Another one rides the bus

Posted by Brian Schmidt
on Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tuesday morning, upon my arrival at Milwaukee’s Gen. Mitchell Airport, I spotted a new email from Amtrak. My Amtrak Cascades train later in the day from Tukwilla, Wash., to Portland was canceled, and I should (maybe?) call Amtrak to inquire about possible alternate transportation. The stock email message was vague – it suggested that I should check with Amtrak about alternate transportation, but didn’t convey a specific need to.

I called anyway while waiting for my flight and found that the wait for assistance was remarkably short, given all the disruptions in Northeast travel this week. After looking up my reservation, the lady on the phone informed me that bus service was provided between Seattle and Portland, but that I could transfer back to a train there to continue my journey south. I reminded her that the rail portion of my trip ended in Portland.

I asked about getting a refund for the business class portion of my journey and was told that department was not open “until 9” – not sure what time zone – and I should call back later in the day to arrange for a refund. While not the service I would expect as a business class traveler, it is far better than my last experience with Amtrak on the West Coast.

In September 2015, my wife-to-be and I traveled to Portland on Amtrak, the long way. We left Chicago on the Southwest Chief on a Saturday afternoon and the trip was rather uneventful to Albuquerque. Just after departing the city, our train stopped in the desert for an extended time, with intermittent head end power. I don’t recall exactly how long we were waiting there as we were conversing in the dining car waiting (hoping!) for dinner to be served, but I can say that it was best measured in hours. I recall watching some BNSF trucks come up and park by the locomotives for a time. After the trip, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari confirmed that the delay was related to locomotive issues, but did not elaborate further.

The next morning, I called Amtrak customer service from the train and was informed that we would be re- accommodated on the regular bus to Bakersfield, and then a San Joaquin to Martinez, Calif. There we would (likely) join the Coast Starlight, “already in progress” as they say on TV. I asked if any vouchers were provided for sleeping car passengers to use for food aboard the San Joaquin and was sternly told “no.” The prospect of riding a bus, to connect with a coach train, to chase after the Starlight did not appeal to us one bit.

So the decision was made to cut our loses and fly to Portland that day. Once in San Bernardino, where phone service improved, we made arrangements for a flight from suburban Ontario to Portland, with a change of planes in Oakland, as well as an additional night of hotel in the Rose City. 

Once in Los Angeles, I approached a ticket window to inquire about getting a refund of some of the 40,000 Guest Rewards points (don’t ask how many Hiawatha trips that takes to accrue) used to book the journey and was told that I would need to call the national phone number. I dutifully did so from the courtyard at Union Station and was informed that, no, since I traveled three points redemption zones, I was not owed any points back. Upon my protest, I was transferred to another department, which offered us $250 in Amtrak travel for our trouble. I was not amused. (That travel voucher was used, in part, for a journey in August 2016 that left me again disappointed with Amtrak’s services.)

So our Metrolink train to Ontario left Union Station about the same time that as bus for Bakersfield; we checked our bags, preceded through security checks, and had lunch before its scheduled arrival. We arrived at our hotel in Portland before we would have boarded the Starlight in Martinez, owing to additional delays on the Coast Line.

All of these flights, Milwaukee to Seattle and Ontario to Portland were on Southwest Airlines. (I’ve even started to write this on my flight to Seattle, No. 1027 no less.) I like to fly Southwest. There is (essentially) one class of service and rarely are promises made that can’t be kept. The staff is always friendly and helpful. Yet I see the same raised eyebrow looks when I say that I like to fly Southwest as when I say I like to ride Amtrak. Southwest has no pretension about being more than basic travel – a lesson it may be time for Amtrak to heed. “Stuff” happens in transportation every day. How the service providers handle “it” is what sets them apart. 

This coming week I’m booked on the Empire Builder back to Milwaukee. One last hurrah for Amtrak before I resign myself to flying the friendly skies. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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