How Amtrak got one holiday traveler back on track

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.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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