Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Real v. Perception 

This story is laughable for what it fails to say. Amtrak is a train service that would infuriate a European or Japanese who is used to trains that run reasonably on time. It's closer to a third-world service in reputation but for a few trains that run along a high-speed corridor between New York and Washington, DC. But, even then... My wife took Amtrak last weekend to Richmond, VA, which is about 70 miles past Washington, DC. Her train broke down about 50 miles into the trip leaving the passengers stranded on the tracks for two hours then sitting in the heat and dark at Philadelphia's train station.

Amtrak has a huge gap between reality and reputation, even with record ridership. For one, the service has been a money-loser since it was formed and today, it no longer makes an effort to run with a balanced budget. It points out that train service is subsidized everywhere in the world where high-speed and timely rail service are a reality.

I'm not sure how one does PR for such a conflicted entity. It can't abandon unprofitable routes because Congressmen won't let it. It can't make money because of the unprofitable routes. It has been suggested time and again that Amtrak could be viable if it stops long-haul service and concentrates just on corridors where it is competitive with air service, but this sends both its supporters and critics into a tizzy. So, it limps along without enough money to do its job right and it is an embarrassment that people try not to talk about -- like a relative who tipples too much. I'd like to see a strategic PR plan for Amtrak that is built on its peculiar reality.


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