By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Amtrak’s customer disservice

You can’t make this stuff up. This coming Monday I’m traveling to New York City on business. I’m returning Tuesday. I had planned to take the Acela Express from Westwood.

Well. This afternoon, I received a call from Amtrak telling me that, due to bridge work, I would not be able to return to Westwood on Tuesday; South Station was my only option. No option at all, really, since overnight parking options in that neighborhood are poor. I said I had to think about what I wanted to do, and hung up.

I decided to drive to Providence and pick up the train there, so I called back. After waiting for 15 minutes, I found myself talking with an agent who told me that (1) trains were going no farther north than New Haven on Tuesday; (2) Amtrak was running buses from New Haven to Providence; and (3) all the buses were booked, so in fact I would not be able to get home.

I was incredulous, and kept repeating what I had just been told to make sure I’d heard it properly. I had. I canceled my reservation and pondered my next move.

Finally, I decided to drive to New Haven (two hours and 40 minutes) on Monday morning and take the train for the last stretch to New York. Now that I think of it, though, I’d better call the New Haven train station and make sure it’s got decent overnight parking.

I want to stress what Amtrak did right. They called me, and they didn’t wait until the last possible minute. Both agents I spoke with were exceedingly polite and sympathetic. Nevertheless, it is absolutely ludicrous that I couldn’t catch a bus from New Haven to Providence. Or, for that matter, to Westwood.

I like trains because they don’t fall out of the sky. But this is why Amtrak is in such trouble. It’s a shame.

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  1. Steve

    I heard about this service disruption last weekend. Oy.There’s parking at New Haven, but you should check into its security. Other alternatives are Hartford (take the train with a change in New Haven) or closer in like Stanford.I usually drive, but that’s only because I grew up around there and love driving in NYC. I was driving on 8th Avenue 2 days after getting my license (scary thought, that).No sane person should really drive there, though. If you’re going to be in Manhattan, leave your car somewhere else.

  2. Anonymous

    New Haven??? Jeez, if you’re driving that far you might as well keep going on to NYC. It’s only another hour and a half at that point. Well, if you are taking the train, I trust it will be Metro-North. Amtrak would be an extra 10 bucks round trip. By the way, here’s a GOOD article (get it?) on the trials and tribulations of Amtrak. Imagine having to wait at a siding for two hours until the next shift of engineers pulls up in a truck. Somehow I don’t think you’ll ever face that on the Acela. 😉

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 10:34: I’m not paying for the train ticket. ;-)I did look into driving all the way. The problem is the last two miles — the directions sound like a combination of calculus and particle physics. But I am checking into security at the New Haven train station.Thanks.

  4. Bill Toscano

    Dan: They had to change when they were going to do the work.They are replacing the bridge over the same river.My daughter, who goes to Simmons and takes the train to Albany to visit me — it’s not very expensive — had a horrible time getting back one Sunday night.They are running buses several days a week, but the day she went, they sat in buses, then were told that Amtrak would send them by taxi to Springfield is they wanted.She just took the cab, and got off there and stayed with friends.This is still going on, and if Amtrak is busing the day she wants to come up this time around, she’s gonna go Greyhound, even though it costs a little more.(Of course, I am paying anyway)

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: I have no problem with them doing bridge work. What I don’t understand is why they won’t run enough buses out of New Haven.BTW, I’ve just about decided to take the LimoLiner out of Framingham instead. Thanks to Jack B. for the suggestion.

  6. Anonymous

    Maybe you should try the LimoLiner “luxury coach service.” (They make a point of never calling it a bus!) Free parking at the Mass Pike Park-n-Ride in Framingham. Drop-off at Hilton midtown Manhattan. Reserved seating. No security lines. (Show up five minutes before departure.) Steward/stewardesses service. Meals/snacks. Spacious leather seats. Feature movies. Cheaper than Acela. And, the kicker — wireless Internet!I’ve used it many times and can recommend it. Although I must admit, every time you hit a pothole, you are reminded that you are on a bus!www.limoliner.comJackB

  7. o-fish-l

    Dan, if you don’t have to pay, Limo-Liner sounds great. Otherwise I would have suggested parking at NU and taking a cab ($10 max) to South Station or Back Bay and grabbing Amtrak from there for the trip down. Then for the return trip, take a NY Taxi to the Fung Wah station on Canal Street and pay the $15 for the ride back to South Station. The bus isn’t as luxurious, but it leaves hourly and arrives at the same spot as the train (South Station) in about the same amount of time. Before boarding, grab a NY deli lunch and the beverage(s) of your choice and it isn’t half bad.As Bill said, this bridge work has been advertised and the schedule has been changed at least twice that I recall. Best get it done before the Sox-Yanks four games series July 3-6 when I will need the train, ha!

  8. Anonymous

    Such is the nature of train travel in this country. It’s almost as if they want it to be bad so we won’t complain too much when it collapses and fades away. I also wonder if they figure that with the high price of driving, and the unacceptable aggravation of flying, we’ll put up with their lousy service because alternatives don’t exist. Lastly, as for how they handled your calls. That’s how they’re trained, to handle you, no matter how upset you are, not matter how serious the problem, handle you so you’ll go away and not move the complaint up the chain of command.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Jack B.: I have canceled my Amtrak reservation and signed up with LimoLiner instead. Thank you so much for the suggestion.Bridges have to be fixed, but it is stupefying why Amtrak can’t line up enough buses to move people from New Haven to Providence.That’s OK … this will be better.

  10. Aaron Read

    I haven’t done it in a while, but I used to live in SE CT and I’d take Amtrak to NYC not infrequently, and I would do something similar to what you describe: drive to Fairfield or New Haven and take the train from there…it was cheaper to do it that way, and I’d visit my cousins in Fairfield while I was at it.Plus I’d go to Fairfield because, well, New Haven’s pretty goddamn sketchy. I sure as hell wouldn’t leave my car there overnight. But at the time (mid 1990’s) the commuter parking lots for everything west of New Haven were chockablock full by about 6:30 – 7am, tops. So if you’re going to try and drive to park there, you’ll need to leave your place no later than 3am. 2 hours and 40 minutes? That’s la-la time, Dan…it takes more than that to get to SW CT in morning rush hour on I-95 via Providence (well, around Providence on I-295) and I wouldn’t recommend trying to get to I-91 through Hartford via I-84, that’s usually an ugggggly scene.If you were paying for it, I’d say take Greyhound or Peter Pan buses (not Fung-Wah, the fiery bus of death). It’s lame, but it’s cheap and relatively on-time. But since you’re not paying your own way, maybe you could take a puddle jumper flight out of Logan or Providence? Or, as you said, the LimoLiner.Alternatively, you might want to investigate the Long Island route by taking the Montauk ferry out of New London, CT. It’s usually a pleasant trip and takes slightly under an hour to cross (and perhaps two hours to take I-95 from downtown Boston to New London…a trip I have done many, many times). I know from experience that there is valid cellphone service for the entire trip (at least with Cingular) since you’re never really THAT far from the mainland, and the drive through most of eastern Long Island is quite pleasant. Can’t speak for what happens when you get west of Hempstead, though. There may also be other ferry options into NYC from LI, too.

  11. Ari Herzog

    O-fish and Aaron: Since both of you brought up buses, what do you know about Megabus? Their website says Boston to NY rides are between $1 to $10 one way depending on the time. I saw an ad for it on Boston’s green line last night.As for the security at the New Haven Metro North station, I’ve parked there many times in recent years for 1-2 nights at a time, and I’ve never had problems or fears.

  12. Retired journo

    It’s hardly Amtrak’s fault. The newspapers and TV stations have been reporting on the bridge outage for weeks now, and Amtrak gave all the bus companies a heads-up quite some time ago. EVERY bus is going to be in use. There just aren’t enough to go around.I don’t want to blame the victim, but this is a good reason to read newspapers or listen to TV news and keep oneself informed.

  13. Sean Roche

    Let’s look at the root cause. Inter-city rail travel is second-class in this country, and even worse outside the northeast corridor, because of years and years of government neglect. Roads and airports get the subsidy dollars and rail languishes.Ultimately, Dan’s plight is a function of dollars. It takes money to plan. It takes money to provide adequate replacement bus service. Do you really think that this is a failure of execution?

  14. Aaron Read

    Sorry Ari, never used MegaBus. But I’ll bet a lot more people are using it lately.I live out in Rochester now and between abundant parking and lack of viable public transit, my wife and I both own cars and mostly drive everywhere. Including into NYC, I might add. And Dan calls himself a Boston driver?!? Jeez, Dan…the drivers – and roads – in Boston a helluva lot worse than NYC in my experience. C’mon ya big baby! ;-)A handful of times my wife has taken Amtrak from NYC to Rochester and it’s no contest. It takes at least 1.5 to 2 hours longer…assuming it runs on time which it usually does not…and the trains just don’t run all that often. Until recently it was much easier to just fly from one of NYC’s three airports up to Rochester in a commuter plane. Jetblue used to have $50 flights five times a day.Sean: you’re mostly right but oversimplifying a bit. Amtrak’s biggest problem is that, outside of the NE Corridor, they’re at the mercy of the freight trains that own the rails Amtrak must use. Trains still move more cargo than trucks or planes do, so there’s tons of interruptions to Amtrak’s schedules.Similarly, for nearly thirty years, arguably for fifty, rail just hasn’t been as efficient a means of moving PEOPLE around in a timely manner…planes and cars just do it better. In many ways, I don’t disagree with the refusal to subside rail for all those years; why should we have? It was a significantly less effective service. The difference now is that the scales of efficiency are tipping thanks to greenhouse gas concerns, high fuel prices and crumbling infrastructures, so rail is starting to look more attractive again. I would most definitely approve of greater rail subsidies now because it makes more sense objectively AND because people are in a place now where they’re willing to recognize the advantages of rail over car or plane.However, I should point out, that even with a connection through Atlanta, I flew from Rochester to Dallas in less than twelve hours, start to finish, for about $600. Amtrak is demanding at least that much for the privilege of spending 36 hours (at a minimum, probably more like 40-48) to ride from Rochester to Chicago, and Chicago to Dallas. No thanks, I could still drive and it’d be cheaper AND faster.

  15. Sean Roche

    Aaron,A few mistaken assumptions.1. I was oversimplifying a lot not just a little. 2. If you’re thinking in terms of the out-of-pocket cost per-mile, yes, cars and planes have been more “efficient,” but only because of the enormous subsidies poured into roadways and airports. That’s not to mention the enormous external costs imposed by our car-addicted culture, like urban sprawl. By any reasonable measure, rail is far more efficient for the trips below 250 miles. It’s true now and it has been true for years.3. Rail advocates are not pushing for better service between far-flung places like NYC and Rochester or Rochester and Dallas (at least not right now). But, top-rate service between Boston and NYC and NYC and Boston would transform transportation options. Likewise service among other similarly close major cities like Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin,and Houston.

  16. o-fish-l

    Ari, I haven’t used Megabus either, although I recall hearing somewhere that they might only have one or two seats per bus for $1 (gimmick) and the rest are at regular price. As for the others, I’ve found Fung Wah and Lucky Star to be virtually indistinguishable. The bus isn’t my preferred choice, but when Amtrak is down or when money is tight, it works.

  17. Dan H.

    Quick Amtrak story. Went to NY on the Acela, which I do several times a year, but due to schedule had to take one of the slow-pokes back to Providence.It was SRO and the heat was turned up to where I thought the metal fittings on the seats would liquify. An older woman, obviously in real distress due to the stuffy heat, asked a conductor to turn it down. His reply, delivered casually over his shoulder as he kept walking past her seat:”Well, then we’d have to shut everything down and then where would we be?”More than one irate passenger answered with stuff like, “On a comfortable train?” “Driving.” “Not much worse off than we are right now.”It’s too bad because it can be a great, scenic relaxing way to get to NYC.-Dan H.

  18. Anonymous

    I’ve used Limoliner and it works pretty well. They have Wi-Fi (which was connected most of the way), “in-flight” snacks, movies, 110-volt outlets and the seats are very nice (only 3 in each aisle). You can board as late as 5 minutes before they leave.They are big on customer service, they take your cell phone and let you know ahead of time if they will be late. Since they leave and pick-up from both cities’ downtown Hiltons, you can wait in their lounge before departure.Obviously, they are subject to road and traffic conditions. I was amazed at how many people wanted to know how long the trip took, as if they had some private tunnel or road to New York!I share your lament that the train service isn’t better. Strange to think that somehow we broke a system that worked so well in the 40s/50s. Also, how come bus services figured out how to do Wi-Fi before Amtrak?

  19. chelms

    Dan, I’m glad Amtrak actually called you. I’d heard about the outage and had called them to check on a trip my mother is making. When I talked to them, it wasn’t clear they were planning to call her.

  20. Anonymous

    Even if I agreed with everything you said, that’s not the reason Amtrak is in trouble. Work through the petulance, Dan.

  21. Anonymous

    Please remember that airplanes rarely fall out of the sky. In fact, these days, it’s kinda rare that they even get off the ground.

  22. Esther

    Wow, I’m surprised to hear about your problems with the Acela Express. I’ve taken it from Providence to Boston five times in the past 14 months and I’ve never had a problem. It’s a very comfy 2 hour, 45 minute trip – although expensive. I’ve heard that the non-Acela trains aren’t nearly as nice. I didn’t even know it stopped in Westwood. I thought it went directly from Boston to Providence. Anyway, have a great time in New York and let us know about the bus ride!

  23. Anonymous

    well…..the only thing positive about your situation is the fact that the age old bridge is finally getting replaced….

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