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On Amtrak: Railroads Try for Comeback
Over the Saugatuck Bridge
Metro North Train in Saugatuck
The heyday of our nation's passenger trains is a distant memory for those of us old enough to remember when railroad travelers were treated like royalty.
In the early '60s while shuttling to New York University from Connecticut I took a course in customer relations that turned out to be one of my most memorable largely because the professor told the class in a casual and entertaining style about the glory days of the railroads.
Those were the days when porters greeted passengers with a smile as they raced to help you find your sleeping accommodations, conductors made sure your trip was without untoward incidents, stewards made sure you had a place in the dining car and a good meal -- and other attendants helped with information about other onboard services.
World War II and the financial decline of the railroads after the war led to service that was spotty at best for train travelers. Railroad management, trying to keep costs under control, spent years berating trade unions for featherbedding.
Railroad management won the battle, but lost the war. The unions lost the battle, and the war; both management and the unions were losers.
Damaging Personnel Cutbacks
But passengers lost, too! Personnel cutbacks left trains so understaffed that some rolled along without as much as a conductor. It got so bad for a while that underworld types became aware of easy pickings on the trains; they would hop on a train at one station rob some passengers and hop off at the next stop.
But things may be turning around. Amtrak, at least, is trying!
I've been taking the sleeper to Fort Lauderdale (from Connecticut) for several years. While I love trains and have a high tolerance for pain when it comes to travel, service and accommodations on Amtrak -- in the past -- sometimes left something to be desired.
But, lo and behold, the improvement this year has been remarkable.
When I arrived at Pennsylvania Station literally moments before departure time a redcap tossed my suitcase and golf bag on a dolly and escorted me in good humor to my sleeping compartment; the "chief of on board services" showed up to explain the workings of the new sleeping cars -- sink, toilet, upper and lower bunks, tray (with chessboard) and lights, as well as a dining schedule and hours of operation of the lounge car.
Another service employee came by with a complimentary bottle of Chardonnay, a nice wine glass and tie-bag containing virtually every toiletry item one might need on an overnight trip (I received the same gifts on the return trip.) Everyone was courteous, even friendly.
Courteous Stewards, Good Food
The stewards also were courteous and did a great job. While the menu offers a selection of only a half dozen items the hamburger and fish I had (catfish) were well prepared and of good quality.
I don't have any relatives on Amtrak's payroll but I offer this endorsement:
For my money, Amtrak is making a welcome effort to improve service despite budget cutbacks. To me, passenger rail travel, as a means of transportation, comes second only to the trolley car (which I grew up with in Yonkers, N.Y.
If you're planning a trip, consider going by rail! Unless you're a certified "Type A" personality, you'll like it!
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on April 5, 1997. Since then the railroads, and Amtrak in particular, have struggled with tight budgets. As a result, efforts at a comeback have been spotty.