- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Amtrak fell short of its target for customer satisfaction last month, when the company began offering free rides to passengers unhappy with the train service.

Under a program that began in July, passengers who say they did not have a comfortable trip may call the company to claim a certificate good for a future trip of equal cost.

When District of Columbia-based Amtrak introduced the program in early July, it said its goal is to have fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of its customers request a voucher each month.

But 5,562 customers from Amtrak's 2.05 million trips in July or three-tenths of 1 percent of total customers requested a voucher.

The average value of the vouchers issued was $80.

"Our goal is to achieve 99.9 percent customer satisfaction, and we came close to reaching that goal," said Karina Van Veen, an Amtrak spokeswoman. She added that she could not estimate when the rail service would begin reaching its target.

Amtrak's Los Angeles-to-Seattle "Coast Starlight" service has offered a similar guarantee for three years. In that time, about one in every 107,000 customers have requested a voucher, according to the company.

The bulk of the customers who asked for vouchers as part of the national program 3,131 took trips in Amtrak's "Intercity Corridor," which comprises 41 states, including Virginia.

About 1,700 customers who took trips in the company's "Northeast Corridor," which includes the District and Maryland, asked for vouchers.

The Amtrak Satisfaction Guarantee Program allows passengers to report complaints to any employee. If the worker can't solve the problem or doesn't fix it to the customer's satisfaction, the passenger can call Amtrak to receive a voucher.

"It's a no-questions-asked program, so if they request a voucher, they receive one," Miss Van Veen said.

As an incentive to encourage Amtrak employees to treat customers well and solve problems, the company said it would give its 25,000 workers a bonus equal to the average fare usually about $50 for any month in which the 99.9 percent customer-satisfaction goal is reached.

Mark R. Dysart, president of the High Speed Ground Transportation Association, a D.C.-based trade group for train companies, said the Amtrak program represents good business and public relations.

If Amtrak achieves its goal, its satisfaction-guarantee program "could set a precedent in the industry," Mr. Dysart said. No other train service offers a similar guarantee, he said.

According to Amtrak, every 1 percent increase in passenger retention riders who try the service again equates to $13 million per year in annual revenue.

Amtrak, also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp., was formed by Congress in 1971 from a collection of failing passenger railroads.

The company has struggled financially over the years, and Congress has ordered it to wean itself from federal operating subsidies by 2003.

Amtrak generated $2.04 billion in revenue in 1999, a drop of about 10.9 percent from 1998, when it generated $2.29 billion in revenue.

As part of its campaign to remake its image, the company is slated to introduce this fall the nation's first high-speed rail system, a $2 billion service that will race between Boston, New York and Washington at speeds as fast as 150 miles per hour.

Amtrak says the high-speed trains will allow it to better compete with airlines, but the new service has been delayed several times, leaving some observers wondering if the service will hurt the company's ability to meet its deadline for self-sufficiency.

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