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When Amtrak called, I answered and got a travel voucher after a botched Acela trip

libadmin October 9, 2019

When I returned the call, which I did more out of curiosity than anything else, I was amazed to hear that Amtrak was so sorry that the Acela train that I was taking from New Jersey to Washington had broken down in Wilmington, Del., that I was being given a travel voucher for the whole cost of the trip.

I couldn’t believe it. I’ve had numerous airline delays over the years and have never been offered an apology, let alone a voucher equal to what I paid for my fouled-up flight. I’ve also suffered through any number of Amtrak delays over the years in the Boston-Washington corridor and have never gotten even an apology, let alone compensation.

Yet here was Amtrak, which over the past two years has gotten new executive management that preaches the virtues of customer service, giving me a $227 one-year travel voucher because I arrived at Union Station about 90 minutes behind schedule.

I got the voucher because of a new policy Amtrak introduced over the summer, part of what it calls “developing a culture of taking care of the customer.”

I don’t know — because Amtrak didn’t have the numbers at hand — how many people have received compensation under the new system, compared with how many (if any) would have under the old system. But what I do know is that the voucher sure made me a happy camper.

Then it occurred to me that at a time of seemingly endless contention and strife in our country, it might be nice to depart from my customary curmudgeonly form and write a column that had a good chance to end up being positive.

So I approached Amtrak as a journalist and asked to speak with someone who could tell me why Amtrak was treating the passengers on my train like human beings rather than like suckers who had bought expensive tickets.

I ended up talking with Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing officer, who told me that Amtrak was offering full-fare travel vouchers to the 200 or so passengers who had been en route to Baltimore or Washington when our train died in Delaware.

Harris told me that Amtrak compensates travelers on all of its trains for delays on a case-by-case basis when the problem was caused by a defective train, as opposed to a problem caused by weather or factors outside Amtrak’s control.

“Since Acela is our best product, we skew to a higher level of compensation” when Acelas have problems, Harris told me. “When we take good care of our customers, they come back and give us money.”

One of the reasons I was so surprised to hear from Amtrak was that I got the call a week after my messed-up trip. By then, I had pretty much forgotten about my Acela problem. It took that long for Amtrak to call me, it seems, because the company says it doesn’t have enough people to be able to make those calls more quickly.

The company says it’s working on what it calls “a more consistent and automated process for offering reimbursement for significant delays.”

One interesting thing that I learned is that as of early this week, only 48 percent of the eligible passengers had gotten their vouchers because Amtrak hasn’t been able to reach the other 52 percent. The 48 percent rate is “not atypical,” Harris said. “It’s an example of why you should give us your cell number.”

Indeed. If Amtrak hadn’t had my cell number, and if I hadn’t returned the call, I wouldn’t have gotten anything. But because Amtrak cared about making customers happy — and because I’d given Amtrak my cell number so I could be notified of train delays — I got my voucher. Which I plan to use the next time my wife and I come to Washington to visit our family there.

Who’da thunk it? You’ve got a congenital skeptic like me writing something positive about customer service that he received from an arm of the federal government.

Maybe hell really has frozen over.


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