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.

33 thoughts on “No refund for derailed Amtrak trip

  1. I was planning a cross country trip on Amtrak – I liked the idea of walking to my local train station and after a couple of train changes – and three days – walking to my destination in California, but after this story and the one a few weeks ago that was very similar, there is no way I am booking a long trip on a train.  I would still take the Acela or even the commuter trains in the Boston – Washington corridor, but I will forget about the rest.  Too bad, Amtrak could at least keep the trains clean!

  2. The title is misleading. They actually did get their money refunded. It appears that Amtrak agrees with the customer. Next question is how did things get so bad on that train?

    1. They didn’t get their money back. They received $400 worth of vouchers. The bedroom on Amtrak.com is listed as $823.

      Also, after such a bad experience, how likely is it that he will again travel by train?

  3. I’d LOVE to take Amtrak more often, but my experience with them has been “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”

    I’ve never used a sleeper car, but we’re considering it down the road. And, using my own above advice, I’m hoping that the OP’s story isn’t typical of these cars.

    But we avoided the California Zephyr for 10 years because an eastbound trip was late eight hours and Amtrak didn’t care.

    When we did finally take it again, we were actually a little early; atypical of the Zephyr’s service.

    And the usual: A voucher is NOT a refund. A voucher is nothing more than a piece of paper to hold you hostage again down the road. So thankfully they eventually got actual money back.

  4. There is a clear majority of yes votes here. At the very least, whether it’s a train car, a hotel room or a vacation rental; the guest is entitled to clean and smell free. You can’t see clean or odor in pictures, however, so the test is in the experience and this one failed the test.

    1. There may be unforeseen circumstances, but it sounds like they clearly couldn’t provide acceptable accommodations.

      This isn’t like the previous complaint sent to Chris about something that may or may not have been mold in the bathroom.

    1. I’ve taken the Auto Train three times in the last 5 years. My experience was fine. Once we were over an hour late, but I was prepared knowing Amtrak does not own the tracks. The other times we arrived over an hour ahead of schedule.

      I had a sleeper once and while I would not call it “luxurious”, it was certainly clean and the attendants were friendly and helpful. A different experience that was described here.

    2. I’ve ridden Auto Train many times and it is a class-act operation. It’s completely different from the rest of Amtrak’s network. The equipment is pretty much captive, meaning it only operates on Auto Train. I get a distinct feeling of ownership from the employees. They are proud of their train and product.

      Unfortunately, the OP originated in Chicago. I’d rank Chicago mechanical at the bottom of the pack. It seems they dispatch cars with fixable issues in hopes another terminal will take care of the problem.

      At Auto Train, if something is broken, mechanical fixes it. If they don’t the car just comes right back two days later!

  5. I’m glad the OP got a refund, but I’m wondering how this is different from a bad hotel room (other than the obvious – you can’t leave). Pictures on a hotel website are almost always better than the real thing. It’s well-known that the Amtrak cars are 25-30 years old, so that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Just reading the most recent reviews on the Zephyr and they’re overwhelmingly positive, however, most people extolled the scenery – maybe the cabin wasn’t as important to them as it was to the OP? Again, I think this is a situation where the consumer wouldn’t have gotten a refund without Chris’ intervention… so in that case, is it a legitimate refund or a refund to avoid more bad press?

    Never been a train enthusiast, but recently took a train through the New Zealand Alps and gotta say, I now kinda understand why people are still lovin’ Amtrak…

    http://dreamtravelblog.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/sweet-as/

    1. I think it all depends on the route. Many of the Amtrak commute lines actually have pretty new cars.  The Capitol Corridor line from Amtrak California (paid for by the California Dept of Transportation) has fairly new and shiny cars.

    2. Their description is beyond “bad”, and that would be true for a hotel room as well.  Would you stay in a hotel room that trapped you in the bathroom, had a soaking wet floor that required towels on it, or smelled so horrible you couldn’t stand to be in it?  I think not…especially when it was touted as “first class”.

      The basic requirements of any accommodation is clean and usable.  These compartments were neither.  The right thing happened here – they got a full refund.

    3. I think it comes down to the degree of issues with the accommodations. I agree with you that the fact that the room didn’t look as good as it did on the website isn’t worthy of a refund. However, the specific problems he mentioned: the broken bathroom door (which was “solved” by moving them to another room, which is reasonable enough), the soaking wet floor, and the stench in the 2nd room go beyond just expecting the room to be nicer than it was, IMHO.

    4. Well, I’ve lived in the Midwest along the route of the California Zephyr, and now I live in the western US along same said route.

      I’ve also taken the Overlander from Auckland to Wellington (is it still in existence?), and then from Picton to Kaikoura.

      Trust me, the scenery in New Zealand is A LOT better than the scenery you’ll get on the Zephyr outside of the the Rocky Mountains. 🙂

  6. Amtrak is lower than Greyhound for travel other than the reheated food car. Stay away and ask you polititians to aprove Billions to upgrade our trains. The trans Siberian express is better. Amtrak has always honored our request for refunds for our defiant clients that do not listen to our advise not to ride Antrak. Now straight seats if you can handle it, are far superior. Cross country? head north and take VIA and be pleasantly surprised.

  7. The Amtrak experience very definitely varies with the particular train.  The Coast Starlight, for example, is an excellent long-distance train (there are no outstanding Amtrak trains), and the Empire Builder has a good reputation (I haven’t taken it for over 10 years, so can’t speak from recent experience).  Certain trains I’ve taken in the east, though, almost qualify as a downgrade from the trains in India with 500 passengers on their rooves.

    I’m guessing the OP had a deluxe bedroom, since he seems to be talking about private toilet facilities.  Economy bedrooms don’t have their own; passengers use the half-dozen common toilets in the car.  If they were in a deluxe bedroom, then there truly is no reason for it to be in such bad shape (unless they got on at an intermediate stop where the previous occupant left, which doesn’t give the car attendant any time to clean up — but that’s a different problem).

    I’m not seeing any specific complaint about the bedroom except for the toilet, so I can’t support a full refund.  I would agree to refunding the difference between the rate for an economy bedroom and the rate for a deluxe bedroom, but without more specifics I won’t go beyond that.

  8. I’ve traveled 1st class on the Zephyr and other Amtrak trains, and I can tell you that until the trains are renovated, traveling on them is like traveling in the 1970s. Same decor, with 30+ years of visible wear and tear and dirt.  I’ve been lucky to have great service, though, which makes a difference..

  9. First – anyone know how I can enlarge the font on the comments part of this site so I do not need my glasses?  Thanks!

    I have had a small sleeper room from San Diego to San Jose and back, and found it basic, but clean and comfy.  And to sit in coach for that long would be so uncomfortable.

    Maybe they were upgraded recently on the Pacific Sufliner.

    I did not like the accomodations from LA to San Diego when I had to complete the last leg from the sleeper to coach – it was awful.

    Anyway, good for Mr. Elliott and Amtrak for the refund.

    1. Lower right hand side of my screen, above the icons in the bar, is a magnifying glass with a “+” in it, with the zoom level (in my case 100%) next to it.  If you have something like that on your computer, try using that to zoom the entire page up to a size that works for you.

    2. I could vary by browser, but usually holding down CTRL while pressing “+” will increase the font size of everything.  You can also reduce it with CTRL and “-“.

      It would be a little different with Mac OSX.  It’s almost the same except holding down a different key.

    3.  If you’re using a Windows computer (like 98% of all computer users out there) and your mouse has a scroll wheel on it, you can use a technique that has been around for the past 20 years…hold down the ctrl button and scroll the mouse wheel. Scroll forward for zoom-in, scroll back for zoom-out.

  10. I have been considering a cross-country rail trip and, even though I like my Acela trips, I will book on VIA Rail when the time comes.

  11. I just took an overnight Amtrak train from Raleigh to Tampa on 2/16, only because I procrastinated and airline tickets were way out of my budget (I did fly back).  I found the trip to be okay.  My seat looked clean and there was plenty of room.  The only drawbacks were a dirty bathroom by morning b/c the bathrooms in the next two cars were broken in the middle of the night and loud people getting on the train in the middle of the night.  Can’t you see the sleeping people?  The 15-hour ride turned into 16 hours but that was okay.  I liked having outlets to charge my dvd player and cell, and was prepared to use my tablet to access Netflix with my cell acting as hotspot since there’s no wifi that I could tell. 

  12. Amtrak’s trains and service across the country will continue to suffer from neglect and decay, as long as its leadership and top management continue to pay attention only to their Northeast Corridor and ignore everything west of Albany and Harrisburg.

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