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Trip Report

Amtrak Cross-country

June 2002


Here is a modified copy of a letter sent this week (June 24) by my wife about our recent Amtrak ride across the country. It included the routing of:

Kentucky Cardinal
Texas Eagle/Sunset
Pacific Surfliner
some Metrolink riding
Coast Starlight
some ACE, CalTrain riding
San Joaquin
Cal Zephyr
Kentucky Cardinal

I would like to let him know about an experience we had with parking at Union Station...

We got into Louisville on the Kentucky Cardinal last Wednesday morning (June 19) and discovered that our pickup truck had a flat tire. Apparently it had a slow leak and in the 3 weeks we were gone it went flat. I went into the station to use the guard's phone to call AAA (it seems to me that an Amtrak station should have a pay phone, but that's another story) and the guard told me that we were real lucky that we had gotten back that morning because they were going to call and have the truck towed off that day as abandoned. I told him that we were told that it was OK for Amtrak passengers to park there. He said that they don't mind if we park there but they need to know which vehicles are legitimately there, so they require Amtrak passengers to leave their vehicle license plate number with the guard on duty. I told him that I had talked to the guard on duty when we left and double checked that it was OK to park there. I had pointedly told him that we would be gone for several weeks. The guard on duty that night (a younger guy) said that it was fine and that they would keep an eye on it for us. He never asked for the license plate number. The older guard on duty when we got back looked a little skeptical and said that we need to be sure to leave our license plate number any time we park there, and that all their guards know that. I don't mind if Louisville's Union Station has such a parking policy but I think they need to do a much better job of informing Amtrak, Amtrak's passengers, and their own guards of the policy. At the very least they should post signs in the parking lot and inside the station. Arbitrarily enforcing an unwritten rule doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

Thanks for your head's up about the sleeper being pulled from the Kentucky Cardinal. Ours was apparently the second southbound with just a coach. With two engines and no mail we had plenty of power! What was weird was that when we checked in at the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago they told us that the sleeper was on the train, there was no problem, and that we were confirmed in compartment 3. When we got on the platform we kept getting waved further toward the head of the train until we got to the engines and found out that there was only one sleeper on the train and it was headed to Washington. We headed back to the rear of the train and found the conductor. He very brusquely informed us there was no sleeper and that we could take coach or not get on the train. As far as a voucher for the money we had paid for a sleeper he told us if we wanted one we would have to go back in the station, wait in line, and probably miss the train. Basically we could kiss our money goodbye, get on the coach, and like it. The assistant conductor who loaded us on the coach (the coach had no attendant) was significantly more helpful and got us a voucher. We were not as bad off as the elderly man with a bad back who said that this was the second (and last!) time that Amtrak had pulled a sleeper out from under him, or the family of five who ended up with only four coach seats instead of their sleeper accommodations. Since the sleeper passengers had to walk the entire train up and back looking for the nonexistent sleeper we were among the last to get on the coach and had to take whatever seats were left. ____ and I managed to find two seats together but traded with part of the family so that at least they were across the aisle from each other. The parents were behind us while the three kids (aged about 11, 7, and 4) were squished into two seats on the other side of the aisle for the overnight trip. They were Oriental and did not seem to speak English very well so I'm not sure if they understood much of what was going on. I do know that they were unhappy. The coach was absolutely packed because in addition to the normal load of coach passengers and the sleeper passengers who had been bumped to coach there was a group of about 30 teenagers coming back from New York. It was not even a long distance coach but was one of their middle distance ones and was extremely uncomfortable for an overnight trip.

We are very curious about why we were told at the Met Lounge in Chicago that the sleeper was on the train. Either Amtrak has absolutely awful communications (a very real possibility) or they were intentionally not telling passengers until the last possible minute. I think it is the latter because Amtrak did the same thing to a car full of passengers in Denver. They were supposed to add a sleeper to the Zephyr in Denver for Denver-Chicago passengers but put on a coach instead (with no attendant). Apparently the passengers were not informed until they got to the platform. My thought is that if Amtrak gave passengers advance notice they might make other arrangements and cancel their reservations. But standing trackside late at night just a few minutes before the train departs passengers have far fewer options. And as is clearly printed on all Amtrak tickets, once travel begins there are no refunds. (Unless you find a good conductor there are no vouchers, either, and in any case I doubt that many people use their vouchers.) So if Amtrak can get people aboard they can keep the money without providing the additional services.

Our only other beefs are that we saw the same menu for days on end, and we had to literally steal our checked luggage from the luggage ladies in Oakland. We had checked two suitcases and one box from Oxnard to Oakland on the Coast Starlight. When we got to Oakland they unloaded the suitcases but insisted that the box was freight and wouldn't give it to him. He showed them his checked luggage receipt but they told him he would have to wait until the next day when the freight office was open to get his box. So he just took it. Of course the whole luggage unloading process was a three-ring circus that held the train up about 30 minutes, so we were not surprised.

Also, the engineer in San Antonio seemed upset that he had to switch a private car onto the train and took his frustration out by just about slinging the whole sleeping car out of their beds at 2am.

I know that sounds like a lot of complaints, but other than those (very) sour notes the trip was comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable. The Kentucky Cardinal north was comfy and on time, we enjoyed our layover in Chicago, then got on the Texas Eagle. In spite of spending three hours getting from Dallas to Ft. Worth (we saw the commuter train go by twice) we just made our connection in San Antonio to the Sunset Limited. The Sunset got into LA only a few minutes late and we made our connection to Oxnard. We were lucky - that was the only time that week that the Sunset made it as far as LA. Every other day it was turned at Tucson and passengers were bussed to LA. The Coast Starlight was a couple hours late getting into Oakland but it was a nice trip - until we had to wrestle with the luggage ladies! We hopped a Capitol instead of riding the bus from Oakland to Emeryville and got on the Zephyr for the trip to Chicago. In the Glenwood Springs area we could see where the fire had gone through a few days earlier. It went right across the tracks and everything was scorched. We could see some smoke on the other side of the hill and went past the tent village that housed the firefighters. We couldn't see the Denver fire because it was on the other side of town but we could smell the smoke in the air. We got into Chicago several hours late but had an hour for a comfortable connection with the southbound Kentucky Cardinal - which ended up being anything but comfortable!

We were late into Chicago partly because the crew transition sleeper blew its electrical system and could not transfer HEP back to the rest of the train, meaning no air conditioning. Luckily it happened literally right in front of the BN shop complex in Burlington. Mechanics strolled out to check it and eventually the crew car was switched to the back of the train for the rest of the trip.

The passengers seemed to be mostly people who wanted to travel on Amtrak before it goes under, railfans, and people who don't like to fly.

As much as I enjoy passenger train travel I hate to say that I am not sure if I am any longer a supporter of Amtrak. It looks very much to me like they are in a stage of meltdown and any idea of customer service is pretty far down on the totem pole right now.

Unfortunately the airlines are just as customer unfriendly right now and a big hassle besides. Busses are unspeakable and driving means congestion and sitting in traffic for hours on end. I would say that this country's transportation policy is falling apart, but that would imply that there is a coherent transportation policy!

I'll be interested to see if Amtrak gets additional funding. At the moment, it looks like we might be lucky that we got home before they go bust.

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