Thursday, January 26, 2006

An Unholy Alliance

Perhaps no partnership more offends our travel sensibilities than Amtrak's alliance with Greyhound. I call it the "marriage made in hell." If you've ever booked a trip on Amtrak's website, you've probably noticed that for certain itineraries you have a choice between the train and a Greyhound bus--or, in sadder cases, you have no option but the bus, because Amtrak's trains bypass many small towns. It used to be that you could book both your "to" and "return" trips on a bus, but Amtrak now requires that at least one segment be booked on a train.

In any case, Greyhound buses pick up and drop off passengers at Amtrak stations. The problem is that station agents have no clue when the buses are coming, if they're running on time--or in certain cases, if they're coming at all. My hometown has both a bus and train station, and on certain routes the bus is supposed to leave the Greyhound station and then collect passengers from Amtrak. And on return trips, the bus is supposed to drop the Amtrak passengers off first. But on a recent trip, the driver decided that he didn't have time to stop at the Amtrak station and proceeded directly to the bus-station, leaving me stranded and the cab driver I had called to meet me quite pissed.

Two weeks ago, my friend John stepped off the bus at the Amtrak station, expecting to be able to fetch his bag from beneath the bus and hop in the car with me. But the driver informed him that there were too many bags on-board to ferret his out of the pile--and made John re-board and ride on to the Greyhound station (I, the dutiful friend, followed behind in my car and waited fifteen minutes for John to find his bag).

Back in December, I was forced onto a Greyhound bus to DC after Amtrak's Crescent train (see my last post, "The Crawling Crescent") was delayed more than 10 hours. We left twenty minutes late and then lost nearly an hour more after the driver got lost and missed one of our stops. Finally arriving in DC, the driver decided--despite what the itinerary dictated--to stop at the Greyhound station before going to Union Station. I then sat on the bus for twenty minutes, which time included a shouting match between a passenger and baggage handler over whether the baggage handler was an "idiot" for not allowing the passenger to fetch his own bag from below the bus. An unpleasant exchange, to say the least.

By the time we arrived at Union Station, we were almost two hours late, and I had to hail a cab (rather than ride the metro) to Reagan National Airport, adding fifteen dollars to my day's expenses. As it turned out, my Delta flight was delayed, culminating in one of the worst travel days ever (see "The Squeaky Wheel"). But back to my main point: although Greyhound serves an important function in the United States, and while I realize that for some people it's the only affordable mode of travel, other companies aiming for respectability (like Amtrak) should shy away from partnering with it. The company gives too much latitude to its drivers, who in turn serve their own and Greyhound's interests, not Amtrak's or any other business partner's. Amtrak's handling of the partnership is equally disgraceful. Agents at Union Station have no clue when buses depart or arrive, and they make no effort to help passengers, even those whose itineraries include segments on Amtrak trains. I've heard time and again, "We don't know what Greyhound's doing; that's up to you." Well then, don't partner with them--don't advertise their timetables in your brochures and don't book trips for them on your website! A plague on both your houses!


Blogger Evan said...

Well, remember my experience back in February of 2003, when I was visiting Johns Hopkins University of Public Health. I was excited to ride Amtrak for my first time, and showed up at Charlottesville Depot (the same depot you speak of in your post) with a ticket saying a I had coach seat on Train #xxx. Anyways, I went up to the station agent, and asked where to stand on the platform. Imagine my surprise when he told me to stand outside the front door to wait for a Greyhound bus. Unlike you, my experience on the bus was fine; I arrived at Union Station on time, and experienced my 30 minutes of luxury on the Acela Express while riding from DC to Baltimore. Still, I was a little disturbed at how the itinerary was handled by Amtrak.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

At least the website now admits that you'll be riding a bus. But you're right, Evan--several years ago they listed the buses as "trains," taking quite a few disappointed--and later disaffected--travelers by surprise.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Phlip said...

I had no idea this situation existed. Thanks to benallaroundtheworld for expsoing this crap.

4:07 PM  

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