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Amtrak trying hard to please

Desperate to stanch its operating losses and repair its reputation, Amtrak is making a remarkable, unconditional guarantee of satisfaction to all passengers: If you do not like something, from tardiness to train temperature, Amtrak says it will give you a certificate for future travel that matches the value of the trip that made you unhappy.

What makes this so bold is the number of passengers who have been left unsatisfied by Amtrak over the years. For example, from October 1999 through June, Amtrak's Southwest Limited, from Los Angeles to Orlando, was late four out of every five trips.

Nationwide, Amtrak's on-time performance numbers are better. They show that four trains run on time for every one that's late. But since the federal government took over the passenger rail system's operations nearly 30 years ago, the agency has been a consistent target of passenger complaints as well as a well of red ink. In the 1999 fiscal year, Amtrak needed $587-million in federal subsidies to balance its $2.7-billion budget.

And Amtrak president George Warrington has cited recent surveys in which 15 percent of first-time Amtrak customers said they would not ride again.

With its new guarantee, Amtrak is hoping to win public confidence, boost ridership and meet congressional demands that America's passenger rail system pay for itself by 2003.

Under the policy, dissatisfied passengers need only voice a complaint to an Amtrak employee. If that employee cannot deliver satisfaction, the passenger may call Amtrak's main phone number, (800) 872-7245 (USA-RAIL), give details of the problem and request a Service Guarantee Certificate. The certificate will be good toward Amtrak travel for 18 months.

The early results: Through July, ridership ran slightly ahead of the agency's average of 65,000 passengers daily. But about one in 356 riders sought a refund, against the agency's goal of no more than one per 1,000.

For each month that less than one traveler in every 1,000 asks for a certificate nationwide, every Amtrak worker will get a $50 bonus.

The timing is as interesting as the offer is bold. At a time when consumer complaints about airlines are at the highest level ever, a satisfaction guarantee for train service grabs attention.

Amtrak officials have reasons for optimism. Bookings are up nationwide. From April through June this year, ridership was up 8 percent from the previous year, and revenue was up 13 percent.

Amtrak still faces substantial hurdles. Its biggest scheduling complication is that it owns just 750 miles of the 22,000 miles of track its trains travel. The rest is controlled by privately owned railroad companies, whose main concern is delivering freight on time. Once an Amtrak train falls behind, it loses its "slot" all along its route, and freight trains can be given priority. Thus a slightly late train often becomes a very late train.

Another challenge is new machinery. Amtrak has voiced high hopes for its Acela Express trains, built to reach speeds of 150 mph, 25 mph faster than current trains. But those trains were supposed to enter service more than a year ago and have been delayed by technical problems.

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