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angry on his behalf

December 1, 2006

Mr. Angst tried to take the Amtrak today, on an unexpected trip out of town. Unfortunately, all that winter weather interfered and he got stuck 3/5 of the way to his destination, and was stuck there for more than six hours. Now, he tells me, the train is going backwards, to the last stop, where passengers can board buses to take them to their destination, 2 and a half hours down the highway.

I understand the vagaries of transportation when the weather is bad–certainly it’s no shock that his train was delayed some. But the more I think about it, the angrier I get–why couldn’t Amtrak figure out five hours ago–when the train had been sitting for two hours–that the tracks really were going to be impassable? Why did it take close to eight hours for them to decide that whatever was blocking the tracks really couldn’t be moved? Why did it take them so long to decide to look at alternatives for getting the passengers to their destionations? Mr. Angst’s trip, which he decided to take at the last minute and for family reasons, is now shortened by at least several hours and possibly by a full day. What guarantee will Amtrak give him that this problem won’t recur on Sunday, when he’s trying to come home?

As you can see, I’m a bit preoccupied with this. So I looked up Amtrak’s various legal statements on their website. And I am APPALLED. Amtrak basically disclaims ALL liabilities arising from their failure to keep to a timetable or for equipment failure and the like, so long as a given state doesn’t disallow such disclaimers. Snort. So when Mr. Angst’s 5 hour train trip ends up taking him three times that, what happens to Amtrak? Nothing. There’s no legal recourse, no way to get refunds, nothing. We just have to suck it up.

Every six months or so, there’s a news item about how Amtrak is hemorrhaging money, how it can’t turn a profit, how it’s being propped up by subsidizes in all but the DC-to-New York market. And no wonder! There are no negative incentives! If Amtrak screws up, what do they have to lose? Not reputation, certainly. And they won’t lose any money, since there’s no way to impose such penalties on them.

Maybe the ten hour delay is an extreme (it will be a ten hour delay by the time the buses get there). But I know Amtrak delays aren’t rare, and hearing about the way this particular situation has been handled makes me want to avoid the train in the future. Even if it is less expensive than renting a car.

Update: A five-and-a-half hour train trip turned into almost 20 hours for Mr. Angst. Even worse? Amtrak apparently intended to leave them on the train even longer, but some passengers began calling 911 and complaining that they were stranded. Only then, it seems, did Amtrak make the “radical” decision to back the train up 20 miles to the last stop and allow passengers to debark. And then it took them over three hours to provide buses to transport everyone to their destinations. Even better? There were no trains today, nor likely tomorrow. In the end, Mr. Angst will have to take a bus back home.

Now here’s the crux of my irritation. Amtrak, yesterday, was unable to provide information to passengers who called asking for information. Why? Because the channels of communication aren’t really set up to allow for that. Amtrak, at least in this part of the country, leases rail lines from freight companies, so when problems arise with the rail lines, Amtrak can’t really do anything about it–they have to call the freight companies. And, as I understand it, they are at the whim of the freight companies for rail maintenance–Amtrak doesn’t budget for maintenance. They just pay their rent, as it were.

Surely it would be better to establish some sort of centralized communication system, even if it’s just a more sophisticated version of a phone tree, right? I mean, people at all levels of government have been calling for Amtrak to overhaul how they do business–but aren’t there less expensive measures that could be taken to at least improve the customer experience?

Finally, I know there are so few people that take the train that the media doesn’t care. But I had no end of frustration last night trying to see if there was any information on the news about the rail lines. And there wasn’t. Consequently, the only way I was able to find out that tomorrow’s trains won’t be running was to call the train company–there were no news items, nothing on the TV. And I live in a state which sends a fair chunk of money to Amtrak! Egads.

Update 2: Well, Amtrak did call Mr. Angst this morning to tell him his train would not run. I’m glad they did. He’ll be on a late bus into town, and hopefully there won’t be any problems on the highway.

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Categories: of note
  1. Meg
    December 2, 2006 at 8:39 am

    Lest you think that they are doing any better a job in the DC-to-New York market (you know, to actually try to keep the willing, paying customers who need to move back and forth between DC-Philadelphia-New York), they are most certainly not.

    Last fall semester, my boyfriend lived here in Philadelphia and commuted to school in Newark, NJ (about an hour by Amtrak and two by the local train lines between here and NYC). At $636/month and half rent in a very cheap apt in Philly, he was saving money because of housing prices up there, etc.

    In October, they raised the rates to $850/month for the same pass, and AT THE SAME TIME cut the number of trains each day that the pass was good on. So he was stuck paying $200 more for less service. Added to that was that Amtrak is hardly ever ontime even here (where almost everyone travels by train), and delays would often run at least an hour.

    He finally moved north when they announced they would raise the rates to $1007 (!!!) in February 2006, citing the “economic benefits”. Less than 2000 people bought monthly passes at points between DC and NYC at that time, and the number is far lower now because of the price raise. Not only did they lose any semblance of good faith in the region (at the same time the rate hikes were announced, several other things happened that didn’t endear them to the rail-riding public), but they probably lost more money in the long run because of all their shenanigans in the last few years.

    (As you can probably see, Amtrak makes me ridiculously angry, as well.)

    Like you, I did research on it, and at the time it seemed as if the new chief of Amtrak that the Bush Administration had installed was deliberately trying to run it into the ground (perhaps because it does hemmorage money outside of the mid-Atlantic and perhaps they want to fix it from the ground up and de-nationalize so that they don’t have to provide service in the rest of the country), but it is desperately necessary to those of us who live here. Very frustrating.

  2. December 2, 2006 at 9:37 am

    Having just taken the contracts exam – couldn’t that be at least procedural unconscionability? I mean – Mr. Angst wouldn’t have agreed to that had he known about it in advance, it was buried in the contract AND there was unequal bargaining power present????
    *shuffles off to study for torts*
    And I’m sure a battery happened somewhere in there!

  3. KB
    December 3, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    I had to sit on an Amtrak once for three hours with no heat, no electricity, and no working bathrooms while they tried to figure out how to get our broken train to move. Finally we had to board buses. It was ridiculous.

    Also, the last trip I had scheduled with Amtrak was supposed to leave at 11:30 a.m. They called to let me know the train wouldn’t even be in my station until at least 6:55 p.m. At least. I cancled that ticket quickly.

  4. TP
    December 3, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    You should try the trains in Japan. *Slightly* better efficiency and service.

  5. December 3, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    TP, it’s also the only profitable national train service in the world. Something else to think about, I guess. 🙂

  6. James
    December 3, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    The same legal situation applies to airlines. If the flight is canceled, they will put you on the next available flight. My partner had a flt. that was scheduled for 8:30 am, it was canceled and they put him on a 7:40 pm flt!. So don’t get so upset with Amtrak. I could have happened if you flew also. What recourse would you have had last week if you were stuck in O’hare? Or stuck in a massive traffic jam on an Interstate in a snow storm. And Amtrak is subsidized like every other transportation system. You think highways and airlines are not subsidized? We all pay for it one way or the other. If Congress and the Administration would be serious and fund Amtrak so they could expand and have new equipment then maybe we could have a worthy passenger rail system.

  7. December 3, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    James, I don’t deny that every transportation system is subsidized. The problem with Amtrak is that it is the ONLY subsidized passenger rail system. If one airline–also subsidized–was less than 80% reliable (as Amtrak is in almost all areas except the Northeast Corridor), people would use a different airline. There are no such alternatives with rail.

    Further, if you read again, I’m not claiming that Amtrak was alone in having problems on Friday. What I am saying, though, is that Amtrak handled the situation deplorably. They were prepared to leave over 500 passengers–people who prepared for a 5-1/2 hour trip–on a train for more than 20 hours! They only relented and took passengers back to the nearest town when people began calling 911 (apparently there were some medical emergencies). Moreover, they didn’t have any information to pass on to the passengers. Yes, some of that is not Amtrak’s problem–they rely on the freight companies to a large extent–but some of it is just poor management.

    Finally, with regard to the legal situation, I think the situation with the airlines is substantially different. Yes, the time delay may end up being equal when a flight is cancelled or postponed, but an air passenger isn’t actually ON the plane with nowhere to go. Air passengers can leave the airport, find food, clean restrooms, overnight accommodations. Train passengers in this situation are stuck ON THE TRAIN, a train not designed to accommodate all those people for three times the length of the trip. Also, airlines give people vouchers when there are equipment problems. Amtrak doesn’t. (Note: I am not saying Friday’s situation was an equipment failure–it was clearly weather-related. But Amtrak disclaims even equipment problems that lead to delays, which is a step beyond what the airlines do.)

    My belief is that Amtrak as it currently operates is broken. Improvements designed to increase demand for rail might help–high-speed tracks, for instance–but those improvements are costly and come with no guarantees. Furthermore, then you’d have a country with two sets of rail lines, both needing to be maintained, but that couldn’t accommodate either kind of rail car. At least with the current situation of leasing rail lines, you have some built-in efficiency. Perhaps the freight companies need to be pressured to better accommodate Amtrak, or perhaps Amtrak (with government aid) should co-manage track maintenance. I don’t know what the best solution is. What I do know, though, is that many of the current problems Amtrak passengers complain about are addressable at least in part by better customer service and management, never minding the equipment issue.

  8. Meg
    December 4, 2006 at 8:18 am

    “Improvements designed to increase demand for rail might help–high-speed tracks, for instance–but those improvements are costly and come with no guarantees. Furthermore, then you’d have a country with two sets of rail lines, both needing to be maintained, but that couldn’t accommodate either kind of rail car.”

    Again, the opposite is true in the Northeast/mid-Atlantic, Amtrak maintains the rail lines and the local rail companies (MARC, Septa, NJTransit, and Metro North) all lease the rails from Amtrak. We have the Acela Express trains that are supposed to be worth double the price of a regular Amtrak ticket, but in reality only get you to Boston faster from NY (and that’s only if there are no track problems which there ALWAYS are). From Philadelphia to NY, the Acela Express saves you a whopping fifteen minutes. Again, the trains are never on time (usually because of track maintenance that Amtrak itself is responsible for here – it’s very rarely weather related, and therefore *should* be close to on-time but never, ever are.)

    Anyway, to reiterate my earlier point and agree with yours – Amtrak is broken. It’s hard to see how to fix the system because to denationalize it would raise prices on the Northeast Corridor astronomically, and yet still deteriorate quality of service further.

    And as for the nationalized rail system in Japan being successful – that might have something to do with the fact that Japan is a much smaller area and is essentially the same as the Northeast Corridor alone in the US (profitable, although highly flawed).

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