Amtrak is a great deal here in the Pacific Northwest. You can transfer 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a one-way business class ticket from Seattle to either Portland or Vancouver, BC. With the promise of big, comfy seats, no lines for security, and on-board WiFi, you would wonder why anyone would take a plane.
On these routes, Alaska, United, and Air Canada tend to use cramped prop planes — not even regional jets. Add extra time for getting to/from an airport (40 minutes by Seattle’s light rail), plus security checks, and even the occasional Amtrak delay looks tolerable.
But I’m still swearing off Amtrak for all but the most extreme situations. Read: no award space on any flight, and revenue fares cost $200+ each way. The problem is that the service I have encountered is far too unreliable.
When I visited Vancouver last year, the wireless Internet on our outbound journey was so slow and intermittent as to be unusable. Then, it died as soon as we crossed the border into Canada. We spent an hour inching through the train yards with no WiFi and the threat of roaming charges on my phone. On our return portion, we faced several delays due to freight traffic and CBP inspections. WiFi hadn’t yet been installed despite the promise of service on this route.
This time I was going to Portland. It is not nearly so scenic, which was one thing that made up for our trip to Vancouver. And my return trip was absolutely perfect, I must admit. We left exactly on time, arrived 15 minutes early, and Internet access was fairly good throughout (it did die occasionally in less populated areas since it relies on cell towers).
My problem is with the outbound journey. There was a mudslide earlier that day that derailed a train north of Seattle. No surprise it caused a delay, and in the end I was exactly one hour late to Portland — very reasonable. That is not my complaint. But I was not impressed with how Amtrak communicated to its customers or to its employees.
Amtrak’s website was never updated to provide information on new travel arrangements, only to say there was an indeterminable delay. Station agents I spoke with said that the northbound train arriving from Portland would turn around and take us there instead. It wasn’t until that train unexpectedly left the station without us that an announcement was made and we were quickly hustled onto buses.
I wish I had been told this earlier so I could make alternate arrangements. I really didn’t want to ride the bus. If I was going to be in a small seat with no Internet, I’d rather take a plane. But I had no opportunity to look for other options, nor any information to decide if it was worthwhile. Being able to make informed decisions is very important to me.
Once on the bus, we soon found that the driver had no idea where we were going. Our bus was going to make two stops in Tacoma and Vancouver, WA, before terminating at Portland. We roamed around Tacoma, making a few wrong turns, before finally arriving at the station. Guess what? No one was getting off here, and there was no room to take anyone on. What a waste of time. There were several other buses, and I’m surprised no one at the station had thought to organize passengers better so that this situation didn’t happen, or at least print out directions to give the driver.
The few people from whom I’ve heard positive accounts of Amtrak have all referred to its Acela Express “high speed” line on the East Coast. Everywhere else it is very hit and miss. Maybe I am too demanding. I sometimes find myself comparing Amtrak to Thalys or Eurostar, which are leagues ahead, but I’m not asking for luxury on rails, just the amenities I was promised. Trains in the U.S. make sense if you want scenery and have a few days to spare. But it is NOT effective transportation.
Amtrak takes longer longer than a plane, even when you account for the hassles at the airport. It’s still worth that plus moderate delays if I spend that extra time in comfort. If I have to worry about disorganized employees, random stops on rail sidings, hours of boredom without Internet, and being crammed on a bus, then even the TSA’s nude-o-scopes begin to look like a welcome alternative.