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OPINION - Somebody's customer service is getting better

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I’ve written before about my love of train travel. I’ve also written before about the generally poor customer service on Amtrak. Problem is, train travel and Amtrak are one-in-the-same. Government-owned Amtrak is the only game in town for intercity train travel.

In the glory days of train travel, it wasn’t that way. Different railroads really did have different personalities – and different levels of service. The New York Central ran the 20th Century Limited – the finest passenger train in the county. The dining car steward and his staff would have fit in at the finest restaurants in New York or Chicago. Service was outstanding. The Santa Fe ran uniformly excellent passenger trains, far better than the Southern Pacific, which had a reputation for sometimes-surly service and being a cheap operation. The Baltimore & Ohio and Boston & Maine were friendly railroads. The Southern was not. Its treatment of blacks was so offensive that some families banded together and shared automobiles to escape the often-bigoted train crews.

Amtrak’s customer service was sometimes describes as a rolling Department of Motor vehicles. All on-board train workers are government employees and have incredible union protection – they’re almost impossible to fire. That attitude showed on the road. The unspoken sub-context was always: “We just happen to be operating a train in the direction you happen to be going. You should thank us for letting you ride along.”

I’m happy to report that this is changing. I’ve noticed a discernable improvement in Amtrak’s customer service in recent years. It’s still below airline standards (and their levels of customer service have slipped). It’s at least risen to the point where I don’t have to explain/apologize for it when I have a travel companion.

Some of the customer-service improvements come because of operational improvements. For instance: Each afternoon at Chicago’s Union Station the great long-distance trains from the west arrive. Many of these trains are late, having been on the road for 2 or 3 days from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle. Some of those passengers are making connections to the east coast. For years the Lake Shore Limited to New York departed at 6pm… and night after night west-coast passengers would miss the train and, after waiting in a long customer service line, would be offered a discount hotel voucher for the night. Now Amtrak has shifted the Lake Shore Limited’s departure back to 9:30pm. Missed connections are greatly reduced.

Amtrak has also done a better job explaining what’s going on to its passengers. People are much more understanding when they’re told what’s going on. And the moment is takes to explain something to a novice passenger is worth it instead of letting them stew in a froth of anger and misinformation.  Here are a few examples: on many trains, people who are travelling alone are told to share an aisle/window seat with a stranger even if two seats in front of them are unoccupied. They probably don’t realize that the train crew has to keep some “doubles” free because they have passengers with children getting on a later stops. Explain it to them, and most people are understanding. You have to share a table in the dining car, too. There aren’t enough tables for people to dine alone. Others wouldn’t be served in time. Outside of the northeast, Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks it uses and its trains are dispatched by various freight railroads. Explaining this makes people more understanding with delays. The airlines always tell passengers when they’re delayed for runway congestion, deicing, mechanical problems, etc.

Amtrak is also improving creature comforts. On my return-trip from winter vacation, I sat with an Amtrak employee who’s part of the team installing WiFi on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha. These internet connections are already available between Boston, New York, and Washington. On-line access will soon be expanded to the Chicago-St. Louis trains. (Long distance trains, which often travel in remote areas, are a more complicated case.) Giving passengers free WiFi is a huge improvement to the on-train experience. There are other nice things that Amtrak doesn’t mention enough. Coach seats on the train offer much, much more leg room that on an airplane. They’re wider too. Two checked bags travel free, and you can carry one more onboard with you. And the California Zephyr’s daytime crossing of the Rocky Mountains is spectacular; so is the ride along the Hudson River on the Water Level Route.

Amtrak customer service is still inconsistent. One reservation agent told me I had to pick up my tickets by Saturday, even though I said Sunday would be much more convenient. One coach attendant reminded passengers not to throw garbage into the on-board toilets. “If you stop ‘em up, I ain’t cleanin’ it up,” he said. 

It’s not perfect, but it is better. Credit where credit is due.

Chris Conley

Image: Passengers board an Amtrak Acela Express train at South Station in Boston (Brian Snyder/Courtesy Reuters) via wsau.com.