Changes in Store for ‘Lake Shore Limited’

The eastbound "Lake Shore Limited" passes through North East, Pa., in late July 2011. In the lead is heritage Unit No. 66. Scenes like this will be harder to photograph here if the train is rescheduled to operate earlier as Amtrak has proposed. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

Earlier operation in both directions. A “no cash accepted” dining car. Upgraded meal choices in the lounge car. These are among the changes that Amtrak has in store for the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited.

The changes, some of which are at least a year away, were outlined in a performance improvement plan that Amtrak issued in September.

Amtrak has proposed rolling back the Chicago departure of eastbound Nos. 48/448 to 6 p.m. from its current 9:30 p.m. slot. The rational is that earlier arrivals in New York and Boston would improve ridership and revenue. Amtrak reasons that that would occur due to better connections with commuter and other Amtrak trains.

Amtrak also plans to change the westbound schedule, noting that much of the delays that No. 49 experiences occur in the middle of its route, particularly east of Cleveland. The report did not say what the revised schedule would be other than to note that Nos. 49/449 would need to arrive in Chicago an hour earlier to provide adequate time to service the equipment before it heads out later that day for the East Coast.

At the same time, Amtrak plans to have the Capitol Limited depart Chicago about an hour and half later at 7:30 p.m. However, that change can’t be made until CSX finishes a clearance project on the Capitol’s route through West Virginia. That construction is not expected to end for another year.

For several years, the Lake Shore Limited departed Chicago at 7:30 p.m. That changed in 2007 when the departure time was moved to 10 p.m. on account of habitual tardy arrivals in the Windy City of Amtrak’s western long-distance trains. Rather than putting the “misconnects” up in hotels, Amtrak elected to operate Nos. 48/448 on a later schedule.

As for the on-board service changes, the Amtrak report said that coach passengers buy 47 percent of the meals served in the diner and many of them pay in cash. This slows service because the lead service attendant must spend “a great deal of time handling and accounting for cash transactions,” the report said.

Amtrak plans to address this in a two-pronged manner. It will institute a policy that all dining car purchases must be made with a credit or debit card. It also will begin offering moderately-priced fare in the lounge car to supplement the current menu of hot dogs, pizza and pre-packaged sandwiches.

The report said that coach passengers spend, on average, $10.30 per meal in the dining car, leading Amtrak to conclude “there may be an unmet demand for intermediate food options between the relatively high-priced meals sold in the dining car and the . . . [food] available in the lounge car.”

In a pilot program, Amtrak will convert the Lake Shore Limited dining car into a club-diner that will continue to offer full-service meals, but add at-table beverage service outside of normal meal hours. As for the lounge car, the new offerings will include freshly-prepared sandwiches and salads similar to those served in café cars aboard the Boston-Washington Acela Express. If the Lake Shore Limited club-diner concept is successful, it may be expanded to other long-distance trains.

In the meantime, plans to institute a third Chicago-New York service by operating through cars via the Capitol Limited and Pennsylvanianhave stalled due to an equipment shortage. The same shortage has also delayed plans to expand operation of the Chicago-New York Cardinal from tri-weekly to daily. The Capitol-Pennsylvanian cars would be interchanged at Pittsburgh.

The equipment shortages may begin easing in October 2012 when the first of the 130 Viewliner II cars that Amtrak ordered from CAF USA are expected to enter service.

The Lake Shore Limited report also showed that the average age of passengers aboard the train is 54, that 62 percent of the riders are women, 53 percent are employed, 65 percent have a college degree, 41 percent have a household income between $50,000 and $100,000, and that 88 percent were traveling for non-business reasons, with 56 percent saying it was to visit family or friends.

Although the report did not provide any numbers, it indicated that passengers connecting with other Amtrak trains in Chicago accounted for a “significant portion of the Lake Shore Limited’s ridership and revenues.” Ridership in fiscal year 2010 was 364,460 and continues to trend upward. The report said riderhip in FY2011 – which ended Sept. 30 – was up by 7.1 percent over FY2010 for the period Oct. 1 to Aug. 31.

The average coach passenger travels 483 miles while the average sleeping car passenger on the Lake Shore Limited travels 764 miles.

Ten city pairs accounted for 44 percent of the FY2010 patronage with the largest of those being Chicago-New York (11 percent). The other top city pairs were Buffalo-Chicago and Chicago-Syracuse, with 5 percent each; Albany-Chicago and Chicago-Rochester, with 4 percent each; and Boston-Chicago, New York-Syracuse, Chicago-Toledo, New York-Rochester and Albany-Boston, all accounting for 3 percent each.

The effects of the proposed changes for Northeast Ohio residents boarding and detraining at Cleveland will be relatively minor.  Passengers coming from Chicago will be able to have dinner in the diner. But Cleveland’s “middle of the route” status means that Amtrak operations here will continue to be a nocturnal operation and, in fact, will become darker as the Lake Shore Limited schedule gravitates more toward the dead of night hours.

Depending on how the Capitol Limited is rescheduled, Amtrak may find itself placing four of its six Chicago-East Coast trains through Cleveland in relatively close proximity. With Cleveland having a single-track platform, Amtrak passengers can expect to bear the brunt of the operating challenges that may occur if one or more trains is operating substantially late.

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