Friday, February 15, 2008

The Beginning

For me, it all began on Monday, December 14, 1972, at 9:00AM PT in the Sheraton Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco. There were quite a few of us, though I can't remember exactly how many. None of us knew each other, though there was one person who knew someone I knew. That person was Connie Edwards, who knew Henry Luna, who I knew. They married later, but that's a long way off in this story.

The whole group met in a room that was set up rather like a school room - a table, two chairs and a blackboard at the front of the room. A few rows of chairs set up facing the front. In the two seats at the front sat two men. One was older, the other relatively young - though at only 21 myself, everyone else seemed old!

As it turned out later, there were only two of us new-hires who did not have relatives who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In point of fact, it was Connie and me. BUT - we both had referrals from people in the Southern Pacific. It used to be a tight little family back in those days.

The two guys up front were the trainers. The older was a near-retirement railroad employee, the other a hotshot young railroad employee. Both had been "loaned" to Amtrak in its early days, and I'm sure both went back to their respective railroads, laughing at the miserable little company they were leaving behind.

It seemed to be common knowledge that Amtrak was created to fail. After all, we were underfunded, drastically underfunded. Before Amtrak was allowed to purchase equipment, the railroads were allowed to sell off whatever they wanted. The good equipment went to Canada or Mexico. Amtrak ended up buying cars off scrap lines.

But, back to the beginning. The two trainers took turns giving us a pep talk on Amtrak and rail travel in general. We were to stress "City center to city center" whenever possible, meaning people didn't have to drive out of town to get on an airplane. This worked well for the Northeast Corridor, where rail already had a foothold, but came off sounding a bit silly when talking about a 48+ hour trip from San Francisco to Chicago.

We were supposed to come out of the week of training ready to answer phones for the soon-to-open Amtrak San Francisco Reservation Bureau. Up to the point of our starting late in December, reservations were being handled by the old Southern Pacific reservation bureau. Since Southern Pacific was anxious to get completely out of the passenger business, they were very willing to part with the age-old equipment and procedures, and even throw in a bunch of the employees. Apparently some of the employees chose to avoid the year or so "special duty" with Amtrak, which is why I was being hired, along with the others, to fill in the gaps.

One question the trainers - I remember white shoes, white belts, and large amounts of polyester at the front of the room - asked was who could read timetables. I had learned about age 5, my mom having taught me during one of our many trips on the real California Zephyr...more about that later!

So, I knew how to read them, Connie could read them, and Liz Liebfort - 10 1/2 year veteran Zephyrette - claimed she could read them. No one else, though. AND, once out of class, that didn't change. Few actually learned to use the numerous tariffs, either.

In the early days, Amtrak fares were constructed, using the tariffs of the member railroads. So to figure out a fare from San Francisco to Chicago, one used three tariffs. One was San Francisco/Oakland to Odgen UT on the Southern Pacific. Then Ogden to Omaha on the Union Pacific, and finally Omaha to Chicago on the Burlington Northern. It could be very tricky. We all sighed with relief when Amtrak came out with its consolidated national tariff! That made it much easier on everyone, so of course later we had to bring in Yield Management to confuse everyone again...another story.

After our week of "training," we were told to report Monday morning to the new Amtrak Reservation Bureau on the second floor of the Ferry Building. We had a wonderful view of the Embarcadero Freeway right outside our window. As we entered our new workplace, we were greeted by blank stares from the SP res agents, who were sitting around a bizarre multi-sided table with a big cylindrical section on top that had several big round pigeonhole files, one over the over. These round files turned independently, and the whole thing was called The Wheel. There were little cardboard booklets visible in each slot, each booklet representing a specific train on a specific day. When someone called to make a reservation, we pulled the booklet and used a pencil to put their name and origin/destination in little spaces representing seats or sleeper space. Each car in the consist had a separate page, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The people, and The Wheel, made an impression on me. I really wondered why I had decided to work at Amtrak! This seemed like the 19th Century. Each position had a phone, too - a 20+ line Call Director. I had been quite a phone connoisseur prior to working at Amtrak (I still collect oddball phones), so I recognized the phones. In fact, it turned out I knew more about them than the local phone company guy, but again - another story or two! The problem with phones was that with all those blinking lights, just try to remember which one was your call - click, Mrs. Jones? I'm sorry, your agent will be with you shortly. Click, Mrs. Jones? I'm sorry, your agent will be with you shortly...

After cursory introduction, we were told to sit down and get to work. I remember all of us newbies looking at each other when the phone rang. The old-timers (SP folks) looked at us. Finally we started picking up phones, most of the newbies terrified. I seemed, for some reason, to take it in stride. I guess I've always been a fast learner. So by the end of the day, while taking my own calls, I was listening to the other newbies and trying to help them give out correct information. I ended up as a sort of trainer for the newly-trained, something I continue to this day!

That was how it started. I have LOTS of stories about the interesting personalities in what we always called the Res Bureau, and will share them in later posts.