Falling Short in Big Little Ways.
I arrived back in Los Angeles last night, coming from Davis, California, on the Coast Starlight and it was distressing to see little things–avoidable things–happening to first-time Amtrak travelers that would make their journey less than it should be.
When the attendant for Car 31 opened the door to let me board in Davis, there was no offer to help with my bags, no orientation for my roomette, no directing me to the diner on the off chance I would be wanting breakfast at 7:00 a.m. No nothing. Literally the next time I saw her was on the platform as we climbed down from the sleeper, carrying our own bags. She wasn’t unfriendly, she just wasn’t there, and I can only assume that the folks in the family bedroom, traveling on an overnight train for the first time, got the same minimal treatment. Nothing special. Nothing memorable.
As usual, I spent some very enjoyable time relaxing in the parlor car. And as expected, there was a wine tasting from 3:30 to 4:30 that afternoon at a cost of $7.50 per person. (It used to be free.) Only six of us paid the fee, but were all there in the lounge area at the appointed hour.
I was anticipating the kind of presentation I have enjoyed literally dozens of times before, with the attendant pouring one wine at a time and offering a brief description of each. This time, however, he placed three small plastic “wine glasses” on the little table in front of me and poured a red wine into the first glass, another red into the second glass, and a white wine into the third glass. And thus ended the wine tasting. A woman seated across from me–this was also her first long-distance Amtrak ride- rolled her eyes.
This half-assed stuff is really starting to piss me off. Sleeping car passengers are already being nickel-and-dimed. I don’t like it, although I understand why the Amtrak brass thinks it’s necessary. But obviously the on-board staff has seen it and it’s affected how some of them do their jobs: cutting a few corners here, saving a little time there. It is by no means universal, but I think it’s understandable. After all, management is doing it.
But it’s deplorable. A car attendant or a dining car server taking shortcuts and not providing the kind of attention and service passengers deserve and for which they are already paying top dollar — that’s not helping to improve Amtrak’s bottom line. In fact, when a family of four takes their first overnight train ride, it’s their interaction with those on-board employees that can boost the overall experience rating “good” to “memorable” … and result in another Amtrak trip next year.
Whoever replaces Joe Boardman as Amtrak President and CEO is going to have a full plate from the get-go. But somewhere on the To-Do list has got to be a serious effort to boost on-board employee morale and restore consistency and quality-control to the standards and procedures that have been successful in the past. Case in point: the parlor car attendant I mentioned above. Yes, he did a half-assed job with the wine tasting, but otherwise he was, in fact, friendly and personable..
The on board crews need to see and hear some optimism from the Amtrak leadership. They’re still doing their jobs capably and professionally, but they’re discouraged. Somehow, that has to change.
I’m not making excuses Jim, but the sleeper attendant might have been put on the trip at the last minute, unfamiliar with duties because of working out of her category, maybe on extra board, and ordered to work a back to back trip, no layover. Believe me I know, all of the above & more happen to get a body in an unfilled position on a train about to depart. Amtrak will make it just about impossible, & go as far as issuing you a direct order or else scenario. I know that from experience, esp. in my early days at Amtrak. So the employee in turn, not that it’s right, will of course take the low road & do the least they can get away with, & unfortunately it’s the passenger affected the most.
Believe me, it is always my first instinct to cut those folks some slack, especially on the western trains. Perhaps it is unfair, but at each end of one of those trips I look for an offer to help with the bags. I seldom accept, but I’ve found that to be a good indication as to what kind of car attendant I’ve drawn. But that post was really triggered from my experience on Wednesday in the parlour car. I had just paid $7.50 for a “wine tasting” that used to be free, and I was staring at three little plastic cups lined up on my little table, all half-full with unknown wines, while the attendant was back in one of the booths doing his paperwork. That was just too much.