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Amtrak may thrive on business travelers and commuters in the Northeast corridor, but many vacationers have a soft spot for Amtrak’s long-distance routes. They may not have the same reputation as their counterparts in Japan, for instance, but the nostalgic appeal is strong: sleeping in a private cabin, eating pancakes while mountains and deserts roll by, and most of all, getting to know the other people on the train.
Sleeper car attendants like Mary Malone keep that nostalgia alive. Born and raised in Chicago, Malone learned that Amtrak was hiring from a visitor to her church — Malone has been with Amtrak almost nine years now, a sleeper car attendant for the entirety. She’s currently working the Empire Builder — running from Chicago to Seattle and alternately Portland, Oregon — but she’s worked all the long-distance routes.
Trains were once the only way for many people to cross the United States, before the democratization of airfares and low-cost carriers, before every household had its own car. Now, long-distance train travel is a small portion of Amtrak’s business — 15 percent of ridership occurs on routes 750 miles or longer — but its audience is devoted. Amtrak employs over 200 sleeper car attendants nationwide, and that number has held steady over the last couple of years, according to an Amtrak spokesperson. Ever since day one of Amtrak’s operations on May 1, 1971, sleeper cars were in service.
During a run, Malone is potentially responsible for 40 to 50 passengers in her sleeper car, and she’s on-call 24/7. Her recurring duties include giving instructive tours of the quarters, turndown service, keeping the restrooms safe and clean, preparing coffee, and assisting first-timers. It’s not so intuitive how seats transform into beds, how the shower functions, how dining car reservations work, or even the differences in views between single-level and double-decker trains.
Malone reported serving many repeat riders, both business and leisure, though overall for Amtrak, only 9 percent of long-distance riders are business travelers. Of long-distance riders, 16 percent are springing for sleeper-class tickets. Sleeper tickets are often hundreds of dollars more expensive than a flight, suggesting that those purchasers may be especially committed to train travel.
The way Malone approaches hospitality is informed by her upbringing, she said, including her work ethic. “It started at home first,” Malone said, before she accumulated professional customer service experience. However, angry passengers make the job challenging, particularly because quarters are close on a train. Her advice to first-timers is to “be patient, and be a little understanding of the job.”
Given how much she values hospitality, Malone has a surprisingly rosy view of air travel. When asked about the obvious advantages of Amtrak over flying — the lack of inhumane bodily searches, the lenient baggage allowances, the ability to walk around and stretch your legs — she said, “I can remember all of my flights. I don’t think I’ve had a bad one.” She talks to everyone in her row, the same way many rail enthusiasts casually approach fellow train riders.
When asked about her favorite route, Malone surprised again by choosing the Lake Shore Limited, which runs from Chicago to New York City and alternately Boston — a route along Lake Erie best traveled during the sunnier months. Her second favorite is the far more famous and dramatically scenic California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco and passes through remote stretches of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada — and yet that eastern route is special to her, because of the people.
One couple found her on the California Zephyr in 2018 after meeting her on another train back in 2010. “The husband said ‘I remembered your earrings. You took good care of us then and you’re taking very good care of us now.’” said Malone, adding that he went through the car telling everyone what an outstanding attendant she was. “That really touched my heart,” she said. Another repeat passenger recognized her purely by her voice. Her all-time favorite passengers were three married couples traveling together in 2018 — the husbands were all brothers.
For Malone, the most memorable situations are like two-way hospitality, meeting “someone who can make your trip even better than you’re making their trip,” she said.