Friday, October 29, 2010

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part six: The bar car

The bar car is nothing new on trains. You'd almost expect that on longer-haul trips, a train car offering alcoholic beverages--colloquially, a bar car--would be a much-appreciated luxury for riders.

But it's not only for long-haul riders. New York City, one of the last North American holdouts after New Jersey and Chicago abandoned the luxury, still has the bar car on some commuter rail lines run out of Grand Central Station. The New York Times describes the bar car in NYC:
The cocktails started early, before the train left Manhattan, and by 6 p.m. most of the passengers were already on the second round. Tiny vodka bottles and punched ticket stubs littered the floor. A game of dice by the bar was getting rowdy as a couple canoodled in the corner, beers in hand.

The bar car is a mainstay of the commuting life, a lurching lounge on wheels inseparable from the suburbia of Cheever and “Mad Men.” “The commute is so bad as it is,” explained Paul Hornung, a financial worker, as he sipped a Stella Artois. “This is the one thing you can look forward to.”
This week, with the possibility of increased transit fares looming, columnist Paul Mulshine from The Newark Star-Ledger suggested NJ Transit revive the bar car on their trains to help improve revenue. He says that New York brings in $9M from the service (although I'm not sure how to verify that statement), something that might offset some of the deficit the utility is running (even though they've already taken the huge measure of raising fares by 25 per cent). Says Mulshine:
Drinking on NJ Transit trains is already permitted. So why not make it more civilized? On a recent Amtrak trip to Washington I witnessed a crowd of people enjoying the bar car. Prices - and presumably profits - were high, but the passengers didn't seem to mind.
Unlike many conservatives, I am not opposed to train service. In fact I am of the opinion that about half the people currently driving cars should be on trains instead.
And if New York can make money off this, let's do it in Jersey.
The problem with the bar car? Well, you can't have a comfortable bar car full of people with standing-room only; there'd be no room to sip your drinks, and a significant spill-risk. It's unknown whether the income generated by beverage sales would offset the lost revenue due to a lower-than-capacity train car. The efficiency of the car, in terms of people moved, is not as high as that of a normal train car, so if that's your primary goal, then it's probably not a good idea. If you're looking to move people comfortably, though (and expand the income sources available beyond traditional fare revenue), then the bar car is among the best ways to do so.

Another option, though, would be a 'cafe car', where riders and commuters--especially in the morning--can buy a coffee, a muffin, packaged sandwiches, or other breakfast foods. Lidded coffee cups are everywhere on buses as it is, so you'd expect them to be as commonplace on the train; with less of an expectation of a calm, casual relaxing space than the bar car, a cafe car can be filled with more riders, and even though it might not bring in as much income, it could still be a valuable way of 'upselling' riders and increasing revenues--while also improving service, if it's done well.