Train People

It’s morning. I’m on the Amtrak Crescent No. 20. I don’t know where my train is located right now, but the landscape is pure green. And like I said, I’m on a train. So I’m as happy as a beached whale at high tide.

I crawl out of my matchbox bed at 6:19 A.M. I stretch, yawn, and smack my forehead on the upper bunk of my roomette. I wash my face in my little Barbie bathroom sink.

The whole sleeper car smells like fresh coffee. So I leave my room and locate the silver-bullet-shaped urn near the gangway. My train attendant helpfully pours my first cup. I thank her profusely because this is what you do when you get good customer service.

I am not accustomed to good customer service. I live in the cold, hard, real world, where customer service is a myth.

Last week, for instance, I tried to return a defective item to a department store at the “customer service” counter. There, a 19-year-old employee with stylish hair treated me like I was a boil on the haunches of humanity. So I requested the employee’s manager. When the manager arrived, the manager officially confirmed that I am a boil on the haunches of humanity.

“You want cream or sugar, sweetie?” asks my train attendant.

“No, thank you.”

“Sleep good?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I am fully prepared for my first sip of coffee to taste like hydrochloric acid. But it doesn’t. I am shellshocked. Amtrak has good coffee.

I stay in a lot of hotels and spend a lot of time on the road. I have learned that coffee is one of those things that always sucks. You get used to it. That’s the way life goes. You move on. But on a scale of one to five, I give Amtrak coffee an eleven.

Next, I make my way to the dining car. I walk through the gangways, periodically peeking out windows to see America zip by at 42 mph.

“How you doin’ today, boss?” says a passing Amtrak employee.

“Good,” I say. “And you?”

“Can’t complain.” He smiles. “We taking good care of you?”

I’m surprised he even cares. “Excellent care.”

“Glad to hear.”

When I get to the café car, the seats are filled with smatterings of Amtrak employees on morning breaks, most wearing dress blues and shirts with shoulder epaulettes. Some are checking email on laptops. Others are drinking coffee, scrolling phones. They all acknowledge me. They all smile. A few ask how my morning is going.

All this cheerfulness is getting weird. Someone must have spiked the coffee supply with Jim Beam.

But it is the young lady at the café counter who wins the customer-service gold medal. Hands down.

The young woman is waiting on a difficult elderly man who is trying to run his credit card but, God love him, he’s confused and getting angry. This man would tax the patience of lesser mortals, but not this employee.

She gently says, “You have to follow the screen prompts, sir.”

He cups a hand to his ear and barks, “What?”

“The prompts. On the screen, sir.”

The clacking of the train is making it hard for him to hear. “I can’t hear you, Miss.”

“Would you like me to help you?”

She’s a vibrant girl with her hair in braids and mahogany skin. And even though she wears a facemask, I can tell she’s smiling. There is a single-file line of customers growing behind the grumpy old cuss, but she treats him as though he is the president of the railroad.

She walks around the counter to assist. The entire time she is doing more than just helping. She is making cheerful conversation, she is keeping things light, she is putting him at ease. My mama would call this “being sweet.”

Pretty soon the old guy is relaxed, and he’s even laughing with her. He is no longer confused. He is charmed. His card goes through. She has managed to put him in a good mood. And me.

The irony is that I was on a plane recently where I witnessed an argument between a flight attendant and a passenger. The guy seated next to me was fuming angry about something, and the airline attendant lost her temper, too. I thought she was going to beat him with her shoe. They both started shouting and I found myself trapped between flying spittle.

And the thing is, no part of the airline scenario I just described is even remotely unusual. You see ticked-off people on airplanes all the time. In fact, you often see these people wherever you go in society.

But I don’t see any here. Not today at least. Yes, I realize I’m probably romanticizing trains. Certainly, it’s possible that I simply caught Amtrak on a good day. Or maybe, just maybe, there truly is something potent in this coffee.

Maybe it’s called customer service.


  1. Steve McCaleb - July 10, 2021 7:15 am

    It is indeed rare to find a company that still provides excellent customer service, glad to hear Amtrak is still doing so. A lot of these jerks act they’re doing you a favor by telling you just how stupid you are. Usually by the time I’m through talking to one of these ignorant ding-dongs I’m ready to slap ‘em nekked and hide their clothes. And if the young lady from phone company that I got into a screaming tyheety with the other day is reading this: I’d STILL rather do business with the Taliban.So there….whew, I feel better already.

  2. Sandi. - July 10, 2021 8:13 am

    Great customer service is a rare thing these days. So glad you got to experience it at Amtrak, Sean. Maybe your post will garner an increase in train travel!

  3. Sweet Tea on My Porch - July 10, 2021 9:06 am

    I absolutely loved your story about the Southern Crescent here and the lovely people aboard… I haven’t rode the Southern Crescent since 1995 but I do have fond memories of it and hope to ride again someday soon… However good customer service is so rare like a unicorn. I was at a local grocery yesterday and one of the employees stop to say hello and ask how my day was going… I actually felt like I was being pranked or it was a conspiracy… I agree good customer service is rare nowadays. Good Customer to me is like a ice cold glass of sweet tea on a hot July afternoon… #Refreshing #SouthernLiving #GoodLiving
    Safe Travels

  4. Laura Wilson - July 10, 2021 9:27 am

    I used to take the coastal Amtrak from San Diego to Oxnard quite regularly. The customer service was pretty good. Some of the staff even started to recognize me and greeted me “hey, you’re back again”. It was a good way to travel through the mess that is Los Angeles. The Southern Crescent sounds like a great way to travel.

  5. Barbara Zuleski - July 10, 2021 10:37 am

    Bless you Sean

  6. Debbie - July 10, 2021 11:25 am

    Loved this post! Good and sincere customer service is hard to come by. My sister and I were saddened when she, as an adult continuing education instructor at a local university, had to add a course on customer service to the courses she taught! Here. In the South! Goodness. What’s this world coming to?

  7. jil - July 10, 2021 11:41 am

    Amen Yes. Thats how it is on a train. And I think the whole world should be as if they were riding on a train full time. People have lost their humanity more and more these days.

  8. Amanda - July 10, 2021 12:04 pm

    If you’re not the new poster guy for Amtrak, you SHOULD be collecting something for these endorsements. The last two columns have me searching for trips on the Crescent line! I thoroughly enjoy travel guides!

  9. Pat Deas - July 10, 2021 12:06 pm

    Just follow the Golden Rule as my Mama would say, just follow the Golden Rule …simply as that!!!

  10. Bob E - July 10, 2021 12:24 pm

    Dear Lord – May all business owners regardless of size read Sean’s essay and have the insight and common sense to emulate the Amtrak employees’ approach to treating their customers as all businesses should.
    Watch those enterprises succeed!

  11. Trisha - July 10, 2021 12:29 pm

    It’s so pleasant to have good customer service delivered consistently correct. That seems to be what you have found on that Amtrak route, kudos to the employees. I bet the Amtrak marketing department is loving you right now. Enjoy your ride!

  12. D. Mc - July 10, 2021 12:49 pm

    I read your columns every morning and love them all. 99% percent of the time I agree with you wholeheartedly but today I either disagree or at least present another viewpoint. I’m not going to say that customer service isn’t deteriorating but I don’t know that it is. I can remember times from 30 years ago when I would run into rude people and stores or on airlines or in any other part of society. I think the difference today could be that we’re all more on edge. I’m not sure what this comes from but if you read the news you can certainly understand it because everything is presented as a problem or a crisis or as an impending catastrophe.

    Sure, there are labor shortages and employees aren’t often trained in customer service but I find that most people are just struggling to get through the day. And, I find if you treat them right and go out of your way to be pleasant to them, they will reciprocate. I grew up poor and today I am reasonably prosperous. I think I and others often forget how difficult life is for a lot of people, particularly those on the front-lines who are often making slightly above minimum wage, and who may be worried about a sick child or parent, a broken down car or many other problems that seem insurmountable. This does not excuse poor customer service or rude behavior by any stretch but talk to a few front-line workers and will tell you they are often confronted by customers who are demanding, rude, and condescending.

    As Pogo says, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” As we expect to get better customer service, perhaps we should also commit to be better customers.

    • Kelley - July 10, 2021 2:01 pm

      Well said! Again, the Golden Rule! 😊

  13. Jim - July 10, 2021 12:53 pm

    I’m loving this series on your train trip, it’s always been a dream of mine to take a long trip on a train.

  14. Nancy Crews - July 10, 2021 1:19 pm

    ❤your writing. And, no, it isn’t the coffee!

  15. Harriet - July 10, 2021 1:27 pm

    I’ve always wanted to ride on a train. I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow Sean.

    P.s. Where’s Jamie?

  16. Lisa Bowman - July 10, 2021 1:42 pm

    I absolutely love the train. I ride it with my girls all the time from Tuscaloosa to New Orleans. They’re teenagers – more like airplane people. But ONE day, having these experiences with me, I hope that they will learn some “train” patience. You know, to slow down, enjoy the ride, enjoy each other, not to worry about the delays. I try to teach them that life is full of adventures ~ not obstacles. I hope and pray that during their lives, all of their weeds are wildflowers!

  17. Beverly Pharr - July 10, 2021 1:46 pm

    Restoring my faith in mankind, one column at a time. Thanks —and you have a good day!

  18. Jan - July 10, 2021 1:53 pm

    You should be getting free trips from Amtrak because you are sure making me want to plan a trip on a train! Thanks, Sean!

  19. Christa Gettys - July 10, 2021 1:54 pm

    Sure was nice to wake up and read your writings this morning. All I’ll say is, I woke up on the wrong side of a one sided bed this morning and was spoiling for a fight with anyone! My spider plants were eerily quiet as I looked in on them, smart move dudes!!

    I clicked through all the lesser mail and deleted stuff I thought I’d sent to spam days ago and was growling at the pug.

    As I read this I remember some place’s slogan, “When you’re here, we treat you like family.”

    Maybe the airlines need to stop treating folks like family and more like strangers they need to be polite to. My family treats me like a rug they can wipe their shoes on and ask for more.

    I’d love to be treated like a customer on an Amtrak, just once in a while!

    I feel so much better now!

    I can’t drink coffee. Haven’t in 35 years. Started out as a religious thing, then my health tanked and every doc told me to not touch the stuff, then I hit an age that even the heavenly aroma of a cafe mocha candle gives me the jitters lol

    Takes me an hour of being grumpy and alone to wake up.

    I’ve been awake all of 20 minutes and the pug feels like living dangerously… he needs to do his morning constitutional Grrrrr and the phone is now ringing on a Saturday morning at 9:51AM from a caller using a local number with a person from another continent on the other side of the world I can never understand and trying to do something (obviously) I (probably) don’t want or need or can’t pay off at the moment….I’d love to have an airhorn………

    ……….and I’m back to being grumpy. And the new laundry soap I bought cause my usual stuff was out (as usual) is making my freshly washed shirt smell weird!

    Thanks for the short reprieve though. That hit the spot!

    • Randy - July 10, 2021 9:41 pm

      Christa, I purchased an air horn for that very purpose, but the caller just laughed at me because he was on speakerphone for that very reason.

  20. philip c middleton - July 10, 2021 2:48 pm

    It’s good to be reminded that to be kind, pleasant and patient are behaviors that we ALL have been neglecting to some degree. It’s also important to remember that those behaviors are not reserved for those who serve, else one might sound a bit like… well… a boil.

  21. Karen Goss - July 10, 2021 3:14 pm

    Costumer service is everything!!! So glad you Not only I appreciate it but pointed out to others. Way to go, Amtrak!

  22. Becky - July 10, 2021 4:07 pm

    Good story! Thank you, Sean. I appreciate it when anyone with a ‘Public Voice’ uses it to share the goodness around us. I plan to share some goodness today myself. It is all around us.

  23. Nancy Griggs - July 10, 2021 4:23 pm

    I am a new subscriber (my third day) and have to thank you for your train essays. Trains are very special to me with lots of fond memories. I met my husband when the commuter line into Philadelphia was the Pennsylvania RR and we both rode it to our jobs into the city. At that time’ there were conductors who would hold the train briefly as I gasped for air at the top of the steps up to the elevated platform yelling “hold the train” on more than one occasion. Little did I know that a young man sitting on the train would notice this “cute girl” (chronically late) running down the platform to board the train. We also did not know that when he helped me down one day when the train missed hitting the platform and we had to disembark onto a rocky incline, that the PRR would be responsible for a 55-year long marriage, four children and 9 grandchildren. We still love trains and appreciate those kind conductors,

  24. Chasity Davis Ritter - July 10, 2021 4:23 pm

    I love this!! Let’s shine light on the good things and help to cover up the darkness of the bad… there just HAS to be more LiGHT out in the world than darkness!!

  25. Hawk - July 10, 2021 4:42 pm

    Coincidentally, I place a magnet on my refrigerator 2 days ago that reads “KINDNESS MATTERS–DEEPLY”. Not because I need reminding to be kind, but to seek out and hold close those who are.

  26. Linda Moon - July 10, 2021 5:03 pm

    I’m glad I visualized the green landscape from your Amtrak this morning. What a way to happily start the day. A father I knew from long ago was an L&N Railroad man. He romanticized trains in the love of his work and the stories he told. Live storytelling or writing from Sean Dietrich is always good for me. Thank you for your service….from a regular customer of yours!

  27. Patricia Gibson - July 10, 2021 5:27 pm

    Love it❤️❤️

  28. MAM - July 10, 2021 5:59 pm

    Isn’t it a shame, we have to teach or take “a course” in customer service these days? What happened to respect, common courtesy and common sense? It seems too many of them have gone by the wayside. Yes, it comes down to the Golden Rule. Thanks as always, Sean, for shining the light on goodness!

  29. Peggy ALEXANDER - July 10, 2021 6:20 pm

    I was so glad to read about the nice young girl being so nice to the older man that couldn’t get his card to work AND that couldn’t get his card to work. I had the same problem and got help to. I am also in public service myself and I do understand that customers can be cantankerous also. I am 78 in August and I am hard of hearing also. Bless the young lady and the ones waiting in line

  30. Mike Bone - July 10, 2021 6:31 pm

    Like you, I am a train person. My grand daddy was a section foreman on the Seaboard Coast Line. I fell in LOVE with riding on trains since my 5th grade class took the Nancy Hanks from Macon to Atlanta. I rode the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. I took the TGV from Zurich to Paris. I have watched the train service in the USA fall further and further behind the rest of the world. I hope I live long enough to see this trend reversed. (I even have my own caboose Norfolk & Western #518667. Let me know if you ever want to spend the night in it. )

  31. Robert L Chiles - July 10, 2021 7:48 pm

    I am a train person- an Electric Train person. I have a layout 32′ X 38′ in my basement. “O” gauge. What a wonderful hobby!

  32. Christina Davis - July 10, 2021 8:02 pm

    Excellent article. Amtrak needs positive publicity. Heck – everything does! Customer service matters and good customer service is a skill.

  33. Christine - July 10, 2021 8:31 pm


  34. Laura McAliley - July 10, 2021 8:39 pm

    Thanks for your terrific commentary on Amtrak and customer service. I don’t work for them, but I find them ALWAYS to be cheerful and helpful almost beyond belief. A lot of places ought to send their people in to Amtrak for some customer service training. There are places where I want to offer to teach customer service classes to employees for free. Thanks, again, Sean…I think I love you.

  35. Sally Speaker - July 10, 2021 11:16 pm

    In ‘84, I rode the Crescent from AL to VA with my newborn. We were in the last car, the snack car, when it detached from the rest of the train! They had to back up and reattach us and Amtrak still got us to our destination on time. What an adventure. Barbie-sink, indeed!

  36. Bill Harris - July 11, 2021 1:20 pm

    Thank you Sean

  37. Sharon - July 11, 2021 2:05 pm

    Really liking your train articles! Now I want to ride one – never have😊

  38. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 11, 2021 3:48 pm

  39. Tim - July 12, 2021 5:57 pm

    I recently experienced the same rare but excellent customer service at Tru by Hilton in Jacksonville FL a month or so ago.
    It’s so rare it stands out and makes you feel warm all over.

  40. Linda Chapman - July 18, 2021 3:56 am

    I’ve saved this Train series of essays to read aloud to my 85 year old husband! We are having a delightful evening reading all your posts on trains! And we are planning on taking a train trip via Amtrak to Kansas City next year! Thank you very much, Sean!


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