No refund for derailed Amtrak trip

Question: We recently traveled on Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Chicago to Sacramento. It was not a good experience.

When we entered the sleeper bedroom, it was readily apparent that the visual depiction on the Amtrak website was a gross exaggeration. The condition of the car was very poor.

We soon realized that the latch on the bathroom door had a problem. When my wife tried to operate the latch from inside the bathroom, she found that she was trapped. The door could only be opened from the outside.

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We discussed this with the attendant and she said she could move us to the only remaining bedroom available. We decided that would be the best so we moved to another bedroom.

The new room was no better. The carpet was soaked. An attendant told us that a drink was spilled in that room and gave us towels to put on the floor as a second carpet. It didn’t work too well. We had to keep our shoes on or suffer wet feet whenever we were in the room.

Both bedrooms were decrepit. They looked totally worn out and unclean. We were told when we booked that we would have to change cars in Denver, so we decided that we could suffer through one night.

But our bedroom in Denver was even worse. The stench inside the car was almost unbearable. As cellphone service would allow in the mountains, I contacted Marriott and secured a room for the night in Salt Lake City. I also called the airline and booked a flight for the next day. When we arrived at Salt Lake City at around midnight, we left the train and continued with our trip.

I’ve written to Amtrak, asking for a refund. It sent me two vouchers for $400. I want my money back. Can you help? — David Battas, Indianapolis

Answer: Amtrak knows that the first-class service on its Zephyr needs a little work. According to a September 2010 Performance Improvement Plan, an upgrade of its trains is under way, but not in time for your trip.

Amtrak’s refund policy on unused tickets can be found on its website. The company is technically right: Your accommodation charge wouldn’t have been refundable in your situation, since you canceled your trip less than seven days before your departure. There’s no mention of partial refunds for passengers who disembark before the end of their trip.

But that’s beside the point. Amtrak promises a “more luxurious experience” on the Zephyr, which it calls “one of the most beautiful train tips in all of North America.” Maybe it’s just referring to the outdoor scenery.

Could this have been avoided? Maybe. The online reviews on the Zephyr are mixed, at best. Reading them might have prompted you to avoid the entire experience, or at least waited until the renovations were complete.

Clearly, you were sold a bill of goods. Amtrak’s terms don’t apply because it breached its own contract, giving you a substandard product for your first-class fare. I think you’re owed a full refund.

I contacted Amtrak on your behalf, and it agreed. It refunded your entire train ticket.