Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee


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.

The first of the two reissues was the one I thought would be easy -- swapping the tickets on my August 12 SDY-CHI trip from bedroom B, Car 4910 as originally booked, to B/4911, as the Amtrak computer system rebooked it automatically. I assume it's due to a consist change on that train. Remember, Amtrak called me and said that I need to go in and get the tickets reissued, and sent me a confirming e-mail. Also remember that these tickets are part of an trip MTR-SDY-CHI-LAX purchased with 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points; that is, I paid no money, but a whole lot of AGR points.

The agent looked at my paperwork and the tickets, brought up my reservation, and said that the computer system says I owe them $1921. What? Apparently, when the Amtrak system rebooked the ticket, it forgot that the original tickets were purchased with points and instead booked it with the cash fare for that entire reservation. That's the entire trip, all three segments, not just the SDY-CHI leg.

The station agent at Emeryville apologized, but said there was nothing she could do about it. She could see that my existing ticket for the now-possibly-nonexistent car 4910 had a zero balance and an Amtrak Guest Rewards flag on it, but she couldn't change the reservation details -- only Amtrak Guest Rewards agents can do that. She explained that I'll have to call them on a weekday [later, I found it was weekdays 8 AM - 8 PM Eastern time] to sort it out. And then once AGR has fixed it, I will have to come to a staffed station again to actually re-issue the ticket.

Well, that's very annoying. The whole point of today's trip was to get all of this re-ticketing done and out of the way. Thank goodness I didn't put it off until the day of travel, because they couldn't have done anything, and they might not have even let us on the train, which would have left us stuck at Schenectady!

Oddly enough, the re-ticketing that I thought was going to be difficult -- adding my additional ticket to that of Lisa's in our sleeping car from Salem to Emeryville -- was routine and the agent had no problem with it and issued the corrected ticket without a peep.

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.

"I don't work here," I said, "but I can check."

She looked surprised. "You don't?" Even though I wasn't wearing any Amtrak gear or anything else train-related -- I had on an SFSFC polo shirt and one of the San Jose CVB caps -- I apparently look like I know what I'm doing around a train station. Which I do.

I got out my schedule and checked times. "Your train will be here at 12:35," I said. "The 12:20 train is to San Jose, and that's the one I'm riding."

She looked confused, and said, "But those announcements said the train would be here at 12:20."

An automated announcement for train 733 [to San Jose] came over the PA. "See, there it is again!" she said.

I explained that train 733 was going to San Jose, and pointed to the announcement board, which read 733 SJC 12:20. A minute or two later, it changed to 732 SAC 12:35, and I explained that she wanted to catch train 732 to Sacramento, not 733 to San Jose. I also folded out my schedule and showed her that train 732 was scheduled to get to Sacramento at 2:33 PM. She thanked me and called whoever was expecting her at Sacramento.

After she hung up, I said, "I'm sorry you missed the earlier train."

She looked disappointed and said, "It left without us!"

"Well," I said, "it actually left a couple of minutes late, so you were running a little behind too. Do you have one of the schedule books?" She didn't. I'm still not sure what train she thought she was catching or when she needed to be there to catch it, but she said she'd never ridden a train before. I can only assume she picked up bad schedule information somewhere, or maybe confused the schedule for a different train -- maybe one of the San Joaquin trains -- for a Capitol to Sacramento. In any event, I did the best that I could to explain things to her.

If I didn't have so many other calls on my time, I probably could do a decent job as a "Station Host" -- a volunteer that helps people navigate the system and explain things to the people who have never been on a train before.

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.
Tags: amtrak, trains, travel

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