Imagine What the Chief Would Say!

Riding from Minneapolis to Chicago on the Empire Builder recently, Fritz Plous, a former reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times who specializes in railroad issues, had what we can only hope was a first-and-last-time experience.

This photo, snapped by Fritz, illustrates the manner in which the Builder’s lounge car attendant on that trip chose to inform passengers that the café on the lower level of the lounge car was closed while she was taking a meal break. Fritz also reports that she made no P.A. announcement when she returned. The trash container, or its absence, was your first clue after walking through three cars if there would be anyone in the café to sell you a bag of chips and a can of Pepsi.
Twenty-five or so years ago, when I renewed my interest in traveling by Amtrak, there was a Chief of On-Board Services on every long-distance train. These men and women wore coats and ties—snappy blue blazers, actually—and they were responsible for the performance of the car attendants, the steward and servers in the dining car, and even the chef and the other workers in the kitchen.
The first chief I ever ran into was on the California Zephyr out of Chicago en route to the Bay Area. He came by our bedroom to introduce himself and make sure we were settled in all right. He called me by name—we were on his passenger manifest, of course—but he remembered it and greeted me as “Mr. Loomis” the next day when we passed him in the corridor on our way to the dining car. The onboard chiefs not only made the whole Amtrak experience seem extra special, but they made sure the rest of the onboard crew did their jobs the right way.
Of course it was just a matter of time before the people wearing the green eyeshades in Amtrak’s Accounting Department got rid of the chiefs and the dining car stewards to save money. But the interesting fact is, from that moment, the quality of service on an Amtrak long-distance train has pretty much depended on peer pressure and on each individual crew member performing his or her job conscientiously.
I try to remember that each of those folks is doing a tough job essentially with no supervision when I leave something on the table after a meal in the diner and when the car attendant helps me with my bags at my destination. It’s really quite remarkable when you stop and think about it.