June 27th, 2009

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For various reasons, I have to have a couple of the tickets for my transcontinental Worldcon train trip re-issued, and that requires going to a staffed station because I have to turn in the old tickets to get the new ones.

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While I can print new tickets from the machine at Centerville, you can't re-issue tickets there. Because on Amtrak, paper tickets are still magic, they can't just cancel the ticket and say, "print another one at Centerville." They have to see and destroy the old ticket before they can issue a new one. This is presumably because the conductors on the trains have no way of checking records, and generally speaking, access control to the trains is via the conductors on the ground. This is one of the good things about train travel -- you don't have to show up two hours early and endure Security Theatre to board a train -- but for now it does mean a trip to one of the staffed stations.

I could of course drive to San Jose, Oakland Jack London Square, or Emeryville, but instead, I bought a round-trip to Emeryville and a little later this morning will take a train up there, deal with the ticket re-issue, and explore the area around the station for an hour or two, probably having lunch up there, then coming back on a train later in the afternoon. After all, I have a train station within easy walking distance of my house; why not use it?

While getting a haircut yesterday afternoon, I mentioned my plan to take the train to Emeryville today, and the barber said, "You mean BART?" I said, "No, the train between San Jose and Sacramento via Fremont and Oakland." He didn't even know the trains existed. To him, the only trains there are around here are BART.

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Besides, it's a "spare the air" day today and we're supposed to avoid driving if possible, so it seems like a good day to combine errands and take the train.
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I am a train booster. I have stood up for passenger rail. I am a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. I know how to "speak train." The displeasure I'm about to express is not with the staff at the station at Emeryville, but with whoever at Amtrak programmed their computer system to do what it did to my reservation.

Taking the train up to Emeryville this morning was routine and uneventful. I stopped in the Depot Cafe on my way to the platform, bought a cup of coffee, and walked over to track 2 and got on my train, which was on time. Not a whole lot later, I got off at Emeryville and headed inside to talk to an agent. As I was going into the station, a woman came running the other way, saying, "Is that the train to Sacramento?"

"Yes," I said.

"When is it leaving?" she asked, looking around frantically and calling for her daughter to hurry up.

"Now," I said. And indeed, as the woman ran toward the platform, the train did leave. I looked at the schedule, and found that it actually departed a couple of minutes late. (Oddly enough, it had left Oakland Coliseum two minutes early, which it should not have done. I hope they didn't leave someone behind who was dashing over from the BART station.)

I went inside and up to the ticket windows. The first agent couldn't figure out what to do with my tickets and asked if I could wait for the more-experienced agent to come back from her break. I was in no hurry and waited.

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With my ticket issues not completely resolved, but not resolvable any further here, I went off on my second errand. When we come down from Oregon in July, we will spend the night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville (using some of my accumulated Hilton points). I can see the HGI from the station, and I wanted to see if one could walk there and if so, how long would it take. Emeryville has a pedestrian bridge over the tracks. On the opposite side of the tracks from the station is the "Public Market" (a bunch of restaurants and a Borders books and other stores), and that is also the direction toward the hotel.

I found that it takes between ten and twenty minutes to walk from the station to the hotel -- probably a bit longer if you were carrying luggage. There are sidewalks all the way, although there are a couple of spots where if you didn't know the right path, you'd end up in a dead end, which I did once. Also, there doesn't seem to be any access from the sidewalk on the street to the sidewalk in front of the hotel's front door other than rolling your bag up the driveway. That's a very car-centric way of looking at things, but it's pretty typical. I just figured that a hotel built relatively recently would be more progressive than that.

With my curiosity about the hotel-train path settled, I decided that there was little reason to hang around the area, so I walked back toward the station. With about 20 minutes before the next San Jose-bound train, I went into the Public Market and bought a kebob chicken with rice to-go platter from one of the vendors and walked back up and over the bridge to the station.

The woman who had missed her train was there, waiting for the next train to Sacramento. She asked me to confirm that the next train to Sacramento would be here at 12:20.

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My train was right on time at 12:20, and I boarded and made my way to a table upstairs and had my lunch on the way back to Fremont. When we got there, I was pleased to see that some of the Farmers' Market stalls were not yet closed, so I could pick up some strawberries and potatoes on my way home.

Monday, I have to call Amtrak Guest Rewards and straighten out the borked reservation between Schenectady and Chicago. In this case, though, I may end up having to drive to a station -- San Jose is likely, on the way to BASFA -- to get the ticket re-issued.

I am not pleased with Amtrak over this, and as I said, I'm a train booster. I can just imagine how someone who wasn't a train enthusiast would feel if s/he encountered this sort of thing. OTOH, who else but a train enthusiast is likely to have 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points to spend? Still, it speaks not well of Amtrak's customer service to make coding errors like this.
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Convenience Trumps Frequent-Travel Loyalty

Although I did scope out the walking path between the Emeryville Amtrak station and the Hilton Garden Inn, we probably won't need to walk after all, because I'm going to need to rent a car when we arrive that day on the Coast Starlight from Salem, Oregon. That's because I'm going to work that day, the timing being about right so I don't need to take another vacation day for that particular train trip. (Train leaves SLM about 3:30 PM and arrives EMY around 8 AM the next morning.) My own van will be in Oregon at the time because I'm driving up the previous weekend and leaving the van there, and getting from Emeryville to the San Mateo Campus Drive area by public transit is so complicated and time-consuming that it's not worth attempting.

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Armed with the information from my Station Walk this afternoon, when I got home, I booked a new reservation with Avis ($5 cheaper, too) and canceled the Hertz reservation, even though I would have received extra Amtrak points for the car rental. The convenience of having the rental office next to the train station outweighs all other considerations.

While I'm still annoyed that I didn't get all of my train ticket issues settled today, I can take solace in knowing that I've saved myself $5 and probably close to an hour of futzing around getting to and from the car rental location on a day when time will be at a premium
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