Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Descent Into Amtrak Hell

I am in Ohio for a few weeks, and during this time, I needed to go to Kansas City for my nephew's wedding. I didn't want to lose the two days that it would take to drive there and back, so I decided to take the train. Yes, it would be slower, but someone else would be driving, so I could work the whole time.

First problem: the train doesn't come within 60 miles of where I am. So I drove to Indianapolis and spent the night to be ready for an early-morning train to Chicago.

Things started well, and then deteriorated steadily. First, I found a seat with no problem, and spent the first part of the trip to Chicago watching Champions League highlights on my phone. We had no delays, and we got to Chicago right when we were supposed to.

In Chicago, I had the first tiny problem: I had access to the Metropolitan Lounge because I had purchased a business-class ticket, and I spent my long layover working in the lounge. However, after a few hours, the Internet connection started glitching, causing me to have to type things two or three times for the online-note-taking service I was using to be able to save my work.

We got on our train to Kansas City. I sat next to a man that I engaged in conversation. He proceeded to get plastered within the first two hours, then showed me a text from his mother that said, "Please don't get kicked off the train!" I went to the observation car to give him some time to either get arrested or pass out. When I returned about an hour later, he was slumped over on my seat. I carefully retrieved my bag and went to spend the rest of the trip in the observation car.

Shortly after crossing the Mississippi River, the Internet stopped working. The network wasn't even a visible option anymore. There was no mention of this, or explanation. It was just an amenity that was no longer there. This made it more difficult to communicate from rural northeast Missouri to let my ride in Kansas City know about our mounting delays. Evidently, freight traffic has precedence on United States railways? Of course; why wouldn't it? The passenger train is full of people, while the freight train is full of stuff that is so non-time-sensitive that it was sent by rail instead of by truck. (Freight rail firm's reply: "Passenger train travelers are so non-time-sensitive that they are taking a train instead of a plane." Touché.)

When I disembarked in Kansas City, though, the trip was not dealbreakingly bad. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that my checked bag made the entire trip with no problem, and I only had to wait about two minutes to get it.

The morning after the wedding, my sister dropped me off at the train station for my 6-am train. The clerk said, "You should know that your train is very delayed." I asked, "How delayed?" He said, "It is expected to arrive at 11 o'clock." Getting to Chicago five hours late would mean that I would miss my train to Indianapolis. I asked about that, and a different clerk said, "You should be okay; sometimes trains make up time." With having to give way to every freight train, I didn't really see that as happening. Then he said, "If you're not going to make the transfer, they'll pull you off the train in Galesburg and send you to Indianapolis by bus."

So I could sit in the station for five hours for the opportunity to ride a bus across Illinois, or I could look into other travel options. If I had access to the Metropolitan Lounge for those five hours, it might have been tolerable, but the seating in Kansas City's Union Station is exclusively those wooden benches from the 1940s that they have in literally every train station.

I reserved a car on my phone, rode the city bus to the rental office, drove myself to Indianapolis, took an Uber to my parked car, and then drove myself back to Ohio, arriving more than seven hours ahead of schedule. When the train finally reached Kansas City and I wasn't there, Amtrak sent me an e-mail asking me to contact them. I thought, "Fat chance, Amtrak!" I had learned my lesson: people don't travel by train in the United States because it's not really an option for anyone desiring anything other than the experience of a train trip.

To Amtrak's credit, all on their own, they refunded half the value of my return ticket. But I still think a massive overhaul of the rail industry will be needed before I consider riding the train again anywhere but the Northeast Corridor.

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