Never Arriving on Track 2 AMTRAK--DELAYED AGAIN
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Acela is here! Well, the promotional campaign for Amtrak's much vaunted bullet train is here, anyway. The actual trains, which were supposed to be barreling up and down the Northeast corridor by last fall, are nowhere to be seen. (They've made an unscheduled stop to get wheel problems fixed.) Trouble is, no one seems to have told Amtrak about this.
Several weeks ago my father received a dinnertime call from one of those annoying market research firms; it was a survey, evidently commissioned by Amtrak, about people's railroad habits. My dad gamely answered a few questions about how often he took the train and so on. But then came a curve ball: On a scale of one to ten, how would he rate his experiences aboard Amtrak's new high-speed rail service, Acela?
My father pointed out that the service, um, wasn't running yet. But on a scale of one to ten, the woman persisted, how would he rate it? After a few moments of futile protest, my dad capitulated. Five, he said.
Now, on a scale of one to ten, how would he rate the service aboard Acela? And its on-time performance? And its scheduling convenience? (Five, five, and five.) Amtrak says there must have been a misunderstanding. My dad stands by his story.
It's not the only way in which Amtrak's marketing caboose seems to have gotten in front of its engine. There's also the $20 million ad campaign, in full swing since September despite the ongoing nonexistence of what it's advertising. Good thing it's hard to tell just what that is. DEPART FROM YOUR INHIBITIONS, one billboard slogan commands alongside a picture of a man--the Philadelphia Inquirer called him a cross between a stalker and a pervert--who has his coat pulled over his head and one eye peeping out. "We want people to stare at it...scratch their heads and say, 'What is this?'" an Amtrak executive told the Inquirer.
There's nothing new in hyping a product that does not yet exist; the software business has its tradition of "vaporware." But I sensed that Amtrak had elevated the concept. To fake people out about intangible computer code is one thing. To sell an entire vaportrain is quite another.
Impressed, I called an Acela spokesman to learn more. He said he was glad to hear from me; he'd been about to call FORTUNE with a proposition. One fully serviceable Acela was making a 165-mile-per-hour test run on a "race track" near Trenton, N.J., at night. Would I care to come along?
So it seemed I would get to see the elusive locomotive at last. But when I called to confirm the plan, I was told my ride was being pushed back a week: scheduling problems. When I checked in a week later, there was more bad news: Amtrak's board of directors wanted to take a test ride, and they didn't want "any interaction with the media." The spokesman said he'd call back with a new date. He never did. So I called a few days later to ask what happened. Engineers were testing the train's tilting capabilities, he said, and "from a liability standpoint, they don't want anybody on it." I'd have to wait another week and a half.
Never did get to take that ride. But on a scale of one to ten, I'd rate it a five.