As travel continues to scream back into existence after months of being essentially off-limits to most of us, travelers are being welcomed back with open arms by most destinations, hotels, resorts and airlines. As someone who has traveled with Amtrak’s Acela train many times between DC and NYC, and chosen Amtrak on numerous other occasions when traveling with media equipment and other supplies across country and up and down the eastern seaboard, I was eager to be back with Amtrak for what is normally an easy ride with some great scenery between DC and Chicago on the Capitol Limited. However, after the roundtrip travel experience with Amtrak, I am not eager to travel Amtrak anytime soon, and actually wonder if that return trip from Chicago will go down as my final trip with Amtrak, ever.

Amtrak: A Look Back

It was just a few months ago that Amtrak celebrated their 50th Anniversary, while boasting about how far they have come since that humble beginning on May 1, 1971. They now have more than 17,000 employees and a national system that connects more than 500 destinations across 46 states, DC and even three Canadian provinces – totaling more than 21,000 miles of routes. As I’ve spoken to a lot of people on various routes over the years, I know many of them are holding tight to that image of riding the rails back when more effort was placed on the experience, and not just navigating the delays, paperwork and shared tracks with cargo trains to get travelers from point A to point B as quickly as they can manage.

We have seen Amtrak take great strides when talking about modernizing equipment, exploring sustainability and developing ad campaigns that are inclusive of all travelers. As a traveler, I appreciate all of these things. But is it enough? The concept of fully privatizing Amtrak has been discussed on many occasions, but it always comes back to being better for the consumer to maintain it as a government-owned corporation.

Over the years, perhaps it’s the excitement we had about trains as a kid that still fuels our desire to ride the rails; or for many accustomed to the precision and level of excellence found when traveling by train throughout Europe and Asia, we might go into each Amtrak experience with unobtainable expectations. I believe that most travelers will agree with me that Amtrak has never exceeded our expectations, but I find it sad to see the quality of the train cars and onboard services sink to this new low.

Amtrak: My Current Experience

This trip confirmed for me that Amtrak consumers have lowered their expectations and therefore accept four-hour delays, horrible food, and mediocre service. We expect there to be issues on some level when we travel, but we also appreciate when airlines, restaurants and hotels accept responsibility, apologize for the problem, and then try to make it right. Considering the bedroom costs as much as luxury room at a hotel in New York City, it was not surprising that the attendant even mentioned that he was surprised to see the decrepit car still in service.

Our room was a true definition of a safety hazard, but Customer Relations and the attendant were in no hurry to apologize or fix the problem – and more importantly, take the car out of service so future travelers don’t have to experience the same level of safety, or lack thereof. The door was broken and would not fully open or close along with the small closet door unable to shut and vents being completely closed using duct tape and the overall condition of the bedroom (and entire car) was one that should be embarrassing to Amtrak.

Except for the conductor apologizing for the four-hour delay on our arrival into Chicago over the speaker, there was no effort by anyone to recognize the numerous problems with my trip and fix them. I certainly don’t expect fine dining when traveling with Amtrak, but every item I was served was microwaved to the point that things were not in the least bit edible. I did receive a reply email from a Customer Relations Specialists that read like a script with nothing more than acceptance of the problems that I had sent to their team with a reply about their goals as a company.

It began with being told that all rates were at the absolute peak when booking the tickets and continued to the horrible experience onboard and was then topped off with the nonchalant reply from Customer Relations. Very disappointing.

Amtrak: A Look Forward

I hope that Amtrak finds their way back to some level of professional services for travelers. Instead of looking purely at the numbers, I hope that they will learn that more effort needs to be placed on service and customer relations. According to Amtrak’s website, they have a bold vision for the future of rail that includes investing in new equipment, reimagining their stations, modernizing vital rail infrastructure, leveraging new technology, combating climate change, and expanding service to enhance the mobility of more Americans.

I sincerely hope that they can tackle these projects with great success. I am a huge fan of the Auto Train and Acela services with Amtrak, so I hope that I will one day see some headway in their future plans so that I can convince myself to give Amtrak another opportunity for them to show me they care about their travelers again.

3 Responses

  1. Cal

    Thanks for the narrative Damon. I’ve never ridden on Amtrak but just recently began looking at this as an alternative to driving or flying on vacation. Now we have this 4th wave of covid and I’ve shelved any plans to go anywhere.
    I hope Amtrak can get it together. I have a couple day trips in mind to test the waters when I feel comfortable traveling again.

    Reply
  2. Doug Gollan

    When I lived in New York I enjoyed/tolerated Amtrak, enjoying the convenience of not going to the airport, looking out the window, doing some work on the computer when the WiFi worked, and tolerating the service. Some kindly describe Amtrak employees as characters, but in large part, there is a significant proportion who are just rude and don’t care. Some are great, but chances are I would run into at least one sour apple on each trip. As you said, a lot of the rolling stock is in poor condition. When I moved to Miami I discovered Brightline. It’s everything Amtrak should be. Yes, brand new stock and very nice interiors. But the real difference is the service. Service with a smile. Lot’s of smiles. Employees who go the extra mile. I look forward to Brightline getting back online and getting the tracks up to Orlando finished. Maybe Amtrak can hire whoever hires and trains the Brightline employees.

    Reply
    • Damon M. Banks

      Thanks for the feedback Doug. Great insight! I’ve learned the last few days that you and I are certainly not the only travelers who feel this way… I have heard a lot of good things about Brightline, so will try to get down there and give it a try soon. Safe travels Doug!!

      Reply

Leave a Reply