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 resultĀ  of very poor management. Amtrak managers need to come to Europe and look at how to run an efficicient and cheap rail service.

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