Friday, December 26, 2008

Amtrak: Customer service at ANY cost?!!

When I think of riding a train, I have a very clear picture in my mind of what I would imagine it to be like. I see people waiting for the train in great excited anticipating....



I see people boarding the train, and sitting comfortably on seats that face each other, while enjoying conversation and the scenery...




I picture people going from Point A to Point B in a cheap and timely manner while having loads of fun and creating lasting memories...



In fact, it seems like my expectations for a train ride aren't too far off. Amtrak has a motto that says, "Customer service at any cost..." which, in my opinion, includes all of the things listed above.

HOWEVER (and it is a BIG however) this last Monday I experienced the complete opposite of traveling on the train with customer service being the top priority....or even a priority at all!

I decided to buy an Amtrak ticket to head east to visit my family in Michigan for the holidays. Plane tickets were far too expensive, and driving is way too much of a drag (especially alone in the winter) so I figured the train would be a decent way to travel. I mean, I could essentially sit all day, take a nap, read a book, watch the scenery...just relax! Sounds perfect, right?

I started off the trip home on Monday morning, arriving at the train station in St. Paul at 7:00 am. Right before getting out of the car I told Laurie (my wonderful roommate who was so willing to get up early to take me!) that I was a little bit nervous because I had never made this kind of trip before. I mean, I have been on a train, but never such a long distance and I just wasn't sure how it all worked--where do I put my luggage? Do I have to switch trains in Chicago? Am I going to have an assigned seat or do I have to fight for a good one? Do they have security to go through? Anyway, I was not sure what to expect, but I said goodbye to Laurie and off into the station I went. I stopped to check in, got my tickets with only a quick glance at my ID, and then was off to find a seat to sit in while I waited to board. The train station was FRIGID! If there was any heat, it was very minimal.

Luckily I didn't have to wait too long in the station before they were ready to board us. I was one of the first in line, so I was able to lug my suitcase up the train steps, and get first choice for a seat. The bad part is that while I got first choice, that also meant that I couldn't really pick who sat next to, or around me. Directly in front of me sat a family with 3 small children and cranky parents. And directly to my right was a happy middle aged man who really enjoyed chatting. Thank goodness he was not creepy and was kind enough to share lots of food with me throughout the day!

We got going with only a short delay...not bad, right? Well after we had been going for about 5 minutes the conductor alarmed us that after one of our first stops we would be stopping for about an hour to wait for a new conductor to board. Ok...an hour wait. Not awesome, but manageable. After that hour wait, we got going again, and then had to stop a short way down the tracks....apparently there was a frozen switch on the tracks that needed to be chiseled out by hand. Ok, so that backed us up another 30 minutes. And then again we had to stop when there were some welders working on the tracks in Wisconsin. So, by this time, as I'm chatting with my seat mate, I was beginning to realize that we were running a good 2 or so hours late. Originally, my itinerary included a 2 or 2 1/2 hour lay over in Chicago...and that lay over time frame was quickly diminishing. My new friend began to search on his Blackberry for connecting trains in Chicago to see if he, and myself, would be able to make our appropriate connections or a later one.

It turns out I got into Chicago at about 6:02 and my connecting train was supposed to leave at 6:00 sharp. I quickly grabbed my luggage and started running to Union Station so I could figure out where to catch my connecting train. The problem is that the entire station was PACKED...and I mean packed! I could not believe how many people there were and how crowded it was. I could barely drag my suitcase behind me without getting caught on other suitcases, bags, or people. I finally got to where I THOUGHT I needed to be when I heard on the loud speaker that "People waiting for train 354 service to Detroit" needed to head to the Great Hall to wait because all of the trains leaving Chicago were going to be delayed. The reason why there were so many people was because all of the trains were delayed due to weather...which means I ran around the station for nothing. Whew. At least I hadn't missed my connection!

I made my way to the Great Hall (which is beautiful, by the way) and saw benches just lined with people. Lots of people....hundreds of people....too many people to even explain! I found a little opening at the end of one of the benches, made me way over, and asked if I could squeeze in. The woman sitting there was obviously worn out, tired, and exhausted from her travels...I could tell in her voice tone and in her appearance. I sat down and took off my coat since I was so warm from running around. I noticed that the woman to my right was all bundled....within only a few minutes, I re-bundled myself as I was feeling pretty chilly. First went on the scarf...then the coat....then the mittens. As time went on I continued to grow more and more cold. I finally realized that there was NO heat in the station. NONE. ZERO. ZIP!

To make a really long story shortER, I had a ridiculously long wait there at Union Station. There were some major weather issues because it was SO cold that all of the trains were freezing, as well as the tracks. The biggest problem, however, was that the Amtrak people kept telling us that they would update us with the status of the trains and neglected to do that. The stories kept changing. The conditions in the station continued to worsen. It was horrible. We could see our breath in the air because of the frigid temperatures. The lights in the station went out around 8 pm, and there were no legit updates for us. I began waiting at about 6:30....soon it was 7:30....and then 8:30....and the hours kept passing....and the temperatures kept dropping. I didn't get any food for fear of missing an announcement for the departing train. Luckily I was able to use the restroom because the nice lady next to me offered to watch my bags while I went if I watched her bags while she went. More time waiting and no loading of the train. The manager of the station came out first to tell us that the train's fuel was frozen....then she came and said the train was fine but that there was no one to clean the train, so we couldn't go on...then she came to say that there was no conductor. No GOOD story, in my opinion. Finally around 12:00 they started taking certain trains of people on their way via Buses...and one train finally got off....but mine....mine train load of people was still sitting in the extreme temps with snot running out of our cold noses.

At about 3:00 am (after arriving in Chicago at 6:00 pm...9 hours before) they finally called Train 354 to Detroit to load. I grabbed my bags and booked it to the line. We loaded...and were on our way around 3:30. I fell asleep quickly but that only lasted a few minutes. Again, we had to stop for something (which I don't remember any more)....and then on our way. It seems like I should have been used to the stop and go, but clearly I was not. We mad a stop in Jackson, Michigan which was ONE stop away from my stop in Ann Arbor. This was at about 8:30 am. We stopped, let the people off, and then started going. We literally were moving for about 45 seconds before we stopped. The conductor came on and said we had to let another train pass us and then we could go. So we waited....the train passed, but we did not go. Again, we heard an annoucement saying that we had to wait for a bit. In the mean time, I got a hold of my mom who was tracking the status of the trip and she found out that we were not going to wait a short time, but for close to 2 hours because we had to wait for a new conductor. I guess the current conductor had "timed out" which simply means he had used up all his hours of service and was not able to drive any more. The worst part about this is that we were literally 10 minutes away from my stop....TEN minutes! So we had to sit there for another 2 hours to wait for a new conductor to get on the train. Heck, I would have walked to the stop, just to be done with the trip, but obviously we were not allowed off the train. So by around 11:30 am we had finally made it to the station in Ann Arbor. Whew!! I got my bags, met my mom and was in the car and arrived at my parents house about an hour later.

I know this story was ridiculously long, but that is how my day of travel, via Amtrak, felt....RIDICULOUSLY long. I think the worst part about the entire thing was how horribly we were treated. The people in Chicago, working for Amtrak, refused to accommodate us...they verbally said, "We will not give you food...or water....we won't turn the lights one...and we won't bring in space heaters to warm up the room...we won't refund your ticket, we won't tell you any information..." The list goes on.

So once I got home, I realized that the pretty little picture of a train ride that I had created in my head was far from what I actually experienced on this trip home. I hope that the horrible service is not the norm for Amtrak service, but I can't say that I will think about booking a train ride (other than the one back to Minneapolis) any time in the near future.

Customer service at any cost?! Yeah RIGHT!

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