Amtrak’s clunky service needs reform

I’m back in America for a book promotion tour and yet again I am appalled at the inefficiency of Amtrak. I want to love Amtrak as it is the US’s only passenger train service but the company’s clunky procedures and often rude staff make it very hard.

Really Amtrak is two separate operations. In the northeast it is something like a proper train service familiar to us Europeans. The trains linking cities like Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston are relatively frequent and are used quite heavily by local people.

The frustrating aspect of the train service in the north east is that Amtrak seems to delight in making it difficult to take the train. It wants you to book in advance, and you have to provide ID to buy the ticket. Then they expect you to turn up 15 minutes in advance, and then create a bottleneck by checking your ticket – rather cursorily – before getting on the train where the conductor will check your ticket again and issue you with another one which he or she puts in a slot above your seat. So as a result there is a conductor for every two carriages. And getting a smile or a thank you out of the conductor on our train between DC and Philadelphia was quite impossible. (The steward, Scott, on the other hand at the bar could not have been more helpful or kinder).

The way the service is operated in the northeast seems to result from Amtrak’s failure to realise that running a frequent service for ordinary rail passengers is a different proposition to its service in the rest of the country. There, with the odd exception between some city pairs, the timetable consists of long distance trains thatare more like a rail tour than a train service as they cater mainly for senior citizens and tourists who fancy a train ride. As, at best, these routes offer a daily train, they do not provide a genuine train service that can be used as an alternative to the car for local people.

In the northeast, therefore, Amtrak needs to understand that its offer is a different proposition. Indeed, much of its way of operation seems to be a job creation exercise or the result  of very poor management. Amtrak managers need to come to Europe and look at how to run an efficicient and cheap rail service.

  • Jonesct

    I loved these pungent comments but think they may be a little unfair to Amtrak. I agree that there are really two railways under one brand (although I’d say they are clearly marketed separately in practice) but your main beef seems to be that the train conductors are stiff and unfriendly. That isn’t my experience and I travel the North-East Corridor on a regular basis. Conductors are officials, in any case, a sort of cross between a train guard and a ticket collector on British trains, and it may be a mistake to expect them to be too chummy. Are Russian train conductors any better?

    You are also concerned about the ticketing procedures. In fact, you can buy your ticket over the phone or online with a credit card and then get it printed out from an automated machine at the big stations before you travel. That’s absolutely the best way to save time as Americans don’t do queueing very well. In the last several years on Amtrak, I have not yet been required to show any ID; that’s certainly a flexible policy. But no, I don’t have any idea why they take your ticket and then give you back a stub AND also put up a separate card in a slot above your head. (However, as this card indicates where you are going to get off, it might function as a seating location device, so that new passengers can be directed to empty seats as they open up.)

    With respect, it’s also a bit cheeky suggesting European railways as a role model because Amtrak’s operational context is anything but European, or even British. It wouldn’t go down too well in Congress is my guess. The technical aspects of running a passenger railway here are deeply subordinated to the political and diplomatic. It’s a management triumph that Amtrak is still there and even slowly expanding, through specific state-by-state deals. A case in point is Virginia, where a daily through service to and from Boston, Mass. was inaugurated a year ago to serve the Shenandoah Valley and southern parts of the state. It’s subsidised by the state government within Virginia and Amtrak provides the crews and rolling stock and negotiated the running slots among all the freight trains. That this train then takes FORTY minutes to change engines at Washington, from diesel to electric or vice versa, is not beside the point but it does seem in this negotiation-rich environment to be a secondary concern that could be addressed later.   


    Chris Jones

  • I can just imagine what the Republicans would say if Amtrak sent people to Europe to view how others run a railway.  It would probably be a similar response to what the Daily Mail would publish!

  • struans

    “Amtrak managers need to come to Europe and look at how to run an efficicient and cheap rail service”

    Really ?  Quite a few places in Asia too, perhaps.

  • Michael Weinberg

    I’m afraid this is rather typical of Mr. Wolmar. He makes sweeping statements on very little evidence.
    Those of us who use American railways frequently will treat Mr. Wolmar’s strictures on the subject with a larg pinch of salt!

  • Anonymous

    Surely you’ve missed the point – the point of the article is that the vast majority of those that use America’s railways are probably using them for tourism purposes rather than commuting, a concept which seems totally foreign to Europeans.  Goes back to the more fundamental question – what are the railways for? – which needs to be asked on both sides of the pond it seems.

  • Anonymous

    Having stationmasters selling tickets for 5 minutes of every hour is British job creation. Along with guards on short commuter trains, double buffet car crews on future IEP trains (no gangway between units) etc.

  • Anonymous

    Tls Rapie – Michael I have just travelled 400 miles from Altoona to NYC and it took seven hours. The staff were surly, rude to an older guy asking questions, the food was basic and there was one train per day. Its not what I know as a train service, is it? That’s not to say I did not enjoy it and the seats arefar more comfortable than most european ones. But Amtrak could do a lot better…

  • Derekl

    My ex-wife recently traveled from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles on the Amtrak train that runs down the west coast. Mindful of this post, I asked her about the experience train crew wise – could not be more helpful and friendly is her view.

    The journey is apparently spectacular. She found the two berth sleeper cabin comfortable, if small, which is to be expected.

    Cost was USD400 for two, including the sleeper cabin and all meals.

    I appreciate that this is part of the “tourist” Amtrak that Christian refers to, but is an indication that not all is disastrous on Amtrak. Train arrived in LA on time, as well.

  • Christian Wolmar

    Funnily enough DerekI,I tavelled on that same route last year and encountered the best staff I had met on my whole round America trip. Obviously, some routes have much better and friendlier staff than others. Seattle – LA also has some of the best views to be found on the network. 

  • SKPeterson

    The railroads are for moving freight.  Passengers are a money-losing proposition.  It is the same situation in Canada – passenger rail is for tourists, the real business is moving goods from ports to the interior and then back out.  HSR advocates need to realize that they have geography working against them in North America – very long distances with very few people makes for very unprofitable service.  And all the $600 billion chunks of nonexistent money in the world won’t change that.

  • Robert

    I think American trains are pretty good, actually. They are much roomier and more comfortable than European trains and can be fairly practical, even away from the NE corridor. A friend of mine often commutes by train from Chigago to Tenessee for business – it is just an overnight sleeper. Average speeds are around 50-60 mph for the journeys – and this is, in fact, broadly in line with the speed of European sleeper services and even many daytime services. Even on those lines with high speed trains, you will often find that “average” speeds are rather less impressive. Yes of course the European rail network is more developed and has more trains. It would be an exageration to say it is just used by old grannies and tourists.

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  • Rider

    Regarding the card being put in a slot above your head – – this is the “seat check”.  It reminds the ticket collector that he or she has collected your ticket, and it indicates where you’re going.  European ticket collectors seem to just memorize this sort of thing.  Just a different way of working that does not impact the passenger.

    Regarding the need to purchase a ticket in advance – – most European trains are overfull only when used by commuters going short distances.  Standing up is no big deal in such situations.  Amtrak used to have “unreserved” trains which were often quite full with people having to stand up for over an hour.  I for one am happy they no longer have those trains.

  • Usa

    Amtrak is not America’s only passenger rail service.  There is a private Alaska rail service also.

  • Usa
  • Rock ‘n’ Rail

    Your outsider’s view of the Northeast Corridor service is very perceptive. The conductors are not just rude, but think they are cops. I had one stop me on the platform in New York Penn as I attempted to board the business-class (Amtrak’s name for first-class) wagon. Apparently he did not think I looked like I belonged in business class. That I had to put down two heavy pieces of luggage and a pair of skis didn’t bother this government employee one bit. He was sure he had “busted” me. Everybody knows they check the tickets as soon as you sit down so it’s anybody’s guess who he thought would try to sit in business with a coach ticket. Not surprisingly you raised the hackles of readers by criticizing the USA’s wonderful passenger train system. It figures that the guy who says U.S. trains are “pretty good” only knows about them second hand. Further, it’d be interesting to know the European trains with which he’s making a comparison. It’s a matter of fairness. Just because people don’t own cars doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to frequent, comfortable, reliable transportation. The air transit infrastructure and the road network all come to us through government spending. If we had the will to provide ourselves with a decent public mass transit system, such as a rail passenger system, we would find a way. It’s just a question of whether we want to have an energy gobbling system based on private car ownership (and a system that shuts out the economically challenged) or a community based, energy-efficient system such as we’d get with a quality rail network.

  • Robert

    I have been on quite a few American trains , mostly in  the NE corridor but also from Richmond and Albany to New York. Massive wide seats with acres of legroom. Always nice views but of course it is a beautiful country. In my experience, the guards have been alright – certainly quite eccentric, yes, but jolly (usually). It changes from one guard to the other, like in the UK you have friendly guards and then you have surly and unfriendly ones. But I agree that it needs a lot more money spent on it, the service is not developed and the 79mph limit on most of the network stops rail being more competitive. It is a cultural thing too, sadly; people will come out and say it is “Unamerican” to spend money on the railways.

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  • Whodareswins_99

    This past summer my wife and I took the Amtrak City Of New Orleans route, Chicago IL to New Orleans LA, round trip.  We enjoyed the trip.  We had a large sleeper to New Orleans and a small sleeper returning to Chicago.  Since we had a sleeper the food was included.  The food was ok but some food was really good like the strip steak and red rice and beans.  The train staff was friendly and helpful.  I’d ride Amtrak again no problem.

  • I recently moved to Philadelphia and like to take the train and encourage it around the office for business too. But I am truly shocked by the way Amtrak and regional trains are here. Nowhere I had seen clearly excessive number of full-time conductor, in every coach, and obviously underpaid, tired and grumpy. Anywhere else in the developed world it’s simply too expensive to have a person per car screaming out the station.

    In 2011 in America, the fellow that punches your ticket, also screams at every stop, if he feels like it. 

    Amtrak, I love it alright, but the schedules are purely a suggestion and ticket prices are funny,  $90 for an hour ride. And somehow like the bus service I get the feeling that the mindset is if you are poor enough to be on a train (or bus for that matter) you are a second class and we shall treat you as such.

    The food cars are exemplary, nice folks running what looks like a hot dog stand. In a true American fashion, the train food “stand” generates so much garbage that it blocks the entrance and exit before the ride is over.

    Coming from Toronto, one gets used to insufficient trains but they are clean, on time and not overpopulated by underpaid staff. And my intercity was was the all majestic DB ICE, so the food cart with floating boxes of chips and table top accounting was something I needed a photo of (the stuff belongs to the fellow manning the cafe). 

  • The state of train service in the US and Canada is atrocious. I live in Montreal, and I take yearly trips to Boston visit friends who live just south of Boston, a city that is about 400KM away as the bird flies. You’d think this would be a quick little jaunt between two large cities a stones throw away, but it’s anything but. There are currently only two ways for somebody without a car to travel between these two cities: take an airplane, which costs the better part of a thousand dollars, or take a bus, which takes 8-10 hours.

    You’ll notice I didn’t list train as an option. Why? Because taking the train to travel those 400KM would take two days. Yes, two days to travel 400KM; there is only one amtrak line from Montreal, and you’ll have to change trains to get to Boston. Unfortunately, there is only one TRAIN per day too. So, how long exactly would it take? Well, take a look at this basic itinerary:Leave Montreal: 9:30 AM Day 1Travel 386 kilometres at an average speed of 47 KM/h and a cost of $49
    Arrive in Albany: 5:40 PM Day 1
    Wait for next immediate train in Albany
    Depart Albany: 3:25 PM Day 2Travel 322 kilometres at an average speed of 56 KM/h and a cost of $27
    Arrive in Boston: 9:10 PM Day 2
    Total travel time: ~36 hours
    Total cost: ~$76

    Yes. 36 hours to travel a 400KM distance. But wait, you say, there is a faster route if you take an even more circuitous route! And yes, you’re be right, marginally. This would be the fastest by time (whereas the above is the shortest by distance):

    Leave Montreal: 9:30 AM Day 1
    Travel 613 kilometres at an average speed of 55 KM/h and a cost of $63
    Arrive in New York City at 8:40 PM Day 1
    Wait for immediate next train in New York City
    Depart New York City: 2:40 AM Day 2
    Travel an unlisted distance and a cost of $98
    Arrive in Boston: 8:00 AM Day 2

    Total travel time: ~23 hours
    Total cost: ~$161

    Madness! This is to travel to a city 400KM away. I can scarcely believe it.

  • Bryan Higgins-Wood

    A rather defensive, and fairly typical N.American narrow, and ill informed world view. It is patently ludicrous to suggest that Europeans use trains principally for commuting! Would people travel, like we did one day last year from Barcelona to Basel (Switzerland, in case you didn’t know) via Paris over 1000miles I should estimate in about 12hrs travelling time – if we were going to the office! Let us just face up to the fact of the matter. The rail network in the States is just not up to anything like the standards pioneered in Japan and Europe, but now been being enthusiastically followed by China!

    Why does a well educated nation (generally speaking) perpetually think they are the best at every-thing when they are conspicously not, especially with ‘things’ which should be for the benefit of all the people. You will only have yourselves to blame for the state your country particularly will be in when the oil not only starts getting harder to find like now, but finally runs out! 

  • BryanHW

    Of course railways are a good and sensible way of moving freight. But you sound like some-one who has never seen, or been on a modern, smooth punctual train – even through lovely mountains as in the South of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Not always high speed, but considerably quicker than the ‘clickety click’ type trains i have travelled on in Canada.

    Perhaps Canada is actually too sparsely populated to make substantial investments in a Rail network commercially viable, but the situation in the States is quite different with distances between plenty of cities such as for HST to compete with flying in travel time, and beat them every time on comfort and ‘enjoyment’ of the journey.  

  • BryanHW

    Classic case of you seeming to believe in the addage that the best form of defence is attack! I am a Brit though now living in S.America, which sadly followed the N.American example as in so many other’mistaken’ policies leading to too many railway routes, which could be very useful now, getting run down & then finally   closing and going into deriliction – simply because Governments chose to subsidise and otherwise support Road Building and car use.

    Anyway, my main response to your belligerant little piece is that some aspects of Rail services in Britain are certainly not the standard they should be – largely because of the de-nationalisation of the network through-out England, Scotland & Wales by that pretty awful Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, foolishly thinking like you people from the States (and indeed like too many subsequently in S.America) that commercialising essential Public Services brings efficiency and competitive pricing – what a joke! Businesses have to make a profit regardless of most other considerations.

    Having admitted that certain aspects of rail travel in Britain are far from satisfactory, certainly not as good as so many across Europe now, they are still carrying Millions more than your ‘Mickey Mouse’ (1950’s style) system. Held back once again by Political intransigence and perpetual short-term views on what is best for what once claimed to be the world’s leading democracy – or was it simply the one which so massively outspent any other on the military and armaments!