Dillon, SC - Washington DC
Amtrak Trains 89 & 90
50% Guest Satisfaction
June 25-28, 2004
It has been well over a year since my last trip north on Amtrak's Palmetto. Each year I use the service for an annual business seminar required as part of my position. I am a financial analyst with a health care company in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. Each trip thus far has proved to be 50% of what I expected. Last years trip to Philadelphia had resulted in an arrival time one hour before schedule going north, and a six and one half hours delayed southbound due to bad weather. Elated with my first part of the trip I was frustrated with the second due to crew behavior. There was no communications and the service attendant in the business class car was anything but attentive. A trip to Baltimore the year before resulted in a similar experience. The train was five hours late north and only an hour or so south. Northbound was frustrating due once more to crew behavior. There was no communications as to what was going on that continued to cause the train to linger on sidings and at stations stops. I learned from that trip to buy the business class accommodations as the seats were more comfortable and the video equipment made being late less of an issue. The business class equipment also had higher cleanliness standards with regard to the general condition of the coach and the lavatories. Somehow the equipment also offered a smoother ride. My experience on trains 90 and 89 on June 25th, and 28th, 2004 proved that Amtrak has not improved. The guest satisfaction ratting I give the service remains at 50% or less.
I must state that convincing my wife to take the train with the children ages 10 and 12 to Washington, DC, was not an easy task. Mrs. Stoops prefers automobile travel as the departure time and maintaining schedules is up to the driver. She also prefers the cost of operating the car over train fare despite the high price of fuel currently. She forgets the bottlenecks on interstate 95 and my discomfort of being confined to an automobile unable to move around for long periods of time. I explained to her in my argument for the train trip that in DC there would be the added cost of parking each day and that everything we wanted to see could be reached via a short walk from the DC Metro system. I sold her on the fact that neither of our children had experienced long distance train travel. I also agreed to purchase business class tickets for everyone so that the children would have the video system to entertain them and she would have the added comfort of something more than coach class. When Senator Lindsey Graham's office arranged for my family to tour the White House on June the 26th, she was sold on the idea and we booked the trip in May.
North Bound on Train #90
We telephoned Amtrak the night of June the 24th and Julie (Julie is Amtrak's voice recognition information system) informed us that the train was running one minute late. When I woke up at four AM the next morning the train was running forty minutes late. We left for the station a 7:00 AM just incase the train made up time and did arrive at the 7:30 AM scheduled time. We made a stop at the Hardee's in Dillon for breakfast which we ate at the station.
At the un-manned station in Dillon we used the pay phone to call Amtrak again. The train was an hour and one minute late.
While at the station I met an elderly couple from the town of McColl, South Carolina who had come to pick up a relative visiting from Florida. The gentleman was curious as to how I knew the train was running late by an exact number of minutes. I explained how to call Amtrak and speak with Julie. He commented that it sounded complicated. This is a drawback to the system. Elderly people want to speak with a human being.
Because Dillon does have a waiting area I thought that it might be practical to install a monitor for the purposes of displaying train status. That was until I saw a marquee system on the DC Metro System. A marquee on the platform actually gives the time in minutes before the next train will arrive in the station on that system. I wondered if Amtrak could not install something similar at unmanned stations to let people meeting the train or actually riding know when the scheduled train will arrive.
No 90 arrived one hour and one minute late into Dillon on the 25th day of June 2004. There were two locomotives followed by a business class car, café, four coaches, a baggage car and a number of road-railer cars. My family boarded the business class car. The attendant an Asian-American man directed us to four seats (two on each side of the aisle) near the center of the car. I was pleased to find us sitting together. I had concluded that because it was a Friday that the train may be sold out and that my family for that reason would not be able to sit together.
As the train pulled out of Dillon we were treated to good service. The attendant returned with pillows and blankets. A few minutes later he brought head sets for the audio visual equipment and explained how to use it. My headset worked on the music but not the movies. This was disappointing. I was happy that it worked for the kids and my wife and didn't mind because I enjoy more watching the countryside and other trains along the route. However, in retrospect, having paid additional fare for the video equipment amenity, it should have worked.
The train traveled at high speeds for the majority of the trip. There were occasions that it stopped for long periods of time as was the case just south of Wilson, North Carolina after the service attendant announced that the train would arrive in that station in twenty-minutes. We sat there four an hour. After Wilson, my family and I went to the café for lunch. We enjoyed cheeseburgers and chips with complementary beverages. I asked the attendant in the café where he had joined the train. He explained that he worked from Jacksonville, Florida to Washington, DC. He was very personable and had his work area organized. I also noticed that Amtrak was using cash registers. The register was giving him some difficulty but he was able to get it to function and used it I noticed during the entire trip. Each subsequent visit to the café for anything, I found this employee to be in good humor and maintaining a neat, clean and organized work station.
After lunch we returned to the business class car where my daughter was ready to see another movie that was one of her favorites. The trip between Wilson and Rocky Mount, North Carolina was a quick one. It was at that point that the kids and my wife shared that they really were happy that we had taken the train. We were two hours late at that point, but the seats were comfortable, the lunch had been good, and everyone was happy with the movies, their seats and the service received.
In Alexandria, Virginia we encountered a passenger not paying attention. The service attendant announced that Alexandria would be in ten minutes prior to the station stop. He did this at least six times as he walked up the car and then again back down for a total of twelve times. The public address system in the car was not working so the attendant was relaying station announcements made by the conductor. When the train stopped he made the announcement again. The train let off passengers and began to leave the station. At that point the lady jumped from her seat and shouted, "Is this Alexandria? Why didn't you call me?" I looked at my wife who rolled her eyes and said aloud, "He did at least a dozen times." The train stopped again and the lady was let off. We proceeded to Washington after this short delay. We were now two hours late.
I want to comment on the service attendant and the crew on this train on that day. The service attendant was constantly working the car. He came around with a bag to collect trash and I witnessed him cleaning the restrooms more than once. He also used a sweeper to go over the carpets. He was very friendly speaking with passengers as he walked up and down the car either announcing stations, collecting trash, or just checking on passenger comfort levels. He also joked about the lady in Alexandria. He commented that she had worried him all day about Alexandria and that he had made every effort to inform her of the stop. He said that she was too busy talking on her cell phone to pay attention to him. The conductors moved about the train constantly and announced all stops far in advance. The AP system in the business class car was not working, as I stated, so the attendant working with the conductors made the announcements in person. Following any delay as was the case mentioned south of Wilson, NC, the conductor made an announcement as to why the train had stopped. "We were waiting for a freight to clear the tracks a head of us." Understanding the delays helped make them tolerable.
The business class equipment needed some work. I mentioned my headset not working on the movie setting. The reading lamps for both the seats my son and I occupied were not working and the door to the toilet would not latch. This was a disappointed and an indication that Amtrak is not paying attention to the small details that should be the practice especially for equipment operating in a premium fare classes.
I am well aware of the company's financial woes. I also understand that Amtrak after many years of neglecting maintenance of equipment has returned to a program of refurbishing equipment. I would think that since business class service on this train in particular is advertised and about the only thing that makes it more than just a mail train that there would be particular attention paid to the condition of the business class equipment. When the equipment isn't as it is expected to be for the added fare, many paying passengers will think twice about returning if not demand refunds from Amtrak for not providing what was advertised.
Our arrival into Washington Union Station was two hours and one minute late. We exited the train into rain onto a platform with no rain shelter. My family and I hurried back toward the station about two car lengths before we reached a location with rain cover.
An example of Amtrak doing something well was that a northbound Superliner train which I suspect was the Capital Limited was positioned at the track across the platform from the Palmetto. The crew was asking if passengers had connecting tickets to this train. I concluded that it was being held for the purposes of insuring that passengers made the connection.
I lead my family up into the station area and then through the beautifully restored and revitalized Washington Union Station across the concourse and into the main hall out of the doors to the portico and found the taxi stand. As we came through the doors the capital dome was in plain view. I felt as if I was in the old classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The expression on my son and daughters face as they stood in that magnificent building looking at the capital dome was an experience I will always remember. The view was grand.
Following a nice train ride, a stressful taxi ride to Crystal City ended this part of the trip. We were very satisfied at this point with our Amtrak service. For that part of the trip I offered a 98% satisfaction rating. The audio on my headsets and reading lamps not working, the toilet door being broken, and the delay of two hours were cost Amtrak two percentage points.
As families do we toured the city using the metro rail system. In two days we toured the White House, saw the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam and World War II Memorials, The Capital Building, The Library of Congress, The Washington Monument (from the street all the tickets to enter were gone), three Museums of the Smithsonian Institute, The Supreme Court Building, and Arlington National Cemetery. We attended church services at St. Johns on Sunday Morning. We managed to shop in the city and at Union Station Sunday evening. We ate at some wonderful restaurants through out the area and had an exhausting but memorable trip. By the end of Sunday evening we were all exhausted. We looked forward to another relaxing ride home on Amtrak's Palmetto.
South Bound on Train #89
Monday morning we called Julie again. The Palmetto was on time out of New York City. We hurried to get to Union Station by 11:00 AM so that we could enjoy lunch at Johnny Rockets and some shopping before the 12:20 PM departure time. We opted to use Metro Rail back to Union Station rather than the taxi. We arrived at Washington Union Station at 10:55 AM. I checked the status board and the train was still on time.
We lunched at Johnny Rockets and made light conversation about our train trip home. My daughter was eager to see if the same movies would be playing. My wife was eager for a nap. My son had purchased a new CD and planned to listen to all of it before seeing at least one movie. I was happy that the train was on time for a change.
Following lunch in Johnny Rockets, we did some shopping and then went to the waiting area. The status monitors for the departures near gate J was broken. The arrival monitor was working fine. It showed 89 The Palmetto on time until its arrival time of 12:00 Noon. When the clock changed to 12:00 Noon the board changed to "5 Minutes Late." The departure board remained unreadable.
At 12:15 the call for the Palmetto was made and business class passengers were asked to board first. My family and I were directed to the gate and track by a very pleasant elderly woman working the gate. On the platform we were asked if we were business class passengers by another employee. When we responded "Yes", we were directed to the first car. My son boarded first and called back to me. "This isn't a business class car." He was right. The car was a coach. There were no video monitors, no head rest towels, no cooler near the rear for the complimentary drinks. Coach was clearly written on the bulkhead outside the vestibule door. I asked "Where are the movies?" as I walked down the aisle. Another passenger in an angry tone responded, "There aren't any."
The car attendant was a very confused and confusing man. He directed my daughter and me to two seats close to the front of the train.
"How many with you? Just the two?" He asked.
"There are four of us." I replied.
"Cain't put you all together. The rest of the people won't move when I ask them." He directed my wife and son to seats at the very front of the car with no windows. My wife looked back at me disgusted.
Another young man was directed to join a young lady across the aisle from the pair seated before me and my daughter.
"He with you too?" The attendant asked me.
"No I only have four." I responded.
"OK where you going?"
I responded, "Dillon."
"OK then. One, two, three, four, five for Dillon." He said pointing at me, my daughter, my son, wife, and the young man he just seated.
I shook my head disgusted.
"I'm going to Tampa." The young man responded.
There was no power on the train as the diesel locomotives had not been added. We sat in the dim light as the car began to get warm. I looked around the car. I didn't right down the car number but remember 280025. With only the light from the windows I noticed that the walls near my seat were dirty with a brown greasy substance. The windows were also not clean. When the power came on I looked around again. The car was not clean. It was not up to the standards of business class. It was nothing like the car we had ridden north on Friday, or any other time I had been in business class. There was one positive. The reading lamps actually worked.
With the power on the car attendant made an announcement. "Because you are business class show the café attendant your ticket stub and you get complimentary dranks (spelled as he said the word). You get coffee, juice, soda, and bottle water."
The train left Washington according to my wife at 12:56 PM. This was 36 minutes late. My daughter and I volunteered to go back to the café to get drinks for the family after we exited the tunnel under Capital Hill. Having sat in the car without power for a long period it had gotten quite warm. We were eager for something cold. We found that the café was not open and a bar had been raised between our "Business Class Coach" and the cafe to keep people from passing.
Returning to our seat the car attendant said, "The café's not open yet. It changed crews in DC and it ain't ready yet."
After Alexandria, Virginia an announcement was made that the café was opened. At this point disgusted by having paid a premium for a coach seat I noted in my notebook that I couldn't understand why the train sat in DC for 56 minutes and the café attendant hadn't been able to open as soon as the train left Union Station if not before. I heard similar comments as I waited in the long line for the complimentary drinks when it did open. People were complaining about not having video monitors for movies and the car especially the toilets being dirty. Many said, "This isn't business class. I have ridden business class before."
In the café we found three conductors seated at a table going over paperwork. At one point one looked up and said, "We were supposed to stop for Montgomery." About that time a radio call stated the same. The train slowed and stopped.
The conductor looked up at another and said, "Go to the back of the train we're going to have to make a reverse move."
Another conductor said, "Can't Montgomery get a truck to bring him up to us."
The person on the radio made a similar remark.
"Call on your radio and ask him to do that. It has a better range" The first conductor said into his radio.
The train lingered for another fifteen minutes.
Waiting in line for the complementary sodas (which we determined cost more than a dollar each for the money paid for business class) we heard more people complaining. The crew ignored the comments. At the counter we encountered a very rude man doing his best to serve the two long lines that had formed on both sides of the food service stand. I believe everyone in business class was determined to get as many complementary beverages as possible. It was very busy and I actually felt bad for the man who was swarmed by the crowd.
I noticed that this attendant was not using the cash register, but calculating the cost of items and taking the cash and putting it into a box. He also said abruptly, "If you don't show me your business class ticket, I'm going to charge you" to one lady. About that time the attendant from our car got behind the counter and helped distribute the drinks.
Passing us on their way to the back of the train one of the conductors noticed my daughter was not wearing her shoes. "You need to have your shoes on to move about the train." He said.
"He can comment on that but not on why we don't have the equipment we paid for." I said.
He shook his head and walked on.
The train began moving again when we returned to our seats. I guessed that Montgomery was the man that had caused us to stop. He was a crewman that came into the car looking for a vacant seat. He was unable to find one and commented. "You all are paying customers. I can go somewhere else." He went toward the back of the car and I did not see him again until we stopped in Richmond, Virginia where I saw him walking toward the locomotives.
Between Alexandria and Richmond except for the stop for Montgomery there were no stops. The train traveled fast. The only place we slowed was just before Quantico to cross the bridge. On the other side of that river we returned to a very high speed. I felt as if the locomotive engineer was trying to make up time lost in Washington, DC, and for the employee stop. The high rate of speed caused the coach to jostle more so than the one we road in on Friday.
My daughter changed seats with my wife. I honestly dreaded this as I knew I would get an ear full about this. Her only comments were. "You will be getting our money back for this." I agreed and we listed all the things that were wrong together. "There were no windows for half our party. There were no video monitors and movies for the kids. The car was dirty. There were no white cloths on the headrests. The toilets were dirty. The attendant was a total buffoon. The only comparison to the trip we had on Friday to that experience was that on Friday we had a nicer business class car and we were riding coach."
I listened to the family riding in front of where I was sitting. They were on their way to Charleston, S.C. from the west coast. They had already had a problem in Chicago with a late train that made them miss their connection to New York. This caused them to have to rent a car and drive to New York to make a concert at Carnegie Hall. (I thought that Amtrak was really helping the rental car business). Because of the inconvenience, they had been upgraded to business class on The Palmetto. The two ladies behind the daughter seated across the aisle from me quickly informed the family that the car we were riding in was not business class.
Every family boarding the train with children made the comment, "There's no movies." I bought business class for that reason. I suspect many other families traveling with children did the same. This was an important feature that helped me choose to pay the premium fare. I imagine it would be a necessity if traveling more than six hours with small children as one grandparent was with his two grandchildren that boarded in Richmond. They were going to Florida.
What a total blunder it was not to have the proper equipment. I would have been happier to be three hours late if perhaps equipment was switched out in Washington so that the train actually had what I had paid for.
I do not like automobile travel because I feel confined and have to stop travel to walk around. This is one reason why I like to walk the length of the train during a trip. I did this as I normally do, but also to see if perhaps a business class car was on the train. Sure enough I found a very clean car, with nicer seats and video equipment being used as a coach two cars after the café. The video equipment was not in use. I suspect if it had been there would have been a riot by those of us who had paid for the amenity. That's when I figured out what must have happened. The train had been assembled incorrectly and rather than operate business class in the proper equipment the crew operated it behind the locomotive which has been the custom. I shared what I found with my wife and we concluded that someone in New York was either in a hurry to get the train together and out, or had just made a total blunder assembling the equipment.
My wife asked if there wasn't someone who was supposes to inspect the trains before they are dispatched. I said that I wasn't sure but thought someone was responsible and that after all the complaints were registered that individual would hear about the error.
Operating the business class car behind the locomotive has been a point of contention for me for many years. Amtrak puts the baggage car at the end of the train. I understand that this is because those cars do not have pass through cables for the electric power and signaling systems. What this does is cause the people riding in the first car after the locomotives to suffer exposure to diesel exhaust in the tunnel at Capital Hill and other locations. I wondered if the EPA was aware of this. I have asked Amtrak why the business class car could not be put last on the train or a baggage car used to separate the car from the locomotives. No one bothers to respond.
After a stop in Rocky Mount, I found two open seats with windows. I told the attendant I was going to move my wife and daughter there. He told me not to. He had two people getting on in Selma. I told him that for what I was paying for these coach seats I wanted my wife and daughter to have a window. I reminded him that we had paid for something we didn't get and if half my party had to look at a wall the entire trip was his plan I would just as much get off in Selma and walk home. I think my tone was such that he understood I meant business.
"I got to have two seats together in Selma."
"You can put the two in my wife and daughters seats." I said.
"Are they two?"
What an idiot I thought. "My wife and daughter are two people."
"Oh, OK then as long as I have two."
Where did Amtrak get this one?
There was some good to the trip. I noted that following Richmond that CSX was doing a stellar job dispatching the train. The Palmetto passed a number of freight trains traveling in the same direction at very high rates of speed. Opposing trains either passed at speed or waited for the passenger train to clear. There was some slow running in southern Virginia and central North Carolina where I noticed track work was being done. We paused only one time for a freight to clear which was just after Fayetteville, NC. The train speed was fast in what I believe was an attempt to make up lost time. Despite this the train remained one hour and thirty minutes late. The coach bounced, jerked, and shook us with every mile. Oh and the reading lamps over my seats actually worked.
I wish I could say there was a happy ending to the trip. Even the stop in Dillon was a problem. The car attendant was well aware that my family and I were the only people getting off in Dillon. I even thought he might put that young man that boarded in DC off the train with us there. When the train stopped our car was positioned well beyond the station area over the gravel road bed. At first the attendant was going to let us down on the gravel. "He missed the signal and over shot the stop." He said. "Come on." He led us two cars back to an open door at the station. Carrying my luggage through the café and another coach was not easy. I managed with no help from the crew.
Before the train left Dillon and we went to our car, I made the point to look at that car I had found during my walk with the nicer seats and video equipment. Sure enough it was marked business class.
Rating this part of the trip is easy. I would give it a zero for satisfaction. The equipment was not what we paid for. The cleanliness standards were poor. The car attendant was not attentive. That is being kind. The operating crew would have scored higher marks if they actually were performing a comedy of errors and not operating a component of a national transportation company that I had paid premium fare and my tax dollars subsidizes. Overall all this leg of the trip got a zero satisfaction rating.
I know that I gave this report that title of 50% guest satisfaction. I guess my heart still believes Amtrak can be a success. That gets the 1% back that would make the average of a 98% for northbound and 0% southbound actually a 49%.
Something has to be done to insure that the company operates better. The company that I work for uses CQI and things like light bulbs not working, doors being broken, and the wrong equipment in service are avoided under this system. Employee attitudes must be corrected. If someone isn't happy with a job, it might be best that the individual move on rather than make paying customers their victims. Amtrak is loosing passengers because of attitudes and lack of attention to detail from what I can see.
I stop short of ending this piece with the advice to the readers "Amtrak Don't Bother." I will end with expect less than half of your money's worth when you take the train.
My annual business meeting is in Orlando, Florida in November. I had planned to use Amtrak. I am seriously considering driving after this experience. Improve the service, follow through on what is promised and paid for, or prepare to shut down. Why should the tax payers that use the system continue to ask congress to support the system if it can not be consistent in its service and give everyone a good trip in return for the fare and their tax dollars?