Happening Now

What Passengers Want

April 14, 2023

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Next week I’ll be headed to Salt Lake City to present at the Railway Interiors conference, where I’ll talk about the survey data we’ve collected during the past year or so about what passengers want in their train cars.

We have A LOT of material from a lot of riders, gathered separately from the data-driven Customer Satisfaction Index system Amtrak uses to assess customer satisfaction and sentiment. And I’m eager to share it at the Salt Lake event, about a year after I presented at a similar Railway Interiors event in Washington, D.C.

An interesting observation here is that many of the vendors and attendees are European. They came to DC last year to try to understand what was possible as the United States began to shape its Second Rail Renaissance thanks to the historic funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

We were suddenly cool again.

Since that time, Amtrak has begun exploring with its passenger base what kinds of amenities and interior features will appeal to both today’s riders and tomorrow’s. You may have already received your survey, from the Harris group, about Amtrak’s configurations. If you did, I urge you to complete it. I got mine, as did many others on our team and among our membership.

There’s also a great team at Amtrak on the receiving end of that data, many of whom I met either at last year’s Railway Interiors event or later on during three separate walk-throughs of the Airo trainset mockups where we were able to provide detailed feedback on specific physical features. They’re taking these things seriously, and we should welcome that openness.

I can’t share my entire talk here in a post, but at the very highest level our own surveys showed that while interiors are only one part of the overall customer experience, passengers don't draw much of a distinction. For a passenger, WiFi and clean windows also count as elements of the SAME experience, even though strictly speaking neither of those are really “interior” design elements.

Sleeping accommodations, as you would expect, drew a lot of commentary and response in our research. There was widespread agreement that today's sleeping product is not "premium" enough to justify a premium price. The new blankets, sheets, and amenities Amtrak introduced on sleepers were and are a big hit, and they make a dent in that perception of premium value – but only a small dent. Someone who paid $335 for a Roomette trip three years ago is paying two or three times more than that this year, but with a higher likelihood of having their trip cancelled or annulled, and with a chance of overflowing toilets or nonworking outlets.

Our survey data show a lot of appetite for a midpoint sleeper option. You'll often hear old Amtrak hands talk about the "Slumbercoach," which was a very particular high-density sleeper design. I rode them back in the day, and I enjoyed them. However, that car had a lot of mechanical challenges, and so calls to bring back the Slumbercoach are more nostalgic than practical. But the need remains for something like an airline-style lie-flat seat with a privacy screen, or perhaps a simple up/down berth arrangement with a door. Something like this was depicted in Amtrak’s survey, and it’s an appealing option (even if the notional price included in the drawing was less attractive).

It's also clear from our work that Americans have a particular view of privacy which some European rail services do not share. An open-berth arrangement with curtains, as on some VIA Rail trains in Canada and which was made famous in the old Marilyn Monroe comedy “Some Like It Hot,” would likely draw a lukewarm reception from those we surveyed. “Privacy” and “safety” are intertwined here, and there are people traveling alone who simply would not feel comfortable with that level of exposure to strangers.

Seats are always a hot-button issue, especially as the state-supported Venture cars begin to enter service. Many passengers complain that the seats on these coaches are too “commuter-style” for comfort, with inadequate padding and a nearly non-existent recline. Fair enough, because many others agree. But don’t make the leap that this is what the future of Amtrak long-distance seats will be, because that would be incorrect. The Illinois Dept. of Transportation chose those seats. When Amtrak gets to choose the seats, they’ll pay a bit more attention to comfort. I sat in several seats during last week’s Airo mockup walkthroughs, and they were both modern and comfortable. And yes, they did recline.

Among other items I’ll highlight in Salt Lake are those featuring prominently on many passengers’ wish lists: windows, windows, windows (clean ones). Seats that don't squeak or rattle while the train is in motion. Lighting that can be adjusted for needs. Handholds that are at waist or arm level and not just along the edge of the luggage racks. (Short people have trouble with those.) ADA aisles. Lots of electrical outlets. A way to design trays and seats so that you don't have to decide between eating at your seat and working on your laptop. A way to lock or at least secure a sleeping accommodation while you’re out elsewhere on the train.

Who knows, maybe the vendors in Salt Lake will have answers to all of these issues. I’m looking forward to finding out.