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A Collection of Redacted Complaints Against Amtrak's Crappy Service

A reporter filed a FOIA request for complaints against Amtrak's café cars and received 317 pages of complaints, all of which were redacted with the aggressiveness usually reserved for CIA memos.
March 24, 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr Bruce Fingerhood

At a time when almost anything can (and will) be described as the worst, and when the public expression of a thin-skinned, petty grievance is just a few keystrokes away, travel stands out, notably, in its ability to sink below the fray into a hellacious category of its own. This is particularly true when it comes to traveling via Amtrak, the most charitable thing about which one can say is that at least it's not the bus.

The most common specific complaints about riding the train are things like the WiFi operating at Oregon Trail–like speeds, travel delays, and the passenger next to you with the open bag of Wendy's conducting a four-hour-long argument on her phone. And did I mention the WiFi? But there's a specific brand of Amtrak rider complaint that we now have a significant body of data on, thanks to the enterprising work of one journalist and one seriously dogged government employee with a worn-out black marker.

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Last summer, reporter Conor Skelding submitted a Freedom of Information Act request through the Boston-based Muckrock service, looking to find all of the complaints lodged by riders regarding Amtrak's lounge café cars over a two year period. It took nine months, but he finally got his response this month.

The results are some 317 pages of complaints, all of which were studiously, and pointlessly, edited with the type of redacting prowess usually reserved for the CIA. That bureaucratic waste is appropriate here, given the circumstances, since the text itself amounts to a Kafkaesque paper trail of frustration, hopelessness, and powerlessness in the face of America's once proud symbol of progress.

Reading through the documents, two complaints become a recurring motif throughout: The train was late. The train ran out of food.

"Nothing for granddaughter to eat," writes one beleaguered steward of famished innocence. "Cafe out of pizza and deli sandwich on previous trip not good."

Eventually, they become more specific: no coffee refills, rude attendants, spoiled food, illness, rude attendant serving me spoiled food made me ill. Here's one demonstrative example:

"No WiFi… passenger was very disappointed that he did not get a bagel on the train and it was advertised… and could have brought something with him… got an egg McMuffin and it cost more… also out of orange juice… Amtrak should not advertise all these amenities and then not have them… pax could have taken the bus instead of spending all this money for Amtrak…"

And another:

"Hello, I recently bought 4 Amtrak tickets from Poughkeepsie to Washington DC for my family.. .the food cart ran out of food so we couldn't even purchase snacks to assuage our crankiness."

After a few dozen, they start to coalesce into a form that transcends the mundane and takes on a bleak sort of existentialist poetry. It's nothing short of the unheard voice of the disenfranchised American consumer crying out in a post-industrial nightmare.

"It would have been so pointless to kill himself that, even if he had wanted to, the pointlessness would have made him unable."

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OK, so I borrowed that last one from Kafka, but you get the idea.

The riders, whose names have been redacted at any rate, begin to blend into one single, faceless soul called Pax, doomed to ride for eternity on a train to nowhere, wasting away to nothingness, as the promise of microwaved sandwiches is constantly, eternally withheld just out of reach, and whose cries are met with a shrug by an indifferent authority, incapable, or perhaps merely unwilling to afford them deliverance. A thousand baristas typing away in a thousand MFA workshops couldn't conspire to weave together a more potent document of modern malaise.

If it all sounds too grim to countenance, take heart, Amtrak riders, for help is on the way. Earlier this month the House came together to push through the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act. The bill will keep spending on Amtrak at around $1.4 billion a year, which, while a lot less than some had hoped for, at least will keep the lights on for now, although probably not the WiFi. Even better still, a provision of the bill will make it permissible for the first time for passengers to "transport a domesticated cat or dog in the same manner as carry-on baggage." If nothing else, with a sudden influx of animals on board, at least we can be assured that if things really get grim, we won't have to starve to death when the sandwiches run out.

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