On May 23, 2016, the President of Southwest Rail, the President of
TrainWeb.com, 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: http://trainweb.org/carl/TasteOfSilverRailsCountry2016/
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 Amtrak.com 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 www.Amtrak.com/contact-us
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.
(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
• 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.
My new eBook, Photographing the SOUTHWEST CHIEF: