I Am Pissed, Amtrak Screwed Up Massively and Now I Have to Renegotiate My Day Completely To Deal With It…

I travel a lot. I travel a lot by train. But today Amtrak seriously did something that is making me rethink how I will be traveling in the future. They completely have screwed up things. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s take a look at concrete evidence.

I arrived at Emeryville Station to transfer to a Capital Corridor Train to go to Oakland (Jack London Square). I had just boarded and enjoyed a trip from Denver on the Zephyr. Overall a nice trip. The second full part of the trip however wasn’t to start until Saturday the 26th when I would depart from Oakland on the Coast Starlight to Portland. Well, I wanted to reschedule for Friday to depart & to upgrade to a roomette.

I walked up to the ticket agent to make these changes on my ticket. Keep in mind this was a two part trip; Denver to Oakland and then a week later, departing on Saturday the 26th from Oakland to Portland. I asked the ticket clerk if it would be possible to change my ticket from Oakland to Portland from the 26th to the 25th and upgrade to a roomette. She replied, “yes, let me take a look“. She pulled up the information and supposedly made this change. As she printed out the ticket she handed it to me and stated, “here’s the ticket for Friday (she didn’t state the numerical date) and here’s the refund and changes summary on this other ticket“. She held the ticket and exchange receipt like this to show me.

Showing me the receipt, she held the ticket and receipt that where stapled together like this.

Showing me the receipt, she held the ticket and receipt that where stapled together like this. (click for a full size image)

So I assumed, that since she just stated Friday to me and handed me the ticket and exchange receipt that everything was in order. I pocketed the ticket and headed out to board the Capitol Corridor Train to Oakland to complete this first leg of the trip.

Fast forward to Tuesday (yesterday). I looked online to see what the exact departure time was for the Coast Starlight heading north and this is when I realized there had been a mistake. But this simple mistake was only the beginning. The website on Tuesday, at around 11:30pm when I’m looking at the site, all of a sudden shows that I’m supposed to be leaving ON TUESDAY!? This was NOT what I was told nor what I rescheduled. I thought to myself, ok, no biggie I’ll call them as soon as possible on Wednesday and get this figured out. I’m sure that Amtrak will fix it, they generally do. Here’s what the website actually shows now, on Wednesday at 10:30pm. Still the incorrect time.

Yup, it says the 22nd. Ugh, seriously Amtrak, that's three different dates I'm given. (again, click on image for full size)

Yup, it says the 22nd. Ugh, seriously Amtrak, that’s three different dates I’m given. (again, click on image for full size) …and btw, that amount isn’t what was charged to my card, to my company to anybody, nor was it the amount of the full trip or this part of the trip. I don’t even know who this amount of money applies to. I’m so confused at this point, I have no idea and it doesn’t seem anyone at Amtrak has any idea what is actually going on. All I do know is I don’t have a ticket for the day I need to take the train back to Portland.

So at this point I’d still not looked at my physical ticket, which was to have another surprise. I went in to the office to take care of meetings and other things I’d planned on well before that needed taken care of. I finally arrived later in the day to where I was staying and called Amtrak at 10pm. I know, this is outside of hours that anybody that can actually be helpful in these matters is available. I get that, but imagine being a customer that needs this fixed now, they’d be screwed. Fortunately I’m a pretty flexible and easy going guy. I generally don’t bother people and let people do right by me. Almost always, people do exactly that and treat me well and honorably with appropriate intent.

Well I called and the operator answered. I didn’t understand her name, except something like Alisha or something. It was, I’ll admit, hard to understand her since her accent was a little thick. It was an American accent, likely of the east coast with a little southern thrown in. Now, I can understand almost any accent. Especially southern, cajun, Boston, New York and pretty much anywhere in the United States. But her slurring wasn’t very effective at actual communication. Again, I’m easy going so I thought, “whatever, I can deal with this…”

She asked how she could help me. So I explained to her my plight, and this is where she, and Amtrak, screwed up in a horribly dishonorable and inconsiderate way again. After I explain to her the situation, and while looking at the ticket – which, before I go on look at the ticket below.

Hmmm, the ticket I received from the clerk actually shows the 21st. So wait, was I supposed to be on this train on the 22nd or the 21st? Well that isn't what the clerk said, she had told me the ticket was rescheduled for the 25th! (again, click for a larger image)

Hmmm, the ticket I received from the clerk actually shows the 21st. So wait, was I supposed to be on this train on the 22nd or the 21st? Well that isn’t what the clerk said, she had told me the ticket was rescheduled for the 25th! (again, click for a larger image)

Yup, that’s right. The ticket isn’t even for the day that the website shows on the screen. What the hell Amtrak? Somebody screwed up big time on this one. Ok, again, not a big deal we can remedy it. At least I thought that to myself. But this is when things got intolerable and completely unacceptable. The ticket showed that the departure time was supposed to be on the 21st, the website shows a departure of the 22nd, and I was told the departure was rescheduled for the 25th. Then the lady on the phone told me, “since you where a no show, you’ve forfeited the ticket…”

For those that don’t know how to interact with customers, the last thing you do in this particular situation is BLAME THE CUSTOMER. You NEVER BLAME THE CUSTOMER FIRST. You always try to determine if there is way to remedy things without a significant money cost, especially when there is the possibility (which in this case there’s evidence) that the company (Amtrak) is the party responsible for the fault. This was a customer service mistake 101. Completely unprofessional.

WHAT THE HELL?! I didn’t “no show”. I was misinformed, Amtrak’s clerk screwed up. The website shows the wrong information and I screwed up? No I didn’t. I didn’t screw up. Amtrak did. Technically, they screwed up and I’d already overlooked multiple other screw ups. But then their phone line person has the inappropriate and rude training to blame me for screwing up? This is, simply, completely unacceptable. I just wanted my ticket fixed. But instead I get this crap about how its all my fault that I didn’t check the ticket in the email and the physical ticket I have and verify that they’re all the same and that what the ticket clerk said they gave me was the correct thing that they gave me. Seriously Amtrak? I’m supposed to check 3 different things to verify that your clerk didn’t screw up my request?!

That is absolutely, in every way inexcusable. On top of that, which I was willing to forget all of these screw ups, the phone person then has the shoddy training and bad customer skills to say its my fault. I don’t know how many ways to say to Amtrak that you guys owe me big time.

So I’ll be calling on Thursday, tomorrow, with basically one day to go and now cutting it close, to fix this nonsense. I expect things to be fixed and will be sorely upset if they don’t have a roomette to have me in on the north bound trip on Friday of the Coast Starlight. If Amtrak really wants to fix things I’ll receive a full refund and be able to write a positive blog entry after this one commending Amtrak customer service on fixing their multiple wrongs they’ve done me.

No matter what, this is going to cost me customer time with MY CLIENTS tomorrow. Which is even worse, because I actually have to work with my clients, I have no Government to bail me out, I ask for no union to protect me, I just want to provide value to my clients that they find worth paying me for. But instead, I have to break of from my time with clients to call Amtrak to fix this during their “business hours”. So hopefully, I receive a full refund and get this ticket situation remedied immediately upon calling tomorrow.

I honestly want to write a story about how Amtrak fixed all of this. I have my fingers crossed.

PS Amtrak: I’d highly advise two other things in addition to hopefully fixing my ticket and giving me a refund. One is to check out the system and see why it would do this. Something, most likely whatever the last pushes live with various systems were, are causing a bug. The second thing is, fix this inappropriate actions taken by the phone staff. They should have better customer service skills than this.

Chinese Railroads Aren’t the Advertised Achievement We’re Sold

I got another email from a train & transit buddy of mine recently. Talking about how the United States has fallen behind in the race to have high speed rail. Now before I leap into what I’m going to say, I want to make it abundantly clear that what we are achieving today, what we’re doing today as a nation is pathetic. I’m talking about 3rd world nation pathetic. While we ride on the backs of technology to carry the country along and any hope of growth, the real industry leaders of railroads, construction and manufacturing have fallen into dormancy. In large part because of the disgraceful behavior of the Government and the politicians pretending they can run and economy and build cities.

Simply, they will not and can never achieve what the US did and the titans of industry accomplished with the help of the American people between 1865 and 1915. I’m not saying everything is hunky dory and lovely from that era, I’m just saying we’ve become absurdly pathetic as a nation. We can’t achieve what we did then, we can’t innovate nor have we proven that we have the insight or drive to create, innovate, build and bring about a better future for everyone. Simply, the United States is absolutely a shadow of what it once was and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We’re in for an extremely rude awakening that we have taken what our forefathers provided us, and rested heavily on our laurels to our children’s detriment. They are now the one’s, completely ill-prepared, to rebuild that level of achievement and growth. Something that the Chinese or some other country, that is actually less prepared to handle these things, will have to take the reigns anyway.

So let’s talk about a few comparisons, since everyone is so wowed by the Chinese and their railroad. Let’s get a better perspective about what the Chinese are achieving compared with the United States of 1865-1915.

The Chinese, in 50 years have built approximately 65,545 miles of railroad. This has been done with tooling and equipment that they’ve built using designs and technology created by the United States, Europe and other nations. It is technology that we used between 1865-1915, also a 50 year span, to build 129,774 miles of railroad by 1890, with a total of 250,000 miles by 1915. So really, the Chinese have accomplished a mere portion of what the United States did with technology that had to be developed when the US Railroads were being built. Many Chinese Americans also helped to achieve that, because here they innovate and create in ways that just wouldn’t happen in China itself (at least, there has been no evidence to the contrary, new ideas are extremely slow to take hold in mainland China, however a change of Governmental systems seems to do the trick, as Taiwan and Hong Kong have shown without doubt). To put it simply, the freer the market, the greater the achievements  The same can be seen for “free-market” Britain as well as “market driven” TGV, Shinkansen  etc. I could go on about this even more, but suffice it to say at 250,000 miles of railroad, no country on Earth has even come close to the achievements of American entrepreneurs and industrialists during 1865-1915. NOWHERE EVEN CLOSE.

For another comparison, let’s take speeds achieved by the Chinese on their high speed rail. The trains generally, now after several accidents causing dozens of deaths, travel at a safer 187 mph. Which is now, in 2012 the general speed of high speed rail. No real achievement has been made here. The TGV holds the highest speed at record and has areas that operate at higher speeds.

In the US, and I know this isn’t in the 1865-1915 range, but just stay with me for a minute. The New York Central in 1966 achieved 196 mph with the M-497. In the 1940’s the Milwaukee Road ran rail service over 100mph, hitting up to 120 mph for part of the trip. Note, that was the 1940’s. In 1934 the Milwaukee Road had a line running a peak of 103.6 mph, in 1934!

Ok, so those speeds are all great right, but let’s step back again to the years we’re really comparing. In 1905 the Pennsylvania Railroad ran a speed record at 127.2 mph near Crestline, Ohio with an E7sa 4-4-2 Atlantic. This same train was running rail service at 88-90 mph daily at the time. Something that makes the current Chinese rail operations seem not so spectacular, and the modern US rail operations a complete embarrassment. When we look at the averages, things look even better for our forefathers in the 1865-1915 period too, as our modern averages drop horribly low. But let’s not dig into how poorly we do today compared to our forefathers.

Another great thing the Chines have built is this fantastic sprawling train station shown below.

Again, don’t get me wrong. They’ve created an amazing station here. But let’s step back to that 1865-1915 America again just for a second and take a look at Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Terminal.  Here are the upper tracks:

The suburban (as in sub-urban) level of the station. (Click for full size image)

The suburban (as in sub-urban) level of the station. (Click for full size image)

Oh yeah, and here’s the OTHER LEVEL of tracks.

The express level. (Again, click on for full size image)

The express level. (Again, click on for full size image)

That’s two decks of train tracks, built in 1913. All underground so it doesn’t block up massive sprawling space like the station shown in China. It was built that way to better service New York at its very core. But wait, that’s not all. Guess what else is under the station. If you said the 42nd street subway you’d be correct! The subway was running as of 1904, with the station finally open for business in 1915.

Summary

So what am I really saying by doing this comparison? It’s simple, I’m saying we’re not and should not be trying to compete with the modern Chinese. We should be competing with ourselves. Our own nation has languished and become weaker by the year. Our peak, militarily can be said to have happened in WWII, however our economic powerhouse was created in the span of 1865-1915. What was built then was what enabled us to power our way through WWII, out producing every nation on Earth. It was these years of economic strength that set us up to be able to create the greatest middle class to the world had known. But now we’re too busy fussing and begging the Government to build us out of our debt and misfortune. We’ve become a nation not of doers but of beggars and people subsisting on others. We’re in debt beyond our wildest dreams while we continue to out consume and further plunge into debt. We act like we own houses while we make massive mortgage payments, also known when translated as “death payments”. What we have achieved was basically set into motion in those years, 1865-1915, and we’ve done little to truly progress past that, except to increase our dependence on an unreliable and faulty Government.

What the Chinese have built is commendable, but it isn’t anything that the United States had not already accomplished almost a hundred years ago. It’s just we’ve fallen so far from our peak, our achievements have withered and we’ve forgotten and cared not what we once were as a nation.

The good thing is, the United States may find itself yet. We may find that maybe, just maybe there is another type of grand success and great life to be had. Maybe we don’t have to acheive these things. Maybe the Chinese are merely chasing our own failures while we’re finding our way to different things. I think we’ll still need to build our way out of the current doldrums, but we could still do it. It just won’t be anything like what we achieved in the past.

Simply, our forefathers have seriously kicked our ass, and there’s no way the modern generation, or next few generations are going to reclaim that pedestal. We’re too busy figuring out how to create “social media” empires of pettiness.

…and also, the next entry will be much more positive. I just had to get this written out as I’m tired of how the “Chinese are beating us”, when in reality we’re not being beaten by anyone but ourselves.

Zero MQ, Why Portland’s Transit Kicks Ass!

One of the things that happens over and over again. Check this out below…

Click for full size image...

Click for full size image...

Did you see it? Yeah, no “automobile” directions! Seriously, drivers can figure it out themselves, the country spends enough money on em’ and GPS makes that brainlessly simple. However Portland loves to point out the awesome transit capabilities – the nearby Amtrak Union Station, Light Rail MAX to the Airport, etc. Either way you come, the conference looks to be pretty sweet. Check it out here:  http://www.zeromq.org/event:pdxconf2012

Nothing Like a Commute from Olympia to Seattle, Washington

I boarded the train this morning at 10:30am with a scheduled arrival of 12:00. That, overall is not a bad commute compared to the nightmare of those that currently commute in from Olympia. Currently the various bus trip, which includes a transfer to either a second bus or to the Sounder, is a very long trip. I’m also not one to encourage long commutes, I think they are inherently bad for society and for the mental health of individuals attempting to make these trips.

However, if the trip must be made, which a lot of people do, the train should be a viable option. There is demand, there are tracks, and soon there will be an even shorter route that will take about an hour and 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half. The problem is that Sound Transit hasn’t mustered up the strength or money to extend as far as Olympia yet, and Amtrak Cascades (which would be a perfect candidate) can’t seem to organize their trains to run along this route.

But if I were to dream nice things for the commuters of Olympia that come into Seattle, here’s a viable (and net operationally profitable option!).

  1. Take one of the train sets, which there WILL BE SPARES soon based on the arrival of two new train sets that Oregon/Amtrak has purchased. Put this single train set on an Olympia to Bellingham route for an early morning commute. Leave Olympia at 6:50 or 7am for a 8:15 or 8:30 arrival in downtown King Street Station Seattle.
  2. Take that same train that arrives at 8:30 and add another train that goes to Bellingham – at least during the College School Year – and have it depart for Bellingham around 9:00am.
  3. Have that train turn in Bellingham for the southern trip back toward Seattle, departing at 3:30pm for Seattle, arriving and departing from Seattle at or around 5:30pm.
  4. Arrive back in Olympia at around 7:00pm.

This is just one thought. With two new train sets coming online, it is absurd to keep them unused. There are routes that will garner and build ridership. Not using them is an absolutely waste of taxpayer money. They’re paid for, the Cascades are easily operationally profitable (at least between Portland and Seattle) and could easily be used and become a net asset to the route.

In a later entry I might dream up another route that would be a good idea. One of the most obvious I may outline is a new schedule for Portland to Seattle. There are a ton of flyers in the morning (that leave PDX at around 5:00am) that would happily take the train instead of flying. I don’t want to wish Alask Airlines ill will, but environmentally, economically, and mentally it would be better to shift this short route to passenger rail travel instead of having people fly.

So what’s your thoughts? Any route ideas? Maybe Spokane, somewhere else, or even Bend?

Transit Riders’ Savings Exceed Thousands Per Year!

This message is of course about out of pocket savings, which really is all we can make a market based decision on. If the Government actually allowed or made us pay the full price of transportation these numbers and savings would be even higher, but the overall cost of transportation would alsot be slightly higher. Without further ado, here is APTA’s study and results.

Despite Lower Gas Prices Public Transit Riders Still Reap Big Savings

 Individuals can save $807 this month alone by switching to public transit for their daily commute

Washington, D.C. – Even with lower gas prices public transportation still offers individuals a way to save hundreds of dollars each month.  According to the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) December  Transit Savings Report, individuals who ride public transportation instead of driving can save, on average, $807 dollars this month, and $9,69 annually.   These savings are based on the cost of commuting by public transportation compared to the December 20, 2011 average national gas price ($3.21 per gallon- reported by AAA) and the national unreserved monthly parking rate.

Currently gas prices are $.15 a gallon less than last month, but still $.23 higher than this time last year. Proving riding public transit is a smart way to lower transportation costs.

APTA releases this monthly Transit Savings Report to examine how an individual in a two-person household can save money by taking public transportation and living with one less car.

The national average for a monthly unreserved parking space in a downtown business district is $155.22, according to the2011 Colliers International Parking Rate Study.  Over the course of a year, parking costs for a vehicle can amount to an average of $1,863.

The top 20 cities with the highest transit ridership are ranked in order of their transit savings based on the purchase of a monthly public transit pass and factoring in local gas prices for December 20, 2011 and the local monthly unreserved parking rate.*

 

   City  Monthly  Annual
 1  New York  $1,198  $14,375
 2  Boston  $1,106  $13,272
 3  San Francisco  $1,075  $12,902
 4  Seattle  $979  $11,749
5 Philadelphia $955 $11,457
6 Chicago $945 $11,343
 7  Honolulu  $937  $11,242
 8  Los Angeles  $880  $10,554
 9  Minneapolis $859  $10,308
 10  San Diego  $851  $10,215
 11  Portland  $842  $10,099
 12  Denver  $838  $10,053
 13  Washington, DC  $836  $10,031
14 Baltimore $817 $9,810
 15  Cleveland  $802  $9, 628
 16  Miami  $780  $9,355
 17  Atlanta  $762  $9,140
 18  Dallas  $759  $9,109
 19  Pittsburgh  $760  $9,120
 20  Las Vegas  $755  $9,064

*Based on gasoline prices as reported by AAA on 12/20/11.

Methodology

APTA calculates the average cost of taking public transit by determining the average monthly transit pass of local public transit agencies across the country.  This information is based on the annual APTA fare collection survey and is weighted based on ridership (unlinked passenger trips).  The assumption is that a person making a switch to public transportation would likely purchase an unlimited pass on the local transit agency, typically available on a monthly basis.

APTA then compares the average monthly transit fare to the average cost of driving.  The cost of driving is calculated using the 2011 AAA average cost of driving formula.  AAA cost of driving formula is based on variable costs and fixed costs.  The variable costs include the cost of gas, maintenance and tires.  The fixed costs include insurance, license registration, depreciation and finance charges.  The comparison also uses the average mileage of a mid-size auto at 23.4 miles per gallon and the price for self-serve regular unleaded gasoline as recorded by AAA on December 20, 2011 at $3.21 per gallon.  The analysis also assumes that a person will drive an average of 15,000 miles per year.  The savings assume a person in two-person household lives with one less car.

In determining the cost of parking, APTA uses the data from the 2011 Colliers International Parking Rate Study for monthly unreserved parking rates for the United States.

To calculate your individual savings with or without car ownership, go to www.publictransportation.org.

# # #

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a nonprofit international association of more than 1,500 public and private member organizations, engaged in the areas of bus, paratransit, light rail, commuter rail, subways, waterborne passenger services, and high-speed rail. This includes: transit systems; planning, design, construction, and finance firms; product and service providers; academic institutions; transit associations and state departments of transportation. More than 90 percent of the people using public transportation in the United States and Canada are served by APTA member systems.

It does however make me wonder, if someone is saving that much with transit usage, how much could someone save with a more intelligent and strategically located lifestyle that allows walking or biking to work? How much healthier and stronger would Americans be if they weren’t stranded in the suburbs and tied to their cars?

America Led the Way With High Class Rail…

…up until about 1955.

Now though, France smokes our efforts by orders of magnitude, while we clunk around in our slow poorly coordinated cars and roadways. Very sad, very pathetic.

“In 2007, SNCF generated profits of €1.1 billion (approximately US$1.75 billion or £875 million) driven largely by higher margins on the TGV network.”

If Amtrak was managed anywhere near SNCF and a measly $40-60 billion were put into the system (outside of the north east corridor, it can handle its own) the system could easily haul in this kind of profit!  Yeah, I said profit, NOT revenue, PROFIT!

Ugh. I could scream until the end of time, but I sadly concede that the US is pretty much finished when it comes to world class transport. Unless we get some real leadership and the market gets involved again, we’ve aligned ourselves to be relegated to third world transportation status.

Two references:

In addition we’re so close minded to our history, we won’t even allow (err, well, most politicians won’t – especially the Democrats) bidding to build out rail service!  What the…?

Flanged Wheel Please

Give me some steal rail vehicles.  I took another bus ride out and about, as I’ve done hundreds of times before.  The biggest gruff I have with buses is they have to travel on the roadways.  The roadways in the US are absolutely falling apart – and if the roadways are as smooth as a runway, then the bus turns into a rickety rackety vibrating sardine can.  It makes it very hard to do anything on board, such as using a cell phone, txting, working on a laptop, watching a DVD, or otherwise.

Almost any type of flanged wheel vehicle; streetcar, tram, trolley, light rail, passenger rail, or otherwise has almost none of these issues.  Even on fairly rough track the issues are drastically reduced for maintaining a smooth ride.  Throw in the fact that rails last decades longer than roadways at a vastly higher ride quality and you have some real money savings!

I digress though, I’m really glad to have what services are available!  Seattle, Portland, Vancouver (BC), and San Francisco all have superb transit services (in spite of the locals, they always find reasons to bitch or become NIMBYs).  Oh well, I’m off to board a train and just wanted to rant about crappy, unmaintainable roads beating up buses (and by proxy, all of us riding the bus).