Wednesday, April 12, 2006

#253 - Open Letter Season

If my brother can do it, so can I. This is my blog, doggone it, and I'll do whatever I doggone well please. In this case, it has become necessary to castigate - publicly - the executive leadership of two railroading concerns that I have admired and respected over the years. At least until I became a customer.
Open Letter

12 April 2006

Mr. David M. Laney, Esq., Chairman of the Board, National Railroad Passenger Corporation
Mr. David Hughes, Acting President and Chief Executive Officer, NRPC
(sent via the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee)

Mr. Richard K. Davidson, Chairman, Union Pacific Corporation
Mr. James R. Young, President and Chief Executive Officer, UPC


We have recently booked passage on two of the "classic" trains that Amtrak has revived over the years, and that used to run across this land from coast to coast and from border to border. Last year we travelled on the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Washington and had marvellous time. There were the inevitable delays, of course, but nothing that couldn't be resolved by the time we had arrived at our destinations.

Most recently we booked passage on the Sunset Limited, which runs along the southern portions of the country from Los Angeles to New Orleans. It used to run to Orlando, but Katrina took care of that for the foreseeable future.

It was with high anticipation that we looked forward to this trip. We were to visit family in Texas and eagerly planned our travel accordingly. My two little girls were excited, remembering the adventures they shared on the Starlight last year. My wife and I look forward to train travel as a method of travelling in relative comfort, without having to drive for several days to achieve our destination.

Imagine our chagrin, then, to discover shortly before our vacation that the Sunset Limited has one of the absolute worst on-time records of any of the major routes managed by Amtrak. "Expect delays of between 5 and 12 hours," whispered one passenger's web site. Still, we had already paid for and received our tickets, and changes that close to travel time are punishing to the traveller.

Admittedly, the trip to San Antonio was not that bad. We were delayed only about an hour to the station, and were able to get transportation to our hotel with little difficulty. It was the return trip from San Antonio to Los Angeles that will live forever as a nightmare in my mind.

One thing that we learned quickly on board was that Union Pacific controls the mainlines on which the Sunset Limited runs. We know this because the well-rehearsed, long-suffering crew repeated this message at least twenty times over the course of our return trip. "It would be nice," confided one Attendant to me, "if we owned our own track. But that's just not the case. We're completely at UP's mercy."

He wasn't kidding. I counted fifteen distinct delays, at least three of which were for a half hour or more, while waiting for up to six freight trains to clear the tracks ahead. In total, our delay returning to Los Angeles was more than three hours. I cannot imagine, gentlemen, that you would ever tolerate delays of that kind when travelling, especially on business. We of course missed our connection to our home station in Fullerton, California, but there were other trains that were able to accomodate us.

I'm not one given, generally speaking, to fits of temper. But one thing I cannot tolerate, especially from a national corporation, is lame excuses. It is quite obvious to me that these delays are simply a fact of life on the Sunset route. So why on earth do you not merely adjust your published schedule to account for those possibilities (or, actually, likelihoods)? Had you informed me, either on your website or your printed route schedule, of these delays to begin with, we would have made arrangements accordingly, and not relied on a slim two hour layover in Los Angeles to cover delays on our return.

I freely admit that I had reached the end of my patience by the time we reached Palm Desert, and realized that we would not arrive in Los Angeles until a full hour after our connecting train left Union Station. The poor Attendant who gave us the 20th recitation of the "Union Pacific" excuse was lambasted, and your names, gentlemen, were subsequently taken in vain.

I calmed down by the time we reached Los Angeles, and apologized to that Attendant for the drubbing to which I had subjected him. But the damage is done. It will be only with long consideration and examination of numerous other options before I consider taking the Sunset Limited again.

Here, gentlemen, are the lessons I learned from this experience:

1. The Sunset Limited is nowhere near as grand a train as the Coast Starlight. Now, admittedly, this may have much to do with the lack of scenery during the daylight hours of this route. However, the lack of an Observation Car and, especially, a play area for smaller children, was keenly felt.

2. The crew of the Limited, while every bit as efficient as the crew of the Starlight, appears to be haggard and careworn much of the time. The veterans of that route are frankly tired of being the butt of every complaint against Amtrak and Union Pacific, frequently at the top of passengers' lungs.

3. The snack bar of the Limited was (there is no other way to say this) sad. Because coach passengers must pay even more ludicrous prices if they wish to avail themselves of the diner, the snack bar frequently runs out of selections by the morning of the second day of travel. In our particular case, we received sour milk with our cereal not once, but twice on this route. This is inexcusable.

4. This lesson, perhaps hardest to understand for you who sit in the executive suites, is the most vital of all: You two great institutions of American transportation need to do a better job of sharing those rails. I realize that your responsibility to your shareholders is tremendous, especially for Union Pacific. But whatever goodwill you earn from moving goods across the country is squandered every time you make a passenger sit on a track without movement of any kind for as long as we did. I am keenly aware that our three and a half hour delay was, by most veteran passengers' standards, a light sentence. I am still not impressed.

I suspect, gentlemen, that with your salaries, the concerns of middle and lower-middle class passengers are of no tremendous concern. You talk a good game when it comes to improving rail usage in this country, but I have seen absolutely no outward signs of process improvement where passenger travel is concerned. Were I to participate in 360 degree surveys of your performance, the four of you would not fare well.

I love railroading as my father and generations before him did. I love the power and majesty and, yes, the romance of huge metal conveyances criss-crossing this nation day and night. I am a frustrated model railroader who plans to indulge that passion when I retire. Please, gentlemen, don't make me swear off of railroading forever.

I suspect I would merely represent the tip of a Titanic-proportioned iceberg.

Anaheim, California

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