Commentary by Russ Jackson
Opinions expressed in this report are the author’s, and not necessarily those of the RailPAC Board
This writer and spouse recently completed a November Amtrak circle trip, starting and ending with the Texas Eagle, which covered much of the western United States. For reporting purposes, the information below primarily covers the portion of the trip on the Texas Eagle, but there will be references to the other trip segments. Was it a good trip? A bad trip? An ugly trip? Like all Amtrak trips on long distance trains each segment had elements of each of those categories. On November 23 the Huffington Post had an article by Ethan Klapper titled, “6 Reasons Why Long Distance Train Travel Is Worth It,” with all 6 reasons well known to all of us in the rail advocacy community, so I will use that outline to cover this Amtrak trip.
1. The Ever-Changing Scenery Is Unbeatable. For the Texas Eagle, the most visible scenery is the area around St. Louis, MO, when riders wake up following the Mississippi River into that city, then departs within full sight of the Gateway Arch. Because our trip also included a trip across the country on the California Zephyr, the pleasant surprise was not waking up to see bare ground with hungry cows and plowed corn fields. Those elements were there, of course, but all were covered with a falling snow. That’s something we don’t see in the Southwest very often. Naturally, that snow extended into the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. When the RailPAC Photos of the Month are posted there will be some good snow scenes included.
2. The Passengers. Yes, you see and meet all kinds of people on the long distance trains particularly when sharing a table with them in the Diner, or in the case of the Texas Eagle the Diner-Lounge. We met a lively British couple enroute to Chicago who were just completing their circle trip that was a duplicate of ours. However, they were quite disturbed when they found they could have returned to Chicago from Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief , saving one night of travel. Booking on the internet as they did does not explain the reason for options for first time travelers particularly from another country. For the accuracy of reporting, we can say definitely that people who ride for the first time or continue to ride Amtrak long distance trains do so with a positive outlook. Events that occur enroute can damage that morale, but mostly we found a willingness to accept some hardships. The most frequent complaint heard on this whole trip was the rough ride encountered on track, whether it was on the Union Pacific or BNSF. There are some very rough sections, and many of them seem to be in the night that causes loss of sleep time. Of course the Sunset Limited-Texas Eagle car shuffle in San Antonio doesn’t help, but when it comes after a very bumpy ride from Del Rio to San Antonio many found sleep elusive.
3. The Staff. Frequent riders always encounter a diversified quality of staffing from trip to trip, and this trip was no exception. Generally, the on-board crews were above the average of what we have found in recent trips. Some segments had crews that kept the passengers informed of not only operations but what to see out the windows, and others were silent. The sullenness has largely disappeared. On our return trip on the Sunset-Eagle from Los Angeles the train was sold out in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday, so the staffs were quite busy, but were helpful when needed.
4. The Food. Although we are mostly reporting on the Texas Eagle part of our trip, we can definitely say the quality of the food on all trains was consistently high. The dinner steak and chicken entrees, the breakfast scrambled eggs and the lunchtime cheeseburger are excellent. They should add a BLT on a bun to the menus! The Texas Eagle dining car crew on our November 9-10 Dallas to Chicago segment was outstanding, and need to be mentioned by name: Lorraine, Adrienne, and Stacy worked together and with the passengers probably better than any crew we have encountered in traveling Amtrak for 40 years. Yes, they were that good and it was appreciated by everyone. Patronage was high for obvious reasons. While she won’t be identified, one of them replied to my inquiry about what the “light entree” was by saying, “Don’t order it.” How’s that for honesty? It is a shame that the Eagle still does not have the full dining car in its consist.
Continuing to the topic of “change,” on November 3 Amtrak made several changes designed to “save money without jeopardizing potential business.” RailPAC’s Jarrod DellaChiesa rode the Coast Starlight just after the changes were made, and confirms many of our observations. The biggest news for railfans of course is the discontinuance of china in the dining cars and all beverages are served in paper or plastic cups. This allows one person to be eliminated from the dining car crew, whose primary duty was to wash dishes. On the Eagle, however, silverware and cloth napkins continued to be used. The menu changes are significant, however, with salads now costing cash customers an extra $3 and there are only two salad dressing choices (Ranch and Balsamic vinegar). Coffee and dessert are also extra for cash customers, but they and the salads continue to be included in First Class ticket meals. Will many cash customers pay $25 for the steak PLUS $3 for a salad PLUS $2 for a beverage? Jarrod also reported the Pacific Parlour Car changes on the Coast Starlight, with wine tasting costing $7 per passenger which has reduced patronage. But, that is now a moot point as Amtrak has announced the Parlour Cars will all be removed for “restoration” in January. They are scheduled to be returned to the rails March 12 according to Amtrak’s release. That’s a long time to hold our breaths to see if that really happens. Will Amtrak have the money to do this job? If they don’t it makes a good excuse to not do it, and discontinue the Brian Rosenwald designed amenity, with fewer employees to pay. Is a drop in quality of the experience of importance to anyone other than veteran rail travelers?
5. The Sleeping Car. This is where this report enters an “ugly” item. While all the Sleeping Car attendants we had were way above average and very responsive to needs, the one major negative on our trip was car number 32032, which came out of Los Angeles and we boarded it in Dallas on November 9 enroute to Chicago. The car had been leaking water since it departed LAUS, and finally went dry near Longview, TX. Dry as a bone. Attempts to find a hose in Longview and Little Rock were not accomplished, so we were told in St. Louis that it would remain dry until Chicago, and we would have to continue using alternative facilities in the adjacent Transition car. A nuisance, of course, but when passengers spend BIG bucks to have facilities in their deluxe bedrooms, it is more than a nuisance. Otherwise, services such as “room service” was available, the attendants were friendly and had water, juice, and coffee available. One thing about boarding the trains, however, was disturbing. At Dallas Union Station the large group of boarding passengers were required to line up while the conductor solved a problem and then finally directed us to our proper car. No ticket scanning was done on platforms on our trips this time, but we were checked in by attendants who reported attendance to conductors.
6. It’s a Great Way to Unplug. Haven’t we all said this all along? Amtrak passenger trains provide a social service, taking people from one place to another. Taking a trip such as we did as a “vacation from retirement” is great, but others have definite destinations. Many of our fellow passengers were going somewhere for Thanksgiving reunions with family, and did not want the hassle of airports or driving. At breakfast on the Texas Eagle a couple coming from El Paso to Dallas told us how much they enjoyed taking this trip, and how they always traveled from their home to Tucson on the train because of the convenience. When Amtrak looks at reasons for the existence of its long distance trains, folks such as these must be considered and not just the end point customers. If downgrading the experience or elimination of the service is in the cards in the future it would be hard to disregard what we heard on this trip: people like the long distance trains, and will ride them as long as the 6 Reasons stated here are maintained to a quality that encourages travel.