Can They Cut Their Way to Profits?
Over the past several years, Amtrak executives have been making what they invariably refer to as ”tough decisions”, most of which have involved the elimination of the extras that helped make a long-distance ride in an Amtrak sleeping car a memorable experience. It’s a long list: the wonderful Pacific Parlour Cars; the small bottle of inexpensive champagne or the souvenir coffee mugs or the bags of sample-sized toiletries in our room when we boarded; the selection of fruit juices and fresh coffee available all day in each sleeper; a fresh flower in a vase at every able in the dining car . . . all gone.
Cutbacks have also included the de-staffing of several hundred stations, which has spill-over consequences because, if there’s no station agent, there’s no checked baggage and no human being to provide current information and sell tickets. And, of course, we now have full-service dining cars being taken out of service and replaced with café cars with their microwaved meals and cafeteria-style dining.
Over many years and well over 100,000 miles logged on Amtrak long-distance trains, I’ve had many informal conversations with sleeping car attendants. Inevitably, the discussions turn to whatever it was that generated the latest edict from on high. Most of those discussions evoke the same response from the Amtrak employees: “Not a good idea, but nobody ever listens to me!”
A couple of years ago at a luncheon during one of our Spring meetings, I happened to be seated next to one of Amtrak’s top executives. Several times during the meal, others at the table offered suggestions for improving on-board service or for fixing some annoying problem from a passenger’s perspective. This guy’s response was the same for each: he smiled and said, “Well, I’ll have to look into that.” The thing is, he never once took out a little note pad or an old envelope to jot down a reminder. Everyone at the table knew we were being blown off.
And so top management at Amtrak continues to make cuts that diminish the experience for sleeping car passengers without listening to their front-line employees or the passengers themselves or the passenger rail advocates. The Amtrak brass is convinced if they keep cutting, the red ink will disappear. The question is, who’s going to pay top dollar to ride on what’s left when they’re through cutting?
That reminds me of the Trains open house, held in Chicago when Boardman first assumed the Amtrak presidency. Full room of guys, many of whom traveled by Amtrak on their own dime, to hear and discuss Amtrak’s future direction. With Boardman in particular, any questions about service improvement, minor changes in scheduling, etc were immediately batted down with comments to the effect that we know more than you, and you’re stupid. Recall this was at the start of the Obama administration and Biden had just force fed funding to repair many wreck damaged cars that had been languishing in storage. Imagine what could have been with a more proactive and engaged leadership.
Jim, I especially enjoyed reading those last 2 paragraphs. They deserve to be framed, repeated and re-broadcasted! and I’m thinking that they deserve to be presented before our politicians, and directly to Amtrak. Hopefully NARP will indeed sound the horn in no ummistakable language at this month’s gathering in Washington DC. It is appearing more and more that Amtrak needs to hear from them because they seem to becoming a larger adversary! Maybe Mr. Anderson needs to be persuaded that this is not the job for him. He needs some bad press in the news!