Bob Johnston: Looking out for customers on the 'Lake Shore Limited'

Posted by David Lassen
on Monday, September 17, 2018

-Rosa Robinson (left), and daughter-in-law Annie Walker with boxed meals in the Lake Shore Limited Viiewliner diner Boston leaving Chicago on the evening of Sept. 11. (Photo by Bob Johnston)
Amtrak lead service attendant Kristen Hefner takes the womens’ order while New York-bound passenger Douglas Freeland (right) observes the conversation. (Photo by Bob Johnston)

A guest post from Trains passenger columnist Bob Johnston:

CHICAGO — Sometimes it falls to unsupervised front-line employees to make the right service decision.

So when the Lake Shore Limited’s Chicago-based first class lead service attendant Kristen Hefner listened to the plight of Rosa Robinson and Annie Walker, who were only entitled to a complimentary beverage as the train departed the Windy City on Tuesday, Sept. 11, she decided to bend the rules.

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law traveling companions on their way from Seattle to Washington, D.C., missed their Capitol Limited connection in Chicago that day because the Empire Builder arrived at 8 p.m., more than an hour after the Washington-bound train had departed.

Robinson has a heart condition and needs to eat regularly, but the Builder’s crew didn’t serve dinner, according to Walker. The pair then spent more than an hour at Chicago Union Station’s baggage claim area and ticket windows rechecking luggage and rebooking passage in a Lake Shore roomette and seats on a connecting Northeast Regional from New York.

With a 9:30 p.m. departure, Lake Shore sleeping car passengers are offered wine, beer, or soft drinks; they get boxed breakfasts and lunches the next day. But after listening to Walker explain how they had to fend for themselves at Chicago after getting off the train from Seattle, Hefner without hesitation brought out two meals for the women.

“We have the food — it’s right here, so it just makes sense to do this,” Hefner says. “They had been through a lot.”  

The option wouldn’t have been available if the train had full dining-car service. The eastbound Lake Shore had previously offered sleeping car passengers wine and cheese upon departure before that amenity was cut several years ago. It still has a café car that opened after conductors collected tickets, but it is part of the train’s Boston section, a seven-car walk from the dining car.

Though Walker says the boxed lunches weren’t nearly as good as the food they were served in the Empire Builder’s diner, she was satisfied that Hefner’s thoughtfulness was able to counteract some of the poor attention they encountered earlier.

“At St. Paul, the crew had said someone would tell us what was happening after we left Milwaukee and help us change reservations, but no one told us anything on the train or met us at the station. We all stood in line for 45 minutes with only a few Amtrak people available—and the agents were nasty when we finally got to the window,” Walker says.

The women were told they had to reclaim their checked luggage in New York and take it with them on the Northeast Regional to Washington, but no one explained that the baggage could be checked through to Washington (on train no. 67) if it could be picked up the following morning.

At one time, Chicago customer service personnel would handle such situations to minimize or eliminate missed connection uncertainty. They might even take a Hiawatha to Milwaukee to begin the process en route. With those functions eliminated by current management, at least Amtrak employees like Kristen Hefner are around to pick up some of the slack.

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