Sunday, August 20, 2006

Taking Amtrak

Last week, I had a business meeting in Oakland and we made a family vacation out of it. There are three new babies in my wife's family, so we took this opportunity to see them. To keep costs down, we took Amtrak. Boy, was that an adventure. And I think something that we won't repeat.

Going there

Our train was scheduled to leave downtown Seattle at 9:45 am Friday morning. We made it out of the house with plenty of time to make it to the station. With out incident, we found the station and, with the help of a baggage cart, got all our luggage into the station. I parked the car in a local garage and we were good.

I went back to the station and tried to get our tickets from the ticket kiosk. No such luck. I had to stand in line and get them at the counter, evidently because of a coupon code we used. Heather was in the process of checking our bags and discovered that my bag was a few (maybe 10) pounds over the 50 pound limit. I dumped a bunch of my work shirts, pants and 3 shoes (not pairs, but shoes) in a box we were bringing and got under the limit.

As we got all our bags checked, they announced that "due to a service interuption, service to Portland will be by bus." It turns out that the train never made it to Seattle. Not a good sign - I was planning on being on several conference calls after we boarded the train and working on things I had to present at the meeting (I had heard that AC power was plentiful). The bus was the bus, but I used up most of my laptop's battery and my bluetooth headset started to die.

A few hours later, we got into Portland and waited for the train there. As it got closer to the the scheduled departure, two lines formed in front of the door to the tracks. As departure time arrived, two train employees came to a desk on one side and meekly said, "Please form one line." Kind of hard to do once you've got over 100 people and luggage already in two lines. Then they assigned people to cars, by hand! Once we got to the assigned car, another attendant assigned us seats, again by hand. We were given a hand written 3x5 card showing our seat numbers. Because it was all by hand, it was a slow process.

Once we got on the train and settled in our seats, another attendant came by and re-wrote the seat card with our destination and how many seats in each row were occupied. It threw the attendant for a loop, because the seat numbers we were assigned got tucked underneath something and she had trouble grasping that there were 5 of us. Once we got that sorted out, I discovered that there was not plentiful AC power.

The kids were generally happy on the train - not the novelty of the train, but the fact that they could get up and wander around and that the seats were spacious.

My phone eventually died as did my laptop. The lady who "had" the AC outlet had recently broken her foot, so I went to the lounge car and picked up some food for her, and this formed enough of a relationship that I was able to drap my phone charger and then my laptop power supply over her chair and into our row.

As I worked off and on and into the night, I eventually fell asleep and woke up with the same freight train next to us. Eventually, I learned that we went nowhere during the night and were stuck behind a broken down freight train. After sitting there for several hours, we headed out.

We made it to Emeryville at just before 5 pm, 9 hours late. When getting our checked baggage back, the box (with the shirts and gifts for new babies) wasn't to be found. While Heather was taking care of that, I walked over to Avis and found that it closed at 1:30 pm (shorter hours on a Saturday). We were supposed to be there at 8 am, so it shouldn't have been a problem.

Amtrak called us a taxi to take us to our hotel and told us that we could work with customer service to be reimbursed for it, but that we should wait until the end of the trip, in case there were any more delays and additional costs.

The train delay also caused us to miss the scheduled family events on Saturday, which kind of sucked.

On Wednesday, I called Amtrak to see about upgrading to a sleeper car for more privacy and AC power. It would have cost an additional $700, over twice what we had already paid for our tickets. The kind lady also told me to expect up to 4 hour delays on our return trip. So, instead of an 11 pm arrival, we were looking at a 1 am arrival. I wasn't looking forward to that.

Going Home
We had to return our rental by 6 pm and our train wasn't until 10:12 pm, so we had some time to kill in Emeryville. We checked our bags, returned the car and walked over to Bay Street. There, we ate dinner and saw Monster House. The kids liked it and it was a great way to kill time. We walked back to the train station and only had about an hour to wait for the train.

The return train ride didn't seem so shocking, maybe because our expectations were already low. We did have to stop in Klamath Falls for about three hours, so we got off the train and wandered around. Klamath Falls has a nice county museum with interesting tidbits of local history. It looks like it was based upon people's collections - geology, Native American history, local politics, the Japanese internment and World War II (I didn't know that the Japanese used ballon bombs and repeatedly bombed the west coast).

It also turns out that the parts that were in the night and on the bus (for us) on the south bound trip were very pretty. It was nice to see parts of the North West and California off the interstates.

We got back to Seattle some time before 2 am (it kind of didn't matter anymore) and headed home. It was nice to finally sleep 1) flat on my back and 2) in my own bed.

Benefits of taking Amtrak
  1. Very large and spacious seats - larger than first class on an airplane
  2. Low cost - what we paid for train tickets would have only gotten two of us there on a plane
  3. You can get up and walk around - there was an observation car, a lounge car, a dining car a kid's play area...
Disadvantages of taking Amtrak
  1. Very slow - driving is faster
  2. They are always late - 4 hour delays appear to be the norm and our experience showed that up to 9 is possible.
  3. They will substitute a bus for a train - it sucked to be the guy going from Seattle to Portland and was looking forward to his first trip on the train and got the bus instead
For us, these disadvantages outweighed the benefits. I can see it being great for retired people with lots of time to travel and see the sights. We won't be doing that again.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Hey Beau,

Your story confirms everything I've heard about how nightmarish traveling long distances on the train can be. I took the train to Fresno a lot when I was doing field work down there. It was almost always a pleasant trip and far better than driving. But for longer trips, I don't see how Amtrak can hope to attract more customers if they're 4 hours late on average (and in your case a lot more) for a trip that takes 2 hours by plane. Hope you had a nice time on the rest of your trip!