Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Customer Service on "The Ciy of New Orleans"

If you are old enough you may remember the Steve Goodman song titled, City of New Orleans. It is a historical account of his journey on a train originating in Chicago and destined for New Orleans. Today the "City of New Orleans" train is operated by Amtrak so you can still experience this 19 hour sentimental train journey for yourself.

If you, like many lean thinkers, believe that time is the currency of the 21st century then you may never take this train ride. Lean is all about cycle time reduction and taking this train will not reduce your travel time. Air travel remains the first choice for most if the trip is at least 500 miles. Train travel in the U.S. is viewed as a relic of the past and the equipment and the rails upon which the equipment rides are rust belt evidence that supports this mind set. The first locomotives were called iron horses for a good reason – that is what they replaced. Train travel in the U.S. is an alternative method of transportation. It is not even considered by most people. Yet as the price of oil continues to escalate, airlines continue to focus solely on profits and not the customer experience, and the U.S. Government begins to invest in new high speed rail systems our thinking may begin to change. Mine already has.

I experienced exceptional rail travel in 2009 when I traveled for two weeks in Switzerland using a Swiss Pass. The trains were clean, quiet and always on time. It was a hassle free way to travel that included the ability to get up and move around while being whisked from one location to the next. So a few weeks ago when my wife and I, along with 10 friends, boarded the City of New Orleans Amtrak train for some pre-Mardi Gras fun my expectations were low. But as a lean thinker I understand that lean is all about the customer and the employees of Amtrak, despite the constraints of the rail equipment and track conditions made me a believer that there is a future for rail travel in this county.

Can you imagine the flight attendants, prior to your next flight, engaging you in meaningful conversation in the gate waiting area? Well, in the clean and modern waiting room of Chicago's Union Station our rail car attendants greeted us and answered our questions as we together waited to board the train. When it was time to board we were led to the correct platform and individually directed to our sleeper car by another Amtrak employee. There were no long lines, no security stations, baggage or body searches. Then while we walked to the observation car for a glass of wine another attendant prepared our sleeper berths by setting up the beds and topping each pillow with a Hersey's kiss. After drinks in the observation car we were called to the dining car for dinner. Since we had booked sleeping accommodations all of our meals were included. They were well prepared and served by a fun loving staff that made our trip a pleasure. Other than Southwest Airlines when is the last time you had a laugh on a flight?

Sleeping was like camping. I never sleep very well the first night while camping and I did not sleep very well on the train. On flights you occasionally have turbulence but on this train it was never ending due to the condition of the tracks. The train rocked and rolled and occasionally lurched from side to side as it followed rails primarily used to transport freight trains. I faded in and out of a restless sleep as I listened to the train whistle sound at every road crossing. This experience made it clear why our government needs to invest in new modern rails systems if we are to ever have high speed rail service in the U.S. A high speed train would simply fly off of these tracks! Despite the lack of sleep we were again greeted by a cheerful staff and served a hearty breakfast and later lunch. We arrived in New Orleans mid-afternoon and our friendly crew lined up on the platform and thanked us for traveling on Amtrak as we passed by. The trip had been a great customer service experience.

Will travelers trade time for great service? Not likely at this time. Flights are much quicker yet most airlines have forgotten anything they ever knew about customer service. Most flights are the equivalent of cattle car service - you are herded on, treated indifferently and herded off. If and when there is high speed rail service in this country I will be a customer. I believe customer's come first and the only way airlines will again understand that is when their flights do not fill up because high speed rail is available on the same routes. When people have a choice they will choose the service that treats them like customers. High speed rail service in the U.S. will allow them a choice.

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