- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

Veronica Lewis, weary from a 23-hour train trip from Mississippi, arrived in Washington Thursday less than thrilled with Amtrak.
"With me being a senior citizen, they put me in a seat that I really didn't want," Mrs. Lewis said on arrival at Union Station. "It was very uncomfortable all the way back. They promised to change me and they never did do it."
To keep dissatisfied customers like Mrs. Lewis riding the rails, Amtrak officials announced a new Amtrak Satisfaction Guarantee Thursday. Passengers who believe they did not receive a safe, comfortable and enjoyable trip can call Amtrak to claim a certificate good for future Amtrak travel of equal cost. Mrs. Lewis, of Washington, said she planned to take the railroad up on it.
"We know of no other passenger transportation provider that offers anything of this kind," said Bill Schulz, Amtrak's vice president for corporate communications.
Amtrak's Los Angeles-to-Seattle "Coast Starlight" service has offered a guarantee for three years. In that time, 17 to 20 riders roughly one for every 107,000 trips requested a voucher, Amtrak officials said.
Under the program, a passenger reports a complaint to an employee, who is supposed to fix the problem. If it is not solved to the passenger's satisfaction, he calls Amtrak to receive a voucher, no questions asked.
Under a new incentive program, all 25,000 Amtrak employees will get a bonus equal to the average fare about $50 for any month in which 99.9 percent of riders do not request vouchers.
Railroad officials said the guarantee is good business and good public relations. Every 1 percent increase in passenger retention riders who try Amtrak again equates to $13 million per year in revenue, the company said.
Amtrak, formed by Congress in 1971 from a collection of failing passenger railroads, has struggled financially over the years. Facing a congressional deadline to wean itself from federal operating subsidies, the railway is working to create itself anew in image and substance.
The company needs to counter a reputation of being "tired, worn out and complacent," Amtrak President George Warrington told reporters before announcing the changes at a carefully staged event inside Union Station. Simultaneous events were held in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Besides the guarantee, Amtrak soon will offer a railroad version of a frequent flier program and is replacing its 29-year-old "pointless arrow" logo with a new one featuring three parallel lines winding their way to a horizon. The word "Amtrak" looks different too, with a new type style and a special metallic-blue color.
But looks aren't everything.
The much-awaited "Acela Express" high-speed service between Washington and Boston, originally scheduled to begin at the end of last year, still is not rolling. Federal watchdogs say continuing delays the latest start target is August threaten Amtrak's ability to reach self-sufficiency by the end of 2002 as ordered by Congress.
Mr. Warrington predicted "all the hand-wringing will be history" when the Acela Express starts.
"After 17 years, I know that changing a big company like Amtrak doesn't come easy," William Howell, a conductor from New York, told hundreds of passengers. "To make the service guarantee work, we have to change the way we do business, and make the changes stick."
Some Amtrak union representatives said they support the program.
"I feel George [Warrington] has given us the ability to take our destiny in our own hands, and to prove we can be a class railroad," said Joe Derillo, president of Amtrak's unit of the American Railway Supervisors Association.
Sarah Gainer contributed to this report.

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