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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Amtrak -- Roundtrip from GRR to CHI -- 4 1/2 late return

January 2014, Friday - Saturday

We have taken the Amtrak from Grand Rapids to Chicago and back several times, and I provided a review of one of our prior experiences here: January 2012

Friday morning departure from Grand Rapids, Michigan
There were only a few minor departure differences since I wrote my last review. We did not need to wait until we got to the station to print our boarding passes at the kiosk. We made the reservation online, and then I received an email with a PDF of our boarding passes that we printed. We also got our boarding passes this way in 2013; however, I did not write an Amtrak review in 2013. I have the Amtrak app, which I used to check the schedule, and I think that if I had also entered my account information on the app, we would have been able to use that as our boarding pass.

An Amtrak employee was inside the station when I entered to use the restroom before we departed, and I do not recall ever seeing an employee inside the station in Grand Rapids before.

We rode in upper level seats, and the ride was comfortable. The onboard ticket collector was friendly. Employees provided clear and accurate updates en route. Our arrival time was scheduled for 10:38 a.m, and we arrived at 10:48 a.m.

Saturday evening departure from Union Station, Chicago
Our return trip was horrendous. This was one of the most unpleasant travel days I have experienced, and I travel a lot! Our scheduled departure time was 4:55 p.m.

It was not until after we arrived at the station and people had started to line up to board that we were informed that the train was going to be delayed 30 minutes. Our departure time ended up being 2 hours and 23 minutes late, and we were not given much information while we waited. There was an announcement two or three times that merely said to stay in the area. Many passengers remained standing in line or they sat on the floor because there were not enough seats in the area. The trash cans around us were overflowing, and it was difficult to move around because there were so many people waiting. The train schedule board was never updated with a new expected departure time, and we did not learn the cause of the delay until we were getting ready to board.

When our train was finally on its way to the station from the yard, we were told that the cafe car had not been working and that they had to swap cars. It was not clear whether they meant that the car itself was not working or whether is was the cafe equipment, although it sounded like it was the cafe equipment. Many of the passengers waiting could have already been to their destination by this time. And, our train had been sitting in the yard since it had arrived from Grand Rapids that morning around 11 a.m. I do not understand why the train was not thoroughly checked sooner, so that any mechanical problems could have been taken care of before our scheduled departure.

We rode in a car similar to the one we had ridden in from Grand Rapids; however, this time it was very uncomfortable. This was probably because our 4-hour ride ended up being just over 6 hours, and the seat I was in needed to be replaced. My seat cushion kept sliding out, my fold down tray was dirty, and there was food debris on the floor in front of our seats. The open seats across the aisle did not seem much better when I went over and briefly sat in one, so we did not move.

All of the passengers traveling to stops before Grand Rapids ended up arriving about 2 1/2 hours late, and we ended up with another delay of just over 2 hours after we left Holland. When we got to Hudsonville, the train stopped, and we sat on the tracks for an hour. The information we were provided over the next two hours was unclear. The employee mumbled, and he did not clearly explain the reason for the delay. We were told something about a train car, a fire, and the Wyoming yard. 

After an hour or so on the tracks in Hudsonville, we started to move. The conductor then told us that we were going to proceed to the yard and deal with the situation when we got there. We again came to a stop a few miles from the train station. We remained in this location for another hour while we waited for a train beside us to be moved.

From the information I found online (car train fire in SW Grand Rapids), and what we observed, it appeared that a freight train had been moved because of a fire 4 hours earlier, and we had been sitting on the tracks waiting, because the freight train was in our way, and we had to wait for someone to come and move it.

Our scheduled arrival time into Grand Rapids was 9:55 p.m., and we arrived at 2:26 a.m. The Amtrak app said 2:22, which was not correct. It was only a few minutes later, so they must not have updated our arrival time when we were just short of arriving at 2:22.

Promotions and discounts
I "like" RailServe on Facebook because the Amtrak site says to do this in order to be informed about promotions and discounts. This is partially untrue. They do post the discounts eventually; however, do not rely on them to keep you informed. You are better off to do your own research, if you are interested in booking an Amtrak ticket.

When we were planning our trip, I searched online for discounts every few days, and I wished I had done this more frequently. I found the 20% Winter Sale discount over 24 hours before it was posted on Facebook. I was able to purchase our return tickets from Chicago with the discount when I found it; however, the promotional tickets for our outbound trip from Grand Rapids were already sold out by the time I found the discount. It was apparently available at least a few days before I found it, and before it was posted on Facebook. I missed out on the discount for our entire trip, because I had been counting on RailServe to let me know about upcoming promotions. Because I was following them on Facebook, I did not search for discounts as diligently as I had done for prior trips.

I felt betrayed by Amtrak and RailServe since I missed a discount by following their instructions. Their website encourages followers on Facebook several different times: 
  • There is no advance notice of these sales, so be sure to "like" our Facebook Page for updates. 
  • Subscribe to our Facebook Page for early notice of new Amtrak discounts. 
  • UPDATES: Subscribe to our Facebook Page for the latest Amtrak promotion code discounts plus occasional 3-day fare sales not available on our website. 
During our trip, we thought the Amtrak delays were handled inefficiently, and I have contacted Amtrak about our experience. I "like" the Amtrak page on Facebook, so I contacted them via message the evening of our delay. After we arrived home, I submitted a customer contact form via their website. It has been 4 days since I first contacted Amtrak about our experience, and I have not heard from them.

I always enjoyed riding the Amtrak before this experience. The way that Amtrak treated its passengers when our delay was initially caused by mechanical reasons, is the same poor treatment we received from the Lake Express when our trip with them was canceled due to mechanical reasons July 2013.  

I travel by air frequently, and I am sometimes frustrated with the delays I encounter. After our experience with the Lake Express and Amtrak, however, I am certain that air travel is far more reliable and friendly. I will provide an update if I hear anything from Amtrak.

I had expressed our dissatisfaction by submitting an online form via the Amtrak web page. I used the "Employee Praise/Compliment" form, because there was not a form to register a complaint or problem! I received an automated reply eight days later, and I received a call from Amtrak five weeks later.

The Amtrak representative who called apologized for the situation, and he said that he was issuing us a future travel voucher, since the delay had been over four hours. He was professional, although he also implied that the delay was due to the fact that the train had arrived late from Grand Rapids that morning. The train had arrived slightly late--around 40 minutes, if I recall correctly; however, I do not understand why that would have made our departure almost 2½ hours late, since there had been almost six hours between the two trips. I did not think it was necessary to argue the point; I was glad to hear that Amtrak is aware of the problems along this route, and that they are looking into things. Now that we have this travel voucher, I am more apt to try the Amtrak again. The value is not high enough to cover a roundtrip, although it is better than nothing. It is good for one year, and if we travel with Amtrak again, I will share our experiences.