Amtrak Rewards Problems - One Example / Wireless Notes / HTML Vers

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Well, I've thought I've been through it all with Amtrak -- late trains, crowded
trains, trains with cars up front "locked" up by the train crew while the rest
of the train has no seats, cold cars, hot cars, cars with no lights, cars which
rattle and shake excessively, uncomfortable remodeled cafe cars, occasionally
rude staff (more so on the NEC than anywhere else), and the usual nonsense which
always makes me say "Geez, next time try the BUS!" :) (in other words, you might
as well just drive it).

I've reduced my train trips as a result of this nonsense, but I always figured
it was just Amtrak's clumsy way of running a railroad, and that in all
likelihood trains around the world have (on occasion, at least) similar
problems.

I've also always thought that for all its problems and the annoyance factor in
dealing with them, we're better off with Amtrak running things then some one
else (ie, the devil we know...), and that with some more funding and better
management (eg, David Gunn?) things stand a chance of (hopefully) significant
improvement.

(Note that I don't consider any of the above deficiencies to be acceptable,
however, after a number of years riding them, you unfortunately get used to it,
and figure "Well, it's better than nothing" and take a more acommodationist
stance towards them...)

However, after today, I'm not so sure that Gunn or anyone else can really do
anything for the Amtrak organization as a whole, and am beginning to understand
why many legislators are calling for someone else other than Amtrak (if only for
symbolic reasons) to run the Nation's rail system.

I generally take the train to round-trip from DC to NY every one or two weeks,
and have raked up a good deal of "Amtrak Rewards" (loyalty) miles. Interpage
(our company) also has as one of its business cards an MBNA Amtrak Rewards card,
and puts a few thousand dollars per month for misc. expenses which can't go on
Amex.  In general, although not daily riders, we tend to put probably more miles
than most non-commuters do on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (NEC).

A friend of mine from New Haven who works at Interpage was planning on visiting
DC this weekend (05/31/2003), and I offered to have her use my Rewards points
for a round-trip ticket. She generally doesn't take Amtrak too often (although
she rides the New Haven Line's various branches from time to time and she's not
a neophyte to train travel), so rather than have her go to Union Station in New
Haven to get the most recent NEC timetable, I called Amtrak Rewards, (and after
a few weeks of silly paperwork and followups) got Rewards to allow her to make
inquires and issue tickets for the account and on behalf of the company in
general, and told her to speak to the reservations agent and pick a train which
suits her schedule (weekend service from DC to New Haven has apparently been
somewhat reduced).

After calling Ruth at Amtrak Rewards Customer service, my friend was issued a
round trip ticket for the trip from New Haven to DC on Friday and the return on
the 4:05PM from DC on Sunday (today).  (As an aside, they said they were mailing
it a few times, and as the travel date drew nearer, the tickets never arrived,
and she had to take even more or her and the company's time to make sure the
tickets came -- I got so fed up with the time we were wasting on what should be
a simple transaction that I half-jokingly told her "It's probably more
cost-effective to just pay for the tickets already!".

The trip down to DC was if not for it being late as usual otherwise 
uneventful.

On Sunday, (today),  we get to Union Station DC at around 3:40, I wait to make
sure she gets to the gate, and then drive away, figuring she's all set. A few
minutes later I get a call from her, saying they will not let her on the train
since the 4:05 is a RESERVED train, and she has an unreserved ticket. (She is
also told that the reserved and unreserved are priced differently, which has not
been my experience during weekday travel, at least; she was later told that
there were just no seats on the 4:05 and they couldn't let her on.)

I drive back to Union Station, meet her in the lobby, get a schedule, and see
that is the last train to New Haven until a 10PM train (probably getting into
New Haven around 3AM, way too late!). She suggested that she can connect in NYC
to a Metro North train at GCT to take her to Brewster where a friend would drive
her home (all at their expense).

We checked the schedule, and saw the only train with an acceptable "connection"
at GCT was the 5:00PM Acela Express, so I called Amtrak reservations, and said
"Well, since it was your mistake that you issued the wrong ticket, and since we
are (somewhat) regular customers (not that they shouldn't fix the problem for
ANY customer), I'd like them to put her on the Acela Express for no charge" and
she will take it to New York and pay her way for Metro North and the taxi or
subway to GCT.

The reservation rep. at Amtrak refused, and tried to indicate that it was a
"Rewards issue" and we need to talk to them but they are closed. My friend was
about to get off the phone with the rep and leave it at that when I took the
phone and asked for a manager. I was transferred to John Bender, a manager at
the Amtrak Customer Service Center in Philly, and explained "Look, my friend
called up, she made a request for a rewards ticket for a SPECIFIC train, called
again when the tickets did not arrive to verify that she was going to indeed be
issued tickets for the 4:05 from DC to New Haven on 6/1/2003, was given no
indication that she needed a "reserved" ticket in any correspondence or
communications with Amtrak (from Ruth who took the initial request at Amtrak
rewards to the literature included with the tickets which were mailed to her -
late - after a number of requests.) I can understand somewhat if Amtrak made a
mistake, but you have the opportunity here to BEGIN to remedy the problem by
giving her a ticket on the Acela to New York and she will then find her way to
New Haven. She's going to be out the $25 or so for a taxi to GCT and the train
to New Haven, but there is no reason for her -- actually me - for spend the
$120 or so for the Acela as well." John Bender said there is nothing he can do
since he is "not authorized to allow that", and when I asked who there was, he
said "No one here is". I started telling him how disgusted I was becoming with
the process which, due to no fault of her own, my friend was now going through
(and me as a result), and he hung up on me.

So I said "Well, let's try it from the other end" (with my apologies to Daffy
Duck! :) )

As it was now like around 4:45PM and the train was leaving in 15 minutes, we
were sort of in a rush, so I went to the ticket counter up front and my friend
went to the ticket office to the side of the counter. The people up front acted
like they couldn't care less, and, almost as if they were bored by my being
there (and they didn't even read this post! :) ), directed me to the ticket
office.

When I got the ticket office, my friend had already explained what was going on,
and she was having the matter escalated to a manger. The manager came out,
explained that he was not authorized to give out a ticket on the Acela, and when
I asked "well, who is?" he indicated that there was no manager higher than him
there at the time. With the train leaving soon, we needed to actually buy the
ticket, so I was about to leave, and said "Do you have a card with your name on
it?" (for an obvious complaint to Amtrak which will be used to mop up the
bathroom floors at Union Station -- assuming that they even bother to open mail
or read faxes) and he said "Ohhhh nooooo! I'm not getting my name into this..."
so he gets his manager (only 30 seconds or so after he indicated no one else was
there).

When Brian, the manager at the Union Station ticket office (he didn't give his
last name; he was in his early to mid-40's or so, black hair, balding, about 5ft
10") came in, he basically said that he too was not authorized to make a ticket
upgrade like that, and that he didn't see why it would be a problem for her to t
ake the 5:20 unreserved into New York. When my friend explained to him "Well,
first off, it gets in too late for me to make my connection, and secondly, IT
ONLY GOES TO NEW YORK WHEN MY TICKET IS SUPPOSED TO BE FOR NEW HAVEN (so you're
not doing me any big favors here)" Brian said there was nothing he could do
since he as well was not authorized to perform the upgrade. (I wonder if David
Gunn works in the building, maybe he can do it? ;) )

At any rate, she needed to make her train, and seeing as how it was around 4:52,
there wasn't any more time to argue, so I just bought her the Acela Express
ticket to NYP, from where she will have to carry her bags on the subway or lug
them upstairs to a taxi, and then get on the New Haven Division, and then have a
friend drive from Danbury to pick her up. I figure $120 or so (I didn't even see
the actual price) for the Acela, $10 for the taxi (or $2 for the subway), $12+
for the Metro North ticket to New Haven, and who knows what for the gas for the
drive for her ride, not to mention the time involved, the waste of a day for me
to handle this, and the time she will have to waste with the dolts at Amtrak on
Monday telling them what morons they are and getting a refund and a hell of a
lot more back from them (yeah, good luck, I know... :( )

I can *understand* (not accept, but understand) Amtrak's deficiencies which can
be attributed to funding or lack thereof, such as noisy, broken cars, late
trains, and frequent breakdowns.

I can also understand to an extent that a lot of it is due to utterly
incompetent management pre-Gunn (and I dunno what the general consensus on Gunn
is; this example today indicates to me he hasn't done much good!) and the older
"it's those silly union work rules" arguments about workplace inefficiency and
inflexibility.

What I CAN'T understand is how, after their reviewing their own records, seeing
how my friend was issued the incorrect ticket, and coming as close to anyone at
Amtrak has ever had at saying "Gee, I think we may have made a mistake", they
still (supposedly) had no one at telephone customer service or in the entirety
of Union Station who could issue an upgrade to the Acela Express (noting again
that she will still be out for the cost of the ride from Penn to New Haven) or
for that matter who even seemed to care.

The intimation by John Bender at Customer Service in Philly or Brian at the
Union Station ticket counter (not to mention all the 'lesser' agents) that it is
just SO absurd and outrageous to request an *ACELA* upgrade that they are
lowering themselves to waste their time with the issue (Hey, people, it's a
SILLY TRAIN, NOT THE CONCORDE!!!!) added even more insult to injury.

This was not a funding, technical, or managerial problem; it is a failure of the
Amtrak organization as a whole to address a (relatively) simple issue in a way
that is satisfactory to both the customer and Amtrak (the train was barely half
full).

Instead, Amtrak fell back on their usual "We don't care, we don't have to"
attitude, requiring now that my friend and I spend a good deal of time tomorrow
(Monday) on the phone with them to fix the problem, get credited, and
re-reimbursed for THEIR error.

My friend exercised more that due diligence is asking the various reps and
Amtrak Rewards agents to issue the correct ticket, and if Amtrak sends her the
wrong ticket, the VERY LEAST they can do it allow her to take another one of
their trains to a point *close* to New Haven so she can get home in time.

Many people complain about the airlines and how they in the past acted in
similarly heavy-handed ways with their customers. While I have no doubt that
this was the case, when my plane is late I get put on another flight -- at the
airlines expense. Amtrak wouldn't even put my friend on another one of their OWN
trains. When the airlines make a ticketing error, they can fix it immediately,
and have supervision at nearly every airport who can handle such issues. Amtrak
had no one (or they claimed not to) and were both utterly clue-less, useless, and
condescending, all at the same time (something which they excel at).

I've always thought calls to "dismantle" Amtrak to be uniformed complaints from
Western Senators and Reps who didn't have train service and thought of Amtrak as
a funding drain from other more local projects, but after this episode (not to
mention all the other nonsense over the years), I begin to understand and am
becoming increasingly in favor of scraping the whole entity, excising all the
employees and staff who feel that the type of "service" provided above is
acceptable, and re-create the railroad with new staff, new managers, and a new
executive staff (assuming you could find a CEO willing to take the job! :) ).

Over the years, my posts have gone from supportive of Amtrak, to ambivalent, to
"They generally are inept but whatever" to the current outlook, mainly that the
current organization is no way to run any railroad and only a radical change
(not dismemberment, but figuratively closing it down and starting from the
ground up).

Their behavior today as individuals who work for Amtrak and as an holistic
entity is shameful, and indicates to me that despite the years of promises and
attempts at reform, nothing will even be achieved under the current system, and
any long-term improvements to the national rail passenger system will require an
entirely new, customer-service oriented organization.

(This post and list are also available (since it is my web space if for no other
reason :) ) at http://www.wirelessnotes.org)

Regards,

Doug


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