Where I'd cut costs... (Acela First Class)

Discussion in 'Amtrak’s Future: Member Ideas and Discussion' started by neroden, Apr 8, 2019.

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  1. Apr 8, 2019 #1

    neroden

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    Acela First Class is overstaffed. I've never seen two attendants for one car before, let alone one with an unusually small number of seats.

    If they wanted to cut unnecessary costs, that's where to cut.... one attendant could definitely handle it. Must be the cushiest OBS job on the railroad.
     
  2. Apr 8, 2019 #2

    Acela150

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    No it's not. I can tell you don't ride Acela FC that much. FC has always had 2 LSA's. One attendant couldn't do the job with a sold out car. They tried it years ago. Triley can give you more insight.
     
  3. Apr 8, 2019 #3

    MARC Rider

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    It depends on the train. On my most recent Acela FC trip, the car filled up in New York, (This was a Tuesday evening departure at about 5 PM.) The two attendants were very busy indeed. In fact, the service was not quite as prompt as it could be, which would be an issue for someone who is detraining at, say, Philadelphia.

    In fact, there are many departures both Acela and Regional that could benefit from an additional attendant in the Cafe car. Even at union wages, a few extra hours of labor isn't that much.
     
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  4. Apr 8, 2019 #4

    neroden

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    Well, it's not usually sold out. Maybe during rush hour departures, but not during random departures.

    If we were to use the same standards for the cafe cars, nearly every single cafe car on the *entire national system* would probably have two attendants. That would probably be a good idea, I suppose. Lines of ten at the cafe car are normal on Empire Service.
     
  5. Apr 8, 2019 #5

    Thirdrail7

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    They actually

    Actually, it is one of the most demanding jobs. Imagine serving someone who is paying more than a monthly passenger for a one way ride for short distances. They want what they pay for....service.

    As indicated below:

    They started out with 3 attendants on the busier trains. They cut it to two on busy trains and one on lighter trains. Then, things started happening like last minute reservations, trains being combined and super short passenger trips (points runs.)

    The passengers complained so they restored two attendant. If you think it is cushy, I'd like you to just attempt to WALK back there, empty handed for 30 minutes without falling as the Acela is one of the rougher riding trains.
     
  6. Apr 9, 2019 #6

    Acela150

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    I know it's far from cushy.. I've stood in the vestibule at the other end where the restroom is for a few minutes. I've had a smoother ride riding a shove on stick rail. Actually back in January I took the family on 2160 in FC. I managed to get a four top table in the middle of the car. And for some odd reason that was the smoothest ride I've ever had on any of the trainsets. That was the 2023/2025 set. I've sat in the same seats on other trainsets and it's horrible. Back in November I was on 2154 and just after DOCK we hit a switch or something of note and all you heard was a loud bang. My reaction was pretty simple. First.. Holy choice word. Second.. This sucker is on the ground. Of course we weren't on the ground cause let's be honest.. You'd know right away. But that is how bad the current equipment is. I've never had that reaction on Amcans.
     
  7. Apr 9, 2019 #7

    Triley

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    Usually you and I see eye to eye, and even when we don't, I respect your decision. This is one case though, where you are far FAR off course.

    I don't know, I'm just thinking here, how much seats have you seen a flight attendant manage by themselves in First Class? I can tell you that on a cabin of 40, Air Canada has something like 3 attendants dedicated to just Business Class, and during meal times I've seen as many as 3 others assisting. If that's what an airline thinks they need (on a domestic flight mind you) to maintain proper service standards, why do you think Amtrak should do less?

    Say on a busy Thursday/Friday night, you might carry upwards of 70-80 passengers just going WAS-NYP-BOS. People are constantly getting off and seats filling right back up. People are demanding refills on drinks as you're only starting to get the first meals delivered, as they are certainly entitled to for what they pay for their seats. In NYP you have to have the LSA/Assist at the door assisting bags on/off the train, and checking to make sure passengers are properly ticketed for First Class, while the LSA/EIC (Employee in Charge) is at the door by the quiet car loading any items that were backordered from Commissary. On 2153/2155 (and their respective northbound sister trains) we had to load carts of fresh lunch items and get them right in the oven for anyone interested in lunch, as only breakfast items are available that early from Commissary in Boston.

    You know that when the Acelas first came out, there were three attendants for the car, which I can definitely see as being nice to have on sold out trains, or two on days that it's under say 70% (lots of last minute upgrades are sold). I've also been told that for a little while they tested one attendant....with the drawback of a cold sandwich and chips as the meal. And currently right now if there's only one attendant due to staffing issues, they're suppose to cap the passenger count at 18 onboard, or whatever the count already is at if it's higher, to preserve service standards.

    Last thought, have you suggested this to Via as well? Because their reno'd LRC business class cars have the very same 43 seats (or 44 if they sell the wheelchair space), and have two attendants.
     
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  8. Apr 9, 2019 #8

    neroden

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    Fine. I accept your opinion. In that case, Amtrak's badly understaffing the cafe cars and business class cars (not to mention the sleepers).
     
  9. Apr 9, 2019 #9

    west point

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    Acela first class has a passenger compliment much similar to most airline first class passenger counts. In that respect the number of acela attendants in first class matches that of airlines.
     
  10. Apr 9, 2019 #10

    Acela150

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    Keep in mind that Triley used to work on the NEC on both Acela and Regional trains. ;) So he can give you amazing insight on this particular topic. :)

    Why should the cafes get a second LSA? There's hardly room for one of them on almost all of the current equipment. I'm not sure which trains have a BC attendant, but I can tell you that it's not a whole lot of them. I believe that the Carolinian has one and possibly the Palmetto. It's a car that holds 62 passengers and that's not to bad for one person to handle things. I'm not sure what they do on the trip. But I'm sure the state of NC pays for them to be on the train.
     
  11. Apr 10, 2019 #11

    Anderson

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    The seat count on the Acela (in First) roughly lines up with an internationally-configured flight (say, a 767, 777, A350, etc.). Those "up front" cabins tend to hover in the range of 30-45 (depending on the plane, the route, etc.). My experience is that you usually have one FA on each aisle of a widebody and then have another one or two come in to assist for meal service. On a domestic flight they can "get away with" a single FA up to about 16-20 pax, but that tends to be the practical limit.

    With the Acelas, for example, they could probably trim the staffing back slightly on some of the deep-off-hour runs (say, 2100 out of NYP). Outside of runs like that, however, the risk of folks burning upgrade cards and the like is omnipresent (and presents rather a hazard to trying to guess the needed staffing levels).

    And I would echo the fact that we are paying for this level of service. A last-minute Acela First ticket WAS-NYP will often cost more than the equivalent London-Brussels ticket, for example, and I'm going to hazard that the F&B on the Eurostar might be a hair nicer.
     
  12. Apr 10, 2019 #12

    neroden

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    What's the Eurostar staffing level? That's an interesting comparison point.

    I've literally seen cafe car lines extending into the next car, which is a safety issue. If that's not understaffed, I don't know what is.

    Acela First Class is pretty expensive, but does it actually pay for the extensive staffing? It's not THAT much more expensive than business class (much less than the difference between airline Business and First tickets -- airline cash First Class tickets are mindblowingly expensive), and with your typical half-full cabin of 3-across seats, is it actually covering those labor costs? (And the food and wine costs though they don't amount to much.)

    As for the idea that this service is what people are paying for... despite the two attendants and half-full car, I can't say that I actually got good service, so I don't think I'll be spending money on it again.

    Amtrak's accounting borders on the worthless, but it would be interesting to try to estimate. Do they make more money, net, on operating an Acela Business Class coach as they do on operating a First Class coach? Probably. Is it actually worth having the First Class coach at all, financially, or should it be another Business Class coach, financially speaking?

    We raked through this comparison a few years ago on sleepers vs. coaches, with uncertain results due to Amtrak's bad accounting, but it seemed that on some trains (Lake Shore Limited) an added sleeper was more net-profitable than an added coach, while on others it was probably the other way around.

    Has anyone really done this analysis for the Acela? I'm quite certain Amtrak hasn't really done it (at best, they've done an analysis as bad as ours would be, and they might well have done worse) because we know for a fact that their accounting is hot garbage.

    I guess the first question is how much the 2 attendants get paid, including benefits. Add an estimate for the food & beverage costs. Versus the pay for an attendant in Business Class (I'm guessing those are still 1 per car?) We know the difference in car capacity due to having fewer seats in First Class. With plausible load factors, we can then work out what fare difference is necessary to cover the difference in costs, and compare to actual fare differences.
     
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2019
  13. Apr 10, 2019 #13

    Anderson

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    I'll get back to you on Eurostar staffing levels in two weeks;-)

    A one-way WAS-NYP ticket in First on the Acela is $319-455 for tomorrow (and most of those tickets are either at $420 or $455). The $319 fare is just above the full-flex Business ticket ($309) but only shows for one train, and that train shows a $173 "normal" Business ticket. So basically, you're looking at "Business plus $146" for First.

    On paper, that's up to an extra $6424 in revenue.

    As to the economics, a few things should be noted:
    (1) The economics in 2018 are not what they were in 2003.
    (2) Similarly, the economics of six-car Acelas on hourly frequencies right now does not necessarily apply to the situation that will exist with the Acela II.
    (3) There is an intangible goodwill value to a comped-up First ticket that can plausibly attract repeat business elsewhere.
    (4) Finally, First and Business pax are not 100% interchangable. There are at least some higher-dollar passengers that either want or need the benefits of First (a hot meal, single seating, etc.) who might not take a seat in Business.

    At the low end, WAS-NYP a First ticket represents a markup of just over 84% to the corresponding Business fare ($173 vs $319). At the high end, it represents a markup of just over 47%. This would seem to more than cover the "cost" of lost seats at the high end (44 vs 65): At the low end, the First fare "should" be $255 (148% of $173). At the high end, it "should" be $456 (vs. $455 as charged).


    So, let's check those buckets and then play a game...

    Code:
    Business  First  I-First Difference
    $173      $319   $256    $63
    $204      $350   $301    $49
    $234      $380   $346    $34
    $274      $420   $405    $15
    $309      $455   $456    -$1
    
    I-First is the implied First fare based on lost seating.

    In a theoretically sold-out coach with seats distributed evenly across the buckets, First generates somewhere in the ballpark of $1400-1500 in excess revenue versus a similarly-priced Business Class car. I say "in the ballpark of" because one can generally not price eight tenths of a seat at a given price. I suspect the dynamics are more complicated than this, but at least we have a hint here. That $1400+ should make up for lost F&B revenue and then some. If we were to burden the First attendants' cost to $50/hour (wages, benefits, etc.) that would generate a cash cost of $300 for the trip (for two attendants). That gives about $1100 in net revenue less actual F&B and any "lost" F&B sales.

    I cannot speak to the actual catered costs for the meals, etc. But it seems at least plausible that $1100 would be enough to cover those costs. And please note that I have analyzed WAS-NYP here. WAS-PHL shows an upcharge of $103 while PHL-NYP shows an upcharge of $92, with similar proportional pricing dynamics. So in reality there might be a bit more slack (in raw dollar terms) to work with, though that would come with some added F&B costs (though no increase in OBS expense, to be fair). And all of this is before any discounts (which would *improve* First's relative performance, since those don't apply to the accommodation charges but they reduce the base fare, and thus the implied First fare). My guess is that a peak-hour, packed First car runs a good chance of generating about an extra $1400-1500 net of the OBS expenses on the WAS-NYP run.

    Sliding back around, if we presume that the First car is a "break-even" proposition over another Business car in pure revenue terms, it does provide several avenues to induce ridership, ranging from elites getting to bump up (this is a good part of my incentive to keep grabbing Select Executive) to picking up another segment of the market. And again, don't forget that in plenty of cases Business seats aren't selling out but First seats are selling, so it *is* a bit of a fallacy to treat a First car as a totally interchangable option vis-a-vis another Business car from a revenue perspective.
     
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  14. Apr 10, 2019 #14

    jis

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    Seat counts vary a lot.

    The 777s I have been on for intercontinental flights had 50-60 Business-First sleepers/open suites, and on an average they seemed to staff it at about one staff per 10 seats. The same ratio holds for 787s and 767s on international flights, at least on the airlines I frequent.

    I wonder if the addition of the premium coach product has led to addition of crew, since in proper premium coach the service is a bit more elaborate than the spartan service in plain old coach.

    On domestic legs at least United routinely has two staff members serving the First Class cabin on 737s with 16-24 seats. They may pinch hit at times in the back too, I don't know. But during meal service, it has been two.
     
  15. Apr 11, 2019 #15

    neroden

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    Thanks, Cliff. So First probably does make somewhat more money than Business, depending on staff costs (which we don't really know for sure). Even with half-full coaches, $700 per trip should cover the $300 in extra costs per trip.
     
  16. Apr 22, 2019 #16

    sttom

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    Just my 2 cents, but Amtrak needs to focus on growing its way out of its problems rather than cutting their way out. Skimpy service isn't why people take Amtrak (or fly for that matter) over driving or taking a bus. You cut service too much and less people will ride, which will end up with lower revenue, which means more service cuts...hey that seems like what my grandpa told me the SP was like in the 60s...
     
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  17. Apr 30, 2019 #17

    Anderson

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    Part of the jam is that Anderson is right in terms of focusing on corridor ops for growth. In Amtrak's shoes I'd be leaning hard to bulk up existing corridors to the point of, if not hourly service, at least high-frequency operations wherever possible. I would probably go so far as to "take a bath" on overhead to get it up and running (basically, if a state agrees to an X-daily frequency on most or all of a route, I'd start leaning back on some of the overhead allocations for them...something that is arguably justifiable given how stuff scales). In particular, aside from "startup" routes, this "let's add one train at a time" stuff really needs to end.
     
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  18. Apr 30, 2019 #18

    sttom

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    I agree with the last part, but the states shouldn't be 100% responsible for rail. They aren't for roads and part of advocating for better transit is hammering home how much the roads get by comparison. If the federal government were to start underwriting new routes, they should be required to run at least 4 trips per day (if in a largely rural area) or at least make 8 trips per day (if connecting two cities). 8 trips per day would allow a train to run at least every other hour during the day. That is the point where it would be useful.
     
  19. Apr 30, 2019 #19

    Anderson

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    @sttom I don't disagree, though (in a case of strange bedfellows) I think the solution there is to simply convert transportation-related transfer payments into a block grant and let the states sort that side out as well as having a limited federal grant program. Federal grants are painfully obnoxious at distorting incentives (since if you reach a certain share of funding coming from the feds for a given alternative, you can render all other options non-viable), and some of the "silos" for funding are a total mess ("Is this a commuter project, an intercity rail project, or a transit project?" "Well, it has elements of all three..." "Then we have to fight out what comes from which silo.")

    To be fair, there's a kludge hidden here: If Amtrak could secure a RRIF loan with a 20-30 year operating contract for a route, they could probably pick up a reasonable chunk of the capital cost, basically acting as a de facto federal partner. That could at least help them all stretch the mix of funding a bit further.
     
  20. May 1, 2019 #20

    sttom

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    I personally don't think loans are going to entice states like Indiana, Ohio or Georgia et all to start train service. A block grant might be a bit of a pain to craft or administer, but it would probably be more enticing to states that presently lack Amtrak or Commuter trains than access to loans. I would expect the "fiscal conservatism" in those states to kick in when loans are offered. Even if the states could get the money to start, there is also the keeping the trains running and at what level of service? The federal government might end up bankrolling the cost of keeping the trains running for a few years before the states really start paying. the other solution would be allowing local transit agencies to fund services directly than now.
     
  21. May 2, 2019 #21

    neroden

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    The fundamental problem with relying on state funding is states with stupid, hostile governments (Indiana) which you have to go through to get from point A (Chicago) to point B (New York).

    The first thing Amtrak has to do is to figure out how to run the trains on time, whether by lowering the Congressional hammer (as Rail Passengers Association is advocating for) or having states/Amtrak purchase the tracks (which has been quite effective).

    After that point, I think it's immaterial whether we talk about "corridors" or "long-distance" -- job #2 is to get more trains per day running on routes which can support it. NY-Chicago can support several more trains per day if they run on time, and I don't care whether you call it a corridor or not.
     
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  22. May 2, 2019 #22

    Anderson

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    In some cases you can work around hostile governments (MI works around IN, for example), but I'll agree that buying tracks is generally a solid solution. In cases where that isn't happening, pursuing arrangements like you've seen with the Capitol Corridor out in CA (with solid incentive payment structures, etc.) seems to work pretty well, too. IIRC part of the hostility on the part of CSX is, at times, that Amtrak pays a fraction of what MARC, VRE, etc. pay for their access. So not only is Amtrak a "nuisance" customer, they're a poorly-paying one at that.

    As to incentives working, I think that's going to vary from case to case. A good example of where such a package could work would be Chicago-Minneapolis[-Duluth], with Amtrak largely stepping in to work around Wisconsin. I suspect you could manage something similar on the Chicago-Detroit routing (kludging around Indiana). New York-Pittsburgh is another good candidate for this (espcially since you could probably bundle a ramp-up with shotgunning the Pennsylvanian into the Capitol Limited as part of the deal).

    The longer routes are more problematic in this respect, but the rub there is that it isn't like Amtrak management is showing a lot of initiative there to begin with. That's a trickier problem to fix, especially since this sort of "sandbagging" isn't exactly a new development under Anderson.
     
  23. May 2, 2019 #23

    sttom

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    This also brings us back to the issue of leadership in Amtrak. It's obvious that Congress doesn't want to eliminate Amtrak no matter who is running the show and even less than friendly states have a fight on their hands when they try to cut funding to their tri weekly train. Congress or one of the larger state partners should lean on getting better management. Most of the time we get political hacks instead of someone who's worked in rail or industry related to Amtrak. If we had rail/logistics and hospitality people at the helm, we would get much better trains out of them.

    Not to put too much of a damper on public rail ownership, but the not so SMART train did build high level platforms on its line which makes Amtrak service probably too costly to be worth it since you'd need a secondary low level platforms to connect the North Bay to Sacramento, nevermind the $2-$3 billion for a bridge between Richmond and San Rafael.
     
  24. May 3, 2019 #24

    Anderson

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    Actually, the high-level platforms aren't a problem if California goes with Brightliners in the long run. Now, the bridge is entirely another story...but the high-level platforms are only an issue if CA sticks with bilevel cars, and it seems as though they may not do that (particularly if Brightline starts getting its hooks into things).
     
  25. May 3, 2019 #25

    sttom

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    Siemens also makes a low floor and a bilevel variants of the Viaggio coaches. I don't see why the state would build high level platforms if they could buy off the shelf cars that have a similar step up as the existing equipment. As for the prospect of a private operator in California, outside of the Vegas projects I don't see one starting else where. Megabus couldn't even make the Reno run work (although their performance was about as bad as Amtrak 10 years ago. So hours late for no real reason). The bridge I personally think will get done some day, it more a matter of time and SMART working as planned.
     

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