Tuesday, April 18, 2017

OPINION: Why Amtrak’s Customer Service–Especially the San Joaquin’s–Needs to Change

The following opinion piece represents the views of the author, and not of TransportiCA's.

Riding the San Joaquin 717 today, I become very irritated at seeing passengers–especially the elderly, disabled and others with mobility issues–having to sit in the cold, with the winds reminding riders the joys of public transit: mainly, exposure to the elements.  Unlike airports, most Amtrak stations are not enclosed, not providing protection from inclement weather.  While Bakersfield has a station to go into, if you have been in the station before, you’ll understand why riders prefer to wait outside in the cold; peddlers and transients are in the station, so-called “security guards” do nothing about people begging for money, and Amtrak agents sit back in their casing ignoring the world outside.

At the Bakersfield station, riders also have to wait outside for long periods of time, not just in the cold weather, but in the triple-digit heat.  I have come to the conclusion San Jaoquins opens its train door when it wants to.  Allegedly, I have heard the doors open when the train is clean.  However, I am writing this article on the train with my arms sticking to the table, so clearly not all of the train has been cleaned–if this is benchmark for opening the doors.

The San Joaquins seems to have a special affinity for making sure riders come last.  Whether it is conductors who see riders smoking on the platform or vaping on the train; passengers–always men–blaring repulsive, homophobic, misogynistic or flat-out racist music on the train and conductors not enforcing the headphones policy; or even an actual conductor who smokes on the train, the precedent for the San Joaquin seems to be a trip to the Wild West: don’t worry about policy or law enforcement, just give us your money.

When I last rode the San Joaquin southbound to Pasadena (Sunday, 09 April), our shuttle from Bakersfield, headed southbound, was a no-show for almost thirty minutes.  Staff seemed to lack the intellectual capacity and emotional depth to realize a bunch of people standing near a shuttle post might be frustrated, as no one was communicating to us about the shuttle’s status.  Finally, an Amtrak staff member came by the shuttle signpost and said nothing.  I then said to her, “Do we have a shuttle coming for us, our will we just be waiting here?”  The staff responded, “That’s what I am finding out right now,” to which I informed her how maddening it is that no one communicates to riders about this.  The whole time, another Amtrak staff member stood behind an outdoor desk just staring at us.

Its times like these, I wonder: 1) maybe flying United is a better choice than riding the San Joaquins (at least those passengers were spoken to), as well as, 2) when will Amtrak / San Joaquin staff acknowledge riders as “human,” discontinuing what I see as customer service based-upon secrecy and sheer insensitivity.

It’s not fun having a disability that affects you so much when you fly, alcohol and extra medication sometimes assist with the panic attacks.  I’m also confident it is not a choice that many mobility-impaired people have to take public transit.  However, we just want to be treated with dignity and respect; spoken to about issues with our shuttle or related schedule variations; have conductors actually stop people from smoking and causing disgusting air to come into the train, as we cannot easily relocate; and once in awhile, realize that making your passengers wait in the heat, rain or cold is just wrong.

Readers may be lead to believe I am one of those people who exposes “run government like a business and privatize everything.”  I AM NOT.  Government has an important role in providing vital services to those who need it most, even when profits are not generated.  Providing these services is plain and simply good for society, and ultimately, for government, in the form of returned sales taxes and citizen’s improved quality of life.

Its time Amtrak implements a “Passenger Bills of Rights,” and not simply beef-up existing privacy policies.  As well, management of these services should take the advice of ACTUAL riders when considering operations, as opposed to the usually old white men on the boards, most of which never have taken the train.  (If my ethnic statement is inaccurate, I would love to be proven wrong.)

Until that day, I only hope Amtrak and San Joaquins staff understand that until riders are treated with such dignity and respect desired, riding Amtrak and the San Joaquins can seem less like a transportation choice, and more like a condemnation.

Greg Justice is the Founder and Editor of TransportiCA, a Select Executive member of the Amtrak Guest Rewards program, and proudly transit-dependent.

As always, Amtrak and San Joaquins staff are more than welcome to have publish an UNEDITED response.  (However, DO NOT respond to this article via LinkedIn; having worked in state legal offices, we know responding this way is usually a form of avoiding PRA requirements.)

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