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Amtrak on the Wrong Track: Travelling the U.S. Railroads on the Looney Front

Virtually every other rail company I have traveled on throughout the world issues a numbered reservation, thus avoiding such a circus.
07/16/2015 09:05am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Why does Amtrak insist on not giving a numbered seat to passengers who reserve? I recently travelled on Amtrak Train 68, the Adirondack, from Montreal to New York and it was one of the most unpleasant boarding experiences I can remember.

OK, so it wasn't Calcutta's Howrah station where millions invade the tracks as soon as the train appears, swarming all over both the insides and outsides, hanging out of windows and doors, and balancing on roofs until you can no longer see either carriages or engine for the masses of humanity.

But because Amtrak has open seating even on reserved coaches there was a vast queue forming by Montreal's platform 17 entrance more than an hour and 20 minutes before the train was due to leave, with the gate opening a half an hour before departure - just to be able to get the best seats.

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Massing long before the Adirondack's departure

This seems a most inhospitable and passenger-unfriendly method. Virtually every other rail company I have traveled on throughout the world issues a numbered reservation, thus avoiding such a circus.

Secondly, the Wi-Fi connection was so bad within the U.S. that it was virtually useless. The connection was sporadic, continually breaking off, and inordinately slow even the few times it deigned to operate. Why in fact did I receive better Wi-Fi service on a bus in the wildest Andes of third-world Peru than I got in so-called first world USA?

Finally I don't understand why Amtrak doesn't have a food trolley with drinks and snacks going up and down the cars on the 10-hour-long Adirondack as occurs in most other countries, including Canada's VIA Rail. This would avoid the long lines forming in the café car and the endless wait while being tossed from side to side by the boogieing train as though aboard a ship in a roaring gale.

I know Amtrak has one or two items that they heat in the café car such as pizza or noodles, but the vast majority of people seem to want drinks and cold sandwiches.

Thus I thought it was worth contacting Amtrak's 'Ask Julie' customer service to find out.

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Amtrak's Adirondack arriving in Fort Edward, NY

First of all, very positively, Amtrak did reply - and at thoughtful length. They said that they have found from experience that pre-assigning seats is not the answer that it might appear to be. At times, it is necessary to substitute a car which is designed for a different number of passengers.

'Also, we generally group people together by their destinations, but we cannot know long beforehand the number of travelers going to a particular location,' they added. 'If a car were set aside far ahead of time for persons going to a certain city, but few people chose that destination, the car might be empty while others end up being overcrowded.'

I still don't find the answer convincing. Surely with computers you could easily juggle the numbers and seats without necessarily setting cars aside for particular destinations - assuming, of course, the computers don't break down. Perhaps Amtrak should ask companies abroad how they manage without any problem. That way you could eliminate my Montreal experience.

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How to avoid scenes like this

On Wi-Fi, Amtrak said: 'We strive to have our Wi-Fi service up and running at all times. When a technical problem occurs, we have professionals working on the issue immediately from an external location. Unfortunately, on board Conductors do not have the ability to fix the problem themselves, but are asked to report the problem through the correct channels. So, it is not as easily fixed as we would like.'

Perhaps Amtrak should ask the bus companies in Peru how they manage.

On the food cart services, Amtrak said it had passed my comment on to the train manager.

'Comments from our customers help us to change/add services, and improve what we already offer,' they added.

As you can see, I don't accept their logic, but I was indeed pleased that they bothered to reply. Perhaps those who have had similar experiences can contact them.

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.