Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hurricane Irene Devastates Amtrak Customer Service

Hurricane Irene over the eastern United StatesHurricane Irene ripped a swath of destruction from North Carolina to Maine during the final week of August but one of the unexpected casualties of the storm was the customer service delivered by Amtrak. The government-owned rail system extends more than 21,000 route miles, but employees at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia failed to extend some common courtesy to me and my family in the midst of the travel woes created by Irene.

My husband and I left for New Jersey with our 16-month-old daughter on August 23 to spend a week visiting family. The day we left for New Jersey, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale struck Virginia. Its effects were felt all the way to New England. Luckily, we were riding comfortably on an Amtrak train from Boston to Philadelphia and didn’t feel a thing. The trip went smoothly, and our daughter enjoyed the five-and-a-half hour trip with relatively little fussing.

Our Amtrak tickets cost almost twice what we would have paid to take a Greyhound bus to New Jersey. We opted for the faster ride and the freedom to move around with our daughter if she became fussy. I’ve made the trip on Greyhound before, and it wasn’t bad, but riding eight-and-a-half hours with a toddler would be more of a headache than it was worth. In addition to the ability to move around freely, the train offered a snack car where we could get whatever was needed for our daughter whenever it was needed.

Our return trip was scheduled for 5:15 a.m. on August 29. Plenty of time to get home, rest up and head back to work on Tuesday with little disruption to our daughter’s sleep schedule; however, Hurricane Irene had other plans for us.

On August 27, the hurricane struck South Jersey bringing with it flood warnings and tornado watches. Luckily, most of the damage missed us. The tornado touched down in the next town over and many of the main roads were out because of flooding. Several places around town lost power, but we were spared and spent the evening playing games together and talking. Altogether a great visit despite the storm.

Then we tried to go home.

August 29

The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. so we could get packed, wake up our daughter and make the 45-minute trip to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. I checked my BlackBerry for emails (as I always do) and found one from Amtrak sent at 1:46 a.m. telling me our train had been canceled. The email provided a toll free number to call to reschedule. We were bummed out but luckily we hadn’t awakened the little one yet. We let her sleep, and I called to find out when we could leave.

The woman on the other end was irritable and asked us when we would like to leave. I told her as soon as possible, and she said she was checking available trains. Her manner was short and gruff but she scheduled us for Tuesday, August 30 leaving at 5:15 a.m. She confirmed my reservation number and told me I would need to go to the ticket counter and exchange my tickets. The call ended, and we made arrangements to stay one more day.

Classic Amtrak
August 30

We woke up at 3:30 a.m. again to head to the train station. I checked my phone for emails, and there were none from Amtrak – a good sign. We got packed up, woke up the baby and headed to the train station. We arrived at 5 a.m., plenty of time to exchange the tickets and climb aboard... except the ticket counter didn’t open until 5:15 a.m. when our train was supposed to leave. So I headed to the information desk.

At the information desk, the woman stationed there looked at me and said, “There’s no trains running to Boston. You’ll have to come back.” I asked when. She told me “when the trains are running again.”

“But they rescheduled me for today. I didn’t receive a cancellation for today”

“Well, they shouldn’t have done that. There’s no trains to Boston.”

Then a “helpful” transit officer said, “You should have known that. I’m sure you watched the news.” When I told him I was from out of town and didn’t watch the news during our visit, he became very gruff and told us we had no right to get upset because we should have known better than to expect the station to be open after a hurricane (...mind you, this is three days after the hurricane).

At this point, I started getting angry. I was standing in a train station in an unfamiliar city at 5 o’clock in the morning with a 16-month-old and no coffee. I had a transit officer telling me I should have watched the news to see if I could actually use the ticket I paid for instead of expecting Amtrak to notify me that my train was canceled. The woman at the information desk directed me to the ticket counter to see what they could do for me.

After standing in line for about five minutes (getting more and more pissed off by the minute), a manager of some sort sought me out and called me into an office. He asked me if I had a reservation number (I did), and when I had called to reschedule (3:52 a.m… I checked my phone). When the information came up on the screen, he looked surprised and said, “Oh. They did schedule you for today. They shouldn’t have done that. There aren’t any trains running.”

I was really getting tired of hearing that.

He pecked at his keyboard for another few seconds then tried to turn the situation around on me.

“This reservation was not confirmed. You were supposed to call first to verify it.”

I explained that all I was told was the reservation date, time, and number. I was told to exchange my tickets at the ticket counter, and I could go home. I can only go by the information Amtrak gave me. This was not my fault. Then I asked what they were going to do to make it right.

With this their service completely fell apart. I’m in a strange city in the early morning hours with a small child and Amtrak’s solution to my dilemma was to tell me I’d have to find some other way home or wait until their trains were running again – whenever that would be.

The problem causing the confusion was at the train station in Trenton, NJ, where Hurricane Irene had left trains and tracks under four feet of water. Amtrak was able to get the water pumped away but were trying to assess the damage and determine which repairs were necessary before service could resume.

I understood that part. What I didn’t understand was why 1) I had been rescheduled on a train that was not running and 2) why I hadn’t been notified that my reservation had been canceled.  Amtrak had messed up, and they needed to fix it.

I proposed what I assumed was a reasonable solution: Trains between Philadelphia and New York City were not running because of the damage at Trenton’s station, but trains from New York to Boston were running on schedule. I proposed they put my family on a bus to the New York Amtrak station and let us continue our journey from there. I was told they “don’t do that.”

That was an interesting statement since I found this statement on Amtrak’s website:

Thruway Motorcoach Service and Accessibility
"Amtrak provides accessible thruway motorcoach (bus) service on some routes.
When disruptions to train service occur, we will arrange for and provide alternative accessible accommodations via motorcoach or other means of transportation.”

After further discussion, I was told they could issue me a refund to my credit card for the amount of our return tickets or we could wait until service was restored. Now, we’re not rich. In fact, we’re not even comfortable. This trip represented six months’ worth of savings and had cleaned out the savings account.

I explained this to the representative with whom I was speaking and asked what else they could do. When I wouldn’t settle for “nothing,” they finally agreed to issue a cash refund. Then they gave me a piece of paper with the phone numbers for local bus services.

I expressed my displeasure loudly but in polite language. As a result, I was accompanied at the ticket counter by a transit officer who encouraged me to “take a deep breath and relax.” He was more helpful than the rest of the staff combined. He told us where the cabs were located, provided more information about the damage done to the rail system, and sympathized with our predicament traveling with a toddler.

About 6:45 a.m. my family was loaded into the back of a cab and was headed to the Greyhound station on Filbert Street in Philadelphia. On the phone, the automated system said the next available bus was leaving at 7 a.m. then another one at 9 a.m. In reality, the station was so swamped with people who couldn’t travel on Amtrak that the next available ticket was for a 10 a.m. bus.

I want to take a moment here and recognize an amazing customer service representative at Greyhound. I don’t know her title or position but her name is Shanet. My husband and I, who have worked in customer service each for more than 20 years, watched this woman handle a crowd of a couple of hundred people who were tired, irritable, and whose travel plans were drastically delayed. She managed to keep everyone calm, answer every question thrown her way, and keep us all informed as new information became available. She remained pleasant, polite, and never looked frazzled or lost her cool. It was a pleasure watching her do her job, and she deserves recognition for her amazing abilities.

While watching Shanet work, I received two phone calls from Amtrak. The first was an automated call at 7:08 a.m. informing me that my 5:15 a.m. train was canceled. I began fuming all over again. It felt like a slap in the face.

About 20 minutes later, I received a call from a woman at 30th Street Station. She told me they made a mistake when they issued my refund and put the credit back on my credit card in addition to issuing me a cash refund. She told me they would need me to return to the station and give them their cash back.

This set me over the edge!

“You schedule me for a train that isn’t running, don’t tell me the train is canceled, leave me stranded in a strange city to find my own way home, and now you want me to come back and give you your money back? Seriously?!?

I was yelling by this point.

“I am sitting in a bus station with my infant daughter waiting for a bus to take us home because your company screwed up. Now you screw up again and you want me to fix it? You know what? If your mistake means I end up with a double refund, so be it!” ... and I hung up my phone.

We didn’t actually board a bus until almost 11:30 a.m. -- about the time we were supposed to be arriving in Boston had we been on our train. The bus leaving Philadelphia stops at New York Port Authority where passengers change buses for a new destination. By the time we arrived there, it was after 1:30 p.m., and we were exhausted. Our daughter was restless and irritable, and we were all hungry. This trip was wearing on our nerves. We took the time to get cleaned up and eat something before I got in line at the information desk. There were three gates to Boston and I wasn’t sure where we needed to go.

Obviously, communication is lost art. Amtrak could have had the decency to contact the Philadelphia bus lines to let them know they would be sending passengers their way, but they didn’t. Philadelphia Greyhound station should have notified NY Port Authority what was happening, but they didn’t. Instead, employees had no idea why they were dealing with a deluge of passengers from Philadelphia with off-time tickets.

I handed a ticket for noon to the man in the information booth and it was almost 3 o’clock. He looked at me incredulously and asked me what happened. He said he was getting a lot of tickets like this from Philadelphia passengers. I told him our story and what was happening at the Philadelphia bus depot while my daughter babbled at him from her Snugglie. He took pity on us and upgraded our ticket to a reserved seat on an express bus to Boston at 4 p.m. Five-and-a-half hours and we’d be home! I could have kissed him!

The last leg of our journey was beginning, and my husband and I were relieved. We got in line at the correct gate and prepared for the ride home. This would be a straight trip with no stops between New York and Boston. I didn’t relish the thought of trying to keep our daughter entertained on the bus, but we were ready to do our best with a bad situation.

Then half-an-hour into the trip, our daughter got motion sickness. Maybe peaches and fruit juice weren’t such a good idea for a snack?

We got her cleaned up and stripped off her clothes. The mess was contained and cleaned up, partially because we had a packed a couple of washcloths and a bottle of water. The bus didn’t suffer at all, but I felt sorry for the passengers around us until the smell dissipated. Then we wrapped our little one in a blanket and, thankfully, she fell asleep with no more drama or adventure.

Our bus driver should also be commended here. We stopped about an hour-and-a-half outside of Boston for a 15-minute break -- the driver’s dinner break as much as ours. He was nice enough to let us into the baggage compartment for a clean set of clothes for our daughter and only asked about the condition of the bus after making sure she was okay. I didn’t catch his name, but we were thankful for his understanding and compassion.

By the time we arrived at South Station in Boston, 16 hours had passed. We were exhausted and emotionally worn out. One final cab ride home and we all collapsed into our own beds and slept blissfully until morning. 

Out of a week that contained an earthquake, a hurricane and a tornado, who would have thought the biggest disaster would be Amtrak’s customer service? 


  1. While I sympathize with your situation, is amazing that you failed to realize that, as you pointed out, there was an earthquake, a hurricane and a would think it might be a good idea to tune into the news. In a time of devastation of this magnitude, it is always a good idea to check and double check these circumstantances. One phone call to Amtrak, before you left the place you were staying, would probably answered your questions. You say you did not receive a text message, but the electricity was out in many areas in the north. This serve as making a point that our belief that we should (or can) rely on technology for these type of messages, under these circumstances requires rethinking.... that some things done the old fashion way....still work. While I do not think anyone should be treated rudely......the fact that someone was even at the station under these circumstances surprise me..perhaps their home was flooded and they had to come to work...perhaps their family needed help and they had to work.......Don't be so hard on people dealing with an unbelieveable set of disastorious events...hope you got good night sleep...I do hear your frustration but you should take a look at what you could have done have achieved a different and more positive result........You baby is adorable!!

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I almost didn't respond to your post but after reading one more time, I'm struck by your ignorance. My situation occurred several days after the earthquake, hurricane, and tornado. All the power was back on, phone lines were working, internet connections were running. There was no reason why I could not have been given notice of the cancellation on Tuesday after having received that notification on Monday.

    As it happens, the place where I was staying did not have a television. Watching the news was not an option. Since Amtrak had called the first day to tell me the train was canceled, it is reasonable to assume this was a common practice and should have occurred again on the second day. It is also reasonable to assume that when I initially called to reschedule my trip, the operator responsible for rescheduling me would have known that the trains were not going to be running the next morning either. At least, when I got to the station the next morning that is the impression I was given by the manager I spoke with.

    Bottom line: Amtrak dropped the ball on customer service. Had I been treated with even a modicum of respect in the first place, the delays due to the weather would not have been a problem. Amtrak messed up and then violated their own policies by not making it right.

    So, dear Anonymous, assuming you work for Amtrak and are defending their atrocious behavior, rethink your comments and imagine how you would have felt under this set of circumstances. There was a 100 mile stretch of track that was not running on my 400 mile journey. The least they could have done was help my family continue our journey home.

  3. Good day,

    I'm studying a master in Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and I'm writing you to ask for your permission to use the entry titled "Hurricane Irene Devastates Amtrak Customer Service", published on September 3, 2011 on the blog Take It Or Leave It (

    My graduation project is an interactive map of stories about hurricane Irene. It's intended to motivate people at risk of disasters (such as hurricanes) to start thinking what to do about them now, instead of waiting until they are about to happen, which most people do. The project will show a map with the trajectory of hurricane Irene, and different search criteria to access stories within the map. Those stories can be annotated with comments from other users different than the author's story, in a similar way a blog entry can be commented. In my system though, the intent is to purposefully direct the discussed topic on how to handle disasters taking each story as a starting point.

    One of my graduation requirements is to demo my project to my committee. For that purpose, I've built a database of blog-posts to fill in the system. I'd like to add your story to that database. I can provide an image of the interface if you want to have a better idea of what your story would look like if included in the system.

    If you grant me permission, your entry will be used exclusively for non-commercial and educational purposes while the project remains in its demo phase. If this project is ever used for other purposes different than a demo, your blog-entry will not be included.

    I'd really appreciate if you allowed me to use your experience from Hurricane Irene to make a better project, and potentially help other people in the future.