, ,

By Mark E. Singer 

Dissecting  The Lack Of Accountability To Build A Service-Oriented Environment Embracing Environment Embracing Revenue Enhancement

Amtrak OBS in the 21st Century: ‘Back to the Future’ Embracing the Penn Central Template

The one inarguable fact depicting the incessant crisis at Amtrak is the long ignored reality of how the only consistency in on-board services (OBS) is the inevitable inconsistency, particularly in the long distance routes dining and lounge services.

To appreciate the gravity of this situation requires dissecting the influencing factors at Amtrak that have caused OBS to “jump the tracks” into its present death spiral. Despite being a key consumer-facing component impacting customer experience, how did OBS in the long distance diners and lounges become such a toxic culture, with many of the new hires and current employees seriously lacking the cultural fit embracing attitude and service?

Can these accumulated issues be attributed to the subpar products offered? Labor relations requiring contract re-negotiations? Tuning up management to the realities of 21st century employee relations? Re-introducing en route supervision as once provided by the Train Chief?

This service and attitude issue extends well beyond the excuse of dismissing how Amtrak’s environment was poisoned from the beginning by inheriting the problematic yards of Penn Central at Sunnyside (NYC) and 14th Street (CHI), and SP’s Oakland yard. My concern is how the overall forces of influence on OBS at Amtrak are so disparate and operating as ‘fire-walled’ political entities within their own realm, even to the extent of working under different performance measurements and data to determine their success-and apparently, bonus. Consequently, there is no overall gatekeeper having any meaningful input and follow through for corrective action; or, to change direction to excel. Progress is inhibited.

With this perspective of no unified approach towards OBS, the question begs who actually is responsible for setting the expectations, if any, of OBS? Given such an excessive top heavy organization under the recently departed CEO, who and at what levels of authority are accountable for carrying out those expectations for OBS? Indeed, was that even succinctly spelled out, if an organization chart actually exists? Judging by the obvious how these different areas were never linked supports the perspective that Human Capital/Talent Acquisition, OBS line operation hiring management, and food/beverage services run their own, distinct part of the business; communicating, if ever, within their Tower of Babel.

I. Human Capital (HC)/Talent Acquisition (TA): The High Cost of Excessive Intervention and Time Wasted

What used to be simply called Human Resources to function an in-house supporting department, has apparently established its own algorithms set to its fancier nomenclature of “HC/TA.” Rather than merely functioning to initially, and expeditiously, screen the OBS applicants to present to the OBS hiring manager who should be directly responsible for the hiring decision, HC/TA is far too involved in the hiring process.
Why does this persist when back in 1970, Robert Townsend authored Up the Organization, vividly elaborating how “HR screens out the best applicants and does not know what senior management wants?” Ironically, to what extent is HC/TA, whether in-house or outsourced, intimately familiar with railroad and Amtrak history and culture, to even accurately provide input on job descriptions?

As a consequence, from the beginning, the responsibility for a successful orientation and training of the new OBS employee falls into a void. If the hiring OBS operations management invests the time upfront by inserting itself into the HC/TA process to interview and select candidates, then Amtrak would not waste so much time disciplining, suspending, and terminating people, just to repeat the process. Typically, operations management bonus is not dependent upon this, or diluted; therefore, the significant cost in dollars and time for the recruitment, orientation, and termination cycle is not appreciated. Yet, these are hard dollar costs to be saved.

Accordingly, where in this process between HC/TA and OBS is the accountability to ensure the best possible candidates are selected? To what extent does nepotism dilute this process? How accurate is the required cultural trait exam?

At what point during the orientation and training; whose responsibility; how is this documented and verified to evidence new hires immersed in the requisite knowledge and tools to succeed?

Where in this process does Amtrak Inculcate and persistently address the new hire with the history and culture of the railroad industry and Amtrak?

How and when is it emphasized and persistently addressed on the importance of a correct attitude towards “service” (as was historically consistently achieved on the Santa Fe)?

What is done to identify, encourage, and support consistently favorable employee morale; to work as a team?

On a personal note, in 1974, when I was in executive management at UCLA/County of Los Angeles Harbor General Hospital, to overcome the debilitating environment of low morale and how it was correlated to poor customer experiences, I brought into this county teaching hospital Trans World Airlines (TWA) training unit to instill in the clerical staff in the many medical departments, nursing units, and clinics how they were viewed as the front portal to the hospital. That importance was not lost on the growing awareness of how patients were becoming consumers with a choice where to go for their hospital care.

As morale and self-image are critical factors, typically sacrificed between the unions and Amtrak’s “cardboard suits,” why has Amtrak not solicited professional input from the airlines evidencing success in this critical area? Or, is this just due to HC/TA unwilling to admit its hiring people with a “county mentality:” people anathema to the concept of good service, working as a team?
At what point in the orientation and training program is Amtrak’s organization chart competently explained; the chain-of-command for OBS directly into the CEO; as well as the relationship of OBS to food/beverage services to report issues, make suggestions, etc? Also relevant is when and how it is described how supervision and the responsible positions en route work together, e.g., relationship to the “captain of the train-the conductor? In conjunction, who and at what point are the union work rules explained and how that contract agreement either supersedes, is subordinate to, or flows into Amtrak supervision and performance expectations?

Indeed, at what point in the orientation and training process, if at all, is it injected into the new hire, and to actively re-train current OBS staff, to think of themselves as being in the hospitality business; consequently, how the focus in on their level of service to meet customer expectations to provide a favorable experience? New hires and current team members must appreciate the requirement to consistently follow procedures and policies, just as in safety, as the recurring theme of complaints continues to be the lack of consistency on-board, impacting even the same train route.

We already know what is not happening, including to educate new and current staff in the economic realities that directly customer satisfaction and revenue enhancement. How many in OBS understand how Amtrak has multiple revenue centers; therefore, employee payroll depends on more than just ticket sales? To what extent can we say with confidence how the OBS crews know they must work together to support increased revenues in diner and lounge cars by up-selling alcoholic beverages, which are nearly pure profit? How many OBS crews still require re-education to appreciate how it is not about the number of meals they serve en route?

What efforts have been implemented to successfully encourage up-selling efforts? Is it feasible by evidencing per individual train’s staff who is exemplary, and who needs more training? Certainly, we should expect positive interaction in each area of the train:

Diner LSA/Steward upon seating passengers should suggest and take alcohol orders; lead by example and supervise staff to weed-out complacency and lack of interest in tips. In reality, training and enhancing the liquor inventory will evidence higher tips when including alcohol with meals.

Sleeper/Coach OBS should inform passengers and offer to secure their beverages for compartments (also ice buckets) or seats.

Lounge LSA should make PA announcements to advise passengers of opportunity for variety of alcoholic beverages throughout the day.

II. OBS, Food/Beverage Services, Finance, Marketing and Operations: Intra-Departmental Competition and Lack of Communication Playing Penny Ante Failing the Customer

It is a fact that Amtrak has consistently lowered standards at the expense of the customer experience, particularly in food/beverage services. This smells like the classic example of no check-and-balance at the top (pre September 1, 2016); of tolerating an intra-departmental competition to see who can derail Amtrak in the mind of the traveling public, while ensuring their departmental data supports their high performance bonus. These departments exemplify a destructive attitude through their ‘Tower of Babel’ approach where they cannot communicate or coordinate between each other. Given this scenario, how do we determine who makes the final decision that has so pathetically impacted the customer experience? Where is the responsibility and accountability for these critical service interactions with customers who in pure marketing terms Amtrak should be seeking to cultivate to build their repetitive business?

Dining Car (how soon before becoming an SP Automat)?

Problems start with same menu every meal, every day, every train route (monotony on rails); low quality, substandard, poorly prepared food (Fred Harvey rolled over in his grave). Issues compounded by lack of toasters-basics for breakfast and lunch sandwiches (sacrificed to uncontrolled theft in yards); meal shortages (due to inappropriate par levels). To emphasize the customer is not #1, ”Express Meal” on arrival day to facilitate crew conducting inventory and first off the train upon arrival.

Ensuring a consistent, dismal atmosphere, no table cloth-replaced by schmatte (Yiddish for “rag”); no tabletop flower in vase (forget tradition; why bother, no holiday decor either). No up- selling of liquor during meals (why bother, LSA not trained in mixology; also, no inventory to craft/garnish cocktails).

Where in training/orientation did they ever explain the genesis of low or no tipping to staff (in parallel to level of service provided. Perhaps if tips were pooled, team influence or LSA supervision would straighten-up laggards?

Sightseer Cafe Car (nothing more than a rolling 7-11)

Problems start with LSA not trained in mixology; compounded by lack of inventory to craft and garnish cocktails. Issue exacerbated by frequent stock-outs due to unacceptable par levels.

As Amtrak elected to convert the traditional club lounge car into something for everybody, but not satisfying anyone, the functionality of this feature car fails, with the emphasis primarily serving coach passengers with the unhealthy swill of the era–pathetic microwaved sandwiches and pizzas; chips, candy, and pop; or, even chicken dinners from Havre.

III. Fixing OBS and Food/Beverage Services: Structurally Benchmarking to the Past, Embracing the Present in Canada; Don’t Forget the (European) Airlines

At the brink of defaulting in its failed approach towards food/beverage services and re- introducing Fred Harvey lunch counters for trains to stop en route, I would encourage intervention to change the current dynamics by benchmarking to current success stories in railroad history to break the downward cycle frustrating passengers. Concomitantly, such an approach would dramatically increase on-board staff morale and provision of attentive service; therefore, increased revenues.

Unfortunately, Amtrak Marketing has been unable to intercede to prevent this drift to the bottom, directly impacting the brand and market position. Yet, how does Marketing even define and position in the market the long distance trains-catering to tourist, retired elderly, seasonal travelers?

However, just look at what could be “benchmarked” by Amtrak:

VIA Rail Canada

Despite dealing with a similar recalcitrant federal approach to trains, The Canadian continues to run between Toronto-Vancouver offering overall the finest long distance rail experience in North America, and ranked in the top five in the world. What clearly distinguishes The Canadian is its consistently highly regarded food/beverage services and OBS working the diner, coffee shop, and observation lounge cars.

Dining Car: Features freshly prepared meals highlighting Canadian cuisine and regional specialties; the delight of a different menu for every meal, every day. OBS crew/manager very professional. To establish a conducive atmosphere, every meal is served on tablecloths, linen napkins, glassware, chinaware, silverware; with flower in vase tabletop. OBS Wait staff uses cork tray to prevent sliding of plates; glassware has bubbled bottom to prevent sliding on tabletop. Set meal periods for lunch and dinner based upon time of passenger’s breakfast, allowing OBS diner crew working together to plate in one motion initial salad or appetizer. As well, OBS diner crew work in galley drying utensils, plates, glasses. Service Manager (Steward) inquires and takes all liquor orders; payment for inventory control.

Observation Lounge Car (Park-series): First class lounge OBS attendant well trained in mixology to competently create cocktails from scratch with proper garnishments; well-stocked bar, including vermouth to use in Martini and Manhattan (including chilled glassware). Key is the obvious focus of this feature car being a true club/bar lounge, offering only select finger items; not, acting as a sandwich vendor.
Corridor Business Class: Formerly known as VIA1(until corporate travel restrictions), but offering same level of service on primary corridor serving Toronto-Montreal/Ottawa/Quebec City. Offering complementary cocktails; multi-choice full course dinner and full breakfast. Note how lunch was reduced based upon actual passenger input; but those savings put back into dinner.

British Airways Intra-Europe Flights

Now offering for sale in coach branded food items from famous Marks & Spencer London store; improved quality and selection over prior free meals.

Lufthansa Intra-Europe Flights

From personal experience, in a one hour flight just between Frankfurt-Geneva, Business Class receives full cocktail service, complete meal with wine/beer, and coffee.

American Airlines-Domestic First Class

To control cost of inventory and waste, passengers may pick their desired meal from a choice of three entrees for the meal period 30 days before flight.

Learning From History…

In essence, Amtrak must understand that it can no longer structurally be everything to everybody, without being so unacceptable to every segment of the market. When it comes to food/beverage services, Amtrak should learn to appreciate how the private western railroads understood the need for a separate coffee shop/grill/lounge for coach passengers, a separate first class lounge, and an upgraded diner, in the consists of their long distance trains, including: Empire Builder (Ranch Car), North Coast Limited (Lewis & Clark Traveler’s Rest Car), El Capitan (Kachina Coffee Shop), California Zephyr (Cable Car Room), Denver Zephyr Chuckwagon), Western Star-summer (Coffee Shop/Lounge), and the Sunset Limited (Pride of Texas Coffee Shop).

Importantly, today, VIA Rail Canada continues to appreciate the different tastes and demands of a multi-segmented travel market with such a car for coach passengers on The Canadian (Skyline Coffee Shop/Lounge) to augment its first class diner, as well as by providing a first class lounge in the Park observation car.

IV. Fixing OBS and Food/Beverage Services

To structurally fix Amtrak’s food/beverage services requires a revamping of current concepts to successfully segment and serve the different travel markets utilizing the long distance trains.

Superliner Dining Car:

In respect to its expansive, well equipped but under-utilized galley, re-structure so half of the diner should be converted into a cozy coffee shop/grill open 0700-2300. Coffee Shop will have seating and take-out service; operate as a real grill (burger, fries, BLT, grilled cheese, malts; pizza (require return of toasters!); eliminate meal items from Sightseer Cafe Car.
The other half of the diner to be revamped into an enhanced true first class environment with tablecloths, chinaware, glassware, silverware, flowers in vase tabletop (see section IV). Note- requires all sleepers operating together as previously accomplished by the railroads. OBS diner staffing must be increased to provide an improved modicum of service (to be facilitated by software program-see below).

The LSA must be re-trained in mixology (to be required as an OBS competency standard to work on board trains to mix and garnish popular cocktails). The LSA to be responsible for seating all passengers to ensure their drink order is solicited and served immediately; to collect all payments for inventory control.

In support of the diner crew to maximize revenues and control costs by introducing new software programs now available. (I have personally investigated and tested myself this year how such a program does not require internet and can designate each diner as its own restaurant). Such a software program makes the diner crew more efficient in time and motion placing meal orders to galley; to know what’s “86;” to prevent inventory losses; to allow on arrival day a quick re-calculation of usage and revenues, eliminating 4-5 hours required to re- pack and inventory diner, or, to outsource, while upsetting passengers with limited “Express Meal” coming right after breakfast upon arrival day.

Superliner Sightseer Cafe Lounge Car:

To be re-structured as a Coach/First bar/lounge by enhancing liquor inventory to include full-line of cocktails, mixers, garnishments. (Learn from “successful” Pacific Parlour experience), but expand by offering: regional crafted beers (small kegs available); regional wines. (Expect wineries interested in donating for wine/cheese hour to promote their products; sale in diner). Important to re-Train LSA in Mixology (to be required as an OBS competency standard to work on board trains to mix and garnish popular cocktails).

Convert half of the lounge into an enhanced private, first class lounge section, as demonstrated with the Pacific Parlours. (Requires all sleeping cars behind the Sightseer Car, or in front of the diner, just as accomplished by the railroads before.)

V. Fixing OBS and Food/Beverage Services: Costs and Accountability


Create transparent accounting for dining service costs and cease hiding those numbers into the sleeping car cost center; to more fully recover diner costs; to provide increased staffing to be more efficient (and not wear out the crew), recommend actions include:

Stop including low quality, monotonous meals with sleeping car tickets. Stop playing to superficial demands of a Congress that is not interested in being educated in the art of travel. Instead, sell all meals in diner, providing an upgraded menu selection, featuring regional and seasonal items. Coffee Shop section will handle budget-minded passengers minus the microwave concept of cooking.

Unless the Train Chief position is to return, re-train LSA to control and run the diner/crew as the railroad stewards were known to do before. With a Chief no longer on board for the trip, we have to help the passengers hold the crew accountable: post standard meal hours on both doors of diner, on E-tickets, etc. Passengers are frustrated when diner should be opened at 1130am for lunch, but delays on whim of crew until 1230. In-service sleeper/coach crews to identify and appreciate increase in solo traveler market; to encourage their use of diner, coffee shop, or lounge; to understand companionship makes for a happier traveler. As well, to explicitly offer passengers to bring meals or drinks directly to their accommodation.

In summary, when I saw this sign (see below) so prominently attached to the menu this past July at a restaurant in Redondo Beach, CA, it provoked an epiphany and I immediately tore it out of the menu, realizing this summed up Amtrak’s current OBS diner and lounge malaise.
Remember how in railroad diners the name of the steward in charge was placed on every table; how it was the steward who seated people, provided the menus and pencils; received payment and made change; by his dress appearance (different for each meal), you knew who was in charge of the diner? As the diner/lounge crew now typically dresses the same, and the LSA not always seats folks or personally provides the menus, who’s in charge? Unlike on “The Canadian” where the Service Manager (Steward) greets and seats passengers, personally takes and provides all liquor orders, and receives payment, there is no sense, or specific statement, of who is in charge of the diner on the Amtrak long distance trains.

Posting a semblance of this statement as a table signage, and slipped into every menu, will facilitate passengers learning who to go to; importantly, enable malaise Amtrak to be responsive in a timely, on the spot, proactive manner.

Thank you for visiting our restaurant and supporting us. We want to make your time hear as pleasant at possible.

If for any reason the service or food is not to your liking , please let the manager know so that we can remedy  the situation immediately. We truly want to try our best to serve you well. 

Again, thank you very much for being here and we hope you enjoyed yourselves!

M.L and Danny Williams

Owners of the Riviera Mexican Grill”