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Eric Smith, Director Long Distance Routes, Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief

Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight Discussion

with Eric Smith

Director Long Distance Routes, Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief

May 23, 2016

Comments by Carl Morrison,


My 2015 photo of Eric Smith


Eric Smith from his LinkedIn page

On May 23, 2016, the President of Southwest Rail, the President of, and I enjoyed a casual meeting with Eric Smith in his office in the Los Angeles Union Station.  It was our purpose to discuss a recent 4,000 mile trip on the Amtrak Southwest Chief, round trip from Fullerton, California to La Plata, Missouri.  The six of us had gone on this trip together, so we had similar comments about service on the train.

I wrote a Rail Travelogue on this trip which is online at:

Eric began our meeting by asking us about our recent trip.  My concerns were four:

1.  There is no longer ice available in the sleeper cars.  Eric said that sleeping car passengers who want ice need only ask the car attendant who will go to the Diner to retrieve ice for you.

2.  There is no longer coffee in the sleeper cars after the 6:00 a.m. batch is exhausted.  Eric said they are exploring the idea of having the car attendant brew another pot about 2 pm.  (Of course, coffee is available at each meal in the Diner with meals which are included in your fare.)

3.  There is no longer a steak available in the limited menu the first night out of Los Angeles.  This means that a passenger from Los Angeles on a turn-around trip to Flagstaff, will not be able to order a steak either way on such a trip.  I mention this because an Amtrak steak is well known as one of their best dinner items. (I was able to get a steak on the return trip since I went far enough east to have a couple of dinners on the return trip.)  Eric said dinner menus are being refreshed, and there would be focus on the first and last meals where time is limited for preparation.

4.  Finally, on previous trips I found that sleeping car attendants, near the end of the line, want to strip your bed before your trip is complete.  Considering you may have paid thousands of miles or dollars, I felt this was an unnecessary interruption to an otherwise good trip experience.  Eric said that the team is studying ways to improve the preparation and post trip activities to provide the traveling crew members with the equipment and tools to better serve the passengers. Amtrak already employs a non-traveling “ready crew” and perhaps there duties could be expanded to reduce tasks that may be invasive to the passenger.  In the meantime, Eric said that it is acceptable to ask the attendant not to strip our beds until we were off the train.

After satisfactorily discussing all of our concerns, Eric related some initiatives that are in the works or being  planned for the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight.

•  Coast Starlight Business Class is going well in spite of an issue with that makes it very difficult to find on the website. However, in January they will roll out an all new website and reservation system that will replace the current one, that will be much more user friendly and provide much more flexibility in the services that can be offered. Business Class will be a more obvious option popular with those who do not need a room, but would like upgraded seating with added amenities. Two amenities include Claret Leather cushions and Wi-Fi.  To better explain the Coast Starlight Business Class, see their News Release.

•  Dining car attendants are more than waiters and waitresses.  They are paid Amtrak wages, and are trained in safety measures and CPR.  They were instrumental in safe evacuation of passengers in the recent Kansas wreck. The Lead Service Attendant in the dining car is the On Board Service Employee in Charge, replacing the On Board Chief which used to ride each long distance train. The Amtrak on board crews are very good at multi-tasking and there is never any shortage of things to do. The Lead Service Attendant is a good employee to contact if you have service issues on board the train.

•  Send in your comments and commendations at when you are riding a long distance train. These are responded to and passed on to employees. It is especially great to share with employees when they receive praise. While both the Coast Starlight and The Southwest Chief perform well, the Southwest Chief out performs the Coast Starlight in the amount of commendations.

•  Eric and his team are currently conducting a pilot program on the Coast Starlight that pairs management-union-employees in new ways to improve service. Through employee engagement,  and continuous labor-management collaboration, we are finding ways that not only improve service but increase revenue and reduce costs.   

    It is working out beyond expectations and front-line employees have excellent suggestions as to improvement of service. Many of the initiatives have found there ways to other trains.  

•  A program that has found to be very successful in coach, is a delivered meal menu called, "Just-For-You" Meals.  This fits between eating in the Café and Diner with a meal delivered to your coach seat, prepared in the Diner, but at less cost to the coach passenger. These menu items were created by Amtrak dining car employees by repurposing items already stocked on the dining car. This helps Amtrak offer variety, and a lower cost alternative without increasing costs and inventory.  The Just For You meals have also expanded the capacity of the dining car beyond the car and reaching many passengers who would probably not visited the dining car.

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(Click the above photo for a larger version, click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)

•  Top Off Pilot Program.  A food-related change on his routes is related to the end of the routes.  Unused food at the end of runs used to be all moved back to the commissary, then reordered for the next trip.  Unused food is now locked in the freezers and refrigerators on the cars and only what is needed to “top off” for the next trip is ordered out.  Food was being worn out before it could be served in the original method. From a food safety and efficiency stand point this is a positive change.

•  Toilet repair has been a major repair item on the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief, followed by air conditioning repairs, and carpet shampooing.  Amtrak is planning to bring some outsourced toilet repair back in house, to improve availability and reliability of the replacement toilets. This shop will also create a skilled technician that will be able to mentor all employees and improve the overall reliability.

•  Since I know some private rail car owners, I asked Eric what the current rate is for a private car to be attached behind regular Amtrak trains.  It is around $2.88 a mile.  The cost of parking in the LA Garden has also risen.  Amtrak is the only way to move a private car except on private railroads.

•  Coast Starlight's Parlour Cars were discussed.  These 5 unique cars are about 60 years old and expensive to repair. “Even with the winter hiatus and a laundry list of maintenance items checked off the list we have struggled with reliability throughout the spring” One of the cars is currently at the Beech Grove Shops for air brake and truck overhaul. The other 4 cars are due for the same work soon. In the interim whenever there is availability a diner or lounge car will run in the place of an ailing Parlour Car. Amtrak understands the value of the well-loved cars, and their ability to draw sleeping car passengers to the Coast Starlight.

•  Eric gave me a copy of "Starlight Highlights" A monthly Publication of the Joint Communications Team and Member Unions. This newsletter is a communication tool to share information and help educate the employees that handle the Coast Starlight and give them a better understanding of what drives the business and how it effects them and their customers.  

Thank you to Eric Smith for the access to his knowledge about the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief.  We attendees to this meeting all agreed that Eric and Mark Murphy are forward-thinking individuals with some exciting pilot programs that should become reality for us travelers in the near future.


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