If Amtrak stranded you in the middle of nowhere after a train derailment, you would expect a refund, correct?
That’s what Matthew Lopez also expected after a disastrous ending to his recent national park vacation. A terrible Amtrak accident left him stranded in a remote location in Montana with no way home — and no refund from the company.
This case is unusual because Amtrak cases are few and far between in our consumer advocacy practice. But with the new infrastructure bill pumping billions of dollars into the national rail carrier, Amtrak and its customer service reputation are finding their way into the headlamps of our readership. Problems like these — and their resolutions — have a way of informing future booking decisions. And this case has all the elements of a true vacation nightmare. It features not only a deadly train derailment, but also shuttered hotels, vanishing transportation options, and a tone-deaf customer service department.
Why did Amtrak leave these people stranded and also refuse their refund request? Let’s find out.
A tragic train accident derails a vacation
Lopez bought multiday rail passes to travel from his home in Albuquerque, N.M., to East Glacier Village in Montana. The station is a seasonal stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line and was scheduled to close at the start of October.
The Lopez family’s trip from Albuquerque to Glacier was an epic train adventure that took them through the midwest at one of the most scenic times of the year. Grain harvests were just wrapping up in Colorado and Kansas. Then they rode north through Minnesota and North Dakota, taking in the autumn scenery. In Glacier Park, they arrived just in time for the vibrant fall foliage to be on full display.
But they got some bad news as they headed back.
On September 25, the westbound Empire Builder, carrying 141 passengers and 17 crew members, derailed west of Joplin, Mont. Three people died and 50 others were injured, with seven hospitalized, according to Amtrak. The rail carrier added,
Eastbound Empire Builder train 8, which departed Seattle (SEA) on Sept. 25 and Empire Builder train 28 which departed Portland (PDX) on Sept. 25, are also cancelled between Shelby, MT (SBY) and Minot, ND (MOT).
That was the Lopez family’s train home.
“Amtrak left us effectively stranded in Montana.”
“We were contacted at approximately 7:30 p.m. on the 25th by an automated message informing us that our train was canceled,” says Lopez. “They offered no alternative.”
Lopez called Amtrak, which left him on hold for more than five hours before disconnecting him. Meanwhile, all around him, the resort town was busy closing down. Although September 25 was an unusually warm day for Montana, with a high of 77 degrees, the town suddenly felt colder to Lopez. People were scurrying out of town as if the next Ice Age was imminent.
“Our hotel, the town, and nearby roads were all being closed for winter,” he says. “There was no way for us to rent a car and no nearby airport for us to get plane tickets affordably.”
The situation looked hopeless.
“Amtrak left us effectively stranded in Montana,” he says.
Hitching a ride back to civilization
So how did the family get back to Albuquerque? Lopez happened to strike up a conversation with another hotel guest. He mentioned their transportation problems. The guest said he was headed for Portland, a 10-hour drive in the wrong direction, but would be happy to give them a lift. Lopez offered to pay for the guest’s gas. The family finally caught a plane from Portland back to New Mexico and made it home safely.
Needless to say, Lopez was steamed. Amtrak had stranded him after the derailment and he had to hitch a ride like a drifter to Oregon to fly back home. Surely, Amtrak would apologize and refund him when he returned.
Lopez contacted Amtrak customer support and asked for a refund. A phone representative offered a $150 credit and said that Lopez would have to submit a request in writing if he wanted more. A month later, Amtrak sweetened the offer — to $200.
A representative added,
Amtrak does not authorize monetary reimbursement of expenses incurred with other service providers, nor do we offer monetary compensation for inconvenience. Therefore, we must respectfully decline your request.
Although our response is not favorable, please be assured that Amtrak takes your comments and feedback seriously. We are continually evaluating customer satisfaction, and the information you have provided is used to help us in our efforts to improve our service.
But Lopez had paid $499 for a 10-segment, 30-day rail pass. Shouldn’t he get his money back for the entire pass, as opposed to a credit? After the derailment, and the way Amtrak left him and his family stranded in Montana on the edge of winter, it would seem like the least they could do.
The mechanics of refunding a multiday ticket are tricky
If Lopez had purchased a simple roundtrip fare, then Amtrak might have easily refunded it. But reversing the charges on all or part of a multiday ticket isn’t that easy. Should Amtrak simply refund the value of the canceled segment, or more? How do you calculate the value of the unused segments?
Questions like these could keep Amtrak’s accountants busy for days. But one thing is clear: Lopez deserved something for the trouble, certainly more than a $200 credit.
Actually, Amtrak didn’t have to offer him anything. Under the terms of his purchase, once he used the first segment of his rail pass, it was completely nonrefundable.
When Lopez called Amtrak, the phone representative was evidently restricted from offering more than the $150 credit for his rail pass segment. It’s not the fault of the customer service agents; these policies are set at a higher level. But unfortunately, they can’t consider the extenuating circumstances of having an Amtrak vacation to Montana go off the rails — figuratively and literally.
How to get a refund from Amtrak after being stranded in Glacier
As you’ve probably guessed, calling Amtrak for a special refund request like Lopez’s is often ineffective.
If you’re a regular reader of our site, then you’ve probably noticed the theme this week: Companies who have stranded their customers and don’t seem to care.
The family at the heart of that case also found phone calls to be completely ineffective. That’s why I recommend writing to a company when you’ve got a problem.
I saw from the paper trail that sending an email to Amtrak through its site worked a little better for Lopez. That message got the offer raised by $50 — but that still wasn’t enough.
Remember, he asked for a refund of his rail passes, but Amtrak denied that request, saying it wouldn’t compensate him for expenses. But that wasn’t exactly what he wanted. He just asked for a refund on his rail passes or a refund of his expenses. Not both.
How to get your request in front of real people who can help
- Put your request in writing and wait. If you want a refund from Amtrak, you have to climb the appeals ladder. You start with a polite written request, outlining your reasons for a refund.
- Appeal to a higher authority. I list the names, numbers, and email addresses of Amtrak’s executives on this site. Send those folks an appeal with the paper trail from your first request. This time, outline why you feel the customer service team missed something.
- Take it up with your credit card — or with me. In certain circumstances, you can dispute your credit card charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. Check out Michelle’s helpful story about filing credit card disputes during the pandemic.
Or you can ask me for help.
And that’s what Lopez decided to do. Lopez’s roommate had told him about the Elliott Advocacy team and he contacted us. After reviewing his correspondence, I reluctantly reached out to Amtrak. I say reluctantly because I forgot to look up my Amtrak friends when I passed through Chicago last summer. Sorry about that.
The Good news: A refund from Amtrak and a credit, too!
A short while later, I heard from Lopez. Amtrak agreed to fully refund his pass and let him keep the $200 credit.
“I’ve never been so thankful,” he says. “The cost of the pass will almost cover the cost I incurred in getting home. I am so grateful to Elliott Advocacy for helping me out. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
And I’m grateful to Amtrak for reviewing Lopez’s case and seeing the ripple effects of its derailment that were sometimes difficult to articulate. This case certainly resolved much more easily than our last Amtrak case:
Things seem to be looking up at Amtrak customer service, and that is good news for everyone! (Christopher Elliott, Elliott Advocacy)