Fred Goes Macro, I Go Micro

Posted by John Hankey
on Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fred Frailey’s recent post as to Amtrak’s recent changes and possible alternatives is—as usual—well-informed, insightful, and spot on. This is the kind of analysis that Fred is so uniquely positioned to do, and that seems to be lacking at 60 Massachusetts Avenue. His is classic “Macro” thinking.

So I am going to go classically “Micro.” My intention is not to gripe, but to sincerely wonder out loud: What in the Hell is Amtrak thinking?

I have been riding passenger trains since before there was an Amtrak. I have been a staunch supporter of Amtrak (or at least the idea of a national passenger train network) since Railpax—the original name of Amtrak in the enabling legislation. And I have always understood what Amtrak was up against, at political. operational, and service-delivery levels.

This is not a fantasy about recreating the Golden Years of train travel or a rant about minor inconveniences and violated expectations. I like to think these are questions of common sense that may align with Fred’s slightly “out of the box” thinking. I remain deeply within the box.

My most recent trip was a few days ago, and took me from Washington, D.C. to Omaha, Nebraska. One night was in a roomette, with so-called “First Class” service. Then there was a day in coach. The trip was typical—and instructive.

On a Micro level, Amtrak does a pretty miserable job of preparing passengers for the “Amtrak Experience.” I don’t know if that is an IT problem, a service design problem, or a marketing problem.

I’ve ridden perhaps 500 trains of all kinds on three continents, and have a pretty good sense of the general drill. I still screw up once in a while and miss a train or embarrass myself. But at a basic level, riding Amtrak can be complicated, challenging, and stressful. Amtrak could be much more helpful to people who have little experience with train travel.

Many—perhaps, most—folks now make their reservations online, and get an automated response from Amtrak with a document they must print out and have with them throughout the trip. Amtrak knows who should be on most of its trains, and staff seem to have access to a great deal of information.

Shouldn’t information flow in the other direction, also?

I’ve been taking trains from Washington Union Station for 50 years. It has become a kind of muscle memory—I know where to park, where to provision up, where the Acela lounge is, and all sorts of small survival hacks. It is the same for frequent flyers.

Many Amtrak passengers (especially on Long Distance trains) are not experienced train travelers, or familiar with the often bewildering practices of boarding and riding a train. Many are either young people with limited travel knowledge, or older folks who find the entire experience stressful and mildly bewildering.

Amtrak probably can’t change that, at least not in the short term. So why not, along with the to-be-printed-out ticket and receipt, offer clear, common sense, useful advice that is tailored to a passenger’s departure point and on-board experience?   

It could be an electronic document accompanying the receipt and e-ticket. I am hopeful that Amtrak’s IT folks could figure out a way to do that—and that its marketing folks could understand how that might be helpful.

The concept is “expectation management.” The objectives would be to help passengers understand how their journey will unfold, and what to anticipate. I kept a running list of points, places, and issues that Amtrak could have at least begun to address at almost no cost (other than creating the initial electronic documents and integrating them into the passenger’s booking process).

There seems to be a disconnect between what Amtrak assumes passengers will know, and the often near-total ignorance that passengers display. It falls on the station and on-board staff to deal with that gap in the process of boarding and traveling.

That isn’t fair to either the passengers or the Amtrak front line staff. And I think it could be fixed (or at least, mitigated) with a little common-sense thinking and understanding of what actually happens on a train trip.

There are so many ways Amtrak could convey useful, helpful information to passengers. On board crews seem to have largely given up making suggestions. No one in Washington seems to notice—or care.

* * *

How do you explain to passengers—most of whom are simply interested in getting from Point A to Point B—the essential weirdness of contemporary train travel?

Except for the Northeast Corridor and a few other corridors, the train goes very fast with a rough ride. Then it goes very slow, with a much nicer ride, but a level of frustration. Why aren’t we moving along more briskly, and will I be late?

Passengers should not be expected to understand the nuances of the freight/passenger interface, railroad traffic control, schedule padding, or the other anomalies they are confronted with. They simply want to get aboard when they are supposed to, and detrain when the schedule says they should. They understand the same bargain when riding an airplane or a bus.

This is another Micro issue. Why not build into Amtrak’s marketing and ticketing process the advice that their journey will be safe, pleasant—and somewhat flexible. This is not the precision railroading of sixty years ago. It is a different kind of contract with travelers.

I think most passengers would understand that, if it were presented honestly and accurately. Amtrak will get you there safely and in comfort. But you need to have some elasticity in your schedule expectations. As an example, passengers bound for Osceola, Iowa don’t have a lot of options. The California Zephyr arrives and departs when it arrives and departs. There seemed to be a lot of anxiety and cell phoning among passengers trying to coordinate being met at station stops.

That speaks to an operational issue—or opportunity. When the Capitol Limited a few days ago departed Pittsburgh on NS rails, it went as fast as it could over tracks clearly optimized for freight traffic at lower velocity. I am not suggesting that was unsafe—merely that it was uncomfortable. Everyone—sleeping car and coach, first class and steerage—got thrown about at random. There was no rest to be had.

Then there were extended periods of slow running, during which it was possible to actually fall asleep for a while. NS obviously calls the shots, and the Amtrak engineer obviously has to “follow the lights.”

But did anyone consider what passengers were experiencing in this speed up, slow down, wretched ride, nice ride mode of operation? I suspect that that was farthest from the minds of NS dispatchers, the operating crew getting the train over the railroad, or the statisticians calculating on-time performance and who owes whom what according to the contract.

In other words, passenger comfort takes a back seat to arbitrary performance metrics. It is a bean counter’s game. Maybe a little better train management and dispatching common sense is in order. Why urge the train forward at blender speed when you know that in 20 minutes it will be seeing yellow lights for an hour?

* * *

I have understood this for many years. Amtrak knows the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

I paid what I thought was a fair price for a roomette between Washington and Chicago. I have made that trip perhaps 100 times over the last 50 years, and know the process well. In this case, I was traveling alone.

I requested that the sleeping car attendant add the upper berth mattress to the lower berth mattress to at least create the foundation to sleep whenever it was possible due to the rough ride. I had two pillows available because no one was occupying the upper berth. I went to bed fully clothed, because the Superliner HVAC system is so notoriously unreliable and difficult to control—and all you get is a thin crappy blanket in a plastic bag to spread over the sheet.

The economic logic seems to be utterly perverse here. At least on the Capitol Limited, the sleeping car clientele definitely skews older, more economically secure, and a bit more—shall we say—frail. With one exception, all of the passengers on car 2900 seemed to be of a certain economic status and demographic tranche. At breakfast the next morning, everyone I spoke to said they had a poor night’s sleep for a variety of predictable reasons.

Some of those reasons were poor train handling. Some were the general disruption of trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment. And many had to do with being too cold, and their unfamiliarity with how to adjust the temperature of the room. Keep in mind these cars have vaguely calibrated HVAC controls, and only a thin blanket.

It remains difficult to find a comfort zone, even if you have been sleeping on trains for a half century. What does that mean to the occasional passenger who doesn’t have the experience or endurance to deal with Amtrak’s nickel-and-dime, penny wise, pound foolish First Class service?

My short answer? Better mattresses. Two pillows for each berth. At least two cheap blankets, or one better one, for each sleeping car passenger. In the big scheme of things, this would not be expensive or difficult,

The treatment of coach passengers is another story altogether. I may go there some other time. It is another example of opportunities squandered and poor service.

I agree with Fred’s Macro thinking. There are viable routes and markets. There certainly are trains that ought to be supported, reconfigured, and even done away with. Each has its own operational, economic, and political logic.

But at a Micro level, I don’t have any confidence that Amtrak really knows what is going on out there, or what its passengers experience. I have to wonder how often senior officials actually ride the trains as ordinary passengers, or how well they grasp the realities of the experience they are trying to sell.

My three companions on the dining car on Train 29 west from Washington agreed that they would not take the train after the dining car was eliminated and fancy box lunches substituted. The folks in coach didn’t care—the dining car meals were too expensive. On-board personnel have wise and experience-based opinions, but apparently HQ doesn’t much care to listen.

There ought to be a common sense middle ground. But Amtrak seems to be wandering off into an alternative reality.

And why don't trains have reliable wi fi and connectivity? What century is Amtrak living in?


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