Amtrak sucks

Although I like trains, and I try to support all types of public transport when I can, I have had more than my share of troubles — primarily late trains — with Amtrak.  On a different note, last January, I purchased, on the Amtrak web site, a few days before my travel date, a round-trip ticket to NYC to attend an event.  I was charged the regular $76 round-trip fare.

I rode on the train with a friend who was attending the same event.  He advised me that he had purchased his ticket around the same time at the ticket window, and he was offered a fare about $15 less than what I paid, without having to satisfy any special condition, as a result of some promotion.

I wrote to Amtrak on January 26, recounting the above, adding:  “If you wish to encourage use of your web site for the purchase of tickets, patrons using the web site should be offered the lowest available fare for their trip. When booking my trip, I did not notice any information about the availability of a lower fare, and I certainly was not offered it. If the promotional fare my friend received should have been made available to me, I would appreciate a refund in the amount of the discount he received.”

On January 31, I received a reply, the gist of which is as follows:  “We apologize that is has taken longer than we expected for us to reply to your email inquiry.  We have forwarded your e-mail to Amtrak’s Customer Relations Department. They will contact you as soon as possible in the order that your email is received.  The department is experiencing an extremely higher than normal volume, due predominantly to weather related issues and personnel staffing.  Please allow between four to six weeks for a response.”

True to their word, I received a further response, but no satisfaction, on March 3.  Here’s the gist of it:  “As information, our records show that you did pay the lowest normally-discounted fare for your trip.  We cannot be sure as to which of the deals your associate took advantage of.  We also do not offer refunds after travel has been completed; therefore we must respectfully deny your request.  For future reference, you may want to look at the ‘Advertised Specials’ section under the ‘Deals’ tab on Amtrak.com for a list of current specials.  Please be aware that there are limited seats available for each of these deals and varied terms and conditions.”

What kind of customer service business takes a week to acknowledge receipt of an e-mail without giving a substantive response?  Is an immediate automated reply too much to ask expect if the delayed reply is not going to offer any information that an automated reply wouldn’t?

Further, what kind of business wants to discourage people from making web purchases instead of in-person purchases?  Most travel web sites I’ve seen offer a “lowest rate guarantee.”  Amtrak, on the other hand, says to me, in essence, it’s your responsibility to look all over our web site for discount announcements (for the record, I’m almost certain that I  did, and didn’t see any) and if you miss one – or if we forget to put it up – tough noogies.

This attitude is consistent with another experience I had several years ago, ironically while trying to get to NYC to attend the same annual event.  When I arrived at the station, I saw that the train I was to take was delayed several hours, and there was no way I could get to NYC before the event would be over.  I went to the ticket window and requested a refund.  The clerk advised me to save the ticket for use another time, as 15% was withheld from cash refunds.  I asked where on the ticket it said that; he couldn’t show me, but said that’s the policy, and suggested I write “to Washington” if I wasn’t happy.  I wasn’t happy, so I did write to Washington.  I was given a full refund, as “an accommodation” to me.  I noticed that now Amtrak tickets state that refunds may be subject to a penalty.  You can thank me for that.

I understand that Amtrak is under-funded, but I still think it could do a little better in the customer relations department.  It’s not a big bargain (the bus fare is less than half the train fare) or a luxurious travel experience (rolling stock is old, often uncomfortably hot or cold, and often without food service), and it often does not run on schedule.  Showing a little more consideration for the customer would make these shortcomings a lot less irritating.

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3 Responses to Amtrak sucks

  1. David Gunn says:

    Ha ha ha ha! Would you like some cheese with your whine?

  2. capitolview says:

    Fair comment; I guess seeing Amtrak realize so little of its potential drives me a little crazy. I’ll try to be more moderate in the future.

  3. David Gunn says:

    It’s worth noting that Amtrak maintained a traditional, flat-fare tariff structure for more than a decade after its founding, until it hired yield management consultants from American Airlines, who introduced the varying prices that so confuse Amtrak’s riders to this day. There are tiers, and availability is chosen dyanmically among them, so that two people in line for tickets for the same train can obtain varying fares seconds apart. Good for the revenue; bad for customer experience.

    Amtrak’s refunds for unused tickets are, generally speaking, widely recognized as simpler and more generous than the airlines, and the whole tariff is printed on the back. The web site lists all of the terms and conditions, too.

    Safe travels.

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