So over the past few days, I have been visiting family and friends in DC. I took the train down from Philly because it’s by far the easiest and most stress-free option, not to mention the cheapest. Between tolls, gas, parking and so on, it’s actually quite expensive and potentially time consuming to drive. So with $50 fares between Philly and DC on Amtrak, taking the train is quite easy. That is, it’s easy until it’s not.
Last night there was a very severe storm in DC that knocked out power for hundreds of thousands, downed hundreds of trees, spread various debris everywhere, etc. Even the Amazon Web Services data center in Virginia had a bunch of power problems which caused all sorts of outages all over the internet. Amtrak has been really affected as well. Basically all day, trains have been barely running in the DC to Philly corridor. The Amtrak employees claimed to me that a few have gotten through but I’m not sure that I believe it considering that every train on that list at Union Station was listed as delayed with no estimated time of departure. I also saw a bunch of people posting on facebook throughout the day about how their trains were delayed and not leaving.
So with that information in mind, I still went to Union Station for my 8:45pm train even though I didn’t think I had a good shot at getting out of DC tonight. As I expected, I arrived there and the train was listed as delayed. I asked at the information desk and was told that “the train might or might not leave and it might or might not get there, we just don’t know anything about which trains are going to get through”. So armed with that very definitive answer, I proceeded to sit on the floor in a madhouse of a train terminal for 80 minutes with a few more trips to the desk mixed in (no more info). The website did update to say that the train was leaving 1 hour late which gave me some hope. But after it had been 1 hour and 15 minutes, I went and asked and the guy said that website estimates were totally useless and not accurate (at least, not in these conditions). He also said that if the train did leave, it would likely take double the normal travel time and there was also a good chance that it wouldn’t make it all the way to Philly because of how late it was. I asked him about taking the train tomorrow and he said that there would likely be delays all day because of all the trouble today so I would have a much better shot of getting an actual working train if I train late afternoon or evening. That basically did it for me. My brother lives 10 minutes from Union Station in DC so it seemed so much easier/better to just wait the delays out at his place instead of spending who knows how many hours waiting for a train that might or might not make it (if it ever left) and possibly end up needing to spend the night in the Baltimore train station (or area hotel) or whatever. It was already after 10pm at night so, yea, I decided that switching my ticket was the only reasonable option outside of renting a car. I thought about that option briefly but after hearing from three different people about how the streets are chaotic with lights out and so on, I didn’t think it was a good idea. Plus I forgot my iPhone charging cable and my phone was on 15% battery so I didn’t want to risk not having navigation in a city that I don’t know well at all. So that ruled out renting a car.
So, anyway, I went to the Amtrak ticket counter and asked to change my ticket. This is where things got really interesting. The ticket agent was, to say the least, a total nutjob. I’ll do this conversation style:
Her: “what do you want?!?”
Me: “I would like to change my ticket”.
Her: “Gimme your ticket”
Me: [hands her ticket]
Her: “boy you on the next train outta here, why you want another train?”
Me: “I’ve been waiting for 80 minutes and they have no idea if or when the train will be here and it’s getting late, I just want to go tomorrow instead”
Her: “What time tomorrow?”
Me: “The guy at the other desk said sometime at night would be better, what do you have tomorrow evening?”
Her: “What time do you want to go?”
Me: “I don’t know the train schedule, sometime in the evening.”
Her: “You tell me which train”
Me: “Okay, 9PM”
Her: “We don’t have a 9PM train”
Me: “Right, what’s closest to that then?”
Her: “You tell me which train”
Me: “Seriously? You can’t tell me which trains have seats?”
Her: “7pm is sold out”
Me: “Okay, that rules out that. What’s before or after that?”
Her: [grunts and looks up a schedule, then rattles off like four times and says that afternoon trains are booked]
Me: “Okay I will take the one at 9:xx” (I forget the exact time)
Her: “That’s the Acela. It will be an extra $106. Wanna pay with a credit card?”
Me: “Wait I’m not paying extra when it’s Amtrak that’s delayed. Which train can I get on for the same rate?”
Her: “We don’t do that for nobody. You gotta pay the difference. Nobody ride the Acela for free.”
Me: “I’ve been put on other trains before for no charge in the difference. I don’t need to be on the Acela, just put me on a train tomorrow and I’m fine with it.”
Her: “We ain’t never done that for nobody ever. You gotta talk to a manager. Go to 14.”
[I walk away to go talk to the manager and she's still ranting on about how "that boy want to go on the Acela for free, ain't no one go on the Acela for free, ain't nobody ever, that boy crazy, etc"]
I waited in line for a manager for about a minute at which point the manager asked me what I was doing over there (he was helping the one person in front of me) and I said that I had been sent down there to get a ticket changed. He was like, tickets changes are over there and gestured me back over to the first lady. I explained that she was the one who sent me down there to him in the first place. So he yelled down to her something like “did you send someone down here for a ticket change??” and she yelled back “yea that boy want to ride the acela for free!” at which point I started to lose my cool and I talked over her yelling (I was a lot closer to the manager so he could hear me better) and strongly said “that is NOT even close to what I said, I said that I want to get a ticket change to any train tomorrow with no fare difference”. Of course she yelled that in front of like 15-20 people standing in line but frankly at that point I didn’t care at all. So he told me to go talk to the woman next to the original agent that I was talking to. The conversation consisted of “which train do you want” “something like 8 or 9 PM” “I can put you on the 8:45″ “sounds good” “[hands me new ticket]“.
With that, my wonderful 90 minute experience at Union Station ended for the evening. I look forward to an eventful train attempt tomorrow. I’m going to try to get on an earlier train but I think it’s going to be tough at best given all of the delays today.