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TRAVEL INSIDER

New Amtrak Guarantee Aims to Build Ridership

Trains: Badly in need of a better image, the agency is offering certificates for free travel to passengers who register complaints.

August 20, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Desperate to stanch its operating losses and repair its reputation, Amtrak is making a remarkable new guarantee to its customers. But the early returns on the bold program show iffy results.

First, the guarantee. On July 4, Amtrak began extending an unconditional guarantee of satisfaction to all passengers. If you don't like something, from tardiness to train temperature, Amtrak says it will give you a certificate for future travel that matches the value of the trip that made you unhappy.

What makes this so bold? The number of passengers who have been left unsatisfied by Amtrak over the years. From October 1999 through June, Amtrak's Southwest Limited from Los Angeles to Orlando, Fla., was late four out of every five trips. Between Los Angeles and Seattle, the Coast Starlight was tardy once in every three trips. And Amtrak President George Warrington has cited recent surveys in which 15% of first-time Amtrak customers said they wouldn't buy another Amtrak ticket.

Nationwide, Amtrak's on-time performance numbers are better. They show that four trains run on time for every one that's late. But since the federal government took over the passenger rail system's operations nearly 30 years ago, the agency has been a consistent target of passenger laments as well as a source of red ink. In the 1999 fiscal year, Amtrak needed $587 million in federal subsidies to balance its $2.7-billion budget.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Train to Orlando--A Travel Insider column ("New Amtrak Guarantee Aims to Build Ridership," Aug. 20) gave an incorrect name for the route between Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla. It is the Sunset Limited.

With its new guarantee program, Amtrak's top officials are hoping to win public confidence, boost ridership and meet congressional demands that America's passenger rail system pay for itself by 2003.

Under the policy, any dissatisfied passenger need only voice a complaint to an Amtrak employee. If that employee can't deliver satisfaction, the aggrieved passenger can call Amtrak's main phone number, (800) USA-RAIL, and request a Service Guarantee Certificate. The certificate will be good toward future Amtrak travel for 18 months, and its value will match the cost of the unsatisfactory trip. Complaining passengers will be asked to give the number from their ticket stub and specify what dissatisfied them.

The early results: Through July, ridership ran slightly ahead of the agency's average of 65,000 passengers daily. But about one in 356 riders sought a refund, against the agency's goal of no more than one per 1,000. Amtrak officials say they are still optimistic.

In July, Amtrak figures show, 5,770 certificates were issued, totaling $445,507. (That's about $77 per complaint.) With ridership of 2.05 million in July (averaging more than 66,250 daily), that translates into one complaint for every 356 passengers.

For each month that less than one traveler in every 1,000 asks for a certificate nationwide, every Amtrak worker will get a $50 bonus.

The program "is going to have a ton of challenges, but we think it's going to pay off in the end," said Elizabeth O'Donoghue, an Amtrak spokeswoman in Oakland. She also noted that the agency will track names of those requesting certificates to prevent abuse of the offer.

The timing is as interesting as the offer is bold. At a time when consumer complaints about airline service, directed to the U.S. Department of Transportation, are at their highest level ever, a consumer satisfaction guarantee for train service grabs attention.

Amtrak officials have reasons for optimism. Bookings are up nationwide. From April through June this year, ridership was up 8% from the previous year, and revenue was up 13%. And timeliness has improved since 1993, when 56% of Amtrak's long-distance trains in the 11 Western states were at least half an hour late.

Amtrak's systemwide on-time performance rate from October 1999 to June this year was 79.5%. The 22-stop Pacific Surfliner route between San Diego and San Luis Obispo (which got eight new trains costing $125 million earlier this year) showed an on-time rate of 78.6%. On the Southwest Chief route between Los Angeles and Chicago, 68.8% of trains were on time. On the Coast Starlight, the figure was 65.7%.

Amtrak officials consider a long haul like the 1,389-mile Coast Starlight on time if it reaches the end of the line within 30 minutes of its published schedule. On shorter routes like the Pacific Surfliner, the cutoff is 10 minutes past scheduled arrival. Unlike airlines, whose on-time performance figures are posted monthly on the Internet by the Department of Transortation, the rail agency does not routinely publish its on-time figures, said Karina Van Vee, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

In preparation for the new program, Amtrak officials say all 25,000 of the system's employees received training aimed at encouraging personal initiative in passenger service. Amtrak has also changed logos, replacing its 29-year-old inverted arrow with a new logo meant to "capture the excitement of the travel experience," a news release said.

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