Amtrak drastic cuts to Southwest Chief train

Amtrak Southwest Chief crews are dismayed by the June 19, 2018 presentation by Amtrak to an at least partially disappointed Congressional delegation proposing breaking the Southwest Chief into two day trains.

  • Los Angeles, CA to Albuquerque, NM
  • Dodge City, KS to Chicago, IL

Cold sandwich chef-free diners on Amtrak Southwest Chief?

Amtrak Southwest Chief OBS employees are said to have received new onboard chef-free dining car menus with cold sandwiches for November 2018, akin to the June 2018 Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited no-chef cold food menus. It was not yet clear if cold-only, no-chef “diner” menus are coming to other long distance Amtrak trains.

Since human beings are prone to rumor and sensationalism, one should as always take such statements cautiously.

What is the future of Amtrak long distance trains?

Events of 2018 have made the case that Amtrak senior management are taking the Congressional mandates for Amtrak seriously. Their interpretation seems to be among the most aggressively oriented toward change in the long distance trains than we’ve seen in two decades. The benefits of breaking long distance train routes into short pieces does seem to have been substantially considered and is under ongoing analysis.

Amtrak sometimes seems to be a victim of its own success. Its large overhead can make it seem like adding passengers adds costs (with certain types of analysis). When those pessimistic analyses are promoted, lawmakers could be encourage to support measures making Amtrak long-distance travel something different than has been for several decades.

Sleeper vs. coach passengers

The interests of sleeping car passengers can be thought of as somewhat against those of coach passengers. Sleeping car passengers are paying 4 to 10 times or more the price of coach tickets. Sleeping car tickets tend to be for a longer distance than coach tickets. Because they tend to travel farther, and have a bed to sleep in, sleeping car passengers don’t mind overnight travel, or even boarding somewhat late at night.

Coach passengers traveling overnight face the risk of noisy seatmates and the natural uncomfortable nature of non-bed sleep. Generally, a coach passenger would like to travel during daylight hours, even if it takes all day for a longer distance.

Carrier costs of overnight travel

Amtrak loses potential passengers where stations are serviced during the middle of the night. Amtrak also has to provide rolling stock in the form of bedrooms for overnight staff. If an 12 or 18 hour day segment replaces a former long distance route, Amtrak can overnight the staff in very cheap hotels or motels, perhaps $49 / night outside the cities. Others have probably done public analyses of the savings in staff costs and rolling stock overhead by turning a long distance route into daytime disconnected segments, and the savings are probably considerable, while increasing the number of coach passengers. The Congressional mandate is fulfilled (sort of) and break-even becomes closer.

My opinion

Reduced staffing saves several million dollars, maybe even $10-15 million yearly on a western long distance train. The computerized ticketing system and just in time inventory practices would allow maintaining sleeping cars and cold/hot pre-prepared diner food as follows:

  1. No SCAs (sleeping car attendants) or perhaps just one SCA covering all cars. Most en route room turnover occurs at or near crew change points, where a team of contractors could quickly turn over all available rooms. This would result in some lost inventory, but the saving may be substantial.
  2. Spread the pre-prepared diner experiment to all long distance trains. Patrons go to the kitchen to get their pre-ordered hot or cold boxed meal. Coach passengers can also preorder meals. Make extra meals available to purchase onboard (non-pre-ordered) at a substantial premium.