Time to Put Down the Steel Pony

Here’s a quick breakdown of my experience with the “National Railroad Passenger Corporation” — better known as AMTRAK — this weekend.

I write this as I sadly look at my telephone’s call timer, which reads 63 minutes on hold. I am seeking a refund, but more on that later. Amtrak handles customer service about as well as it handles getting trains to their destination on time/ever, which is to say it’s not a talent of theirs in my limited experience. (They’re 0/3.)

Some, like my friend Bobby, call the Amtrak the “steel pony.” If Amtrak is a steel pony, then I think it is time for it to be put down. Seriously, if we’re going to compare a never-profitable government run train service to race horses, Amtrak would have met Dr. Two Two a while ago.

I’m convinced Amtrak is still around for two reasons: (1) many of our elected officials have a train obsession. This isn’t intrinsically bad, since I am in this camp, but when you’re using other people’s money to pay for that obsession, it’s bad. (2) Train stations are like post offices, once they’re built, elected officials would pay dearly at the polls if they were closed, no matter how unnecessary they are.

I bought three round trip tickets to Baltimore for myself and college friends Bobby and Patrick. The goal was simple: have some libations on Amtrak, eat in Baltimore, and go watch the Indians dominate the Orioles, and come back with more libations.

As I see it, there is precisely one benefit to Amtrak: You can bring your own alcohol and get drunk on a train.

Vice President Biden recently called Amtrak “an absolute national treasure and necessity.” If Amtrak is a national treasure, than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be preserved as museums and given to the Smithsonian.

Biden loves that train

Because we’re standup guys, we arrived at DC Union Station nearly an hour beforehand. We brought some bourbon and beers with us because, despite the fact that Amtrak food and drink are subsidized, it’s still expensive despite the subsidy.

We hung around, noticing that nearly every train was cancelled or delayed. We visited the counter. After a short wait in line, a friendly customer service representative was quite candid:

You know we had these storms, right? The train could leave in 15 minutes or it could leave in three hours. I don’t know. I just don’t want to give you false hope.

The game started at 4:05, so we waited. Our train was cancelled. We hoped we could get on another train headed in that direction, so we waited even longer. Then we realized that if we waited for Amtrak, odds are we’d miss the game.

I concocted a plan to take the Red line from Union Station to Fort Totten, take the Green line to Greenbelt, and take the B30 bus to BWI. From there, we’d take light rail to Camden Yard.

It took twice as long (2 hours) as Amtrak would have, but we got there in time to get a pre-game drink and a pizza. The bar we went to even stored our beer and let us drink it for free for our troubles.

The game was unbearably hot, but the Indians pulled out an 11-5 win. Impressive in such hot weather. As the game rolled to a close, I realized we were in danger of missing our train back.

Certainly, 21 hours after a storm, service should have returned to some normalcy. Or so I thought. We took the Baltimore light rail to Penn Station, where upon arriving, I received an automated voicemail informing me that our train back was cancelled.

(Side note: If you listen to the message, it might make more sense to say “press one to speak to a customer service agent.” Instead of “call us back.”)

We were able to board a train that was supposed to leave at 4 something around 9pm. It cruised at about 10 miles per hour nearly the entire way, bringing us in close to midnight. Sadly, this foiled Bobby’s dream of late-night Chick-Fil-A.

A woman who sat behind us remarked it took her 9 hours to get from New York to Washington, D.C., which is about as long as it would take me to drive from DC to Maine, or Hilton Head.

Infuriatingly, the food car closed not long after we left Penn Station, meaning we were limited to our own food (none) and drinks (a small amount of Jim Beam). Not surprisingly, Amtrak doesn’t seem terribly interested in making money, which since it’s owned by taxpayers, it should, or at least let us get hosed since Amtrak is hosing taxpayers. That seems fair to me.

We did get home, and because Maryland was largely without power, I took on Patrick as an additional house guest.

Monday rolls around, and I call the number I was given at Penn Station for a refund on our DC -> BAL tickets. The number does not provide me with a clear way to get a refund, so I pick the closest alternative. I wait about five minutes. I tell the gentlemen my quandary, and he immediately connects me to another extension. I waited 58 minutes to talk to somebody.

After a total of 76 minutes, I had my solution for a refund: write a case number in sharpie on my tickets and mail them to a PO Box in Philadelphia. In time (they made no promises), they’ll refund my debit card. I googled the PO Box, and it’s nowhere on Amtrak’s website. The lady did, however, note that Amtrak was not going to charge me the normal refund fee and that I should get my full amount back.

I was on hold for 1.5x the amount of time Amtrak told me they would theoretically get us from DC to Baltimore.

Can you imagine if your airline treated you this way? Chuck Schumer, et al. would run to the Senate floor and cry with outrage for more regulations. Joe Biden would lead a task force that would probably conclude we need more money for trains. But because this is their ideal, I guess I am out of luck.

To give credit where credit is due, WMATA and Baltimore’s light rail did a far better job. And since everybody hates WMATA, that tells me it’s time for Steel Pony to ride off into the sunset, or into private hands.

Well, at least the Indians won. 

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5 Thoughts on “Time to Put Down the Steel Pony

  1. You see that shadowy place over there? That’s Bowie. You must never go there.

  2. Funny, because back in 2010 I did research on this and found that for every Amtrak ticket purchased, the federal government subsidizes an additional $100 on top of the price you pay So if your ticket to Baltimore cost you, say $20 (I assume that’s roughly accurate), the actual value would likely be around $120 if you were to take the rough calculation of subsidies to ticket sales. Yet, even still, the recently House-passed THUD appropriations bill would spend $1.8 billion in FY2013 on Amtrak — an increase of $384 million, or 27% higher than last year. Yet another example of throwing more money at a problem that we’ve already thrown too much money at.

  3. Mike on July 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm said:

    I agree that this is a generally crummy way to be treated as a passenger, but there are facts to consider. The first is, there were storms and trains, like the airlines, are not liable for weather related cancellations or delays. While they didn’t do the best job of finding you alternatives, they don’t have to, its not their fault. Secondly, you say “imagine if your airline treated you this way” and the fact is, airlines DID treat people this way. Imagine sitting on a tarmac for 6 hours (or even 1 hour) with an idle engine and no bathroom breaks in the interest of “security”. And yes, I’m sure Congress took action because Barney Frank had a crappy experience once, but they took action. Finally, a few comments here are borederline ridiculous…”foiling Bobby’s dream of Chik-Fil-A”, “we only had a little bit of Jim Beam”…really? Overall, I agree with you whole-heartedly that we should stop subsidizing a transit system that still loses money. However, you’re talking about an experience with an agency that was still dealing with the fall out from massive storms that left a handful of people dead and hundreds of thousands without power because you were almost late to a baseball game.

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