Susan Kohler Commentary: “Amtrak Experience”

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services; the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli Counties. Tonight I want to tell you about my first experience riding Amtrak, a service which should benefit older adults, among others, as a reasonable alternative form of transportation.
Last week I took Amtrak to Seattle to visit relatives. I chose the train to avoid the stress of driving by myself and so I could use the night time travel hours to sleep.
The train was three hours late getting into Whitefish, where I boarded. Waiting with me in the small station with its hard benches for seating were older adults and a family trying to entertain their young children. We were told the delay was due to the heat expanding tracks in North Dakota and Eastern Montana, making slow travel imperative. Surely this wasn’t the first time Amtrak encountered this problem in all their years! But already tired, we boarded just after midnight and made up some of the three hour delay en route. The coach seats were comfortable enough and the view was nice.
The return trip was worse. Scheduled to leave Seattle at 4:40 p.m. and arrive in Whitefish at 7:26 the next morning, I wouldn’t get to Whitefish until after 4 p.m.
First, the train was late into Seattle by two hours. Then the train derailed during cleaning and turning around. Apparently there was no crane in the Seattle yard to put it back on the tracks. No crane in a yard as large as Seattle?
We were then told we would load on chartered buses by 9 p.m. for Spokane, where we would meet another train. We patiently stood in line for our passes nearly half an hour before anyone showed up to assist us.
When we arrived in Spokane around 2 a.m. they had pizza for us, but nothing to drink. Imagine our dismay when they announced that the train we were to meet wouldn’t arrive until 5 a.m. Actual boarding time turned out to be 9 a.m. There we sat—or in some cases, lay–on the floor in the Spokane station for seven hours–older folks, a woman in a wheel chair, several single mothers with young children, people who had made sleeper car reservations, and other coach travelers like me. No amenities, no staff, nothing.
But scheduling issues, outdated track and lack of equipment aren’t the only problems plaguing Amtrak. I saw bathrooms that were unclean and needed updating. I experienced the priority of freight over passenger travel, which causes further delays to allow freight trains to pass.
And then there was customer service . . . . When I finally got home I called to see what type of compensation Amtrak would offer me. I waited on the phone for 45 minutes before I got anyone. Then I was offered a partial credit that could only be used on Amtrak. I said I never intended to ride Amtrak again and was reminded that Amtrak did get me to my destination and they don’t guarantee that it will be on time. Eight plus hours is beyond just “not on time!” I asked who owned Amtrak and who else I could talk to and was given the address of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation in Washington D.C. The representative said protocol is to give customers like me just the address–no phone number, no email.
Some research showed that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation is managed and operated as a for-profit corporation. The Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which established Amtrak, specifically states that, “The Corporation will not be an agency or establishment of the United States Government,” but reality is that through the Department of Transportation, the federal government owns all issued and outstanding preferred stock in the company. Amtrak also receives annual appropriations from the federal government to supplement operating and capital programs, to the tune of $563 million and $922 million respectively in fiscal year 2011. That’s in addition to passenger ticket revenue, which accounted for 79 percent of its budget.
I don’t think my miserable Amtrak experience was unique, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it was for my fellow travelers–older adults with disabilities, or those with young children. Many on the train were going across country and would miss their connections in Chicago. Do you suppose any of those people will ever ride Amtrak again?
Amtrak is a sorry alternative form of travel for our country, If Amtrak can’t be fixed with the level of government subsidies it gets, we need to find other more productive ways of using that money. Let proven good stewards of public dollars, like Area Agencies on Aging across the country, use these funds to help the growing population of elders in need of supportive services, including transportation. At least put the money into public transit so older adults and people with disabilities have a way to get to doctors’ appointments and other needs in their own communities.

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One thought on “Susan Kohler Commentary: “Amtrak Experience”

  1. I’m convinced that this terrible AMTRAK service is a deliberate result of anti-rail and anti-
    public transportation agenda by certain political interests to strangle the public’s desire for a modern, world-class “public” rail transportation network. Most of the civilized world enjoys a modern, efficient public passenger rail system. Why must America be deprived of such transportation ?

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