Saturday, October 25, 2008

Amtrak's 'Metropolitan Lounge' - a different sort of travel experience

Train travel is one of my addictions, though I rarely have the opportunity to indulge. I decided the South Asia conference provided an opportunity. I booked Greyhound passage from Madison to Milwaukee, local train passage (‘The Hiawatha’) from Milwaukee to Chicago and passage for a 17 hour trip from Chicago to Washington to DC on ‘The Capital Limited.’ I have made the trip before and it is a beautiful one, even though much is in darkness. The ‘horseshoe bend’ in the Allegheny mountains near Pittsburgh is particularly spectacular.

But as my itinerary makes clear, train travel is not an option if one is pressed for time. My journey began at 9:30 AM and scheduled arrival time is 1 PM (except that in my experience, intercity trains in the US never arrive on time). Travel time - by air - from Washington DC to Singapore or Colombo is not much different. No jet lag on this journey however.

When I picked up my tickets in Milwaukee, the agent told me that in Chicago, I would be able to relax in the ‘sleeping car lounge.’ When I arrived at Union station, the lounge location was not obvious and so I checked with Amtrak ‘Passenger Services’. I also wanted to get an idea of the amenities provided so I asked the agent,, ‘Is the lounge like Airport Business Class Lounges.’ ‘I don’t know,’ was the candid response, ‘I’ve never been to an airport.’

In a post I wrote from Doha, Quatar, I described business class lounges as providing a cocoon that insulated travelers from international airports’ inhumanities. Union Station’s ‘Metropolitan Lounge’ too provided a welcome respite and work space during a long layover. But there were differences. The hostesses were, for the most part, venerable rail employees, presumably with long seniority. They were civil, rather than gracious. The lounge also seemed to serve double duty for off duty redcaps and other employees who hung out and chatted genially with one another. Wireless accessibility was advertised, but only functioned sporadically. There was also one public use computer. A technician who tinkered with the wireless hub to get it working told me he thought the computer was a relic from when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were developing computers in their garages. Wireless service did work, after tinkering. However bare wires connected the wireless hub to the wall connection. Amenities consisted of a soft drink disperser that resembled those installed in American University’s undergraduate dining hall and a coffee dispenser of uncertain functionality. There was also no food available. Though the lounge catered to travelers who had paid first class fares, this was clearly a low budget operation, catering to a clientele with little clout, who were too old, and/or too marginalized to require serious attention..

That was what was most striking. It was the differences between the Doha (and other Business Class lounge) clienteles and those waiting for trains to depart in the metropolitan lounge. In Doha, I was one of the oldest guys in the room and virtually everyone was working on a laptop in Chicago, there were only two others who might have been business travelers, there was only one other laptop in evidence, and at 70, I appeared to be one of the younger individuals - or at least younger men - in the room. Almost everyone was very casually dressed, one of an older married couple, and on some sort of recreational trip or visiting family. No wonder the wifi was sporadic and there was only one 1980s vintage computer available. None of the clients really cared or, if there were some who did, Amtrak’s management had decided they could safely be ignored - or patronized.

Intercity train travel is clearly a declining transportation mode in the US, though it is thriving in Europe. Perhaps it is because air travel is so much more efficient, even if less pleasant. But I am not convinced. For mid-haul trips, I believe rail travel could not only be more pleasant but also more time efficient and cost effective. All that is required is a management team that is more creative and innovative. Such a team could inspire passenger service staff to be less slovenly, indifferent and patronizing. If Amtrak was run by the management of Singapore Airlines, or even the management of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, things would be different.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What did you expect from a government-run monopoly?

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To respond to the previous poster, even Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, and other fine companies the blog author refers to are ALL government-run monopolies, but that doesn't prevent them from offering world-class service. The problem is not government ownership, the problem is the complete lack of service ethos among American people. This is why American flight attendants are the worst in the world in terms of service and professionalism. It is all about culture.

3:01 PM  

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