(work in progress)
I am often wary of 'customer service' in the U.S.: too often I find the service in hotels and restaurants to overfawning and overfamiliar, which leaves me with the uneasy sense that people are only being nice to me to solicit an extra generous tip. However, my recent experience with Amtrak gave me a whole new perspective on 'customer service' - or rather, the lack of it.
On a previous trip, I had a good experience travelling with Amtrak between New York and Boston, so when it became apparent that I would have meetings in both NYC and Washington D.C., I was happy to take the option of catching the train rather than flying. The cost of the rail fare compared very favourably with flights - without the attendant time, cost and hassle of getting to and from airport on city outskirts - plus the added benefit of not having to go through security checks ... it seemed like an obvious choice.
Usually I would err on the side of caution and try to arrive in a city the day before an important meeting, but in this case, I was committed to meetings over supper the night before, so could only travel early morning. Still, I booked a train that would get me into D.C. nearly three hours before the meeting I was chairing, and my previous Amtrak experience had been so pleasant that I was actively looking forward to the journey. Hmmmmm.
Being of good German stock, I arrived at Penn Station an hour ahead of departure time, intending to check in and then have a leisurely breakfast - to discover that power lines on the track north of Baltimore were down. These things happen on the best maintained of rail systems, and I readily admit that it was just unfortunate that my travel coincided with such an incident: my problems relate to the way that Amtrak dealt (or, more accurately, did not deal) with this event.
Firstly, to try and get any information at all was nigh on impossible, and it took some time to confirm that the service would only be going as far as Wilmington, Delaware. And then came the shocked realisation that although Amtrak's announcement claimed that it, 'regrets the inconvenience to passengers', clearly it didn't regret it anywhere near enough to lay on alternative transport arrangements from Wilmington to destinations further down the line. I simply do not know of a single other rail service provider in the 'first world' who would not make alternative transport arrangements for customers under these circumstances and Amtrak should be ashamed of itself for not bothering to make an alternative plan: given the circumstances, how hard would it have been to have laid on a bus?
After trying to engage with 'customer service' staff who were not just offhand, but rude and downright dismissive, it transpired that the alternatives were:
1. To join a queue a mile long for a refund (and then have to make alternative arrangements)
2. To trek down to the Port Authority to try and catch a bus
3. To schlep even further out to either JFK or Newark in the vain hope of finding a seat on a plane.
4. To catch the train as far as Wilmington and hope that the power had been reinstated and/or alternative transport arrangements had been put into place by the time that we arrived.
Given the pressing time frame, I had no option but to be optimistic and take option 4, which is where the lovely lady pictured above came into my life. Like me, she was also committed to making meetings in D.C. that afternoon, so we agreed to join forces. When our arrival in Wilmington confirmed that the situation had not changed, we - and all our fellow passengers - piled into the car hire offices and snapped up any car on offer. We then proceeded to do a 'Thelma and Louise' dash across Delaware, with her driving (competently) and me navigating (much less competently), which got us into D.C. with 45 minutes to spare.
In hindsight, this will probably become a much loved travel story, and I will concede that I could not have happened across a more delightful or intelligent travel companion, but that's no thanks to Amtrak. They acted disgracefully under circumstances where they could easily have mitigated the impact on customers by simply hiring a bus, and I refuse to reward such contemptuous 'service' with my future custom.
And, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I might ponder whether the underutilised car hire agencies of Wilmington had anything to do with the power interruption ...
New York's Penn Station (code: NYP), used to be the terminal station for the Pennsylvania Railroad (hence the name of the station). Nowadays, it is the station used by Amtrak, as well as the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines. The station is also served by Subway lines 1,2,3, A, C, and E. Within a few blocks of the station, you can also board Subway lines B, D, F, N, Q, and R, as well as the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) trains.
If you wish to get to New York from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Boston, it could well make more sense to take the train than to fly. You can also make easy Amtrak connections from the airports in Newark (EWR) and even Baltimore (BWI) to Penn Station.
Upon arrival in the station, you have many choices of shops and restaurants. If you want to make your way directly to the subway, your best bet is to have a Metrocard already in your possession, as lines can be quite long. If you don't have a Metrocard, you're usually actually better off waiting in the seemingly longer line for the human at the counter than for the machines. The machines at Penn Station are surprisingly sparse (e.g., only one machine to serve the 1,2, and 3 subways!); as a result, they get an extreme amount of wear and tend to malfunction quite a bit (NOTE: this advice is intended only for Penn Station. At other stations, including Grand Central Station, I recommend you use the touch-screen machines). BTW, if you're staying for more than 3 days, I recommend you purchase a 7-day unlimited ride Metrocard ($29).
On a final note, we traveled to the city via Amtrak train (gorgeous autumn color on the way & back).
I have been soooo tired this week. It didn't help at all that there was a little boy on the train who talked (honest to God) 9 hours straight. Got NO rest on the train (and I was counting on that)!
Amtrak owns the electric-powered track it uses to and from New York City so time-keeping is pretty good. There are services almost 24 hours a day, including ultra-fast Acela trains to Washington, DC. It's a shame Amtrak doesn't use Grand Central any longer but Pennsylvania Station is now much more tolerable since the recent improvements.
Definitely take the Air Train. It's cheap, fast and roomy even with all your luggage. We stopped off at Penn Station which is right in the heart of Manhattan, opposite the Ramada New Yorker. You could then get a taxi to your destination.
Not sure if you could use your Amtrak ticket on the air tran... but Amtrak tends to be MUCH more expensive than NJ Transit, going anywhere.
Based on my experience I'm pretty sure you'd save money using NJ Transit instead of Amtrak and paying for the air train separately.
Taking Amtrak from outside the city is probably the best way to get there. It comes right up underneath Madison Square Garden. So if you are going to a concert, Westminster Dog show, or any other sight in Manhattan, this is the best way to get there. Parking in NY is VERY expensive and not worth the hassle of driving. From Washington DC you can get there by train in 3 hours.
If it's at all practical for your to take the train to New York rather than flying or driving, I highly recommend it. Compared to flying, train travel is very relaxing: no security checks, no long lines, no cancellations, no baggage checks. I love it. For us it's also cheaper than flying as well. As an added bonus when you take the train to New York you arrive right in the heart of the city at Penn Station, whereas New York's airports are located well outside of the city. If you're traveling to New York from the Eastern part of the U.S., look into taking the train.
We took a day trip to NYC from Maryland on Amtrak Acela ( First Class, Express). It was a Quick ride and it was nice cause I didnt have to navigate. Some food is included with the first class tickets and if you dont like what is on the menu you can still go to the Ala carte menu in the snack car and pick what you want (at cost). Even if you dont wanna pay first class prices, taking the train is still a great way to take a day trip to New York and its restfull. Plus the rest may be needed for the ride back if your running around all day downtown and about in NYC. So sit back, Relax and let someone else do the driving for you! Chhhooo Chooo! ReinaMorena
The Amtrak stops at Penn Station, on 34th and 8th. Dumps you right out in the middle of it all. If you're coming from the north, the overpasses are such that you basically get a tour of Queens from the air.
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