Seeing through the dust

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, January 10, 2020

We connoisseurs of train travel have certain expectations of the passenger train operators we patronize. Most of us probably have an ideal in our head for the type of train we’re planning to ride and are at least subconsciously measuring our actual experience against this archetype. However, when it comes to train travel in the United States in the early 21st Century, most of us have learned to come with subdued expectations. To compare Amtrak with the Orient Express, for example, is a fool’s errand.

A now-retired AEM-7 locomotive is seen through a dusty window at Norwalk, Conn. in May 2012. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
We realize that Amtrak and regional railroads are operating under sometimes conflicting regulations and requirements with inadequate budgets and aging, well-worn equipment, and, given the state of the fleet and of the railroad network, we have relaxed tolerances when it comes to punctuality. However, there are certain basic things we expect, even when we are mentally prepared to be underwhelmed. 

While we don’t necessarily expect conductors and on-board service crew members to always be exemplars of courtesy and a customer-first attitude, we do expect them to use common sense and to not be overbearing. And while we don’t count on every train being spit-polished down to the last bolt and crevice, we expect a reasonable level of cleanliness — particularly when it comes to being able to enjoy the view out the window, which is one of the great pleasures of train travel.

Neither of these base-level expectations was met on a recent 7.5-hour trip I took with my aunt in Business Class on an eastern state-supported day train, made up of Amfleet I equipment.  After boarding, I noticed that the windows were extremely dirty — well beyond the usual level of dust I am accustomed to on Amfleet equipment. Luckily, I remembered that the train would have a 7-minute fresh-air (and crew-change) stop at a high-platform station. I planned to do what I had done before on different Amtrak trains at various stations where time allowed — take some paper towels from the on-board restroom and wipe down my window from the outside.

'Wash me' is written in the dust-caked windows of an Amfleet II cafe car on a New York-Florida train in 2002. Photo by Patrick Crowley on Flickr.com.
As I began to do this during the extended stop, the car’s attendant yelled at me to stop. I asked her why I could not clean the windows; she offered no explanation, but said only crew members could touch the train. I asked three other crew members on the platform if they could oblige; none did. Instead, the conductor who was going on duty also yelled at me to not touch the train. I politely asked him why I was not being allowed to clean the window and why no crew member could do it for me. Instead of offering an explanation, he told me that if I touched the train again, he would not allow me to re-board. 

These crewmembers’ overbearing and unhelpful attitudes left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the trip. I also noticed that someone had previously drawn a clearly visible smiley face in the thick dust on one of the other windows. What if someone had scrawled an offensive word or image in the dust? Is that what it would have taken to get a crew member to clean at least one window?

I have since contacted Amtrak Customer Relations and the rail division of the state Department of Transportation that pays for the route in question about this experience. The former filed a report that the representative said would be shared with the train’s on-board service managers, and said that passengers are not allowed to touch trains’ exteriors “for liability reasons,” but could not point to a document where this is in writing, nor could I find such a document through Web searches. I sent a follow-up email to Customer Relations and will provide an update in the comments if any further information is received. The state DOT sent a very kind response that they would be in touch with Amtrak about this. 

Crews wash the windows of Amtrak's Southwest Chief at Albuquerque, N.M. in 2002, one of very few places where Amtrak does this mid-route. Photo by Jim Ellwanger on Flickr.com.
Though Amtrak may have a policy against passengers touching the train’s exterior, a little common sense would have gone a long way toward defusing this situation. The crew could obviously see that I had no malicious intent and wasn’t doing anything patently unsafe — my body was a good distance from the side of the train and I was prepared to back away if the train began to move unexpectedly. 

The attitude of passenger transportation providers should be that customer satisfaction comes before rigid and arbitrary enforcement of rules, so long as the passenger is not putting themselves in danger or doing something that might cause harm to others or to the company’s property. Sadly, there seem to be a fair number of Amtrak employees (luckily not the majority in my experience, but more than a few) who don’t approach their jobs this way.

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