Sunday Train – Sleeping in transit, the sad state of US ground travel

  • Published on October 2nd, 2016

By Bruce McF

Well, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay … and so when you consider the posting plans for The Sunday sleeper car patentTrain, which quite often fail to qualify among the best laid plans, disruptions should not be a surprise.

Last y’all heard from me, I was posting from Northeast Ohio, with plans to continue posting from Eastern Tennessee and then Northeast Ohio again before arriving back in China for the new Fall Semester. But computer facilities in my son’s rented house in Knoxville, Tennessee were much less than in my previous summer trip to see my young grandson … as in, no computer and the only internet was WiFi borrowed by my wife from the neighbors next door … so that put the kabosh on that.

And the return leg to Northeast Ohio before flying off to China was originally planned to be fairly tight … and it got even tighter (as will be described below as part of this week’s topic), leaving no time to post once I returned to the much better blogging infrastructure up there.

This week’s topic is Sleeping on a Trip. Americans once took for granted that a long cross country trip might involve sleeping in a Pullman car or in a sleeping cabin. Then we took to the air, and allowed our rail transport corridors to devolve into slow trains hauling bulk cargo as we subsidized truck freight while taxing rail freight.

And I was planning on writing on this topic before leaving for China, but after my Greyhound trip from Knoxville to northeast Ohio, and then my 13 hours flight from Detroit to Beijing, I’ve got even more to write about now, as I see whether I can hit the fortnightly posting target I’ve set for the Sunday Train while in China. Since I was here in China (but still jet-lagged) last Sunday, it’s this Sunday or Bust.

Aint Nothing Best Laid about Greyhound Plans

So, yes, they say “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay,” but there typically aint a damn thing that is “best laid” about Greyhound plans.

After rescheduled flights out of Beijing costing money (due to delays in my wife getting a visa at the US consulate, because of a $7 bounced check back when she was a student at UT in Knoxville), and the cost of helping my wife get her ticket from the Congo into Knoxville, my travel budget in my summer vacation was very tight.

I wanted to join my wife in Knoxville and see my grandson, and then we could both travel back to Northeast Ohio before leaving for China from Canton-Akron airport. But under theAuto, Auto, Uber Alles transport policy of the United States, Northeast Ohio to or from Knoxville, Tennessee is really a trip you are supposed to drive your car on the Interstates. C’mon, what’s a matter, with you, it’s under twelve hours driving!

And what’s a matter with me is that I have neither US-based car nor current Ohio driver’s license, with the first being a bit tricky when you live ten months of the year in China and the second having lapsed when a car didn’t make any sense for a part time Economics instructor working in cycling and local bus distance to the colleges where I taught.

If if it came down to buying tickets, I had the money for a one-way Greyhound ticket. Northeast Ohio to Knoxville TN just isn’t a trip that generates a lot of cheap air tickets, involving two legs on two small commuter jets through some hub airport. Indeed, double the cheapest flights I saw from Knoxville to Northeast Ohio, and you’d have the money for the cheapest flights from Northeast Ohio to Beijing … and still have two free checked bags per passenger, unless you were silly enough to fly United.

While Cleveland is in the Chicago Megabus system, and Knoxville is on the Eastern Seaboard Megabus system, the two systems do not interconnect. And Knoxville doesn’t get Amtrak service to anywhere. So without a driver’s license to rent a car, and below the financial cut-off to fly, Greyhound was the only intercity transport option on offer, and all I could afford with anything to spare was to buy my wife’s ticket up to Northeast Ohio.

Ah, but then my son offered to drive my wife and I back to Northeast Ohio if I could get myself down to Knoxville. He would be busy the end of the month, but the first weekend of September, just before we had to fly out to Beijing, he would be free. So problem solved, the trip was on, and I got onto the Greyhound bus one fine evening in the Akron Metro Transit Center, and two transfers later, in Charleston, West By God Virginia and lovely Wytheville Virginia, arrived early the next day in Knoxville, exhausted by an overnight bus trip with perhaps an hour of napping along the way.

Thing was, when it came down to it, it turned out that my son had an open house showing to run on the Saturday he was supposed to drive us back. The financial considerations were the same as they were before, especially given the amount of luggage that my wife and I had been planning to stuff into his SUV, meaning two paid checked bags if we had flown … and so he ended up buying us two Greyhound tickets, via Lexington, Cincinnati and Columbus.

My wife found that she did not have her wallet with her when we reached the Greyhound station, so she had to go back to where she last put down her purse to retrieve it, and I ended up heading out on my own, sevenish in the evening, supposed to get to Akron around noon the next day.

We had only one “smoke ’em if you got ’em” stop on the leg to Cincinnati, in the tiny Lexington KY Greyhound station. And when the smokers finished their cigs and got back on, together with our new passengers … the bus did not start.

Off the bus, sit and wait. Two hours later a service truck arrived. I was out there, and saw sparks back where they had cables attached trying to jump start the bus … but the bus did not start. So they called Greyhound again and another bus was going to be sent down.

Around that time the question was raised whether we were hungry, and about four and a half hours into the delay, Dominos pizza and bottles of soft drink showed up.

And then, about five hours into the delay, the other bus showed up, we helped get our bags into the new bus, and it set off for Cincinnati.

Now, I’d had almost a three hour layover in Cincinnati, but I missed both my connection and also the middle of the night bus north, and had to wait until a little before 11 am for my bus. I arrived, and we got into the bus without incident, other than the intoxicated lady who had thrown up in the Knoxville to Lexington leg throwing up again in the Cincinnati to Columbus leg. I got a good hour and a half nap in on the way to Columbus.

At Columbus the bus was full up, including several Chinese students who didn’t seem to grasp the importance of grabbing a spot toward the front of the line, and the last pair to board had two seats left, one next to the smelly intoxicated lady, and the other across the aisle from her. So one girl took the seat across the aisle, and the other girl sat on the arm rest next to her friend. About half way to Cleveland, they traded off between seat and arm rest.

On my way up to Cleveland, I got into Facebook contact with my wife, who said she would be leaving Cincinnati soon. Neither of us had US-based cellphone service, but while we were both in Greyhound buses, we had WiFi to get onto Facebook. When I got to Cleveland, I talked to the ticket counter staff, and it seemed likely her bus had been delayed, and she would be arriving in Cleveland after the last Akron bus, in which case they would probably call an Uber to send her down to the Akron Metro Transit Center … given that it’s less than an hour at that time of night.

After I missed my connection in Akron to wait for her, I checked my recharging tablet, and got another Facebook message saying she had left Cleveland for Akron, and hadn’t seen me. I couldn’t work out how that was possible, but my sleep-deprived brain took the information, and asked at the ticket counter, and they said I could use my ticket on the next bus to Akron, which I did.

Getting on the next bus to Akron, I got another Facebook message that my wife was still on her bus. This was long after a Cleveland bus would have passed through Akron, so I had her check whether she still had a Cleveland to Akron ticket on her string of tickets, and she did … it turns out she had confused Columbus and Cleveland and had been looking for me in Columbus during my layover in Cleveland.

So I waited at the Akron Metro Transit Center, together with the family who had arrived to drive us back to home base, and sure enough, a dark SUV showed up with my wife and her luggage inside.

And we got to our home base in a small town surrounded by the outer suburbs of Northeast Ohio, and I collapsed and went to sleep.

Ground Transport in Commuter Jet Country

Of course, here in China, or in Europe, there would be additional options for a trip like that. Heck, in an alternate Universe were Ohio had not elected Kasich in 2010, there would be additional options, since we could have taken the Triple C train from Cincinnati to Cleveland … or to Mansfield if there was an intercity bus from there to Akron / Kent.

But if this were Europe or China, there’d be passenger train service between Atlanta and Cincinnati, as well as passenger train service between Cincinnati and Cleveland, and in our circumstances, we could have taken it whether it passed through Knoxville or Nashville.

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Indeed, in China as well as in parts of Europe, there also would have been a higher quality Bus service option than Greyhound. Indeed, there are sleeper buses available on some routes in China, with sleep seats in two levels and three across (with very narrow aisles).

I was already thinking about this topic before I left for Knoxville, but had a lot of extra time to think about it on the way back. One of the passengers through to Cleveland was a gentleman from Nigeria, on his way to Toronto, who had looked at the Labor Day Weekend airfare and though, “hey, why not take a bus and actually see a bit of America at ground level” … without having a real understanding of Greyhound as a kind of last-resort intercity transport for those with no other viable alternatives.

He instantly agreed that in Europe, or China, there’d have been some kind of train service available … and went on about how China was ahead of the US in quite a number of ways that many Americans are entirely and blithely unaware of. I thought of him again when I saw the two Chinese girls, probably room-mates, swapping off seat and arm rest to avoid one of them having to sit next to the smelly and intoxicated lady of uncertain mental state.

And while some Amtrak routes become infamous for their poor on time performance, while sitting and passing the time in a small Lexington Kentucky Greyhound station with no WiFi service, I also wondered how well Greyhound would do if we took the massive capital subsidies and operating cross-subsidies provided to all users of the Interstate and national route systems in account and put the government subsidized Greyhound service under the same scrutiny as the government subsidized Amtrak service.

While sitting in the Greyhound buses or, even worse, in Greyhound bus terminals, most often tired enough to sleep but unable and often well advised to not sleep, one thing I kept coming back to was those wonderful lay flat seats on the long distance airplane first and business class sections … the seats they force us Economy class passengers to walk past as we bypass air travelers heaven to arrive in air traveler’s purgatory (Economy Plus) and hell (Economy … though on United Airlines trans-continental flights I reckon they should more properly be referred to as Economy Minus)..

Something In Between Sleeper Service and Coach

This was in my mind in part because I had read a piece for the beginning of last year on the blog for Trains Magazine contributor: Overnight coach or first class private bedroom? How about something in between?:

In terms of overnight accommodations Amtrak currently offers (other than coach seating), the problem is not a failure to provide a level of service that is worth an extra fare, but the fact that only one such level of service is available — “first class” private sleeping compartments with full dining car meals included in the fare. (In this case, I am counting Roomettes and Bedrooms as part of the same class of service.) Per night, the extra fare (or “accommodation charge”) for these sleepers is generally higher than the average nightly rate for a hotel room in all but the largest and most visited American cities. While Amtrak coach fares are almost always cheaper than airfares and generally comparable to Greyhound, Amtrak sleeper fares tend to run higher than economy airfares (though considerably lower than first class airfares).

The author of the piece, Malcolm Kenton, raises five alternatives, generally starting closer to overnight coach and then getting closer to the kind of “first class sleeper” choices presently available:

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    Deluxe Seats, with better legroom, deeper recline, more comfortable leg rest, in an “lights out in the evening” (except for the minimum necessary), and available pillows, eye mask, etc.

  • Lay flat seats, like the seats I get shuffled past for an envious glance on my way to Economy, Economy Plus (when starting in Beijing, but that is a different story), or Economy Minus (when traveling on United from the US into Beijing). Looking around, I found out that there are two different types of lay flat seats, one of which is “truly flat”, the other of which are “very deep reclining almost flat” seats.
  • Shared compartments,  as available in Chinese and some European services, where each compartment has four or six berths and you get a berth, rather than the private sleeper (even for the two-seat, two berth Roomette) that Amtrak offers as a sleeper. These are fixed sleeping berths, so as with a sleeping bus, you decided between a seat or a sleeper, rather than having seating that is turned into a sleeping berth at night.
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    Open Sections, where you have two facing seats on each side of the aisle which can be converted into one berth, with another berth above that is folded up during the day.

  • Slumbercoaches, which were a more compact form of sleeper car developed in the early 1900s. Slumbercoaches took advantage of vertical space to fit more double and single sleeper compartments into a train, with every other compartment raised up. The lower compartment sleeping berth when made up extended underneath the neighboring upper compartment, and the upper compartment bed was above the upper compartment seating, with the sleeping berth extending over top of the neighboring lower compartment.

Now, in my day-dreaming, or sometimes not-quite-asleep doze-dreaming, I kept going back to the lay-flat seat. Having taken the Amtrak sleeper Roomette from Northeast Ohio to DC, on a late evening to mid-day service, and then the coach seats back, for a daytime to late evening service, in a two-service train trip from Knoxville to Cleveland with a change in Cincinnati around midnight, I would have been happy with an Amtrak coach seat, which I experienced as offering more comfort and greater legroom than either the best Economy Plus seat I have ever had coming home from China, or the best of the Greyhound buses I have ever been on.

But in a late-night to early day arrival, boy a lay-flat seat would be tempting.

And looking at the Slumbercoach design, it’s clear that you could fit more lay-flat seats in a train if you had an aisle level seat and then a raised seat.

True lay-flat seats don’t recline “back”, they recline by the seat sliding forward. The airplanes I have been in that have had true lay-flat seats have them installed at a bit of an angle, so they take up more room right-to-left but not as much front-to-back, That makes sense in a jumbo jet, because putting them four across with two aisles means every seat is an aisle seat.

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At the same time as I was looking at the old Slumbercoach design, I saw that Amtrak has added Business Class to three overnight trains: the Coast Starlight between the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles, the Cardinal between New York and Chicago the “long way around” via Washington DC, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and the Crescent, between New York and New Orleans via Atlanta. As one would expect, the pricing of Business Class puts it in between the cost of Coach and the cost of a dedicated sleeper.

Fitting all true lay-flat seats into a railway car was an interesting problem in 3D geometry, but I kept getting hung up on the issue that when you have a lay-flat aisle seat and a lay-flat window seat, the person in the window seat will sometime need to get over a person “laying flat” in the aisle seat to get out. This is not an issue with the Amtrak Roomettes, where the two seats in day travel mode face each other … and of course the two berths in sleeper mode are upper and lower berths.

But then it occurred to me that this was not really a problem that had to be solved. If there were just lay-flat seats on the “1” side of a 2+1 Business Class seating arrangement, that in itself would be a good start to meet that demand. The kind of six to twelve hour trips in the middle of the night where having a lay flat seat would start to get really attractive is not going to be the most common trip taken on a train.

And with just the “1” seat side, the Slumbercoach system of the lower berth extending forward underneath the neighboring upper berth, and the upper berth extending back over that same lower berth can be adopted, with true lay-flat seats at the lower level, and “175 degree” recline seats in the upper level. The “floor” of the upper level seats are about three or four feet above aisle level, so the seat back is above head level for the seat behind it, with plenty of room for a complete recline. Meanwhile, the lower level seats are true lay-flat seats, which recline by sliding forward, all the way to flat, which when fully extended connect with a footrest section built in underneath the upper seat above it.

Complete it with a stack of four luggage bays between each pair of lay-flat and deep recline seats (because the alternative low/high seats are using the space where the luggage rack is normally located), and you have a Business Class priced option which offers an opportunity to either nap or sleep substantially more comfortably then if traveling coach … but at a price point well below a private sleeper cabin.

One reason I kept coming back to this design is the fact that it gives flexibility in catering to different preferences. Only about 1/6 of the Business Class seats would be converted to lay-flat seats and 1/6 converted to raised deep-recline seats, so if some travelers have a strong preference for one over the other, while other travelers, frequently on shorter and/or daytime trips, have no preference, then the current Amtrak system of “value pricing” based on availability of different types of seats extends naturally to “Business Class Regular, Business Class Lay-Flat, Business Class Deep Recline” seats. So for people who cared enough which type of Business Class seat they had, they could pay full “list price” for that type of seat, while those who didn’t care which type of Business Class seat they had … or who didn’t care that much … the value pricing system would place them into whichever was in least demand.

And still, by offering three alternatives instead of “one size fits all”, this is an opportunity to increase total demand for Business Class seats, and with it to improve the farebox revenue performance of longer distance trains.

Including the long distance Atlanta to Chicago via Knoxville and Cincinnati that, in my daydreams, was the mode of transport I had available. Instead of Greyhound.

Conclusions and Conversations

So, what are your experiences with travel where you had wished you had a better opportunity to sleep … whether a long sleep or a nap. And what kind of option do you wish had been available?

And I promise to report, if I have a chance to take the long distance sleeper train to Guangzhou (Canton) while I am in China, I will do an update where I report on what that experience is like.

And the rest of the Sunday Train rules also apply ~ any topic on sustainable transport and sustainable energy is always on topic, so if you aim to raise a point that is not directly on the topic of this weeks blog, just drop in a “Energy:” or “Transport:” prefix and raise away.

About the Author

... is an obscure development economist living and teaching in Northeast Ohio. He writes about the rails and public transit.