ecently, I’ve spent some time on Amtrak.
It’s easy to compare the differences between train and air travel.
Speed and cost are the really obvious ones and they remind me of the old consultant’s saw: “Quality, Speed or Price, choose any two.”
Meaning, of course, that you can choose 2 of those, but the 3rd is likely to suffer.
When it comes to long-distance public transportation, you mostly get to pick one – as long as you take for granted that “quality” typically means “You got there in one piece.”
Most people I talk to tend to choose speed, unless they’re going from NW Montana to Salt Lake, Seattle or Portland with a car-sized group of staff members.
Making the speed/quality/price choice
Recently I had the speed/quality/price choice to make and decided to try Amtrak a couple of times. My wife and I recently became empty nesters and had wondered about taking the train the next time we went somewhere.
Being the family guinea pig, I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Portland to Whitefish after driving with my youngest (in his rig) to Oregon (on the hottest day of the summer, of course) in order to drop him off at college.
Returning on Amtrak wasn’t just the slow, cheap choice – it was the obvious one: Board at 5pm in Portland, avoid a 12 hour drive after 3 long days, spend less on train fare than on gas and do all of that without any effort on my part – ie: get on the train and ride home vs. flog my rig all the way home, get tired, get a room and end up using up a decent chunk of 2 days traveling.
During that trip, the train’s crew was highly-tuned. If the schedule said 5:21pm departure, that’s when the train started to glide forward. If they said you had 3 minutes to step off the train for some fresh air, you’d better be stepping back on at 2:58.
This happens in part because someone (or everyone) on the staff clearly wants to be on time (I suspect they get some pressure about that – just like the airlines), and it’s helped by spreading out the stops – a luxury Amtrak doesn’t have in more urban areas.
I wasn’t too worried about being on time to the minute. I was on a train *because* my schedule was a little flexible. I’d heard a fair share of horror stories about late trains from folks in the Midwest and East, so I wasn’t exactly ready for seriously-on-time. In fact, I’m rarely ready for it when I’m on a plane – with good reason.
The Amtrak Experience
What I was really interested in was comparing the customer / passenger experience between Amtrak and the last few airline trips I’ve taken.
On an airplane, you’re so beat up, annoyed, hot, cramped, belittled and so on, by the time you get in your seat, you mostly don’t want to talk or look at anyone. On a plane, you will often find 3/4 of the passengers in this detached, staring-at-nothing state of mind where all they can think about is how many more minutes till it all ends.
It’s not that the people are “bad”, I think a lot of it is the series of annoyances and inconveniences that people are submitted to prior to taking off.
On the train, it’s like another planet. It’s like a big traveling party and a sleepover rolled into one – and the seats are bigger. There are more families and college aged folks and fewer suits percentage-wise than the average airplane, but just as many opportunities for people to annoy each other. Yet they dont.
The big traveling party is in the observation car, where you might see people playing Uno, Scrabble, Texas Hold-Em, or just talking with a crowd of people they just met. The dining car is like a cafe with too few seats, so you sit where the empty chairs are – even if there’s a couple already there in mid-meal. You sit (because the train staff said “That’s your seat”) and you shoot the breeze. And no one acts like you stepped on their toes.
The difference is the process.
The cattle car isn’t the cattle car
If you didn’t know better, you’d think that the airlines and airports hired the “Evil Captain Kirk” version of Temple Grandin to design the process of getting people from their cars, through ticketing, past security and onto a plane.
That often seeps into people on a plane. You know what I mean.
It’s not the speed, it’s the how and the what.
On Amtrak, it’s given that everything (and I mean *everything*) is slower. On time (in my limited experience), but slower.
The experience is far less tense and there is none of the “We just need to get through it, so you’re just gonna take it” that you get when flying. My impression is that you’re far less likely to run into the Evil Kirk.
To be sure, if you Google around, or even search Twitter for #amtrak, you’ll find plenty of experiences both positive and negative. Meanwhile, no one waxes poetic about a recent plane ride – even if they did have wifi on board.
Sure, there are some folks in the airline business who are pleasant, friendly and happy to help. On Amtrak, almost everyone seems that way.
Both groups are obviously under pressure to produce. Neither is raking in the profits.
Neither group has excuses to use about why they treat their customers the way they do. They just do.
The process is what creates the pain…or not.
It’s also what makes the difference between the experience found by your customers vs. your competitors’.
Take nothing for granted about the process your customers experience.