I took Amtrak’s Acela high-speed, high-priced, “business-class” train to New York this week. Never again.

On the one hand, the trip to New York was fast, comfortable, and featured a fairly reliable internet connection.

On the other hand, I experienced “customer service” so poor it doesn’t deserve the name. I took the bus home.

I had ordered my tickets online in advance. Amtrak, unlike the bus (but not entirely unlike the air-travel industry) does not let you print out your tickets online. Rather, you are emailed a confirmation with a bar-code, which you are to take to the station to scan at a kiosk, where it will print out your tickets. Unlike the airlines, both legs of your round-trip ticket print out at once.

I admit, I should have kept better track of my ticket. I knew from the moment the return ticket printed that i would have trouble holding on to it. I was trying to travel light, so I carried my briefcase/messenger-bag with me everywhere. This meant there were four days of schlepping around the city during which that ticket could disappear. Which is exactly what happened.

Rather than panic, I turned to logic. I had made my reservation online, and i had that credit card with me. I still had my confirmation print-out. The train conductors required a photo ID and signature on the ticket in order to use it. So clearly no one else could use my ticket, and I should be able to print out a new one, right?

Wrong. I dutifully called Amtrak first thing Sunday morning, when I realized I had lost my ticket. This was a good eight or so hours before the scheduled trip. I was so caught off guard when the Amtrak customer service agent on the phone told me I’d need to purchase a new ticket (in the neighborhood of $130!) that I called back a couple of hours later to speak to someone else. They couldn’t be serious!

But they were. I asked to speak to a manager. I was told no managers worked on Sunday, and what’s more, they weren’t going to read the policy any differently. (It may be worth noting that the lost-ticket policy was not among the three-pages of fine print that made up the confirmation email.)

I asked to speak with someone who could register my complaint. I was told that person didn’t work on Sundays either, and I could call back on Monday.

I tried tweeting @Amtrak to see if I could publicly embarrass them into helping me out. No response.

So, I bought a Greyhound ticket (for about a quarter of the price) and rode home angrily, but relatively comfortably.

Train service in this country is dying, and it’s not hard to see why. The train doesn’t get me to New York much faster than the bus, but the hassle is magnified by many degrees. What’s the point of the online registration and requiring ID and signature if not to make it easier for the customer? (When I made the point about the ID and signature to the customer service representative, she said, “Well, we don’t trust the conductors to always check.” So we should be punished because you can’t enforce your own procedures?)

Yes, I lost my ticket. But we live in a world that has a million alternatives for paper ticketing. The rail industry once represented the state of the art of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, they still do.

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About itsdlevy

I live in Brooklyn with my cat, Rhoda Morgenstern. I work in Manhattan as the marketing director for a Jewish non-profit organization. I spend too much time at the theater and at brunch and especially at 54 Below. Find me on Twitter (and pretty much anywhere else) as @itsdlevy.

6 responses »

  1. Mike B. says:

    Sucks. Did you dispute the charge with the credit card company?

  2. Amtrak says:

    David,

    We understand your complaint; however our tickets do have cash value which is made clear in our policies and procedures. We are currently developing an E-Ticketing platform that will eliminate many problems like these. It is possible to receive a refund for your lost ticket, please visit our website and fill out the required paperwork: http://bit.ly/agNK7B.

    In the future, you can make separate reservations for your trip if you are concerned about losing your ticket in the future.

    Will

  3. itsdlevy says:

    Dear Will (or is it Frank, as your email address implies?) –

    Thanks, I will look at the form. Isn’t it a little odd that neither of the two customer service reps I spoke with on the phone on Sunday knew of this form’s existence?

    Also, a $75 service charge plus 10% refund fee are hardly a refund. It’s more of a “fuck you for wasting our time.”

    Still unimpressed. Still pledging my devotion to the bus.

  4. A couple of train operators in the UK (there’s no national operator now, just 24 franchised train operators running services over nationally-owned tracks) have begun issuing advance-purchase tickets as SMS messages sent to a mobile phone. The major long-distance bus company here (National Express, our equivalent to Greyhound) also issues SMS tickets, as does Megabus.

    The cheapest advance-purchase train tickets here are not refundable at all. For refundable tickets, the service charge is a flat £10 (to put that in perspective, the off-peak walk-up round-trip train fare from here to London – a similar distance as between Boston and New York – is £66.20, which equates to very slightly over US$100. The peak walk-up round-trip fare, though, is £262 in standard and £399 in first class); that seems to me to be far more reasonable than $75 plus 10%, which is gouging.

  5. David Gunn says:

    I lost a twenty dollar bill, and when I called the bank, they refused to give me a new one. B@stards!

  6. itsdlevy says:

    There’s a big difference between cash and a train ticket. Cash doesn’t require a photo ID, a signature, and a confirmation process. You know what happens when you lose a personal check? You can put a stop on it and reissue it.

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