More seats may be coming to Amtrak

Richard Anderson never met a transit vehicle he didn’t want to add more seats on.

That seems to be the reasonable conclusion to draw this afternoon as the former Delta Air Lines CEO stepped in to his role as the new co-CEO of Amtrak (he gets sole possession of the title on 1 January 2018). The national train operator indicated that it is considering “some creative things in terms of creating an economy class” with tighter pitch on the seats. It won’t only be the pitch that changes; outgoing CEO Wick Moorman added, “There will be some other things that just don’t make it quite as comfortable” in a presentation at the National Press Club on Wednesday according to a Reuters report.

Amtrak has plenty of problems, mostly in the part where its long-haul routes are hemorrhaging cash. That said, it is closer to operational profitability than it has been in 44 years; it still missed that mark by $227mm.

But on the high demand routes, namely in the Northeast corridor between Washington, DC and Boston, there is potential for some upgrades in the rail cars to deliver a product that people continue to pay for and add capacity without requiring additional train sets. Just like with airlines, buying a new vehicle is WAY more expensive than upgrading the interiors on the existing ones. And the current cars could use some help. They’re dark inside and feel dingy.

Toss some LED mood lighting in and add a couple rows of seats — but keep it at 2–2 without a middle — and the trains could increase the number of passengers (and revenue) without really degrading the product too much overall. Heck, toss in a few streaming media servers like some airlines offer and the on-board wifi service might improve as fewer people try to use it for playing movies and such. Expose some ancillary sales options in the portal or even put a 360 camera up front to stream the engineer’s view and maybe have a little fun in ways that help improve the product. That’s a big part of attracting more travelers, especially when things like increasing speeds or frequencies are unlikely to develop.

But I wouldn’t try to increase density on the train lines outside of the NE Corridor and a couple other high-volume routes focused on commuters rather than long-distance travelers. Much like on airplanes a slight squeeze for a couple hours is far different from on an overnight.

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