It’s About Exceeding Expectations.

Sometimes I wonder if the powers-that-be at Amtrak understand the real difference between coach passengers and sleeping car passengers.

The difference is in our expectations.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief arriving at Galesburg, Illinois.

Let’s say I’m in Chicago and today I’m talking the train to visit my brother and his wife who live near Galesburg, Illinois. That’s about a three-hour ride on train  381, the Carl Sandburg. I board in Chicago at 7:30 in the morning, have a cup of  coffee from the cafe car, and we get to Galesburg just about three hours later.

My brother meets the train, we go back to his house—it’s just a 15-minute drive—his wife offers a cup of coffee, which is several ticks better than what Amtrak served on 381. By now it’s noon and we  head out to a local restaurant for a nice leisurely lunch. 

Galesburg has always been a railroad town. Both the Southwest Chief and the California Zephyr come through here twice a day, every day—the Chief en route to Los Angeles; the Zephyr headed for the Bay Area. This trip I’m headed for Davis, California, so I’ll be aboard the Zephyr for two nights and six meals.

Because of the very significant difference in fares, I have greater expectations for the Zephyr than I had for the Carl Sandburg. But most of the little extras are gone. The dining car menus are now identical for all the trains all across the country and if you spend at least six nights on the train going and coming, before you complete your schedule—trust me!— you will stare at that menu—identical on all the dining cars on every train—and you would kill for one or two additional choices.

There’s no more ice cream for dessert. And that nice wedge of New York cheesecake has been replaced by a kind of yellow pudding in a plastic cup.

Finally, and this cuts right to the heart of the issue, if I decide to pay $15 for a so-so half-bottle of merlot, it damn well should be served with an actual wine glass—just a decent plastic one—instead of the flimsy plastic cup everyone now gets. 

Alas, while I still give little thought to flying, someone at Amtrak had better start coming up with little ways to exceed my expectations.