Anyone who travelled in the Northeast US in the first two weeks of February has a story to tell – I heard a few in crowded trains and lounges. For example, in the midst of the blizzard, many of the eateries in Philadelphia shut down (imagine that!), and hotels did their best to serve their clients even with limited staff, many of whom had to overnight on the properties. By and large, no one complained, and there was a sense that we were all in this together.  

My intercity travel was by train and I found the Amtrak on-board and station personnel both helpful and cheerfully positive as they dealt with passengers trying to get somewhere in the face of cancelled and delayed trains.

For example, my adventure trying to get home to Connecticut from Philadelphia, had promised some scheduling contortions – when they announced that one of the few trains going north of NYC wouldn’t stop in Connecticut (to many passenger groans) I resigned myself to hopping a cab across mid-town and catching a commuter train to where my car was parked. However, in a flash that I will remember for years, the conductor made an on the spot decision and said he would stop the train where ever we needed to get off! Even those going beyond Connecticut shared in our joy.

On the other hand…

Unfortunately, the above-and-beyond efforts of these dedicated service providers contrasted starkly with the call center and, worse, the information provided on the website. 

Start with the web site. Amtrak posted a daily service alert, indicating which trains were cancelled completely and which had only limited service. I could deal with that, so long as I could get to New York. However, when I checked on the status of my train online, this is what I read:

Information Unavailable: Sorry, due to a service disruption, we are unable to provide estimated departure and arrival times. For additional assistance, please contact us at 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).

Other trains showed the actual departure / arrival time or an estimate, typically – and understandably – late by minutes or sometimes hours; thus this was a worrying message. Further, I got an automated call that my train had been cancelled. Not quite knowing what to make of this, and fearing the worst (hoping that the cancellation call was because the train couldn’t make it to my destination in Connecticut), I called customer service.

I actually feel sorry for the woman who took my call. They had so poorly prepared and equipped her for this job that I’ll be surprised if she stays on; I can only imagine the frustration of trying to help someone without knowing how to get the information they need. She was nice enough, and clearly tried her best, but when she reiterated the information unavailable message from above, I asked if she could tell whether that meant the train was running from Washington to New York. She, sheepishly, said she didn’t know. I asked if she could tell whether the train had in fact left Washington. Again, she didn’t know. She asked if she could put me on hold to try to get some more information, but came back with nothing, along with an apology.

Having now travelled for a couple decades, I went in backup plan mode, including getting a hotel reservation (luckily, that wasn’t a problem) and looking for other trains (which was a problem, since most of the trains were listed as sold out) but even there I felt lucky when I found a late evening train that could get me to the City, and reserved a seat. Next (experience again…), I went to the station, to see if I could manage to find alternatives, to get far enough north into New Jersey that I could catch a commuter train to NY City, something that is possible, if the trains were running…

At the station, I was pleasantly surprised – there I was able to learn that my Amtrak train had indeed left, on time no less, and though it was running a little late, it would in fact get me to New York.

What do I make of all this?

First, some kudos are due to Amtrak: it has selected and trained some very good front line personnel, who see it as their job to help their customers get to where they want to go. Further, they clearly have well designed jobs well and are empowered to make decisions.  

On the other hand, why couldn’t the call center and in web support access the information the station personnel can? I tried to find out and was told the call center sees the same information customers can see online. Huh? Putting aside the impact to frustrated customers, how can the organization justify the cost? Servicing clients face to face (at the station) is far more expensive.


How many management teams have considered the cost of failing to integrate all related functions by modifying the operating model, designing jobs with clear roles and accountabilities, and then selecting and fully training the right staff for each job family?