Monday, May 5, 2014

Amtrak Customer Service Epic FAIL

So we were on the road last week, out and about in Seattle and Vancouver as it were. As always, travel can be such an interesting window into culture, marketing and customer service best practices. Because we were in Seattle for a couple of days, we thought it would be interesting to pop up to Vancouver and enjoy some of the wonderful food and Canadian culture.

Crossing the border with a rental car can sometimes be problematic, not to mention the four hours of drive time and an unpredictable wait at the border, so we looked for other options. The Amtrak Cascades line running between Seattle and Vancouver seemed like an amusing option in that we'd have free wifi and power the entire way, and there was a dining car so that we could drink and relax on the ride.

Round One: Riding Into Canada
After meetings in Bellevue, we managed to make it to the rental car return in downtown Seattle at about 6 pm. The evening Amtrak train departs at 6:50. The rental car agent said that a taxi across downtown would take too long and suggested walking directly there. We arrived at the station, slightly out of breath, at about 6:40. Since we had pre-booked our tickets, it simplified some of the process. In Seattle, we walked up to the gate, they conductors looked at our E-Ticket on the iPhone, asked to see our passport, then assigned us a seat. In that way, they were super nice. We found our way to our car, boarded the train, and in short order the train rolled out.

Once on the train, we saw that the couple across the aisle from us had brought along a beautiful sandwich. Unfortunately, we had no had time to stop, so I made my way back to train's dining car. Unfortunately, this was not the restaurant-on-rails experience you sometimes see in the movies. Instead, it was prepackaged sandwiches and snacks. I grabbed a bottle of wine and a few snacks and headed back to our car. The other noteworthy aspect about my journey through the train was that the Amtrak wasn't like one of the trains in Japan -- it was ripe with unpleasant smells, tired fixtures, and a general disrepair that made it feel more run down than a really tired BART car.

Unfortunately on the way up, we also faced a new surprise. There'd been an earthquake in Vancouver and they were slowing all trains on the line in order to inspect the track for damage. Hey, this stuff happens. Eventually, after waiting for a while as far north as they would let us go, they called in a couple of buses to take us across the border and into Vancouver. Admittedly, not my first bus bridge, but the Amtrak folks managed to pull it together better than my last bus bridge on Caltrain.

Super Travel Challenge Problem: Leaving Canada
So we were scheduled to take the Saturday evening train out of Vancouver. In my mind I was expecting that the evening train out of Vancouver left around the 6:50 time, so I set an alarm for us to ensure that we were wrapping up our activities and headed for the train station at that time. Checking the schedule later that morning, I saw the posted time that the train leaves of 5:50 pm.

And so, at a little after 5:00pm, having stopped by the grocery store and picked up sandwiches and snacks for dinner on the train, we found ourselves attempting to grab a cab to the train station. Unfortunately, the first cab that the doorman had called for us decided to leave when he went inside to tell us the cab was ready. A minute or two later and he had recruited a second cab. Canadians are a very polite people, and our cab driver was no exception. On the way to the train station, he exhibited a level of patience with traffic that some (myself for example), would probably consider slow. Really slow. Add to this that we planned to pay with a credit card (spent our last bit of Canadian cash on sandwiches), and the time it takes to use the "extra-secure" credit card terminals they use in Canada, and it took four or five minutes to pay the cab driver.

And this had us walking into the Vancouver train station with our luggage, looking up at the large clock that said 5:31. As we walked toward the gate, we could the customs guys clearly, behind glass locked glass doors, unwilling to let anyone in. A second look around noted a sign that said, "security closes 20 minutes before departure." We knocked on the door. The guys there wouldn't answer -- instead waving us off. The only guy willing to help us was a train station security guard who told us to take down the number of Amtrak and call for a refund, noting that this happens all the time. He also directed us to the Greyhound line there at the terminal and suggested that we check to see if there was a bus going to Seattle.

The Canada VIA guy (in a different section of the station) was also no help and wouldn't talk to us. Apparently what I missed, in between my furor and rounds of expletives, was a young Asian woman arriving a couple of minutes after we did, experiencing the same problem, and bursting into tears needing help. Of course, no one from Amtrak came to her aid either. Clearly, it really does happen all the time.

As much as we would have enjoyed another day in Vancouver, we were already booked on an early flight out of SEATAC the next morning that was contingent on getting to Seattle that night. After scrambling around, we learned about the "BoltBus", a Greyhound based line that makes an express run and will take on unbooked passengers if space is available. We boarded, made the trip across the border with wifi and electrical outlets for the entire trip down. While not as relaxed as we imagined the train would have been, it was cleaner and the time was probably a wash. In all though, the entire experience put a bit of a damper on our otherwise enjoyable experience.

Wrapping up
While I try to avoid saying never, it will be a long time before Amtrak gets my money again. While there are some nice people working there -- my overall customer experience was so bad that I would put Amtrak in the 'seriously sucks' category. Normally, I like the rail experience -- I love the trains in Japan and Europe, and I prefer Caltrain over Bart -- but, gah, the experience in Vancouver was so bad.

As we typically do, I spent some time reflecting back, chewing over those last minutes, thinking about things that I should have known or that I could have done differently. Somewhere in my memory of going through all of the information on the Amtrak site, I vaguely remember seeing something about the need to be early on the trip leaving Vancouver. That being said, consider some of the root causes, how they compare to similar travel experiences, and why -- at the end of the day -- we feel like Amtrak sucks.
  • The published time for the train departure was 5:50pm. While this published time sets the clock for the gate closing 20 minutes before, it's otherwise meaningless to the traveler. What's more, since everyone has to go through the security line before they get on, for all intents and purposes the train actually departs at 5:30pm. Imagine if instead of publishing 5:50 as the time, they published 5:30, then told you once you passed security, that the train wouldn't actually pull out of the station until 5:50 -- how many fewer people do you think would miss the train?

  • Compare the security experience at Amtrak versus that at the airport. First, since your airport experiences are all going to be somewhat similar, you can plan to buffer a significant amount of time for security. At the same time, if you arrive 30 minutes before your flight, the security people and the airline people may tell you there's no way that you will make it to the plane before it departs, but they won't just close the doors and stop you from continuing. This was the most frustrating aspect of the Amtrak experience -- with 19 minutes to go before the train left the station there were 5 or 6 guys just standing around. There was no line, they weren't working through a crowd of people, they were done. Essentially, they just shut off their customer service switch at 5:30. Why not keep processing -- if possible -- until it's no longer possible to make the train, to play until you hear the whistle?
There is a great disparity between the rail experience that we offer in the US and that in Asia or Europe. Any time we travel, we marvel at the train systems and find ourselves wishing for a similar system back home. Sadly, our experience with Amtrak tells us that we have a long way to go and that the future is not bright for trains in the US. A key part of that is the customer experience. In that way, Amtrak gets a large "Would Not Recommend" banner. Caveat Emptor.

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