NOTE: The following letter was published in the July 29, 2013 RailPAC e-newsletter as a “letter to the editor” after Ralph James’ article on the subject in the July-August issue of the “Steel Wheels” newsletter. Ralph James has now replied to Mr. Heywood, and those comments are published here.
Bob Heywood, Modesto, CA, wrote, I was intrigued by Ralph James’ trip report from Auburn to Bakersfield. I, too, have had trips that were not easy to book, but some time ago found that by using the Multi-City option on Amtrak.com, I could book every trip I wanted the way I wanted. Using the Multi-City option, I was able to book ARN-SAC on 529 (6:30a-7:32a), SAC-SKN on 3712 (7:45a-8:40a) and SKN-BFD on 712 (9:17a-1:41p). It was priced out at $61 ($51.85 for me as I qualify for senior discount). If Mr. James gets the “right” person at Amtrak Guest Rewards they should be able to book this using points (albeit with some coaching). I travel enough that I have Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Executive status and I find that the agents who answer the special Select Executive line are the most knowledgeable and often get what I’m trying to do with little or no coaching.
Ralph James, Alta, CA, continues the discussion. Mr. Heywood’s technique of using the Multi-City ticketing option for Auburn-Bakersfield travel by way of the early morning connection at Sacramento to the train 712 bus is one I probably wouldn’t have found on my own. It works exactly the same as what I have done in the past by purchasing a separate Auburn-Sacramento ticket to add to the Sacramento-Bakersfield reservation. The fares are directly additive and there is no through discount in either case ($16 + $45 = $61). I have not tried to actually book this trip using Guest Rewards yet, but will prepare for some interesting conversations when I do. In one past conversation with the Amtrak res agent that I vividly remember, train 529 out of Auburn did not even exist in her world and she kept repeating that WE are Amtrak and THEY are the Capitol Corridor and you will have to make a separate phone call to THEM to book that train!
With that example as an introduction, I think we need to look at the bigger picture to find out if Amtrak (in the all-inclusive sense) is making all reasonable attempts to be passenger-friendly to the average potential traveler who might call any reservation agent or visit the Amtrak website. We as passenger rail supporters already know pretty well how to get where we want to go despite any roadblocks that might be put in our way, but how about the average traveler, the bread and butter customer who is the lifeblood of passenger rail? I have scoped the various possibilities of travel between Auburn, Sacramento, Martinez and Bakersfield from the Amtrak website and found a few things that do not seem to support maximizing the attractiveness of rail travel or filling otherwise empty seats with incentive pricing. The price of $47 Auburn-Bakersfield listed for several combinations of bus-train or bus-bus-train is taken as the appropriate thru-fare pricing for reference in the following example.
1. As mentioned initially, train 529 out of Auburn at 6:30 AM weekdays provides the best starting point for a reasonable Bakersfield arrival, whether through a 712 Sacramento bus connection or a 714 train connection at Martinez. Until the Martinez option was added a couple of years ago there was absolutely no mention of this train at all. This train easily always has a hundred or more empty seats into Sacramento that could be promoted as a connection at any price to make money, but Amtrak seems to actively ignore it. Are there incentive prices to encourage its use for thru travel? Even the knowledgable pay a $14 PENALTY to bootleg the 712 bus connection ($61) and the uninformed get stuck with a $29 PENALTY ($76) for the privilege of waiting two and a quarter hours in Martinez for a two and a half hour later arrival in Bakersfield. At the very least, the fares should be neutral. Yield Management adds a complication as trains fill up (prices on train 712 are up $17 one day out as of the date of my check), but that is another matter that should not affect the basic concept of filling empty seats on train 529.
2. Another interesting abberation occurrs from Martinez to Bakersfield which is base priced the same as Sacramento to Bakersfield at $45. One would expect that getting up three and a half hours earlier for the 4:45 AM bus to Sacramento vs. 8:19 AM departure of train 712 direct would rate at least some incentive pricing to help fill the first bus and first train of the day. Instead, the red eye departure and circuitous routing carries a $19 PENALTY ($64) for only an hour and a half earlier arrival in Bakersfield. I could find no Yield Management effects on this combination.
Amtrak could, at no cost, adjust incentive fares and promote the additional connection from train 529 to train 712 bus, particularly with the recently introduced 5 minute earlier Sacramento arrival. Fares prior to Yield Management adjustment should be the same, whether the transfer is made at Sacramento or at Martinez and the choice should be up to the passenger.
Another four minutes could be legitimately eliminated from the Auburn-Rocklin schedule by using the newer and straighter Track 2 for the nine mile run now that full bi-directional CTC is in use (based on track speed of 50 mph vs. 30 and 40 mph). This no cost default would also eliminate the slow crossover to Track 1 at Newcastle and would arrive at the station-side platform at Rocklin rather than the far-side platform.
An interesting longer term possibility once additional schedules are authorized east of Sacramento would have the San Joaquin equipment from northbound train 703 travel to Auburn at midnight as a connection from the Starlight and return in the morning as train 702 for direct service to the San Joaquin Valley as well as a southbound connection to the Starlight from the foothills. The Starlight schedule is ideal for travel to the Central Coast and points east of Los Angeles on the Sunset/Eagle route, but currently has no connections beyond Sacramento at all.
Thanks again to Mr. Heywood for a good suggestion to get around an existing roadblock.