How Amtrak got one holiday traveler back on track

By | December 31st, 2015

Next time you’re frustrated by a travel experience, think of Susan Yascolt.

Determined to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren for the holidays — and shrugging off significant health challenges — she was stuck on a delayed Amtrak train from Oakland, Calif., to Dallas.

Among other things, she couldn’t find her walker or enough light in the evening to see where she was going.

Amtrak attendants left Yascolt unattended. She was tired, but not deterred. Not knowing where to turn, she called her sister, Marjorie Pinard, as a last resort. Pinard emailed Amtrak’s customer service from our corporate contacts page.

The rest is history — and it’s good. You’ll see.

Despite longer travel times, Amtrak is giving airlines a run for their money. Flyers are increasingly disillusioned by holiday price gouging as well as complex check-in and ground transportation challenges. For example, the Boston Globe says Amtrak “is absolutely killing it in the Northeast Corridor.”

Amtrak fares are not always less than air travel, especially when purchasing an overnight sleeper, but that does not matter for many routes where comfort prevails. Amtrak can also be a viable alternative to those with a fear of flying. One of my family members always goes to Florida from Washington, D.C., by the Silver Star for just this reason.

Yascolt planned what she thought would be a comfortable and leisurely journey. She’d had her fill of ridiculously intrusive individual TSA screening, long lines, rude air passengers wedged into her sardine-can seat row, and limited access to micro-bathrooms.

But before we get carried away, let’s train our thoughts back to what happens when things go awry.

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“My elderly, disabled sister couldn’t locate her walker, the attendants wouldn’t assist her, she hadn’t slept, she was hungry, the lights were completely off in the bathrooms, and the train was delayed twice while her car rental waited,” Pinard explained.

Yikes. Maybe an airline looked pretty good now?

“My sister called me in desperation,” Pinard continued. “She has a bad back and leg surgery, is a cancer survivor, and uses a cane and a walker. The train was so delayed, Amtrak had to transfer passengers to a bus and then to another train — also delayed.”

Gosh. Please accept our collective sympathies and admiration for Yascolt’s resiliency.

Before anyone can ponder what else could go wrong, Pinard sent e-mails describing her sister’s situation and itinerary to Amtrak’s corporate contacts, asking for immediate assistance. She put “HELP” in the subject line.

“I am so grateful to the Amtrak corporate office and the forum’s contact list,” added Pinard. “Amtrak responded and went above and beyond in their personalized service to correct the problems.”

After Yascolt boarded the second connecting train, Amtrak turned up the customer service heat en route.

“Monty at customer relations apologized profusely for my sister’s situation, and arranged for Chris and Daniel, the train managers, to assist my sister in real time to assure she was well cared-for, assisting her in whatever she needed,” said Pinard.

Amtrak had the porter give her the attention she was lacking, found her walker, turned on the bathroom lights in the evening so she could see where she was going, and made sure her checked luggage arrived. They even had comped meals personally brought to her.

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And what about Yascolt’s rental car, yet to be picked up? The train apparently runs on a schedule that allows necessary significant speed increases to make up time and only arrived 20 minutes late, where somehow Amtrak arranged for the car rental agency to meet her at the station.

Wow. That is a serious level of making things right.

“Holy Hannah, it was amazing to hear good things about a car rental agency as well,” Pinard added. Hey — I like the phrase “Holy Hannah.” I remember it from younger days.

In travel, stuff happens. But true customer service is not about achieving perfection, which is an impossible goal, but rather how problems are owned, handled and fixed. Mistakes can happen, but the willingness to correct them is more important — as in life.

Amtrak was really sorry. And they meant it and showed it.

Pinard sums it up just fine with her glass-half-full approach.

“I know problems in life as well as in travel occur,” she concluded. “They always will. The important part is to remember how the problem is solved, so bless Amtrak personnel for going beyond expectations in the end.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Readers of this column know sometimes the Good News Guy is not done yet. So while you roll your eyes, there is one more thing.

I am humbled and moved by Yascolt’s determination to make it to her family for the holidays against all medical odds, despite a forced train change and exhaustion. Perhaps she is the most inspiring aspect of this story, teaching us a lesson of steadfast positive attitude and resolve in not letting anything keep her down — or home.

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  • Pegtoo


  • Jim Daniel


    Let’s see, the airline is going to push their plane faster to get you there almost on time, comp you some meals, and call the rental car agency to arrange special services!

    If you think that’ll ever happen, you should come see my Bridge, it’s for sale you know.

    KUDOS AMTRAK! You Rock!

  • Bill

    I really hope the airline does not push their planes faster because a customer needs to get their rental car … there are a whole bunch of aerodynamic forces that have to be considered…..and I am pretty sure that Amtrak didn’t speed up just for this customer… if they sped up at all… I cannot tell you hpw many times I have taken off late but still arrived on time

  • cscasi

    Just like some airline flights. Pilots are able to speed up the planes a bit and still be well within the aerodynamic limits you mentioned. When doing so, it may cause the fuel consumption to increase a bit and thereby cost the airline a little more, so it is not done all the time. Nonetheless it does NOT push the aerodynamic limits of the aircraft.

  • SierraRose 49

    Love ending the year on a really high note of awesome customer service! Way to go, Amtrak! And thank you Chris & Crew for all you do! Happy 2016!

  • That’s the way you get customers who keep coming back. Cue the sour grapes from airline and cruise employees who are so dead certain that the laws of physics prevent their own companies from being nice to people.

  • Patricia Ann

    YES! A huge THANK YOU to Chris and ALL the advocates that help make this a better world…

  • MarkKelling

    Modern commercial airliners are not flown anywhere near their aerodynamic limits. They fly at their most economical level. “Pushing” it a bit faster just burns more fuel. Also, planes can be routed more directly to shorten the actual distance flown and make up time to arrive on schedule (my flight after Christmas did that resulting in a straighter line between the two points on the in flight map than I have ever seen on that route and shaved nearly 30 minutes off the flying time of a normally 2.5 hour flight) which is something not possible on a train.

    Just like in a car, the plane could go much faster and still arrive at its destination in one piece but the faster it goes beyond a certain point the amount of fuel needed drastically increases. During the peak of fuel costs many airlines actually started flying their planes slower because it saved them fuel. The amount saved for the 10 – 15 minutes longer the average flight took was significant.

  • judyserienagy

    Great story, Andrew! This is what life used to be like … travel companies took care of their customers. May this concept grow and flourish in 2016!

  • thanks!

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