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An Amtrak "horror" story - (2 weeks of hell))

(this is very long, but if you take the time to read thru it all it may give some insight into some serious problems at Amtrak).

Wanted to make a complex 17 day trip with lots of sleepers around US and Canada, so made reservations thru USA-RAIL. Original res was mis-priced so I called back and someone else re-figured prices (original booking had not used thru-pricing on sleepers LAX-JAX). They split the res into 2 separate res numbers, with 2 people on one res (#429612) with deluxe sleepers (where available) and one person on res #490913 with standard sleepers since there were no more deluxe rooms available. I got a printout at my local station (SLO) and found they had dropped all the coach segments from the second res. I called again, and someone put it all back together with the coach segments and I made sure they matched segment by segment. I went to the station the next day and NONE OF THE CHANGES HAD BEEN MADE.

I called again, and the only explanation they could come up with was that the agent must not have logged out at the end of the session and all the updates were lost. Someone else redid it again, and when I got another printout the next day, the coach segments had been re-instated, but now the last segment (LAX-SLO) was missing on both res's. I called again and had it corrected and the next printout was finally correct. All of these changes were further complicated by the thru-rate option LAX-JAX, as there was no sleeper space available all the way thru, so sleepers were LAX-SAS, SAS-HOU, HOU-NOR, NOR-JAX, and the computer would not price properly and each time there were changes the agent had to get customer service involved to get the pricing correct. Also complicating the matter was no space SAS-HOU on the second res, so it needed to be coach. I had someone add a note that I had paid LAX-JAX thru-rate so the conductor would give me a room at N/C if one was available and got a copy and took it with me (and used it). I also needed rental cars, VIA tickets, hotels, etc., and USA-RAIL advised it would be OK to have the travel agent issue the tickets when I got the other stuff.

I had the Travel agent Amtrak ticketing department issue me all my stuff, and got tickets, an itinerary that matched my res #'s, and notice of credit card charges of $3217 and $1671.50 for 6/14/99. OFF WE GO!!!!

First segment was a bus, SLO-Santa Barbara. First problem was a stop at Lompoc, Calif. A crippled woman was to board with a motorized (200+ lbs) wheelchair who had called in advance to make sure she could be accomodated. Bus was lift-equipped, but needed ramps as well, and driver could not locate ramps. Call to base confirmed they were not on bus. Woman was irate, and we were being held up (tight connection in Santa Barabara). I got off and offered to carry the woman onto the bus and help the driver put her chair in the luggage compartment. She replied she was not about to have a stranger put his hands on her, and her chair wouldn't fit in luggage. I told her we could make it fit and her choice was not to go or to try it since there were no ramps. She reconsidered and said OK. Driver cleared out the front seat and I carried her onto the bus, then he and I got the wheelchair aboard. At Santa Barbara, we got chair off and I carried her back off the bus and into her chair. I jokingly told her she had gotten a better seat out of the deal and had also "been picked up by a strange man", and she laughed, although I saw her berating an Amtrak employee as we boarded the train in Santa Barbara, where my second coupon was taken by the conductor.

At LAX, we parcel checked our carryons and then went to ticketing to check some bags to JAX before going to eat. Agent took my tickets, looked up my res# and from there everything went downhill rapidly. They said there was "no active itinerary" on my res #'s, and that I had no reservations or sleeper space on the entire trip. When pressed for an explanation, they said I would have to call USA-RAIL. I called from the phones next to the windows, got an agent who looked, said that apparently my travel agent had not "protected" the space, and that computer had cancelled everything. He said he would look further and put me on hold. After a long wait, the phone went "2 minutes". After that "30 seconds", then disconnected. Apparently the pay phones at LAX "time-out", and it would be helpful if LAX personnel knew that and warned people they instruct to call USA-RAIL. Since I had not gotten a name, I had no way to re-initiate the call.

I went to customer service, who heard the problem, then went to the "back-room" and I assume talked to reservations. After a while, a gentleman came out, said they had found my reservation, re-instated it, and took me to the ticket window. They told me that since they had no proof of payment, I would need to pay (again) and swiped my credit card and issued another set of tickets from LAX onward. I asked them to do the same with the second reservation and they said they only had one and I would have to call USA-RAIL again (which based on my first call, I was not about to do). The customer service agent then took me into the "back room" and initiated and handled the attempt to reinstate the second reservation. He argued with whoever he was dealing with and told them to book space as available, then told me that they had been unable to find space LAX-SAS but had found an unsold family room and were giving it to me at original (standard) price, and that there was no space KC-LAX. They would issue me coach space, charge me the full original price, and that I should see the conductor for space and if not available they would issue a refund later and that they would make a note on the res to that effect. I then went back to window, where they issued me another set of tickets and charged me again.

In addition to myself, my wife and 80 year old mother were also along, and my wife was mad enough to turn around and go home, but I said "no" based on all the plans and reservation we had in place in addition to the rail travel, and the fact that reservations were now back in place (mostly). If I had only known what was to come!!!!

We boarded, departed on time, and reached Ontario Calif where we waited for about 4-5 busloads of people off a late #11. A woman collapsed, apparently none of the Amtrak personnel knew CPR, and paramedix were called. They arrived, took her away (apparently she died); we double-spotted to load all the new passengers and departed approx 1-1/2 hours late.

Just before El Paso, a conductor was able to verify there was an open sleeper and blocked the space for SAS-HOU which was my original paid-for but not ticketed space. I showed him the res-note, so it was no problem. I had by now had time to look thru my new tickets and discovered more problems. There was no CC receipt, and no total for the tickets, but amounts were printed on various stubs, and adding them up came to $401 too much on the first res. I then tracked it to a stub ALB-CHI that had rail fare and accomodation charges that were already in the totals. Apparently when he printed the stock, that segment had not printed and when he "forced" out a ticket for the segment it got additional pricing in error, but I had not known the total then and had not brought it up. Also, I found that my second res had a coach ticket instead of sleeer space on JAX-NYC (same as KC-LAX) that no one had mentioned to me.

I then got off in El Paso (20 min stop) and asked the agent about space KC-LAX (none) and JAX-NYC, which he had. I gave him my ticket pack and had him look up the res. He said the notes showed N/C KC-LAX, but that I would have to pay ANOTHER $281 if I wanted the sleeper space (3rd time paying for that room). "Last call" for boarding came, I gave him CC, got ticket and got on the train.

Rooms were segmented on Sunset Ltd involving several room/car changes. Conductor and attendants worked out minimal moves, and chief of OBS was also involved. It was to little avail, as each new conductor seemed to check the rooms before talking to the attendant or the chief, and finally my wife slammed the door after telling another conductor where to "get off". He then found me, got ANOTHER explanation of why someone was in an unassigned room, and went away shaking his head and muttering "no wonder she was so mad when I asked her for a ticket". Next conductor took one of the coach tickets, said that way the next conductor wouldn't bother us, and sure enough the next conductor came and wanted to know what we were doing in a sleeper. I told him last conductor had taken ticket so we wouldn't be bothered, and he said he had a coach ticket, but nothing noted so he had to check. (Communication between conductors-attendants-chief is sorely lacking).

Amtrak note: The Chief of On Board Services LAX-NOR (Bernadette) was a joy. She not only was helpful to me, but was a constant presence on the train to all the passengers, was often on the P.A., and "worked the crowd", talking to passengers throughout the trip. On all other segments (NOR-JAX, JAX-NYC, ALB-CHI, CHI-SAS, SAS-STL, KC-LAX) whoever was "chief" was "invisible" (you obviously have records that will indicate whether there was no chief assigned or they were hiding in the trans-dorm for the entire trip). Except for Bernadette, the decision to do away with the Chief position was fully supported by their performance as far as I am concerned.

Onward: Next stop New Orleans - (train still over an hour late). Got on phone to USA-Rail about overcharge at El Paso. Was told agent should not have charged me and that I should have called USA-Rail. I "Kindly" explained that stop was 20 min, USA-RAIL "all agents are busy" recording often goes for 15 min, and that I had no choice.   Again asked about KC-LAX space, agent said there was space available, but "wouldn't come back" to her, that it might be segmented and would take a few minutes. Got "last call" to board, told her to work it out and for god's sake to make notes and I would call again from JAX.

Back onto the train (still late). Left NOR as an even later CRESCENT arrived. As before, we arrived late in JAX. JAX-claimed luggage, went to re-check to Boston. Clerk was doing it when another cautioned me not to do so. Then informed me that connecting train NYC-BOS had no baggage car and bags would be delayed a day in NYC (how come first baggageman didn't know that?). Anyhow, checked to NYC, then back to USA-RAIL. Got a very helpful agent out of LA (Paul Burns??). He confirmed the KC-LAX space, got a 3-way phone with the ticket agent, and got me a split KC-Newton/Newton-LAX sleeper at no charge. He also looked into the overcharges and figured an overcharge slightly larger than the $401 I was aware of and made notes in the reservation.
I told him I needed to sign off as they were boarding my train (#98). He told me (for the first time) that I was not ticketed on #98, but on #92 several hours later. When LAX told me they had "reinstated" my reservations, apparently they had not had space on #98 and had switched my train, and I (mistakenly) had never thought to look at the train number on the tickets, just the destinations as I already had my original itinerary. I had also (mistakenly) not noticed that the El Paso ticket for JAX-NYC was also on the matching train with the other res, again assuming it was on the original train.

This now caused enormous problems, as the connecting NYC-BOS train was to arrive at 5:55pm, and we were to be met by family members in a motor home to proceed to Vermont that evening for a function the next day. #92 connection arrival time at Boston was 11:59pm which would be too late for my transportation to wait, so I would have to rent a car. Agent informed me there was a "remote" chance #92 would make NYC in time to connect to #142 to arrive in Boston at 9:53pm. He also tried to get me on #98, but only one sleeper was available, and that was sold at Rocky Mount NC at 1:00am, and then I could go to coach, but that was also sold out. I just opted to go with #92 and tried to work around things.

I called all the car rental agencies in Boston and found that everything downtown closed by 7:00pm, and only the Airport would be open. Enterprise closed even at the Airport at 11:00pm, but would pick me up at the station if I made the 9:53pm arrival. I set it up, but then found that my bags had gone on #98 as originally intended and would be in NYC, and didn't see how I would have time to get them and still make a close connection to #142. I talked with the conductor on #92 when underway, and he said they could call NYC and have someone meet me with the bags in NYC.

Anyhow, it was all for nothing as we were delayed during the night and were over an hour late again the next morning, so the connection was "off". I called Enterprise from D.C. and cancelled, and set up another rental at the Airport. Made the NYC-BOS connection, and crew informed me that they hadn't been "on-time" into Boston in several weeks due to track work, and arrival time would likely be 12:15-12:20am (which it was). Now had to get a taxi ($15 with tip and bags) and a rental car for two days to be returned in Portland where we were taking a ferry to Nova Scotia to pick up VIA. Rental car was another $150.11 that was an expense that I would not have incurred had I been able to make my orginal "meet" in Boston with my family, as was another $15 taxi/tip in portland from return at the airport to the ferry terminal downtown.

More Amtrak Notes: Second person who was "outstanding" in customer relations was our sleeper attendant on #92, car 9210. (There were very few that really stood out, so I wish to mention them as they occured. You have rosters and dates to identify them if you wish - earlier was the chief on #2).

Second major issue - I tried for several weeks, checking again and again with my local station (SLO) for a Northeast timetable so I could see corridor options. They were always "on order". I tried also at LAX - no soap. I was SURE they would be in JAX since all the "silver" trains run the corridor - the response was "A WHAT?". First time I was ever able to find one was in the Metro Lounge in NYC - pretty sad!

Anyway-on to Canada, a great VIA "Ocean" trip to Montreal (on time) and back to Amtrak on the "Adirondack". It ran on time until Whitehall NY, where we were held for 45 min waiting for a "sick" #294 from Rutland to go ahead of us (crew was really ticked off having to wait). Thus, late (again) into Alabany. Then NYC section of #49 arrived on time, but earlier scheduled #449 had engine problems in Boston, was very late, and we left for CHI over 1-1/2 hrs late (what else is new?). This also caused dinner to not even start service until 9:30pm, and crew had (apparently) been keeping stuff "warm" as this was by far the lousiest meal we encountered on the whole trip (actually the only bad one - most were very very good).

Next day, the Eagle, out of CHI on time at 5:55pm - we got 10 minutes out and stopped for "Folks, just a little delay for a freight crossing ahead of us, then we'll be on the way". One hour later, we moved, made a few miles, and "Folks, a northbound train is in Joliet, and as soon as he clears we'll be in there". 30 minutes later we arrive in Joliet, first stop, and we are 1-1/2 hours late (again). Another personnel note - only negative one worth mentioning - sleeper attendant on car #2130 was virtually USELESS. Attitude was "I hate my job and all passengers", EVERYTHING anybody wanted was an impostion, and no one in the car wanted anything to do with him (a handicapped passenger asked for the Chief to complain, but I think this was another "invisible" chief and don't know the results. This was the "Calif Eagle" trainset, not the "Texas" set, and I was surprised to see only one sleeper and 2 coaches in the consist, but since it's for express business, maybe that's all that's needed (sleeper was sold-out). However, there was only one express box to Dallas. Anyhow, in addition to a miserable attendant, the TOILETS quit working in the sleeper, and we were instructed to either go to the coach or use the rooms in the trans-dorm crew car. They were back running several hours later.

We picked up 10 more express boxes in Dallas, but dropped 9 in Ft Worth, so only 2 Boxes were on the train when I last saw it in San Antonio. Anyhow, we made up some time, but were still late in Dallas (4pm), so any poor souls going to Oklahoma were pulled off and bussed. We then went straight to Ft Worth in 1 hour, so Oklahoma train was still in station. Crew explained that there could have been delays getting to Ft Worth, so they had to bus passengers to be safe, which makes sense. What DOESN'T make sense is a daily 5:55 pm Eagle departure being held up at a crossover 10 minutes south of Union Station in CHI for an hour for freight traffic! Is anybody in charge of this circus???

Onward - my tickets change to coach at Ft. Worth to San Antonio. Both reservations have notes saying "traveling with passengers in res #" tying us together. Original tickets were fine. I am now using re-issued tickets. As conductor pulls them, he finds one is dated "today" and one is dated "tomorrow". He want's to know why and I tell him he doesn't WANT to know. He takes tickets and moves on, saving me another dissertation about this mess.

Arrival time due San Antonio is 11:59pm. We are still late, but arrive at switch south of station to back in about 12:45am and stop. And sit. And sit. And sit. A UP manifest finally drags by after over an hour, we take about 10 minutes switching and backing in, (we could have been in the station and long asleep before that drag ever got there - anybody listening?) and go to claim luggage. One missing bag - staff says that's all there is - another woman missing 2 bags - another person one. Crew "will go back and check" - return in a few with about 15 more pieces of luggage and boxes! Get a cab, go to Hotel (it is now 3:00AM - so much for "11:59" arrival). Hotel (Holiday Inn Express Suites) was guaranteed with credit card due to estimated checkin about 1:00am. They inform me that despite "guarantee" over a month ago, they are sold out and there are no rooms available. (My wife just about want's to burn down the hotel with the staff inside, but decides she'd rather get all the Amtrak and Travel agency personnel inside first). Anyhow, they pick up the cab fare and put us in the Holiday Inn Riverwalk, so it all works out.

Several days later - North(east) bound on #22 - leaves at 7:45am, is sitting there day before, and #2 arrives around 3:00am with connection, so BOUND to be on time, so we head for station. Stupid mistake - #2 has engine problems, is being dragged by a freight motor, and is over 4 hours late. My wife (not for the first time) again want's to "chuck this mess" and fly home, but I convince her we only have a few days left and to bear with it.

To make a long story short, we depart (again, over 1-1/2 hrs late) and move on. Again, a personnel note - sleeper attendant in 2230 car is SUPERB in attitude and customer relations and service. He has a happy car despite angry passengers due to late arrival AND the fact that diner crew on #2 the night before ignored the 2230 sleeper on the rear of #2 and never took dinner reservation when they took the sleeper reservations from #2 sleepers on the front of the train, thus none of his passengers even could start dinner until after 9:30pm. We chunk along, with 2 engines, and one craps out. Crew manages to get HEP from it and uses 2nd unit for power, but we gradually lose more time into St. Louis the next day.

There I change to #303 for KC that afternoon, and tell my tale of late trains to the conductors, who tell me it's because of the "southern" trains, and that "this" train runs on time and I'll be VERY pleased with the "Chief" out of KC. We stop for the meet with the KC-STL train, and guess what? It's LATE. Crew swaps at the meet, so we proceed after the meet (only a half hour down). Finally, at KC we check on the "Chief" and guess what again? Reported "45 min late" and will not arrive until after midnight. Again, wife REALLY wants to abort this mess and fly home, but calms down since it's almost the last leg (and I am really sorry I didn't go along with her due to what comes next).
We finally board, get to rooms, and find it very warm (this whole trip is in a heat-wave). Attendant explains they are having problems with the air and also the toilets have quit working but a mechanic is working on it, so we go to our rooms. Train leaves, and it turns out mechanic was unable to fix problems (they also have another mechanic try in Albuquerque with no results). We now experience the WORST leg of this whole cursed trip. A. (not amtrak's fault)-this is either the worst track we have encountered on the whole trip or the crew is trying to make up time but we are bounced all over in the cars and bedrooms - B. The bathrooms never work again - we are to use them in the sleeper behind us or go to the crew dorm. Another example of lousy communication - conductors keep changing - I go into dorm for about the 5th time and a new conductor tells me I must leave - there are no locks on crew rooms and no one should have told me I could use the dorm - I tell him there are no locks on the passenger rooms either and if he makes me leave, there will be complaints he never DREAMED of or wanted to hear about and he relents. C. The air conditioning is not "totally" out, just keeps shutting down after running about a half hour and needs to have "override" pressed to start it back up again (I'm standing around and observe the procedure). It gets very uncomfortable the first night, and I realize that the crew must also sleep so I ask the attendant why the conductor/assistant can't restart the air during the night and he says "they wouldn't touch it". He keeps the car reasonable during the day, but 2nd night is also miserable and humid. Since I "observed" the procedure and saw how the door was opened, I awake at 2:00am and again about 4:30am and "reset" the air myself since no one else will bother (yeah, I'm sure I violated every Amtrak regulation there is - so sue me - at least it made myself and other passengers a little more comfortable. By the way, the crew said this was not the first (or second) time this car has had both the air and toilet problems).

Speaking of toilets, one of the primary reasons we tried to get deluxe bedrooms was for private bathrooms. Not only are they all out, as well as the public rooms in the car, but some people just don't "get the message" and we have an "odor" to go along with the humidity and lack of air. (yes, we can(and do) use coach/lounge space to avoid it, but it's not what we paid for).

Anyhow, to finish this out, #3 is late to LA, so passengers north of Santa Barbara for #14 are pulled at Fullerton to be bussed. I do not want a bus ride, so stay on, even though I am destined for SLO (will take #14 if we make it into LA in time). Sure enough, #14 pulls out of LAX as we pull in, so we have a short wait for a San Diegan. As we leave LA my wife says "this is a short trip - they don't get late like the long trips do they?". I tell her not usually, but based on THIS trip.... We leave Camarillo, pick up speed, then start coasting - announcer: "We have engine problems - are coasting to Oxnard - will stop short of station - please remain in your seats". They get it started, leave Oxnard, and run into red blocks on next 6 signals (apparently a defective switch at Montalvo is sending "occupancy" signals, so we stop-proceed). One more time north of Ventura the engine craps out again, again is restarted, and we arrive Santa Barbara only 30 min late. We consider waiting for SLO San Diegan in about 4 hours, but based on the trip, it may NEVER arrive, so hop the bus to SLO, praying it doesn't have a headon with something (it doesn't, and we arrive home, (what else) 40 min late).

END OF STORY? Sorry - No Way!! On top of the trip problems, I called Amtrak from New Orleans, Jacksonville, Boston, Albany, Chicago, San Antonio, St Louis, and Kansas City trying to find out what the hell happened with my reservations. I (at first) got "the travel agent forgot to set the protect code", but later got many "we don't exactly know"'s. I talked to customer service, customer refunds, credit card refunds, credit sales, etc. Up thru the whole trip and until today, everyone at Amtrak has emphatically denied that Amtrak was ever paid for the orginal tickets back on 6/14.

I thought so too until I was in Canada, when my credit card was rejected checking out of a hotel. A call to the credit card company confirmed that I had an $8,500 limit, and that I was over $10,000 in charges, and that Amtrak had billed me $5,000 on 6/14 and another $5,000 on 6/29 (at LAX). Also, since I was so far over the limit, they would NOT extend my credit line, and that I would have to get a credit from Amtrak or I could no longer use the card. Since this was the only card I was carrying, I had to use my wife's mother's card for the rest of the trip, since Amtrak denied payment and obviously couldn't credit what they hadn't received. The credit card company said the only other thing I could do was dispute the double charge WHICH MUST BE IN WRITING (talk about a useless option in the middle of a trip). Call to the travel agent resulted in about the same - they didn't know what was wrong, but I would have to return the original tickets to start any refund process - again, a useless option. Anyhow, a very frustrating situation to be caught in.

PARTICULARLY now that today, Amtrak's Linda Grey of Credit Sales has finally said "OOPS! - We just found the record (set with an error code) and Guess what, we DID charge you twice". She is going to look into it further and get back to me monday, but asked me to write this out (I wrote far more than was required for a refund of the double charges, but felt if I was going to bother I might as well spell out all the problems I observed. A number of employees said they would LOVE to have this story for some of their "customer relations" classes, so maybe you'll choose to pass it on....

One final note: on arrival back at LAX I went to ticket window and explained some of this. They checked it out and refunded the $401 overcharge on #429612 and the incorrect $281 charge at El paso on #490913, so the only overcharge now is the double charges of $3217.00 and $1671.50. Despite all this, I am an avid Amtrak supporter and will continue to make rail trips (hopefully not "alone" - my wife will probably cool down).  

This was sent as directed/requested to: Amtrak Customer Satisfaction Center - Philadelphia, Credit Sales, Revenue Accounting East, GM-Midwest, Customer Service St Louis, Amtrak West Cust Svcs, Customer Relations, Wash DC. Anybody reading this want to take bets on how much good it will do? Direct e-mail is welcome, but the list ought to get some good chatter out of this one.....

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