Monday, June 26, 2006



Is Amtrak Ruining Train Travel? For me, yes.

Until this weekend, I’ve always loved train travel. For years, I’ve nearly always taken trains when traveling anywhere not by car between Washington, DC and Boston. I’ve taken sleeper cars three times, including the 19-hour Chicago to New Orleans journey on the historic "City of New Orleans."

I'm the kind of person who likes the journey almost as much as the destination. I find transportation a fascinating process in itself, and I like it for the way it can build delicious anticipation of getting there. I love thumbing my nose at air travel, with its constant lining up and its surly or facetious TSA workers ordering you to take your shoes off. I love the rocking motion of trains. It relaxes me, helps put me to sleep, and ... well, let’s just say it adds to the romance of holing up in a small compartment with your sweetie.

So B and I were excited about booking a round trip sleeper on the Lakeshore Limited, from Chicago to Albany, New York. From there, we would be driving to Saratoga Springs, where I’m attending a conference. Sure, there would be a price compared to flying – 15 hours instead of 5 hours travel time and about 30% more in price. And since no car rental agency operates near a train station on weekends, we’d have to take a $30 cab ride to the Albany airport to pick up our rental car. But we thought the fun of train travel would be worth it.

It almost was. I could have lived with the two hour departure delay, and the additional two hour loss of time en route. Four hour delays aren't that uncommon in air travel. Nor was I particularly bothered by the fact that the promised free Wi-Fi in the First Class departure lounge simply did not work.

I was understanding about the slight seediness of the interiors of the train cars: It’s overly challenging for Amtrak, which doesn’t get nearly the levels of subsidy poured into air transportation, to keep its equipment sparkling and new.

I was more than willing to overlook the down side of the dining car experience – the food which tasted like reheated fare from yesterday at Denny’s and took unreasonably long to serve – since we had interesting conversations with the people we met at meals. (They seat you with strangers to fill up the 4-person booths).

I was not even particularly put out by the hassle of chasing down our sleeping car attendant to make up our beds so that we could lie down after we returned from two hours in the dining car at midnight, or chasing her down again next morning at 9:30 to convert the beds back to seats so we could sit up after returning from 90 minutes in the dining car at breakfast.

I’m not generally a whiner or the kind of person who demands being treated like an aristocrat. But I have to say, I was put out by what happened at the end of the trip.

We were on target to be well over four hours late into Albany – basically, killing half a day of touring around Saratoga Springs – and realized that we would save an hour if we were to get off the train one stop before Albany, in Schenectady. We could make our way to the Albany airport (for the car rental) from there. However, since we had luggage checked through to Albany, we asked our trusty sleeping car attendant if there was a way we could get our bags unloaded in Schenectady. She said she would check with the conductor, and returned shortly, saying this would be “no problem” – once the train stopped in Schenectady, we would just have to go down the platform to the baggage car to make sure the baggage attendant took off our luggage during the very brief stop there.

At the Schenectady station, the sleeping car attendant changed her mind about directions, pointed us up the platform to the front of the train, and changed her mind again, redirecting us to the back. B and I went off in two different directions. I went to the back of the train, where the conductor was closing the door about to signal the departure. I tried to explain about our luggage, but he kept cutting me off, insisting that I should pick up my bags inside the train station. But I could tell he thought I was scheduled to de-train in Schenectady and that he was unaware that my luggage was checked through to Albany. I kept saying, "no let me explain," in a rising tone of voice. By the time B joined me – upset at having been told by a conductor at the front of the train that “you’ll just have to pick up your bags in the Albany train station” – my conductor was screaming at me that the train was four hours late and he was “tired of taking shit from people.” He finally demanded my tickets, looked at them, got the point, and radioed our baggage claim numbers to the baggage car, telling us to go up front. When B asked if he would promise not to let the train leave until we got our bags – the train was very long and the slightly curved track made it impossible to see one end of the train from the other – he cursed at us and slammed the door.

We did finally get our luggage – though not before the baggage compartment guy berated us for not giving him advance notice that we needed off at Schenectady.

How bad was this, really? Bad food, rudeness, a four hour delay – this is nothing you can’t get over in an hour or two, after a good meal or a nice, stiff drink.

And yet, reflecting back on the whole trip, I realized that pretty much the entire crew of Amtrak passenger-service employees associated with this particular train had had a collective melt-down. If the train had derailed in some unpopulated area, with passengers seriously injured and the food supply running low while everyone awaited rescue, it would certainly be reasonable for the Amtrak personnel to get snappish with passengers whining about food service or luggage. But this was just a garden variety delay. And from the beginning, the Amtrak workers were treating us like we were the haughty aristocratic patron in the disaster movie who demands gold-plated service even while the Titanic is sinking.

This attitude -- which is, at bottom, a form of contempt -- started, subtly, during the two-hour delay in the departure lounge back in Chicago. It’s understandable that the Amtrak staff couldn’t tell us when the train would leave – it was one of those “please stand by” delays that drags on indefinitely – but they were unable or unwilling to tell us whether there would be food service on the train, as we had been counting on, or whether we’d have time to go forage for food in the train station without missing the train’s departure. And they seemed annoyed we even bothered them by asking.

Once the train was in motion, the personnel exuded a pervasive irritability – as though we passengers had dropped in like a bevy of unwanted guests. When we asked our sleeping car attendant to fold our beds down at midnight, she said, “Everyone wants everything at once!”

But all that was nothing to the feeling of having to plead for our luggage.

Last Thursday, I was a confirmed train lover, with future ideas about booking cross-country sleepers. Today, B and I are looking for a refund of our return train trip, and a one-way airfare. If this is in any way typical of Amtrak’s performance, they have a major employee morale problem that is also a major customer service problem. More expensive and slower than air travel may be a built-in feature of trains ... but more degrading than air travel?

I realize that all of this pales in comparison to the experience of being a refugee. Hey, maybe that should be Amtrak’s new advertizing slogan!

Given your recent experiences, I am surprised you didn't consider taking the Canadian route -- on Canadian trains from Chicago up to Ontario, across to Toronto and then down past the falls toward NY. Might have been a safer bet, plus you'd pay with the discounted Canadian currency and get a chance to add to the already growing list of reasons why we Americans keep talking about moving to Canada.


kdfwm - khaddafi's woman
Oh, you're breaking my heart. My kid's been begging to take a train from Boston to Chicago someday.

Amtrak used to staff Boston's commuter rails, and the morale issue was pervasive.
Oscar said ..
<< I was understanding about the slight seediness of the interiors of the train cars: It’s overly challenging for Amtrak, which doesn’t get nearly the levels of subsidy poured into air transportation, to keep its equipment sparkling and new.>>

Huh? Amtrak loses money every single year, and is heavily subsidized. Despite this, the service is bad, the fares are higher than air, and the trains are frequently (as you noted) rundown.

How exactly is air transportation more subsidized than Amtrak?
I think the trip was doomed to fail based on the fact that the destination was in upstate New York. Bad things happen there, man. I lost my youth, my love, and my seemingly indefatigable optimism in that wretched wasteland.

Appropriately, all of upstate New York became obsolete with the invention of the TRAIN. Prior to that, upstate NY was booming due to the Erie Canal. Now it's among the most ignorant and depressed areas of the country.

Go West, young man. Go West.
Oscar! Look what popped up in Tuesday's Washington Post! Seems like you might want to forward your blog:

Question of the Week: How about those thunderstorms this week? Remember, airlines aren't required to provide any type of compensation for delays or cancelled flights due to bad weather. They just have to get you on the next available flight. So, if your flight, or even train trip, was disrupted by the storms, how did your airline or Amtrak respond? How was the customer service? Let us know: Send your comments to . Please include your name and a daytime telephone number.


yusmgls -- "youse muggles!" (referring to non-magical people from Brooklyn)

(and for youse guys who don't read harry potter books, too bad. this won't make any sense at all!)
Well, I was recently identified as an SOB for the return trip from Albany, and they still treated me well in reserved coach. Maybe that's the way to go? (I know it's a somewhat different world when one has the option of controlling the noise level, though.)

I'm especially reluctant to spring for sleeper accommodations after reading this, as I know you set reasonable expectations! Sorry it put a damper on your zest for rail travel.

By the way, I never did visit the dining car--but I was not impressed by the smell accompanying others' return from it.

nosmlmw - No small mow
As you know, I just spent about two months riding the rails in Europe. I criss-crossed the continent many times over and took everything from ten TGVs to seemingly dozens of local commuters. Impeccable service, no matter which country. Clean cars, 99% ontime performance.
My feeling is, so long as gas prices stay at this level or go down, people here will basically travel by car or plane and the trains will rot into oblivion. Amtrak's decline started many decades ago. The railbeds are as poorly maintained as the cars, giving you a real rock and roll for your buck.
And so its fall continues. Your report does not surprise me. Taking Amtrak on long distance runs is a waste of money. I don't care if one in a thousand will have a good experience. The vast majority will not. Sort of like betting on a horse with a limp.
I've always loved trains, which is one of the reasons going to Avignon while I was in France is considered the best part of my trip. Getting to ride the TGV was amazing.

DS and I look into Amtrak prices all the time, determined to take it anywhere at all. Unfortunately, we're too poor to indulge our tastes in that way right now. I hope it's better by the time we're not starving students anymore.
This sounded whiny to me.
You wanted to hold the whole train, which was already running late, because you and B had a mid-travel change in plans?
Sorry, inconvenience yourself by getting the bags elsewhere.

If the train was efficiently done unloading by the time you got there, and too bad you got poor directions at the last minute, put yourself out; don't hold the train. What if EVERYONE on board changed their mind at the last minute and thought it was worth holding other people up for "just a few minutes" until they dig out your bag.
Welcome to the real world. These people are overworked and underpaid. At least you weren't in a nursing home or daycare expecting individual service.
I'm inclined to award a split decision. It's wrong for the Amtrak staff to be so surly, even with the Bushies trying to get rid of them. But hey, you got your bags. Had you hopped off an airline itinerary at the hub, or even been rerouted to an alternative airport to avoid a delay, your bags would have gone to their original destination and in the former case your return reservation may well have been canceled.

Anyway, the long distance trains are in a hopeless position. In the NE Corridor, Amtrak is by far the most pleasant mode of travel, slightly seedy rolling stock -- the Acela Express being a bit rich for my leisure travel blood -- or not.

Bush should have let Tommy Thompson play with trains, but then he'd have to have been something other than he is.
dear anonymous --

may you never be on the receiving end of a computer error or bureaucratic misdirection that results in you missing out on the window for signing up for health insurance to cover your nursing home bills. naturally, being the reasonable person that you are, you would never think to ask for individualized attention to correct for the underlying error. you would just smile and move to a 4th rate facility that is affordable without your insurance. i do admire your forebearance.


qarkmhld - "quark mold" -- the plastic ear lobe mold used for the ferengi bartender "quark" of star trek: deep space nine.
dear ms.warren:

surely you are not comparing their minor annoyance at having to possibly wait for their bags -- to a major crisis that necessitates extra-ordinary attention from the staff, who have other responsibilities to keep the train on schedule?

Next thing you know, with all the injustice in the world, you'll be egging him on to write a post about the absurd late fees businesses charge when you are just an itty-bitty bit late with the payment this month.

Bah. Whiny liberals. And they can't figure out why things don't work properly when all they want is this one, extra-special favor, just this time, for them because they're more special you know. Let the plebes wait for their bags, and pay their bills on time. And work a little harder servicing me, dammit!!

1) Please read my anonymous comment policy. It's in the sidebar.

2) Please read my posts more carefully before making judgmental comments about them. They told us they could offload our bags at the earlier stop. So we got off the train. Then when we got off the train they told us, "F-- you,liberal whiners!" I don't ask for special treatment, just fair treatment. And by the way, it took them about 5 seconds to retrieve our bags once we got to the right car and gave the guy our baggage numbers.

3) I'm a liberal, and I whine about stuff, but the idea that liberals are more likely to whine about how they're treated as consumers is just inane.

4) The phrase "liberal whiner" is what conservatives say when they want to whine about the annoying existence of people who disagree with them. You obviously whine about stuff. You whined about my blog post, right here.
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