Dear Mr. Amtrak Media Man,
Thank you for taking my call yesterday. You have no idea how much I appreciate anyone from Amtrak giving me the time of day. You asked me to pass along all the details of my recent Amtrak experience so you could pass along all the details to your superiors so they could . . . well, I don’t know what they could do, or should do, so I’ll get right to the details.
It started on a rainy Sunday afternoon at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. My companion and I were booked on the 1:30 afternoon train to New York City. Anticipating a gaggle of holiday travelers, we arrived an hour early at the station, which is a beautiful building and deserves some serious gawking.
Our train was listed on the big board as number 666. Even if you Amtrak people have just a cursory knowledge of Dan Brown novels, not to mention the Holy Bible, you would know that 666 is a pretty frightening number for a train, or any vehicle really. I’m no mathematician, but there must be a zillion other three-digit numbers available to Amtrak number-writers. I can only hope the committee members who dreamed up that number had a good demonic laugh.
When the departing track was announced, around 12:15, we noticed other people immediately lining up. The line was 40 deep before you could say “The Da Vinci Code,” so we grabbed our bags and hustled into line. A lot of other trains were completely sold out that day, so folks were a little anxious. We boarded the 666 at 1:30. And found two fine seats, stored our bags above, took off our raincoats and hats, and settled in for a sweet ride back to New York City.
I was reading an Xmas present, Little Star literary magazine, when I felt the first droplet of water bounce on my head. I paid it little attention. It was followed by another droplet, however, and then another, and then I looked up to the ceiling to see the source of the raindrops. A leak. By now, my companion was getting splashed too. Wanting to move, I looked up and down the car for other seats. Instead, I saw the conductor seated nearby and I walked over, introduced myself, and told him about the leak.
“Oh, yeh, we have a few on this train.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“Find another seat.”
“I’m not sure there are any. Are you?”
“I don’t really remember. It’s pretty crowded.”
“Do you want to know what seat I am in, so you can report it?”
“I’m sure it’s been reported already. More than once.”
“But never repaired?”
“I can’t fix the hole where the rain is coming, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“No, I didn’t think you could.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you usually do when someone is being rained on?”
“I’m doing it.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Find other seats.”
“I’m not sure there are any.”
“You’re on your own there, buddy.”
I went back to my soaked seat and gathered the luggage from the overhead compartment and started walking through the rain, I mean train. And then the next car. And the next. Until I found one seat in one car and another seat in another car. My companion and I did not do much talking on our trip to N.Y.C.
The next morning, I called Amtrak to register a complaint and perhaps help out the next poor schnook without an umbrella. I waited on hold for 50 minutes, listening to classical music and a tape that said, every few minutes, “Your call is important to us. All the operators are dealing with other customers.” There must have been a lot of unhappy customers, I thought, or very few complaint takers. Or both.
Finally, a woman’s voice.
“Hello, my name is Christina. How can I help you?”
“Hello, Christina. How long do you think someone should wait to talk to customer service?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“Well, 50 minutes seems a little long for good customer service.”
“Can I have your complaint, sir? There are other people waiting on hold.”
“That was my first complaint, Christina.”
“The wait was too long.”
“Many people wait for over an hour, so I would consider myself lucky.”
“Over an hour? That’s some customer service you have there.”
“We have 50 people here and we are busy all the time.”
“I can’t imagine why that is, Christina, can you?”
“Can we get passed this issue and onto your complaint?”
“Okay, Christina. My name is Bruce, by the way.”
“You still there, Christina?”
I told Christina my story, as succinctly as I could, on account of all the other customers waiting for service.
“Did your train arrive at its destination?”
“Yes it did.”
“You cannot receive restitution if your train arrived at its destination.”
“Okay, Christina, that’s fine, but . . .”
“I take complaints. I don’t argue. Thank you for calling.”
And Christina was gone.
Geez. That was unsatisfying. So I went online and found the phone number of the Amtrak media person, Northeast division. I left my name and number, and what do you know, he called me back. I told him my story.
“Mr. Buschel, write everything down and send me an email with the time and date and train number and ticket number and what exactly happened, and I will take it to my superiors.”
“That’s what I do for a living.”
“Write down my experiences.”
“Then your descriptions will be accurate.”
“But I have already spent $175 and 45 minutes in line in Philly, and 10 minutes getting rained on, and 15 minutes looking for a seat, 60 minutes separated from my companion, 50 minutes calling Amtrak, and now I am talking to you. It’ll probably take another half-hour finding my ticket stub, and then writing it all down, and, well, I am a very slow writer. I figure another two or three hours minimum. Which would bring us to a total of around five hours of doing stuff I didn’t want to do. And why am I doing all this stuff?”
“So I can pass along the information to my superiors.”
“And what do you think they will do?”
“There will be no restitution, but beyond that, I’m not sure.”
“Ever hear of The East Hampton Star?”
“That’s not an Amtrak line, is it?”
Bruce Buschel is a writer, producer, director, and restaurateur who lives in Bridgehampton.