Help Mr. Big save the Auto Train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The alienation of Auto Train passengers continues unabated. It’s now the only long-distance train (other than the Cardinal, which has neither kitchen nor dining car) on which you cannot be served a grilled flat iron steak, accompanied by a baked potato. This is what Amtrak calls its “signature steak.” Now on the Auto Train you get a cheaper hunk of meat that’s been braised for hours to shed its shoe-leather toughness and then is plopped atop mashed potatoes, which are probably cold by the time they reach you. Already I am barfing. The switch occurred May 1, but until this morning the online menu for the Auto Train sleeping car diner still showed the flat-iron steak. All this and more appears to be the doing of a Miami-based Amtrak manager with oversight of the Auto Train. His name is Mr. Big.

The mission of Mr. Big began with a berating of the Auto Train on-board service staff at a town hall meeting in Lorton, Va., in late winter. According to people who were there, he wasn’t nice. Mr. Big told the folks that if they didn’t like their jobs, to quit because plenty of people are there to replace them. And he told them to cease thinking themselves special for working aboard this unique train, because they are not; they are just hired help. This is a man beloved by Joe Boardman, Amtrak’s president.

Next it became the customers’ turn to feel the tender kiss of Mr. Big’s tough love. Amtrak removed the Sightseer Lounge car for sleeping car passengers in order to add a fifth bilevel coach (the train is held to 17 passenger cars due to limitations of head-end power). This itself was not a bad idea, because it significantly enhances revenue. But it became a part of a pattern that some might see as not such a good idea. To wit: The complimentary wine tasting ended, as did complimentary wine at dinner for first-class passengers. Out  went the china, too, to be replaced by paper (some who rode the train recently say plastic) tableware. And now, as reported, the dinner itself is cheapened, too, inferior to that of all other long distance trains save the Cardinal.

These cost cuts will improve the train’s bottom line, unless, of course, passengers get driven away. But I’m confident passengers will like these changes. They are for our own good. We have Mr. Big’s word for this.

Still, it’s unfair to ask Mr. Big to do all this by himself. He is just one person. You readers of this blog are pretty savvy. Let’s all band together to offer the fellow our best advice. Those of you who read but seldom post responses, don’t be shy; don’t hold back your ideas.

Here are a few ideas of my own for Mr. Big to consider:

1. The new-new dinner menu. Boxes of KFC fried chicken delivered the morning of departure to your room or your seat. Choice of white or dark meat, plus mashed potatoes with gravy and slaw. Finger-lickin’ good, folks! Simply run hot water in the toilet over the boxes to warm the food.

2. The new-new breakfast menu. Bananas, all you can eat. But two per person, please. Now Mr. Big can take off both diners and add the sixth and seventh coaches. The dining car staffs will please the boss by joining the unemployed.

3. BYOB. Lug aboard your cooler of beer and bottles of hooch and let the wet tee-shirt parties in the aisles begin! (Think: elder sex.) Wave goodbye to the other lounge car and its attendant and wave hello to the eighth coach.

4. People power. Two P40 locomotives are one too many and waste fuel. The train’s route is pretty flat, so make do with one. For those few hills that can’t quite be topped, the sleeping car passengers can get off and walk, to lighten the load. Or they can push, if they’re in such a rush. They're part of the 1%, anyway.

5. BYOB (bedding). If passengers brought their sheets, blankets, and pillows, why, the Auto Train wouldn’t need sleeping car attendants. So wave goodbye to them, too. But practice making beds before you board, so your feet don’t poke out.

Okay, that’s a start. I’ve got many other suggestions, but enough of me. Pick up where I left off. We must band together with Mr. Big to cut the Auto Train to profitability. — Fred W. Frailey

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