A Report from Fresno on “Collaboration”
By Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer
In a five step plan, AMTRAK and Caltrans on March 27th presented results to the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee (SJVRC) of a performance enhancement initiative that began in mid-2007.
The first of these steps elevated service delivery, fare structure and marketing changes for the most extensive discussion. Step two which improved access to AMTRAK reservations for Spanish-speaking passengers incorporated SJVRC suggestions as described in the meeting report by Russ Jackson. Step three addressed the need for more and improved verbal and visual communications at stations and on trains that will provide information about delays. Next, the federal and state partners targeted polling passengers and reporting their ranking of the adequacy and satisfaction with their train-service experiences. Feedback to all operations levels will drive changes in service delivery. Finally, sharper focus will be given to maintenance of motive power and rolling stock and thereby improve on-time results.
To explain progress made with these five steps, Martin Yurth, AMTRAKâ€™s director of product management for the northwest region, enthusiastically presented his information, aided by charts and graphs. Mr. Yurth left a vivid impression on the audience, including RailPACâ€™s President Paul Dyson, Vice President Arthur Lloyd and RailPAC directors Jackson, Jenkins, and Kerby. Elected officials who sit on the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee (SJVRC) listened intently to the fresh thinking that permeated the hearing room. Outgoing SJVRC chair, Mayor Harvey Hall congratulated Mr. Yurth on the impressive set of answers that he provided for questions that the committee had raised in previous meetings.
Mr. Yurth posed again the central question of how ridership and revenue could be increased. From a series of spirited meetings set in Washington, D.C. and on the West Coast, AMTRAK and Caltrans Division of Rail looked at rider demographics of the route and metrics of the corridor trains. Yurth in conjunction with staff from the national and state offices sought to correct the fare structure, offer ways to connect all employees with a common vision of service objectives and delivery of higher quality service. Acknowledging serious problems with the cleanliness of trains and their restrooms, leaders found ways to increase cleaning frequencies by adding restroom maintenance mid-journey in both directions from Bakersfield to Oakland/San Jose. Maintenance of cars and locomotives will also receive additional attention to boost reliability for on-time performance.
Fare structure occupied five days of discussions in the Washington, D.C. AMTRAK headquarters. As reported by Mr. Yurth, analysts found that four different fare groups were spaced too closely together to have a significant effect on ridership. A proposal to increase the differences among the four price groups was developed with the Division of Rail. Division of Railâ€™s Director, Bill Bronte, gave his approval to a structure where the lowest fare was 25 percent below the highest peak fare. The intended effect of these revised fares is to shift discretionary travel from the weekend peak periods where trains are crowded to Monday through Thursday, where filled seats dip to 40% of capacity on several trains. Lower fares will boost the number of riders and modestly increase fare box revenue when they are coupled with a TV and radio advertising campaign, in English and Spanish, starting in April.
Although customer satisfaction of San Joaquin service is up, questionnaires and interviews revealed that customers wanted some meals with lower prices. Lower priced entrees now appear on redesigned eye-catching menu cards. (See copy of the menu at the end of the Meeting report on railpac.org) A twelve-week trial program began on March 14th on peak period trains where cold drinks and snack food items arrive seat-side from food carts that roll down the aisles several times a journey.
Mr. Yurth also addressed better bus-train connections, especially at Stockton; better information about those connections from signs and announcements at stations and consistent information in timetables will also retain existing passengers and attract new people. Measurable standards are a part of the program, a concern of all, with passenger and revenue counts, but the inclusion of a customer service manager on board six to ten trains a week, qualitative matters can be described and improved. Progress from the first 180 days of the San Joaquin route performance initiative moved service quality in the desired direction.