Message to Amtrak: Enough With the Cost-Cutting!

2010-05-21-FrogsThe reports—both official and unofficial—of more cost cutting keep coming. And once again I am reminded of the old story about how to cook a frog. You can’t just drop them into the hot water because they’ll jump out. Instead, you put the frogs into water that’s room temperature, then gradually heat it up. By the time they realize what’s going on, it’s too late. They’re cooked.
And so it goes with Amtrak. Passengers. We lose a little bit here, a little bit more there, and pretty soon … we’re cooked.
The first issue for today is what appears to be a continuing effort to eliminate staff at selected Amtrak stations around the long-distance network. Within the past few months, it’s happened in Hastings, Nebraska; in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota; and in Winona, Minnesota. And just days ago, we’ve heard that Worcester, Massachusetts, on the Lake Shore Limited’s route, has also been so designated.
Putting this last one into its own perspective, if the latest reports are true, Worcester will become the 11th unstaffed station on the Lake Shore’s route. Not counting the three termini—Chicago, New York and Boston—that’s 11 out of 23 stops. That’s damn near half!
There are real practical implications to having no Amtrak employees at these stations. It means, for example, no more checked baggage service. It means no one to answer questions like “Is the train on time?” And will a solo traveler—especially a woman—feel comfortable waiting alone on the platform? The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) is aggressively involved in these issues and is asking Amtrak some pointed questions: Is there a formal de-staffing plan—something actually on paper—with more stations targeted? If so, NARP wants to know which stations are on the list?
The other issue, of course, is the removal of the dining car from the Silver Star’s consist. NARP’s president and CEO, Jim Mathews has had a number of conversations with Amtrak people—people high up and in the know—but there is no real indication as to how it’s all going to end. It does seem clear, however, that this is a divisive issue at the upper levels of Amtrak management. NARP, of course, has come down heavily in opposition to the idea of substituting a cafe car for a full-service dining car on any of the long-distance trains.
In an excellent letter to Amtrak’s president, Joe Boardman, Mathews laid out NARP’s serious concerns about both of these issues. Boardman has yet to respond, but I’m hoping to provide a link to both letters in the near future. In the meantime, I will take a chance and quote the first sentence of the Mathews letter because it clearly identifies the problem as NARP sees it:

Dear Mr. Boardman: On behalf of our 28,000 members nationwide and the 30 million Americans who ride Amtrak, I’m writing to express our concern over recent instances in which customer service has taken a back seat to cost-cutting and efficiency measures.

Damn right! Cost-cutting and efficiency, taken too far, will save money, but lose ridership. And that must not happen.