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Interesting Feedback from a Recent Long-Distance Rail Journey.

Almost everyone knows that, to save money, Amtrak has been cutting back on the little extras that sleeping car passengers have come to expect over the years. The token gifts were Amtrak’s way of saying thank you and welcome aboard to the people paying top dollar for their accommodations and I, for one, appreciated it.

Most of the amenities are gone now … the little bottle of champagne waiting in your room when you board, the chocolate mint wrapped in gold foil on your pillow before you retire, the newspaper slipped under your door during the night, and — alack and alas! — the wine tastings on the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder.

Sleeping car attendants have even been instructed to turn off the coffee urns in their cars at 9:30 in the morning. A car attendant on one of my recent trips was contemptuous of that little edict and vowed to make coffee available throughout the day until he was personally ordered to stop.

“Passengers know what to call that,” he said. “It’s chicken shit!”
Another area where cutbacks are taking place is in the dining car. There are fewer options on the menu and the Amtrak computer is tightening up on the number of portions being allotted to each chef on each train. As a result, dining cars are running out of items and passengers are more and more beginning to hear that their preferred choice for dinner is not available. Indeed, on a recent trip aboard the California Zephyr, the diner literally ran out of food and passengers went unfed from breakfast until our arrival in Chicago close to 7:00 p.m., four hours late.  

Inevitably, the quality of both the food and the service in dining cars is beginning to slide, and I think that has to be, at least in part, because of sagging morale among the dining car crews. 

But here’s the point: all of these little things are starting to add up and affect how passengers — especially first-timers in sleeping cars — respond to the overall experience. From my own personal observations, and based on conversations with a number of passengers, I think it’s starting to cost Amtrak future business.

Here’s an excerpt from an email I just got from a friend of mine following his first experience on an extended long-distance train itinerary:

“We probably won’t do another long trip on AMTRAK [my emphasis] because, of all things, the food – if you want to call it that. I felt the food was only a step above microwaved vending machine food. As a kid, I remember the excitement of going to the dining car with my grandmother. You are right that often the best part of the meal is conversation with some strangers. But, the food was the biggest disappointment of the trip.”

Isn’t it ironic that the little minds in Congress, demanding that Amtrak keep cutting costs in a futile effort to break even, could actually be causing Amtrak to lose revenue because passengers are now being disappointed in their train travel experience. 

Ironic, yes. But a surprise? No.

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