Review: Amtrak Emergency Bus Service

I’ve already given up on Amtrak, but I still have one more important task. During my misadventure on Sunday, a couple readers asked me to review the bus service. They’ve read reviews of business class. They’ve read reviews of coach class. They’ve even read reviews of those who dare to book sleeper cars on long-distance journeys.

No one has ever dared to review Amtrak’s bus service, but here at Hack My Trip, I make it my mission to go where no man has gone before. :P

Boarding commenced as soon as our train from Portland, the one we were told would turn around and take us back, left the station without accepting new passengers. A harried station agent ran into the waiting area (a cold, drafty room blocked off from construction by a six-foot plywood barrier). “You’re all going on buses!” she yelled. “Right now. Portland, Tacoma, and Vancouver on the white bus.”

About 150 passengers got up at once and made a dash for the different buses, luggage in tow. Surprisingly, it was more organized than boarding a plane. This is what happens when you break people’s spirit. There is no train. Only the bus. Dampen their spirits enough, and no one could hope for anything except the hope that some day they might finally arrive at their destination. No one asked if business class passengers would get the adjacent seat blocked off — not even me.

I’m guessing sunken ships and engine fires might be part of a similar intentional strategy Carnival uses to keep its passengers coming back.

Luggage was stowed on the bus without tags, not even those little green ones you get from United. Only a cursory check was done to see if passengers had actual tickets. Soon we were onboard. I will give Amtrak credit: there was only one middle seat, in the back (but it was better than being the poor soul next to the lavatory).

My own seat was actually quite comfortable. There was no armrest to fight over, but I had the aisle, which gave me some freedom to stretch my legs. My seat mate was kind enough to bang his head against the window for much of the trip, keeping him over there rather than invading my personal space.

Amtrak 1

Leg room was equivalent to a standard economy class seat. No complaints.

Then we waited. Two conductors were riding with us, one of whom said we were waiting for “snicky snacks” to tide us over on the long journey. After about 10 minutes, a big cardboard box appeared and was placed in the aisle, blocking our exit should there be an engine fire or some other catastrophe. Just three sesame seed crackers, a little container of spreadable cheese, and two cookies. Actually quite good.

“No water,” we were told, for the four hour drive to Portland, but thankfully my hotel provided several bottles of gin and tonic water just in case I should find myself in a similar situation on the return journey. Proper hydration is important even when you travel at sea level.

Oh, and there was a strange package of “snacks du jour.” They certainly weren’t packaged that day, but it looked like banana chips and dried pineapple, even though pineapple wasn’t listed on the ingredients. I remember when I did a summer internship working with apes, we would give them dried fruit as a reward for good behavior. They didn’t like banana chips, either. :(

I soon discovered there was no WiFi on this bus. My iPhone lasted just long enough to reach the hotel at the end of my journey, angrily flashing “low battery” warnings on the final leg. There were, however, overhead televisions, of the old CRT style and about the size of an economy class seat-back IFE. These were never turned on. Perhaps they were malfunctioning. Or maybe the only DVD available was Alex Cross, and they didn’t want to risk a diversion.

Amtrak 2

What’s appropriate compensation for a malfunctioning bus entertainment system?

As we turned onto the freeway, I overheard the driver ask the second conductor where we were going. Oh, we were on an adventure! I remember these from growing up with my mother. I learned to read maps as a six-year-old in part because she would pick roads at random as we wandered through the Sierras. I was deathly afraid she would get us lost, and my trusty Thomas Guide would be our salvation.

Apparently no one on this bus had an iPhone, and I kept quiet just to see where this would lead us. The conductor replied he only knew how to reach the station by train.

Duh.

So upon reaching Tacoma, we followed the freeway exit for “Amtrak,” made an illegal left turn, and then did a couple of U-turns as we followed the train tracks looking for the train station. Eventually, we arrived in one piece.

Anyone heading to Tacoma? No. Anyone who wanted to board going to Portland? Yes, several people huddled out in the rain, but the bus was already full. Well, maybe three seats were left, including that one by the lavatory, but I don’t see why we couldn’t fill the bus when we left Seattle and skip Tacoma altogether.

The next two-and-a-half hours passed uneventfully before arriving at Vancouver, WA. In this case, it wasn’t really the driver’s fault. That train station, cute though it is, happens to be hidden in the middle of a large industrial complex. I mean, I understand train stations are usually on the edge of town, but it really was the most bizzarre thing ever.

After nearly clipping a car (in the car’s defense, the parking lot didn’t appear to be marked), we pulled over, let off about a third of the passengers, and made our way on to Portland.

Adventure though it was, we still arrived, amazingly, exactly one hour late from the original scheduled arrival of the train that never was. This was the exact time I had been told by the station manager in Seattle. So their clocks do work. She also told me we would be traveling by train, not bus, but I guess 50% correct is good enough.

Portland Station

I really, really wish I had.

You, too, can ride for free with Amtrak! Get the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard today, and you could earn 12,000 bonus points after spending $500 in the first three months. That’s enough for six one-way business class tickets on the Amtrak Cascades line!

In the interest of full disclosure, business class may or may not include a seat by the lavatory in the back of a bus. Complimentary cheese spread cannot be guaranteed on all itineraries and is not a defined cardholder benefit.

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • http://www.first2board.com/foodwineandmiles Food Wine and Miles

    This is awesome. Best trip report of the year!

    • hulagrrl210

      agreed!

  • GreenHawkIA

    This is like reviewing the lousy Ramada (or is it a Red Roof Inn) in near Detroit that Delta puts you up in when they have irrops.

  • Carl

    As much as you want to complain about riding the bus, let’s compare it to an airplane situation. If a mudslide happened, I’d say the cause was WX – weather. Your flight is cancelled. Several flights are cancelled, in fact, until the weather passes. All the flights the next day are full. There is no alternate transportation provided. No hotel or food, since it’s WX.

    • Scottrick

      This particular post is just supposed to be for fun; tongue-in-cheek was specifically requested.

      But I’ll play along. If I were in an airport, there would be a departure monitor with some indication of what was happening. The airline would have experience handling delays and have plans in place, even if they aren’t plans I necessarily like (e.g., no comped hotels). If the weather affected only the inbound plane and another plane was arriving from somewhere else, as in this case, then maybe it would be rerouted to carry the affected passengers.

  • Dad

    Now I understand why you love travel so much.

  • Claire

    No photos of the lav?

  • cedarglen

    I’ve taken more than a few Amtrak trips on the West coast (PDX-LAX) to know that I’m DONE with them. First Class travel – a compartment at great extra expense, ,is a joke. The largest compartments, designed for two or three, are tight for even a solo rider. The single/double compartments are a truly sad joke – and expensive. First Class tickets include meals on the Coast Starlight. After one trip to the dining car, you’ll wish that you had brought your own, shelf-stable food. That it sucks is not fair. It it worse than the worst of long-haul coach airplane food. Even though they have a complete kitchen below, they don’t use it. Everything is bulk heated, slopped onto plastic plates and tossed onto the table. Seating? Every dining car has booth tables for four and you WILL eat at a full table. Having meal in your compartment is advertised as “Gladly available,” but I’ve always been refused – with variety of excuses. When one boards, the car attendant is all over you, sucking up for a hefty tip. Even when the extortion is paid, that’s the last you will see of them until bunk time – and you go to bed on their schedule – or do it yourself. Even in the First Class compartments, beverages are limited to coffee and a boxed juice or two. And ONE urn of coffee WILL last 24 hour hours, regardless of taste. Want a carbonated beverage, even in First Class – please visit the snack car, four cars back, lower level, limited hours and pony up about $1.50. Oh yes, an evening movie in lower lounge car. “I’m sorry sir, we’re having some trouble with the video equipment.” Upon further investigation it was learned that the ‘trouble’ has closed that section of the lounge/parlor car for More Than a YEAR!

    Amtrak – long haul= Hell No! Walking to LAX would probably provide better service! Never again.

  • JulianPscheid

    Nicely done! Hope the meet up was fun. I hope to make the next one.

  • Jason

    All those wrong turns on the bus just earned you more miles, right?