Cost Cutting: A Short Sighted Approach
Back some 20 years ago, I was traveling with my wife and daughter from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area on the California Zephyr. About 15 minutes out of Chicago, there came a tapping at the door of our bedroom. It was a 40ish man, smartly dressed in grey slacks and a navy blue blazer. He introduced himself as the Chief of On-Board Services. If there was anything we needed, he said … if there were any problems throughout our journey, we should see him and he would personally take care of it. Then he welcomed us aboard and moved off down the corridor. The next day, on our way to lunch in the dining car, we ran into him again. He greeted us by name and asked if we were enjoying our journey — I remember specifically that he used that word, “journey”.
Back then, there was a Chief of On-Board Services on every one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Conductors and engineers comprised the operating crew, but these men and women were in charge of everything and everybody else inside the train—car attendants, dining car personnel and the lounge car attendant. If one of the sleeping car attendants was slacking off … if a passenger was causing trouble in one of the coaches … if the oven in the dining car’s kitchen broke down … if an elderly man in one of the sleepers became ill … if the cafe in the lounge car was running out of ice … no matter. Whatever the problem, “The Chief” was there to take care of it.
Alas, there are no more chiefs. For that matter, there used to be stewards in the dining cars to escort you to your table and provide you with a menu and ask if you’d like a bottle of wine with your dinner. They’re gone, too.
Today, in most of the Amtrak dining cars, the food is served on disposable dishes, to save the cost of an extra employee in the kitchen who was there to help out and to wash the “real” dishes.
For the record, I still thoroughly enjoy my travels on Amtrak … from start to finish … and I’m always sorry when the trip—I’m sorry—when the JOURNEY comes to an end. But getting rid of the Chiefs and the Stewards and the real china dishes and the other little niceties all in the name of cost-savings has diminished the total experience nonetheless.
We all know that Amtrak could be more efficient. What company with 20,000 employees couldn’t be? But the constant micro-managing by Congress and the relentless pressure to eliminate the need for government subsidy is taking its toll. To meet the demands of Congress, Amtrak is trying to achieve profitability by cost-cutting and it doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for the country, and it’s not going to work for Amtrak. The U.S. needs to invest in Amtrak and in the infrastructure generally. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?