Sunday Morning Soliloquy - Musings of an Urbanite: Here Comes Your Train

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Here Comes Your Train

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81 Hours on Amtrak 

Train trip across the U.S., Day 1: helpful Amtrak staff on Empire Builder

I departed from Chicago on August 30 on the Empire Builder for Glacier Park, my first stop on a 12 day trip across the country on Amtrak.


I arrived at Union Station 20 minutes prior to my departure (it took me 5 minutes to find the ticket counter), when I approached the counter, I learned that paper tickets had to be issued for each leg of my trip – a total of 6 tickets. With only 15 minutes to spare, I started to panic.

Background: I purchased a Rail Pass for 8 rides over 15 days on Amtrak. In addition to the Rail Pass, I purchased two supplements for a sleeper car, or Roomettes: 1) Minneapolis to Essex, and 2) Portland to San Francisco. 

Missing this train was not an option, panic manifested into erratic behavior - I jumped up and down squealing at the counter in an effort to hurry the ticket agent along. This had an adverse effect on the ticket agent, she froze and was unable to perform her duties. Realizing I had to remedy the situation quickly, I became calm and kindly pleaded with her take any necessary actions so that I could catch the Empire Builder.

I boarded the Empire Builder with minutes to spare! 
After I was settled in, I looked at my paper tickets and noticed that I had one Rail Pass and one large “Credit” voucher in my possession. The train moved along, and some place in Northern Wisconsin I found a conductor and asked him about my Roomette (sleeper car) from Minneapolis to Essex. He scanned my ticket with his iPhone scanner thingy (like they do in Apple Stores - so high tech!) and could not find my booking. The conductor told me to return to my coach seat, he said that he would investigate and report back to me.


The cynic in me did not believe the conductor would return, I thought it might be best to phone the Amtrak 800 number and resolve my ticketing issue with a phone agent. There was little cell reception in Northern Wisconsin but I was able to reach a sales operator. I was able to convey a few details before I was put on hold - next came silence - and then my call dropped. I called back. Nothing, I was in a dead zone.

As the plains rolled past my window, mile after mile, I worried I would be forced to endure a 30-hour train ride in coach. Finally, I was re-approached by the conductor. He said, “I went back to my office and did some research, the ticket agent in Chicago canceled the remainder of your trip, but we were able to recover it." I rejoiced!


The conductor informed me that my tickets would be printed in Winona, Minnesota (where there was a shift change). The conductor explained that in St. Paul - Minneapolis there would be a brief stop and that I should move to the front train car, to Roomette Number 20, where a different conductor would deliver my new tickets to me. Unlike air travel experiences, where I've learned to expect the worst, the level of service from this gentleman astonished me, the Amtrak conductor was more than willing to assist me, he was courteous, gracious and extremely helpful.

St. Paul - Minneapolis Midway Station 
We arrived in Minneapolis, and everyone de-trained. I heard my name announced over the loud speaker and headed into the station. Inside, a young Amtrak agent manned a kiosk where a line of passengers were waiting. At the front of the line stood a large man dressed in camouflage, as I walked by I heard the Amtrak agent playfully ask the large man, “Are you Leyla Arsan?” He was not Leyla Arsan, because I was Leyla Arsan, so I stepped to the front of the long line and identified myself to the agent.

The young agent looked at my tickets, he took one ticket, handed me another, and attempted to send me on my way. I asked if he was aware of my situation, he assured me that he was informed. I remained skeptical because the sequence of events deviated from the plan the conductor had described to me earlier in Northern Wisconsin.

I started to make my way to the train but went back into the station to double check, this time I went to the main ticket counter. I was greeted with a smile, handed over my identification, and the agent said, “Hi Leyla, I have your tickets.” I was confused, how did my tickets get here? He politely went on to tell me that after I was disconnected from the Amtrak phone operator, the one I briefly spoke with earlier that day, she called the station in Minneapolis and had my canceled tickets re-issued and printed for me. My response to man at the ticket counter, “Who does that!?!” He smiled again and said, “Enjoy your trip Leyla.”


I had a positive experience from not one, but multiple Amtrak employees who went out of their way to make my trip a success. And this was not isolated to my ticketing issues (which was clearly my fault since I arrived at the train station late), throughout my entire trip, all 81+ hours of train rides, I received stellar service from nearly everyone I encountered. I most certainly did enjoy the rest of my trip.

Read about my hike in Glacier Park here. And, stay tuned... More to come! But in the meantime, you can check out my photos on Flickr and Instagram

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