Wednesday, June 24, 2009

America's Luxury Train

If you speak of a luxury Amtrak train to most Americans, even those who frequently or infrequently ride on our national rail passenger system, you will most likely provoke guffaws, snorts and other forms of deprecatory laughter.

Since 1970, when most passenger trains were nationalized into the Amtrak system that has been run and underwritten since by the federal government, the American train ride has not exactly been the world standard of first class travel service.

From 1970 until 1990 or so, in fact, travel by train became a national joke. The cars were deteriorating, the food, once legendary when the private train system was in place, was terrible. Dishes, glasses, cups and silverware were replaced by plastic, food was frozen, pre-prepared and tasteless, and trains rarely arrived on time. Of course, there were reasons for this. First, Amtrak inherited a “featherbedded” union workforce in which too many persons worked on trains but couldn’t be fired. That took more than 20 years to resolve into something more cost-effective. Second, food labor costs rose precipitously, and train kitchens were not re-designed effectively for modern food preparation and delivery. Third, and most important, with the exception of the heavily-traveled northeastern corridor, Amtrak did not own the tracks. The original law gave passenger trains priority. but this was not ever practiced. Freight train companies, which owned the tracks, always gave themselves priority over passenger trains, and a small initial delay could, and often did, expand into arrivals that were sometimes 10-15 hours late or more, especially in the winter on the northern routes.

Passenger trains, in short, were mediocre at best, and had a very poor public image. Train buffs, former and current train employees (who received free travel or a big discount), and those who could not stomach airplane travel (a lot of persons), loyally kept traveling by rail, however. In the 1990’s, Congress reluctantly appropriated more subsidies to enable Amtrak to replace old stock. Individual states, desiring that some of their major cities have Amtrak service, began to subsidize individual train routes. And so, passenger train travel limped into the 21st century and survived.

Perhaps most importantly, the trains themselves, in spite of the obvious shortcomings, drew a larger and larger base of passengers. There is simply no equivalent “romance” about car, bus or plane travel in America. Trains, for almost two hundred years, have created their own idiosyncratic legend, particularly for and about long-distance travel.

Amtrak’s political enemies have long attempted to cut its subsidies and even eliminate it as a public company. They have contended that rail travel should pay for itself (“make a profit”), and be provided by private companies. The flaw in their argument is that there is no national rail system anywhere in the world, nor could there be one, without some form of public subsidy. In fact, ALL forms of public transportation, including urban and intercity buses, air lines, light rail
travel, subways and automobiles (using public streets and highways) are subsidized in the United States. The aftermath of the days following September 11, 2001, when all air traffic was necessarily suspended, only made clearer the need for a modern national passenger train system. (Vice President Joe Biden, who rode Amtrak every day to and from his home in Wilmington, Delaware when he served as a U.S. senator, brings an appreciation of this to the new administration.)

Meanwhile, passenger train travel quality continues to decline. A higher-speed luxury train, the Acela, was inaugurated from Washington to Boston on Amtrak’s own rails, and continues to operate, but its fares are quite high. New rail cars have slowly replaced old ones, and include a number of double-decker cars that serve on most long distance trains. There are four transcontinental routes that begin with trains from the East Coast to the West Coast. From Chicago, there are three routes to the West Coast, the Empire Builder which goes north to Minneapolis-St. Paul and then across the country to Seattle and Portland; the California Zephyr which goes across the middle of the nation to Omaha, Denver, Utah and San Francisco; and the Southwest Chief which goes to Kansas City Albequerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles. A fourth transcontinental route,the Sunset Limited, goes from Jacksonville to Los Angeles via New Orleans, Houston and Tucson.

On all of these routes today, the double-decker coach, first class, dining and lounge cars are much the same (many short term routes use single-level cars), as is the food and service. A positive innovation has been the addition of first class lounges in several large rail stations, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Portland and Chicago. Frequent train travelers can belong to Amtrak Club and accumulate train miles, much as plane passengers do, for future free travel on the Amtrak system.

Nevertheless, luxury train service, except for the very expensive short-run Acela train, has been mostly unavailable in the United States.. Some trains, such as the City of New Orleans from Chicago to Louisiana, has maintained distinctive Cajun/Creole menus over the years, but only one train has insisted on providing a special luxury service at regular Amtrak rates.

The Coast Starlight travels from Seattle and Los Angeles over and through some of the most spectacular landscapes in America, including mountain ranges, vistas of the Pacific Ocean, some of the major fruit and vegetable-growing farms in the nation deserts and craggy coastlines. This double-decker train offers an extraordinary first class travel experience. Although the bedrooms are the same as on other Amtrak trains, first class on the Coast Starlight also includes a special Parlour Car, a refitted 1950’s car from the Santa Fe’s legendary “El Capitan”. Its lower level is a theater with real theater seats, a wide screen and a small stage. Upstairs there is a small library, a lounge area with plush seats, an elegant dining area and a full bar with bar seats, serving a large selection of cordials, liqueurs and other adult beverages, as well as an espresso machine that turns out decent macchiatos, cappuccinos and lattes. Two full-length movies play each day. Some times there is live entertainment or lectures. Each day there is a wine and cheese tasting in the late afternoon, and a late-night chocolate tasting. In the sleeping room, small chamois travel bags are provided with fine shampoos, body creams, soaps and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Small bottles of American champagne are complimentary. The New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal plus local daily newspapers are available in the lounge, as are several magazines. Although first class passengers may go to the regular dining car for their meals (all food is included with each first class ticket), they may also have breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Parlour Car where the menu choices are more limited, but the fare is decidedly more adventurous. On a recent trip, breakfast in the parlour car featured a crimini mushroom and spinach frittata. Lunches included a farfalle pasta, a chicken & cranberry walnut bistro salad, wine country gemelli pasta or a classic chef salad with turkey breast, ham and jack cheese. Dinners featured beef braised in port wine and goji berries, Zinfandel-braised chicken with artichokes, Pacific bay scallops in a Chardonnay sauce, and Santa Maria ancho chile braised short ribs of beef. Desserts included carrot cake, Granny Smith caramel apple tart, toasted pecan tart and Haagen Dazs ice creams. First class diners could also choose the regular diner car for a sirloin steak, lamb shanks, traditional roast chicken and vegetarian entrees.

There is also excellent service from train personnel on this train. They know they are working on the premier Amtrak train, and show it.

Finally, there is a special Arcade Car for children (and adults who like to play video games). This car is also available to coach passengers. Coach passengers may also, for a small $5.00 fee, come to the Parlour Car for the daily wine and cheese tasting.

The best news is that, unlike the Acela train, Amtrak does not charge extra for their first class service on the Coast Starlight. (But it is definitely more expensive than a coach seat.) Your first class ticket, including your sleeping room, will be the equivalent to any other overnight Amtrak trains. (In fact, it will be noticeably less than first class travel on the Lake Shore Limited, a single level train that goes from Chicago to New York or Boston, and which is decidedly not a pleasant
travel experience.) When you consider what you get, that is, a hotel room and all meals, the ability to see the passing landscapes and the freedom to move about the train and meet other passengers, the cost of first class Amtrak travel for two persons or a whole family is quite a bargain. (The secret is to book your ticket several weeks in advance if possible, or during low travel periods, when rates are at their lowest. Last-minute tickets when the train is almost full can be significantly more expensive.)

There are also two north-south trains a day from Boston to Miami, as well as the aforentioned City of New Orleans that goes from Chicago to Louisiana. A number of other medium-distance trains, including the Capitol Limited and the Cardinal (going from Chicago to Washington), the Lake Shore Limited (going from Chicago to New York City or Boston) and many short-run trains covering the rest of the country make up the Amtrak system. Only the Empire Builder, among these trains, makes a special effort in its first class service, offering a complimentary wine and cheese tasting en route, and lectures during the day.

I took the Coast Starlight several years ago, and it seemed that its experience has been maintained with two notable exceptions. One was that the menu used to be a bit larger and even more adventurous, and the other was that first class passengers could leave their shoes out at night and have them beautifully shined by morning, just as they still do on cruise ships.

Millions of Americans travel by train annually, and more are using passenger rail service each year. The United States Congress has appropriated $1.3 billion for Amtrak this year, more than ever before, and has called for higher-speed rail service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and one other location in the country. As much as a rail travel advocate as I am, I cannot justify or support a $6 billion train for such a short route as L.A. to Nevada (it’s a political payoff to Nevada senator/majority leader Harry Reid), but I do think higher-speed rail travel between New York and Chicago or Boston to Florida is an excellent idea, and probably inevitable.

I should point out here the difference between “higher-speed” trains and truly high-speed trains, the latter sometimes called “bullet trains,” and which currently operate in Japan and a few other places in the world.. Most U,S. trains do not travel at more than 75 miles an hour, even on peak stretches of their routes. “Higher-speed” trains do travel up to 125 miles an hour, as does the Acela. What is currently proposed for selected U.S. routes are higher-speed trains. In order to provide faster trains than this, with speeds up to 250 miles an hour, would require new tracks that would be owned by Amtrak, No such trains are currently in the planning or proposal stage, although if they do happen, they would revolutionalize passenger travel in the U.S., making rail travel even more competitive with air travel.

Today, however, there already exists a notable train experience which fulfills much of the glamor and legend of luxury train travel. That is the Coast Starlight, and it demonstrates what even a public subsidized train system can provide at reasonable cost in our own time if the will and demand for it exists.

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