The Customer Service Survey

Ultimate Customer Service

by Peter Leppik on Tue, 2007-06-12 01:00
I think I've found the formula for Ultimate Customer Service: a money-losing monopoly receiving huge federal subsidies.

The monopoly in question is Amtrak. For our summer vacation this year, we're taking the family on Amtrak's Empire Builder train to Seattle, sleeper car and all. The kids are excited, and honestly, Dad is too.

Yesterday I took my older son with me to the train station to pick up our tickets and figure out some of the logistics of the trip. After all, it's been probably 20 years since I've taken the train from Minneapolis, and I needed to know where the station is, where to park, how early to arrive, and so forth.

With all the cutbacks in Amtrak service over the past decades, the Twin Cities train station plays host to a grand total of two trains a day: one going East, the other going West. The Eastbound train arrives around 7 AM, and the Westbound train departs around 11 PM.

So the train station--a fairly large building reminiscent of a small airport terminal from the days before security checkpoints--is open for over 18 hours a day, for the sake of two trains.

When we visited (mid-afternoon), the station was completely deserted, with the exception of the three people manning the ticket counter.

Needless to say, my son and I got outstanding customer service, with three bored train enthusiasts glad to have someone to talk to (I think it's a law that you have to be a train enthusiast to work for Amtrak). They took all the time we wanted to ask questions, looked up information, and helped any way we wanted.

It was all a little overwhelming.

Sadly, this display of service is part of the reason why Amtrak struggles to stay solvent: even as the number of passengers has dropped, they're still paying for a level of infrastructure more appropriate for the kind of business they did in the 1970's. The three people on duty could have easily handled ten trains a day, maybe even double that with the aid of a few self-service kiosks.

On the other hand, if you're sick of the hassles of air travel, and you want to take a different sort of vacation where you get customer service, room to move, and no humiliating security searches, Amtrak is the way to go (at least as long as Congress keeps paying for it). Just think of it as a cruise ship on land.

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