What I Learned On My Summer Adventure
September 12, 2019
From intern to organizer: a commitment beyond Summer by Rail
by Madi Butler
As many of you know from following along with Summer by Rail, I have concluded my 24 destination, 50 day, 6,000 mile adventure. Not only was my time spent utilizing national and regional networks, I also experienced many multimodal and last mile solutions. While there are definitely nuances to which public transit solutions work best in which areas, there are some common themes I have noticed in my travels and I hope to spend my time as a Grassroots Organizer with Rail Passengers Association rectifying what I can and coalition building to address what will require additional support.
I would like to highlight a few experiences during my trip which made me increasingly aware of the challenges that lie ahead for us all.
Food Service On-Board: This is an experience that will take nuance, analytics, and foresight to rectify. I do understand the complaints from those who take long distance trips. I would like to see healthy meal options, less single use waste, diverse flavor profiles, and variety of meal type on each long distance route. As someone who has been in hospitality management for over a decade, I see steps that will have to be initiated to create the analytic process and engage procedural repairs to increase customer satisfaction with dining on board. Amtrak must update their point of sale systems and reduce waste in a timely fashion. It is possible to run real time stock reports, p&l, waste logs, tip outs, and labor calculators, it can not be done with the current equipment on-board and the people advocating to make these updates need to be supported.
Utilizing modern solutions is the only way this food service will survive. If Amtrak will allocate funding and direction to give Food & Beverage a much needed face lift, they can see returns that will not be considered marginal. There has to be products provided that people actually want. Without customer engagement surveys, purchasing analytics, and real industry-driven initiative, they will not see profit margins on F&B sales.
My commitment to our passengers: Take the analytics extracted from our survey to Amtrak F&B team to initiate dialogue needed to fix the issues we have been plagued with on our long distance rides. If this is an issue you are passionate about, please fill out the survey and let me know your thoughts.
Reliable Wi-Fi: The best way to improve access to analytics and increase customer satisfaction is with real-time stats. That means Wi-Fi on board all trains. While the NEC has better connectivity than the rest of the entire national network combined, even on the Acela people are losing service. So we have two main passenger demographics to consider here. The commuter and the traveller. The commuter needs reliable wi-fi to get work done on shorter routes. The traveller needs wifi to stay in touch on long distance journeys.
Imagine how much better the social media presence for Amtrak would be if you could livestream, upload to instagram, make video calls, or even just have a text message send the first time. While I can appreciate that there are areas, especially in the western United States with minimal cell service, the fact that most major airlines provide wifi on board is something all rail service providers will have to contend with.
A Permanent End to Bustitution: Threatening to breakup long distance routes and replace them with busses is not only insulting to the legacy of the rail, it is a slap in the face to the many small towns that have invested their time and effort to be a part of the rail connected country we reside in. The Southwest Chief is essential to the prosperity of many of the cities it traverses and the fact that some executives would see that broken up shows how out of touch they are with the needs of average American rail travelers. It is a calloused leadership that would ignore the needs of our rural neighbors and subject them to lesser treatment when the means for long distance rail travel already exists. After we have worked to organize a coalition of community leaders spanning the mid and southwest, the national network must heed the call of those to whom they provide a public service.
My commitment to our passengers: Work on coalition building amongst organizers, elected officials, and city/county representatives who are invested in the future of our long distance routes and the communities they serve.
Increasing Accessibility between National, Regional, Local, and Last Mile Transit: I have experienced first hand what it is like to disembark at 2 a.m. alone, in the dark, struggling with luggage and directions. While there is often an Uber or Lyft or Taxi one can summon, there should be better communication between national and regional transit providers. Cities should be providing more last mile solutions and working to integrate existing train stations into existing city routes. The less car dependency, the better the visitor experience. Cities that have fallen victim to generational flight are often those not willing to meet the needs of their younger, car-free constituents.
Full ADA Compliance Nationally: What also concerns me is seeing how many people that rely on elevators / escalators in their commute miss their train or connecting bus due to outages, transfer times, and a lack of ADA compliance. Not everyone can take the stairs. Those with strollers, walkers, scooters, prosthetics, crutches, etc have a right to equal access on public transit. As the largest generation to predicess my own ages, it is imperative that we respect their autonomy and enable them to make choices and stay engaged with society at large. Public transit is an essential part of this. It is not a question of age or ability but one of personal accountability to our fellow commuters.
My commitment to our passengers: If you or anyone you know is experiencing an issue in regards to ADA compliance, I will help get the solution you need. There is a reason we have these standards and I will not watch people be forgotten when they are working to participate in our communities.
While there were a multitude of wonderful experiences I had on the trip, I feel it is important to highlight areas that require our support and advocacy. As many in my generation move into our larger role within society, it is important we take up our civic responsibilities as well. My time spent learning, documenting, and writing this summer would not be possible without the workers, officials, and fellow passengers that helped create the experience. To them, I commit to spend my future involvement with this organization as a platform to create more and better experiences for other passengers, paying forward the gifts I was given to those who will benefit from them next.
With Hope & Solidarity,
"The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done yeoman work over the years and in fact if it weren’t for NARP, I'd be surprised if Amtrak were still in possession of as a large a network as they have. So they've done good work, they're very good on the factual case."
Robert Gallamore, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former Federal Railroad Administration official, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University
November 17, 2005, on The Leonard Lopate Show (with guest host Chris Bannon), WNYC New York.