American Railroads

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

‘Horror stories’
take Amtrak to task

Not everyone is happy with Amtrak, the nation’s long-distance rail passenger carrier. For example, Consumer Affairs (http://www.consumeraffairs.com/travel/amtrak.html) magazine of Los Angeles gets frequent complaints about various things, including Amtrak (http://amtrak.com).
“To put it mildly, train travel in the U.S. is off the rails. Amtrak lives from moment to moment, totally dependent on the Congressional whim of the moment. The equipment is rundown, the tracks are a mess and the train crews are, all too often, ill-trained, rude and even downright abusive,” the publication stated in its August 15 edition.
Some recent complaints they received include one from a fellow named Kenneth of Astoria Ore., on August 9. They don’t publish last names.
“I have taken Amtrak from Oregon to Wisconsin on three occasions,” he wrote. “The first two experiences were fine (but 10 years or so ago). I was able to convince my wife to take Amtrak this summer, but was not sure that she would like it like it.”
He didn’t state which trains they were on, but most likely they were riding Nos. 7 and 8, the Empire Builder.
He explained, “She is a light sleeper and we were traveling coach class. The trip from Oregon to Wisconsin was fine (an hour or so late but not bad). Our bad experience came on the return trip to Oregon. We were told that we would have to leave the train at 1:30 a.m. in Spokane to board a bus to Portland.”
He wrote, “The explanation given was that passengers bound for Chicago needed our coach and that it was cheaper to bus us to Portland than to bus the Chicago-bound passengers.”
He added, “When asked how a simple mathematical exercise of comparing seats available to passengers had gone wrong, no explanation was given. I couldn’t understand how tickets could be sold if there were no seats available. The conductor seemed to be somewhat sympathetic but was put in a no-win situation.
“My wife was quite upset with her sleep being interrupted so that Amtrak could sell more tickets than there were seats available. I was apprehensive about the ability of Amtrak to provide a bus, given their bungling of ticket sales. We are not difficult people, so we did as Amtrak asked.”
He said he and his wife “missed a night’s sleep due to Amtrak incompetence. The seats in the bus were small and uncomfortable and not what we paid for. I am doubtful that I (a person who is train lover) will be able to convince my wife to travel by Amtrak again as a result of this experience. We were not offered a free train ticket or a fare rebate as a result of this Amtrak error as is common in the airline industry.”
There were several lengthy examples in the magazine.
Gina of Queen Creek Ariz. noted on June 15 that she and her family boarded the Coast Starlight (train Nos. 11 and 14) in Los Angeles, a premier Amtrak train.
“I had once taken the same route in 2000 and it had been an enjoyable experience. This last time around was horrible and I will not ride Amtrak for many reasons.”
She explained why not.
“When we boarded our train, we were shown our private family sleeping room. No air conditioning, the curtains were tattered, the carpet was stained, ripped, and dirty, and the blankets were filthy. We complained and were assigned another room. The air conditioner worked, but this cabin was filthy too. I had to remove the blankets as they had other people’s hair enmeshed in them along with what looked like grass.”
She continued her horror story.
“Amtrak advertises a ‘Kiddie Car’ that was non-existent on this trip, so our preschooler had to make do without a place to play for two days. We were supposed to have first class accommodations and we paid $750 for that privilege. What we received was anything but. Paper plates, paper tablecloths, and waiters getting into a shouting and then shoving match are not what constitute first-class travel. The food was disgusting. [It was] over-microwaved, wilted lettuce, overripe tomatoes and fruit, stale bread – all were horrible.
“Sanitation was deplorable. The toilets kept backing up and the water in the sinks wasn’t draining and the lavatories smelled foul. Human excrement was smeared onto toilet seat lids and never cleaned off.”
She said they were due to arrive in Seattle at 8:30 p.m., but by 10:30 p.m. “We had only reached Portland, and we decided to detrain, rent a car, and drive the rest of the way. The train had run out of food, people were getting agitated, Amtrak employees were hostile, and sanitation was non-existent. I believe the train finally arrived in Seattle at 3:00 a.m., about seven hours behind schedule.”
Her tale continued.
“On June 20, we departed Seattle back to Los Angeles. After we were seated in our first-class, deluxe accommodations, costing us another $750, I asked if the private, first-class lounge car, the Pacific Parlour car, was open yet. I was offhandly informed that the Pacific Parlour car was not available, no explanation given. The attendant actually had to nerve to be angry with me for asking about the whereabouts of the first class lounge car. We settled in and decided to make the best of it. At least the room was reasonably clean. Again, horrible food, poor service, hostile employees.”
This time the Coast Starlight did have its Kiddie Car in tow, she said.
“I took my preschooler down there to play. On the way down, I tripped and nearly fell down the stairs due to a piece of rubber stripping that had come loose.
“Once inside the Kiddie Car, I noticed the latch on the storage closet was broken when the door swung open as the train lurched along, striking several small children. I found a magic marker and used that to keep the latch shut. The toys were old and broken and dirty. The room smelled like urine. On the wall were decorations left over from St. Patrick’s Day - and mind you, this was now June.”
Her journey continued.
“That evening I tried to bathe the children in our private shower. Barely a trickle of lukewarm water came out, and our attendant was so hostile I was afraid to complain to him. So I bathed the children as best as I could and put them to bed. “Then I took my shower. I thought I had secured the latch, but as we went over yet another section of rough rail, I was thrown out of the shower and smashed against the window. My husband checked the lock and found it to be broken. Again, the train was delayed.
She repeated that the attendant was not helpful.
“Because of the delay, the attendant did not want to fold the beds back up for day use because, according to him, ‘I just have to make them up again for no reason and I don’t want to hurt my back for nothing.’
“We had no first class car to lounge in and I was not about to let my preschooler play in that unsafe, filthy Kiddie Car. I firmly insisted that the beds be put back up for day use and he stared daggers at me, and then finally agreed to do so. My children were terrified of him, asking me why this man was so mean.
“Again, toilets started backing up, food supply ran low, and tempers were short.”
The Starlight was running very late by then.
“We were supposed to arrive in Los Angeles by 9:00 p.m., but it was obvious we wouldn’t arrive until the early hours of the morning. Giving me a dirty look, the attendant converted the room to sleep accommodations, and I again bathed the children under that pathetic trickle of water, and put them to bed in their regular day clothes. I then packed everything up and went to bed myself.
“I am glad I dressed the children in their day clothes and packed because when we finally got into Los Angeles at 4:00 a.m., seven hours late, the train had no power – no electricity, no lights, no running water, no toilets, no ventilation. The only light we had to see by were the small emergency lights in the hallway. It was dangerous trying to detrain in the dark while managing my own bags, as the attendant would not help me, but my children and I did get off the train safely.”
She added the sentence, “We will never again ride Amtrak,” then she analyzed her trip.
“That train fails in so many different ways. Amtrak cannot keep on schedule, they cannot provide proper sanitation, they do not properly stock their food supplies, let alone prepare food properly, they do not ensure a safe environment for passengers, and their staff are rude and hostile. It has taken a month for my anger to finally abate at the horrible and unsafe trip we had with Amtrak. I now plan to write my Senator, my Representative, and to you about how dilapidated and unsafe Amtrak is. It ought to be shut down. It is a disgrace that America does not have a sophisticated interstate rail system, and Amtrak only adds salt to the wound.”
Other writers continued their diatribe against the passenger railroad. One man wrote, “Amtrak’s West Coast operations are a disgrace.”
Eastern trains are also faulted.
Shannon of Franklin Mass. wrote that she took an Acela Express from Penn Station, New York to the Route 128 station in Dedham, Mass., near Boston, on April 23.
“This is a reserved seating train,” she wrote, and added, “I took the train with my two children, ages 5 and 7. The train was oversold. Staff was totally rude and unhelpful in getting us seating. They could not comprehend why I found it so necessary to be seated in the same cabin as my children. They also tried to dissuade me from sitting in the quiet car because I had children (even though they had oversold). It took us 45 minutes to get seats. We had to wait for passengers to disembark to get seats. We went 45 minutes on a 3.5-hour train trip in which we had reserved seats. We did not get what I had paid for.”
Not everyone, though, completely finds fault with Amtrak. For instance, Deb of Joppa, Md. wrote that she traveled on March 21 to South Carolina, “and that was a great trip. Great food etc., and even the coach seating was comfortable and nice.
“However, my return trip was a night from hell. I was set to depart on March 24 at 11:02 p.m., and did not depart until 2:00 a.m. When I got on the train I was taken to my room, a deluxe sleeper, and the bed was pulled out.
“I was told I would have the bed pulled out with ample walking room. I was told there would be a TV and radio access. I was also told food would be delivered to my room anytime I wanted it and that the lounge for VIP first class was open 24/7 for me. My suitcases were going to be put in my room.
“They were not.”
She asked, “How do you expect me to use a shower and toilet with no accessories? I was also told that the VIP lounge food was included in my trip, but I was charged $8.00 for a drink and sandwich.
She added that breakfast was also “horrible with cold eggs, bacon and hash browns.
“Blood cold,” as she put it.
“The only thing good was the coffee, but no refills at all.”
She asked, “Is this how you treat first-class passengers who pay $400 to $500 for a room?”
The sleeper had other problems as well.
“When I finally set off to go to sleep at 4:00 a.m. in my ‘deluxe sleeper,’ I reached down to get my bag, with my books in it, and it was soaking wet. I reached to get my coat and other garments, and they were soaked as well. I felt the entire floor and it was soaking wet and stunk of mildew.”
“I pushed the call button for the attendant about three times in 45 minutes, but he never came to my door. I finally went to find him, and banged on his door. He came to my room, and said they didn’t know why it was leaking but they would try to get me another room. There were no more sleeper rooms so he downgraded me to another size.
“This room was much, much better, however none of the reading lights worked, the radio earphone hook up did not work, room service was again not available in the morning for anyone, and we were told no food in our rooms.”
She couldn’t hear the conductor making station calls, either.
The loudspeaker to announce arrivals was horrible, she wrote, “and no one would come by and make sure people knew we were stopping.”
Now comes the question: Do Amtrak on-board employees care?
Amtrak officials will tell anyone who will listen late trains are not always Amtrak’s fault. They cite CSX and Union Pacific as being the worst offenders. Both roads frequently put passenger trains into sidings so they can move their freight trains. They forget, though, that there are people aboard those trains.
An ex-employee, Michael of Hagerstown Md., wrote to the magazine.
“I was employed by Amtrak for four years in the early 1990s when I got out of the Navy in the onboard service department. I worked mostly the overnight trains out of D.C., and I have to say that I can relate to all of the complaints. The majority of employees couldn’t have cared less about the passengers or providing decent service. The union was so strong you could get away with anything and not worry about losing your job. I still have a folder full of letters I received from passengers thanking me for the service I provided.”
He said he quit after several months “after I was made an acting onboard supervisor. I was promoted after 3-1/2 years because of the service I provided, and my fellow senior employees hated me because of this. I finally got tired of the politics and the union and quit. Amtrak will never succeed until they are able to break the union and fire the bad apples.”
A current employee, who read the article and wrote on “All_Aboard,” an online e-mail discussion group about passenger trains, had a low regard for Michael’s letter.
Brian, who is a conductor, wrote, “This guy is a total ‘BS’ artist, and if I remember him correctly, he was a few ‘French fries short of a happy meal’ to begin with. If it’s the guy I’m thinking of, I worked with him on the Montrealer several times. He was a nice guy, but he was no prized employee by any stretch of the imagination. He was nice and polite to the passengers – but he couldn’t break a line in the lounge car to save his life. I also remember that he tried transferring over into the operating department as an assistant conductor, but the carrier wouldn’t permit him to transfer for some reason. This sounds like a case of sour grapes to me.
“The majority of the employees do care about the passengers. Unfortunately, in many cases, we are no longer provided the tools and or resources to get the job done. You have two choices nowadays” – apologize or ignore the problem.”
He provided an example.
“A first-class Acela LSA [lead service attendant] had a passenger on board who, for dietary reasons, could not eat the items available on the first-class menu. He went ahead and provided the passenger with some suggestions from the café menu. The passenger chose several items and a transfer was made – according to On-Board Services Manual procedures – from the LSA café’s stock to first class, and the passenger was pleased and thankful.
“A few days later, the LSA in the café received a debit for the items because the transfer was not “authorized,” even though both LSAs followed specific procedures.
“Go figure that one out.”
He added, “The passenger railroad does not have a monopoly on dissatisfied and complaining passengers or malcontent, arrogant, useless employees either. Just watch that airline reality TV show on the Arts & Entertainment channel (A&E) and you’ll see a never-ending parade of angry American travelers.
Brian noted he was “Eating a peanut butter on toast sandwich for breakfast at milepost 217.8 along the Route of the Merchants Limited, Yankee Clipper and Gilt Edge.”
Any rider of the old New York, New Haven & Hartford would recognize those train names.

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