Can Amtrak Meet Expectations?

I have mentioned Christopher Elliott here a few times. He writes travel columns for both USA Today and the Washington Post and has become a kind of on line travel ombudsman. As an inveterate traveler, I find something interesting almost every time I visit his website.
It takes only a few visits to become aware that, as an industry, the airlines are doing a rotten job at customer service. When it comes to the actual business of providing transportation—number of flights, on time performance, cancellations, etc.—most of them are meeting reasonably good standards. The breakdown is occurring because of the nickel-and-diming that airline customers are constantly having to deal with and the hard-nosed responses that come when they complain.
I’ve also noticed that Elliott’s website seems to receive very few complaints about Amtrak. I have a couple of theories about that, both based solely on my own personal experience.
For one thing, flying can be tense while Amtrak passengers are more relaxed and, by definition, not in a hurry. But I think another big reason is that Amtrak’s on-board crews—car attendants and dining car personnel—do a really good job. Most of them have been with Amtrak for a long time, they like their work, and they like people. Conductors, less so … but they usually have almost no contact with passengers.
Most of the Amtrak complaints I’ve seen—some of which have come direct to me through this blog—are from first time sleeping car passengers, and I do think this is cause for some concern.
Take a look at Amtrak’s web site, specifically those areas that are more marketing and promotion as opposed to the nuts-and-bolts of providing scheduling information and making reservations. I think a case can be made that Amtrak is over-selling … creating expectations of luxury on a long-distance train ride that realistically cannot be met.

 When the first-time sleeping car passenger pays $1,000-$1,200 for a bedroom on the Zephyr and is confronted with the reality of a 35-year-old Superliner sleeper with, perhaps, an A/C vent that won’t close and a cabinet door held shut with duct tape, it’s easy to understand that reality can fall short of expectations. The answer is new equipment, of course, and a lot of it. But, best case scenario, that’s many years off … probably a decade or two.
So Amtrak is between a rock and a hard place. Clearly, they have to aggressively promote the long-distance trains to generate as much revenue as possible. But sleeping car passengers, who are already paying top dollar, need to feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth and that’s going to be more of a challenge with each passing year. Reverting to the welcome aboard gifts would help—the small chilled bottles of inexpensive champagne or the souvenir coaster.
Yes, I know, it’s just a token. But every morning, I fix my coffee in a Amtrak mug my wife and I found in our bedroom on the Coast Starlight more than twenty years ago.