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OPINION - Badly off track

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I'll be on vacation next week... and, as usual, my trip to New York will be on the train.

My last trip, by myself in the dead of winter, was uneventful despite incredibly cold weather. (Amtrak toilets and water lines tend to freeze up if the coaches and sleepers stay in the yard too long without heat.) I ate in the diner with an Amtrak contractor who was installing WiFi on the Hiawatha. Today passengers have internet access during the trip from Milwaukee to Chicago. I even blogged that Amtrak's customer service, which is a sometimes thing, appeared to be getting better.

Next week's trip will be interesting, since Amtrak has had a series of high-profile screw-ups.

Amtrak has cut some basic services in the name of saving money: coach passengers on overnight trains no longer get complimentary pillows at their seats. If they want, they can buy an "overnight comfort package" that includes a pillow, a thin blanket, and a sleep mask. A nice perk for first class passengers - a small wine and cheese service in the dining car before departure - has been eliminated. Cut flowers on the dining car tables have been scrapped.

But the biggest change in customer service is in dining car staffing. One full-time waiter has been cut from each train. The car is now staffed by a single cook, one waiter (instead of two), and a manager -- who runs the car's till and now also waits tables. Dining cars in the 1940s and 50s run with a crew of six, although they actually cooked food and cleaned dishes en route. Today even a fancy Amtrak dining car meal is prepared in a microwave and is served on plates made of a thick plastic that get thrown away.

Amtrak's dining car workers are the highest-paid food service workers in the country, with many making more than $30 an hour plus overtime and tips. And Amtrak has large financial losses on its food service.

But many passengers now report that the new 3-employees-instead-of-4 is a failure. People sit through very long waits to get their food, meaning other customers have long waits to get a table. Customers walk out without paying for their late, cold food. Tips, understandably, have dried up. There have been several reports of servers giving up -- closing the dining car early because they can't keep up with the backlog. Hungry passengers on a train tend to be unhappy. Overworked staff -- they work for three days straight (a there-and-back overnight schedule) before getting three days off. There have even been shouting matches between riders and crew.

So against that backdrop, on Saturday Train 2253 was en-route from Boston to Washington. The high-speed Acela Express pulled into New York's Penn Station and pulled out without its passengers. About 200 people were waiting to board, but they'd been directed to the wrong platform by station staff.. Instead of waiting for the passengers to go back upstairs to the station concourse and then back down to their awaiting train, the train crew departed at exactly 3pm -- on time -- without their riders. Amtrak customer service gave out Doritos and pizza, and put them on a Washington-bound local two-and-a-half hours later.

This is the Amtrak that too many of us know as a haven of union, government workers, blindly following regulations without common sense... little or no supervision from out-of-touch management... a prevailing it's-not-my-job mentality... an unspoken attitude of "be thankful were taking you there" instead of "thank you for riding with us". It's a rolling DMV where customer service regularly comes off the rails.

Chris Conley

Image:Amtrak Train #19the Crescent passing through North Philadelphiawith single high horsepower locomotive HHP-8#659 on