Over the past two years, I have become a frequent train traveler between New York and mostly Washington, but also Albany and Boston. The Acela is more expensive than flying but much more convenient and usually on time.
The other Amtrak trains provide much poorer service. Delays are frequent; an hour or more is not unusual. Multiple gate changes can happen, resulting in huge swathes of people flooding from one gate to another and then another. Agents often seen uninformed and confused.
Why is there such disparate service when the same organization provides both services? A strong possibility is that the Acela gets priority because it provides much better revenue and profits. I have several times experienced the Northeast Regional being sidetracked to let the Acela pass.
Of course, I could always fly. The captains of private industry should know how to provide high quality service compared to the semi-public sector passenger train business. But, they do not!
In fact, this segment of the private sector could not be much worse. We should hear almost daily of airline CEO firings. But, we do not. Their Boards of Directors seem content with their companies being hated. Clearly, the commercial aviation industry has completely lost its luster.
To be fair, however, first-rate airlines still exist, for example, Cathy Pacific and Singapore Airlines. There are also excellent automobile companies such as BMW, Honda, Mercedes, and Toyota. The US still has leading high tech companies like Apple, Intel, and Texas Instruments, although global competitors are snapping at their heels.
How have US airlines and automotive companies become mediocre? The primary answer is leadership. When these companies were still high performers, they persistently hired CEOs to be stewards of the status quo. They needed to “hit the numbers” in any way possible.
Consequently, truly strategic thinking about customers and innovation were limited to litanies of buzz words. These companies increasingly antagonized and confused customers. No one any longer believes US airlines marketing slogans. As one airline executive told me, “We keep pulling feathers until just before the goose honks.”
We lost Mercury, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, and Pontiac as the Big Three cut costs and quality, rendering these brands effectively de-badged. The wonder is that these companies’ leaders did not think customers would notice. They must have imagined that they would be just like the airlines’ geese.
Stewards of the status quo cannot imagine being anywhere except at the top of the heap. A key competency is ease of being deluded. If this is combined with a strong dose of arrogance, a top firm is well on its way to creative destruction, having cooked its own goose.