilty in perpetuating the slow-motion physical degradation afflicting our rails, roads, and airports.

While this state of affairs persists, it is easy to buy Amtrak’s official line that these cuts—while painful—“are necessary in order to reduce costs, increase revenues and preserve passenger rail service across our country.”

But what happens when Amtrak becoming a land-based version of an economy airline—with slower travel times, to boot? In certain markets, Amtrak will continue to thrive because of the unique properties of rail transportation—think the Northeast and Capitol Corridor’s abilities to move large volumes of people in through densely populated regions, and the way long distance trains can serve rural markets that airlines and bus companies are pulling out of. However, Amtrak is in real danger of losing customers nationally through this program of cuts. Diana Kersey, a regular passenger on the Empire Builder, told USA Today that the train’s former amenities, "These are things you never get while flying, and it made all the difference in the world to me." A look back on the history of Amtrak’s service provisions shows an alternate path.

In “Still The Best?” (Trains magazine, July 2014) correspondent Bob Johnston chronicles the history of the superior service Amtrak’s Coast Starlight service. Introduced as a new route during the formation of Amtrak in 1971, the Starlight’s amenities were expanded in the 1980s under the eye of route manager Ira Silverman in order to compete with growing air service, and these services were continued, and expanded during the tenure of Silverman’s successor Brian Rosenwald, in the mid-1990s. The entire branding of the train was transformed, with services expanded to include wine and cheese receptions, meals included in ticket price, a specially designated entertainment car, as well as four fully refurbished Santa Fe full-dome observation cars. The Starlight experienced an unprecedented 55% growth in ridership during the period of increased amenities and services, between the years of 1996 and 1999, a time when the national network grew by only 9%. During this time revenue increased by 70%, while the cost of services increased by only 8%.

The astounding period surrounding the service upgrades on the Coast Starlight call into question the cost-cutting measures currently called for in Washington and implemented by Amtrak. The upgrades instituted in the 1990s did not attempt to make the Starlight a direct competitor with low cost airline travel, but instead created an experience which was fundamentally different. Attempting to take on low-cost airline and bus travel on their own terms is a strategy which long distance rail will never win. Brian Rosenwald, the successor to Ira Silverman, summed up his experience on service implementation on the Starlight by recalling his position on the amenity cuts. “We can’t cut this train to improvement. What we need to do is create an on-board experience so that the time aboard the train becomes a positive, not a negative.”

Of course, in the end the amenities cuts are the tail wagging the dog. Real china won’t make up for the fact that your train is eight hours late—a situation that is faced all too regularly by Empire Builder passengers these days. Improving the cost recovery of food and beverage services won’t save the Northeast Corridor if policy makers fail to address the key capacity chokepoints. Congress must treat passenger rail as an equal partner at the transportation table. And if rail were to receive an equal portion of the literally tens of billions of dollars that Congress uses to subsidize roads, bridges, airports, air traffic control systems each and every year… well, they could keep the wine and cheese.