A rail disappointment

They say there are no guarantees in life and I generally believe that’s true. And yet, recently when I booked tickets on Amtrak and the clerk assured me the short time between the bus arrival and train departure was of no concern, I never questioned it.

I love traveling by train. I love the rhythm and motion on the tracks, the wail of the horn, the sights out the window. I took my first train rides as a teen to Philly. When we left the eastern side of the country for Seattle, I crossed the country by train, spending my days reading and writing and generally pondering life. We celebrated our 10th anniversary with Eurorail Passes, and I’ve since ridden trains in the North Carolina mountains and through the Swiss Alps. But in all my years out here, I had not once boarded a train in the Pacific Northwest.

So last spring when a fellow Nancy Pearl book award winner invited me to La Conner for a fundraising luncheon to be attended by Nancy Pearl, I decided it was the opportune time to jump back on a train.

I bought the tickets in March. We would travel by bus from Albany to Portland, then by train to Mt. Vernon where my friend would pick us up for the final leg to La Conner. As I made the reservations, I noted I would have only 20 minutes to make the connection in Portland.

“Isn’t that a little tight?” I asked the reservation agent.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s a guaranteed connection.”

How cool is that, I thought. And so, I continued making hotel reservations and planning for what I thought would be a new adventure.

And it was that, all right.

The bus pulled into the Albany station at noon. We stowed our bags in the outside compartment and took two seats. ETA: 2:40 pm. Portland departure: 3 pm. We made a stop in Salem and then one in Woodburn and before long, I realized we were running late. But no worries here. We had a “guaranteed connection.”

At last, after what seemed a fairly leisurely drive, we pulled into Union Station. It was 3:03.

“The train will wait for us, right? I asked the driver.

“Oh yeah. I called ahead,” she said, absolutely in no rush to get us off the bus or retrieve our luggage.

We walked through the doors where an agent waited. “Which gate for Mt. Vernon?” I asked.

“You’ll have to go to the ticket window and rebook your trip,” he said. “The train left.”

“But we had a guaranteed connection,” I said. “How could it just leave?” (My suspicion is it was still out there, but clearly we weren’t getting on it.)

“Blame the state of Washington,” the agent said. “They said we have to run on time. The guaranteed connection was canceled last week.”

Essentially, we were stranded, the pickup 70 miles south in Albany, my engagement 240 miles north. The next train left at 7:40 pm for Seattle.

“So, how will we get to Mt. Vernon?” I asked.

He shrugged. “There might be a bus or taxi or something,” he said.

That’s when I knew I would not be taking part in the next day’s luncheon. I would not meet Nancy Pearl. I would not sign books as promoted for the past three months. We rebooked on the Saturday noon train back to Albany while I feverishly dialed hotels and La Conner contacts. We were not alone, of course. One man worked his phone trying to rebook airline connections, while a woman paced the sidewalk swearing bitterly. The Amtrak agents seemed as frustrated and powerless as we felt. A conductor we met in the lounge shared his dismay at having been forced to strand a busload he would normally have waited for. Everyone agreed it was Washington’s fault. But this week when I contacted WSDOT, they seemed to know nothing about the situation.

“It is an Amtrak policy about whether to hold a train or not to wait for a late bus and has nothing to do with “Washington” or WSDOT,” the department’s communications manager Janet Matkin replied in an email.

As for this pair of travelers, we’re out $220 for the hotel room I couldn’t cancel on time. Likewise, $216 for the two tickets Amtrak refused to refund because we’d used a portion of the ticket. They did, however, offer two $48 travel vouchers. No guarantees, of course, that they will actually get us where we hoped to go.

Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.

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