Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

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And This is How They Treat Their Friends!

I am, as anyone reading this probably already knows, a train fan and a supporter of railroads. I'm a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (an organization that I note most Amtrak employees don't even know exists, even though NARP's goals include lobbying for improved Amtrak funding). I take the train a lot of time it makes sense, and sometimes when possibly it does not. For Thanksgiving next week, I plan to take the train from Fremont up to Sacramento, where Lisa will collect me. (This is IMO the sensible way to travel -- the roads are jammed solid that day; in fact, there's a good chance the train will be faster than driving that day, which is unusual.) I wrote to my congressman complaining about Amtrak's Board of Directors having fired the very competent and straight-talking David Gunn. But my patience is growing thin with Amtrak in certain areas.

The otherwise unstaffed Fremont-Centerville station near my house has a single Quik-Trak ticket vending machine. When it's working, this is among the easiest ways for me to get my tickets. (You have to book at least three days in advance to get the 10% NARP membership discount. It's much easier to book tickets online because ticket agents don't even know there is a NARP discount, even though the signage in the stations mentions it -- see what I said earlier.) But the machine at Fremont-Centerville has been out of service for most of a month. It finally was fixed a few days ago, so I went there last night to collect the tickets I'd ordered.

I put my credit card in the slot (for identification purposes), and it correctly showed my reservation and offered to ticket it. I said yes. Instead of printing the tickets, it went to a "this machine is out of service; error code 10" screen and wouldn't reset. Sheesh. Well, okay, I was on my way to BASFA anyway, and it wouldn't be too far out of my way to swing by San Jose Diridon station and talk to an agent there.

I didn't have to wait as long as usual to get to an agent at San Jose station, and I explained the situation to her. She brought up the reservation record and told me, "The system says this reservation has already been ticketed," and that she couldn't issue me another ticket. I had to buy another ticket (which she, after some confusion, was able to generate with the same NARP discount as the original one). She couldn't cancel or refund the other reservation; I must contact customer service for that. *sigh*

So this morning I go to the Amtrak web site and try submitting an e-mail through their web form, reasoning that this refund request is routine and not urgent. When I hit "submit," the form replied with a nearly blank screen and a stark message of, "There has been a problem with your request. Your message has not been sent." And when I retreated to the submission screen, everything I'd typed was gone. *sigh*

Okay, I called 1-800-USA-RAIL, and when the system said "if you're traveling on the Capitol press 1," I pressed 1. Instead of getting to a place to talk about tickets, it gave me a bunch of automated information about the schedules and such, which is useful but not what I wanted, and there is no way to get to a human agent from that section. *sigh*

I hung up and tried again. This time I got to an agent and explained what happened. I asked her, "Is there some place you can report a broken Quik-Trak machine?" She told me there was no way in her system, but that she would tell her supervisor, and then she transferred me to credit card refunds.

To the credit card refunds agent, I explained again what happened. He said, "That ticket has been shown as ticketed. How did you travel?"

I said, "I haven't traveled yet; I don't go until next Wednesday. I bought another ticket because the machine would not print the ticket I'd actually purchased."

He informed me that they would have to wait ten days after the original travel date (which in this case would be the return on November 27), and then refund the ticket if it never turned up. Okay, I guess I can live with that, especially as it is supposed to not require further intervention on my part.

I asked him if there was any way he could report the broken machine. He said, "Normally you should report a broken machine to an agent at the station."

Fighting back exasperation, I told him, "There is no agent at that station."

He said, "Oh, no agent was available then?"

"No," I said, "It is an unstaffed station. There is never an agent in it. It consists of a waiting room and a TVM, and human beings never staff it." He seemed to have a difficult time dealing with this concept; possibly his only experience of Amtrak stations is the Philadelphia station, which is where I think he was.

All he could offer was, "I guess you'd have to call the 1-800 number to report it." I did not bother to tell him that I'd already tried that and gotten nowhere; instead, I thanked him for dealing with my refund issue and hung up.

So, let's sum up. A friend of Amtrak tried to report a broken machine through the web site (rejected), to a human agent in person (useless), to a human agent over the phone (no way to report), and to a second-line human agent over the phone (huh?), with almost no success. And I'm one of their supporters! No wonder people criticize Amtrak!

The frustrating thing is that I know there are good workers at Amtrak. I've met many of them on my journeys. But there are also a bunch of time-servers and demoralized people who are never sure that their employer will exist the day after tomorrow, and even people who are not incompetent are stuck in a system that doesn't allow them to be helpful even if they would like to be.

I still don't know how to report a broken ticket vending machine to someone who can actually repair it.
Tags: amtrak, trains

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