Why I Will Never EVER Ride Amtrak in the Winter Again

Since moving to the small town that is Quincy and discovering we have a (very tiny) train station, I’ve been really looking forward to taking it to Chicago. So obviously I jumped at the opportunity to go visit one of my friends who would be in Chicago for a month for work. I personally love the idea of trains. It seems like such an easy mode of transportation. It’s recommended you arrive 30 min before your departure (which lets face it, you could probably arrive 15 min before and be fine), there is no humiliating security check, no need for baggage check, and they come to you to check your tickets after you are already comfortably seated so there is no need to fumble with your luggage. It may not be as fast as flying a plane but you they have FREE WiFi on most of their trains, outlets to plug in your electronics, and the leg rooms is leaps and bounds better than on a plane. Sounds wonderful, right?

The Carl Sandburg (My ride to Chicago)

The Carl Sandburg (My ride to Chicago)

What they fail to mention is how unpredictable trains can be. If you want to be anywhere on time in the winter, don’t travel on a train. On the way to Chicago, my train was about 45-50 min late to pick us up. That’s not terrible considering Amtrak sends out a text letting you know of your new departure time. I was actually kind of glad it was late, I live approximately 6 min away from the train station so it allowed me to go home and eat dinner really quick instead of my original plan to eat in my car. However, my 45 min late departure resulted in a 2 hour late arrival. We were stuck behind a freight train for awhile which inevitably slowed us down, followed by being behind a Metra as we got closer to the city. I realize, these are all things that are outside of Amtrak’s control and I really wasn’t disturbed by this. I was still comfy in my warm, over-sized seat, with leg room for days, and I wasn’t having to actually drive so I was good. Of course, I was bummed about missing a good night out with my friends but I arrived at the same time it would’ve taken me to drive so no big deal.

I had such a great time in Chicago!! I loved having a little girls weekend with some of my favorite people! We didn’t do a whole lot cause it was absolutely freezing (I understand why they call it Chiberia). We had brunch twice, ate pizza, watched hours of the Olympics, finally mustered up the strength to go out to Untitled. It snowed and was beautiful but I have decided that snow in the city is only pretty as its falling…after that its ugly and dirty. So, sorry Chicago but until your snow melts or you get a fresh layer…you will be a little ugly. I do love cities though, I fall in love with almost every city I visit and I’m no stranger to Chicago and it’s charm. My parents thought it was funny that I moved to such a small town since I have always been mezmorized by cities. Let’s face it though…I’m kind of a cheapskate so I could never justify the cost of living in one of those places. Sorry I digress…

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View from my window — During snow and in the sunshine!

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Other view from my window — During snow and in the sunshine!

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My trip home from Chicago was a nightmare and is why I will never ride Amtrak in the winter again. My train, like many other trains that day was extremely delayed. Again, fine whatever…what can you do right? Well what you can do actually is have better customer service. I was taking the 5:55 PM train back to Quincy which would’ve had an arrival time of 10:30ish. That is already past my bed time but the only other option would’ve been the 6 AM train and that would’ve made my trip a little pointless. My train’s departure was delayed over 3 hours.

The Illinois Zephyr (My ride home)

The Illinois Zephyr (My ride home)

The real problem is that the Amtrak employees apparently had “no idea” why our train was delayed and could provide us with no updates on the matter. They announced our train was delayed and didn’t bring up our train number again for another 2.5 hours. The thing I couldn’t quite figure out was that the other trains were delayed because they were coming from other stations, ours was at the train station the entire day. In fact, people waiting in line with me had said that they took the train in this morning and knew it had been there since 11 AM. So how did they not know what the status of our train was? People, of course, were becoming restless and a man was even escorted out of the station for yelling at the lady. I overheard part of the conversation and at one point she said to him, “Well then don’t travel”.

The problem is not traveling and honestly its not really the delay either, its the fact that nobody can provide an update. If there is one thing people in customer service need to know about providing good customer service, its that your customer wants to know that you are doing everything you possibly can to help them. Simply saying, “I don’t know” and then continuing to stand there making no effort to find out, doesn’t make people happy. In fact, it does the opposite. Even if after you try to find out what the issue is and you come back with no answer, people will be more empathetic to the fact that you at least tried. Nobody can get upset at someone who put in the effort to help alleviate your situation. They may still be frustrated at the larger issue, but they certainly are less likely to give you an attitude. Side note: that text alert I spoke of earlier about the delay? Didn’t get one of those either. When we finally boarded the train, they announced that the bathrooms were frozen and that was the cause of our 2 hour delay. Good. Lord. I won’t even get started on that one….

My train ended up arriving to Quincy at 2 AM, making my alarm clock rather annoying for a Monday morning. This train was a completely different experience too. They kept all of the lights on, it was freezing (causing me to physically shake for the last hour and a half of the ride), the seats were not nearly as comfortable, and the ride was pretty rough and bumpy.

Things to take away from this experience?

  • Never take the train in the winter
  • Amtrak has terrible customer service
  • Look up your train on the website, it tells you about it the amenities. For example, I did not have WiFi on my train to Chicago, but I did on the way back.
  • Expect delays – I now think the train is probably the least reliable mode of transportation
  • Be patient, have some perspective, and know that things could be worse so be lucky they aren’t
  • If you put your luggage on the floor of the seat next to you instead of the overhead bin, people won’t even bother to ask to sit next to you
  • They serve terrible coffee in the snack car
  • Don’t ever rest your face on the window for sleep comfort, that window is disturbingly dirty and your face will hate you.
  • Bring a blanket and small pillow (in a pillow case — please see above bullet)

What is your preferred method of travel? Do you have a bad experience you’d like to get off your chest?

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