Thursday, July 31, 2008

This Week In Amtrak...

Empire BuilderImage via WikipediaThis Week at Amtrak; July 31, 2008

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail

Volume 5, Number 22

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1) Ah, summertime! Those lazy, hazy days when America hits the rails and roads. Here’s an enroute firsthand report from a dedicated railfan who had just a bit too much of Amtrak’s hospitality.

[Begin quote]

[Onboard the Empire Builder, east of St. Paul, Minnesota] So, the plot so far ... we are on the eastbound Empire Builder (Train no. 28) which departed Portland Saturday.

There was no AC in the deluxe bedrooms (in the sleeping car which we were booked in), so we spent most of our trip in coach. Also, there was no lounge car, as is normally in the train’s consist.

Sunday morning, a PA announcement greeted us with "welcome to our nightmare." Someone was having a bad day, already.

There are two current bright spots:

– To my knowledge, every toilet still works.

– It appears we will arrive in Chicago yet today, without a bustitution.

In other words, it could have been worse!

So, it wasn't just our car and the lounge car that had issues. Apparently "every" car had issues. Several of the Seattle sleepers also had issues, though apparently not as bad as ours. The diner (from Seattle) had no (or
little) refrigeration.

So, the diner stopped serving coach passengers, but served pretty much a full menu to sleeper passengers. Arrangements were made for free food for coach passengers. Large boxes of Subway sandwiches were loaded on the train at one stop, boxes of other things at another, and for dinner they offered a hot boxed chicken dinner for $9.75 to coach passengers.

Breakfast on Sunday was a nightmare because they were handing out a free jumbo muffin and juice to coach passengers – from a table at one end of the diner. Huge line to make it past. They learned their lesson and passed that stuff out themselves after that.

Today, we sat in St. Paul for a long time. Maybe two hours? I haven't checked the web site. We have a private car on the train, and they were inserting a coach between the Portland sleeper and the private car at the end of the train. The Head End Power was off for almost all of that two hours, and it got unbearably hot in most of the train. One of the coach attendants (our sleeper attendant was AWOL) said we were supposed to pick up an engine that had been dropped off as bad ordered the day before and take it with us to Chicago, but his suspicion was that the Head End Power wasn't routing through it correctly, because it looked like they were taking it back out of the train’s consist.

A family of three was in room A next to us. They were really annoyed about the whole thing. Got on in Portland, no AC, and they claim somebody promised them a room would open up in Spokane (Everybody I talked to said MAYBE that would happen.). The man in the family in A asked me if I knew about getting a refund. I told him to call 800-USA-RAIL, and ask for customer relations (that's what the Portland attendant had told me to do). I said he'd probably get a full refund in the form of a voucher.
That really ticked him off more – "What would I ever want to ride Amtrak again for?" I later learned this was pretty much their first train trip, though they had been on the Coast Starlight as part of it, and enjoyed that ... but they were so soured by this experience it became a "never again" moment. I saw his wife run back to the sleepers from the "sleeper seats in coach" crying at one point – just overwhelmed, I guess.

They eventually got so fed up with it all that they got off in St. Paul, and I guess were going to find an alternate way to reach Chicago.

Paul, our sleeper attendant, had started out incredibly friendly and accommodating Saturday, but turned downright surly by Sunday morning. He didn't lift a finger to help us with anything, and three times walked away while I was talking to him. Also, I happened to be downstairs in the car’s vestibule at one stop when the conductor was boarding people down there, moving the suitcases away, etc. He was incredibly friendly to the passengers getting on, but said "your attendant has missed the last three stops. I'm not sure where he is, but I'm sure he'll be around to introduce himself soon." Read what you will from that.

There were some roomettes that were empty until Minot. Paul didn't offer them to us, and when I asked him if we could use them, he said, "No, every room is sold." and stormed off. When I saw him next, I asked where they were sold from, and he agreed we could sit in them until then.

He treated the other people in the AC-free rooms the same, from what they told me.

Despite all this, they managed to hold a wine tasting in the diner yesterday afternoon. There was an announcement that sleeper passengers that signed up should come over now. Only nobody ever asked us. Paul got on the PA from the diner and said "the 2830 car people should just come now." Oops.

In fairness to Paul, I think he was stretched really thin – helping serve food to people in coach, helping with the wine tasting, etc. But he did seem to be incredibly helpful to the people with air conditioning. No idea why he pretty much wrote off those of us without.

Anyhow ... Onwards to Chicago. Amtrak is estimating a 5:35 arrival now.

Strange things happening in the diner, too. No "enhanced menu" of any sort. And there was usually one and only one call for each meal, and sometimes you were just magically supposed to know when that call was.

Crew morale was obviously rock bottom. My wife and I overheard lots of sniping back and forth. Several attendants were mad at one coach attendant who knowingly took fruit loaded on the train for breakfast and handed it all out to the passengers in only her coach before anybody else could get it.

The service in the dining car was above average though.

[End quote]

And, this is the Empire Builder, supposed to be one of Amtrak's BEST trains?

2) Here’s the big question: Has Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant completely lost his way in running the company? So many Amtrak observers had high hopes for his on-the-job performance expectations, but those hopes appear to be dashed on the rocky shores of Amtrak’s continuing business as usual when it comes to passenger service.

In both the real world and the Amtrak world (Only the most misguided, ardent rail fan and Amtrak apologist would every presume Amtrak is operated in the real world.), the public head of a company is supposed to be the guiding light of the company. The reason company CEOs are selected by boards of directors is to provide a vision for a company and to lead the company to achieve that vision.

That is not what is happening here.

This wretched description of a trip on the Empire Builder in the height of the summer travel season says far too much about far too many things being perpetually wrong at Amtrak. What the above description highlights is a complete lack of managerial oversight of a train crew on the road, plus an ignoble laissez faire attitude that is ruinous for both passengers and employees.

There are so many good Amtrak employees trying hard to serve their passengers well. Why is this type of completely unacceptable situation allowed to fester, causing the company both money and future business?
Does anyone care?

You may recall the Empire Builder was to be the grand experiment in running long distance passenger trains (In actuality, the Empire Builder "experience" for passengers is merely a shadow of the normal service we used to provide every trip on the Sunset Limited pre-David Gunn and pre-Alex Kummant.). The Builder was outfitted with nifty rebuilt passenger cars, and the employees were allegedly some of the best in the company. The Empire Builder was the train that was supposed to define Amtrak’s long distance network, and would be the model for all other long distance trains to follow. Oops! What went wrong?

Has Amtrak simply given up on the concept of acceptable long distance train service? Or, can Amtrak – which started the Empire Builder grand experiment with pretty high approval marks – sustain any reasonable service levels for any length of time?

And, what about the front line mangers of this route? Where are they? Off on their own vacations, leaving their near-helpless passengers to find for themselves? Or, maybe hanging out in a back office, hoping no one will notice them?

Back to the real world: What manager on the Empire Builder route needs to lose their job over this? Does anyone at Amtrak understand a) accountability, and b) personal responsibility?

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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA Telephone 904-636-7739

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