I went to present at a conference in Massachusetts last month and took train there via Amtrak. While I like traveling, I often experience communication and information access issues on trains like I do during air travels. Many deaf and hard of hearing travelers share same frustrations.
Amtrak website allowed me to book tickets online which was a breeze. However, they gave me an option for alert notifications only either via text or via email. Why not both? I prefer text alerts, but what if my phone is not working and I check someone else’s phone?
I was taking train from Penn Station in NYC. It didn’t have notification via texting on screens like they have in Washington D.C. or Baltimore, so I had to have an Amtrak representative let me know which gate is open (it’s announced aurally first before showing up on a display). As I got on train, I had to tell a conductor to let me know about 20 mins before train arrives to my destination. All Amtrak cars have LED displays on both ends which could easily show captions of aural announcements and it dumbfounds me why this cannot be done. All Amtrak station platforms should also caption all aural announcements on electronic screen displays.
My trip to Massachusetts was fine. I enjoyed the conference very much. However, the day before my scheduled trip back home – about an hour before my presentation! – I got an email from Amtrak. It is where the worst nightmare began.
The email only mentioned “alternative” transportation – without ANY more details – yet asked me to contact them via phone (which I hate). Why cannot they just list all detailed information in that email?? It was not even possible to respond back as the message was from email@example.com.
So I had to tweet Amtrak telling them I cannot use phone (I prefer to communicate directly via email or texting than relay service). They suggested that I contact via TTY (text telephone – the outdated technology that most deaf people no longer use). They won’t use emailing or texting with me. A supervisor from Amtrak direct mailed to me privately on Twitter asking how she could help and I asked her questions about trip changes and she didn’t respond.
After the conference was over, I checked Amtrak website on my laptop hoping to find some online chat feature. It offers a virtual assistant whom I tried to ask a question about plan changes that she couldn’t answer. After reading repeatedly that she couldn’t understand my questions, I asked her if she was a real person, she admitted that she was a machine.
So I had to make a phone relay call via relay service (my least preferred way to communicate that I use as the last resort when there’s no other way to reach out to someone). After waiting for about 10 minutes, an Amtrak representative responded and hang up on me before I had a chance to ask them a question (one of reasons why I hate relay calls). I made the call again and waited about 15-20 minutes and finally had another representative who was giving me details about the trip changes. My sister also made a call for me in case I had problems with calling Amtrak via relay service.
I find it surprising that in 2016 Amtrak still offers limited options to communicate with them and expects everyone to use voice phone calls – that are now being the thing of the past.
For the return trip, I was planning to make just one transfer, but due to plan changes, I had to make 3 transfers to get home: Amtrak – bus – Amtrak – Metro North. It’s always stressful when I don’t get enough details about last minute trip changes and Amtrak doesn’t offer aural announcements via captions during the whole trip. So, I’m very grateful to conductors who were very accommodating and made sure to let me know about when and where to make a transfer and also let know next conductors about my deafness.
I was wondering if Amtrak knew long before about plan changes for that weekend, why they didn’t contact me earlier than the day before my scheduled departure? And why they would email me only to say about alternative transportation and forced me to make a phone call to them to find out more details? I find this communication system very ridiculous and frustrating.
There are also many more problems for Amtrak to fix – the issues above are just a few of many problems with Amtrak.
I filed a complaint to Amtrak asking for a full ticket refund plus duplicated points for my Amtrak Rewards and also offering my consulting and training service to train their team to improve accessibility and user experience in all areas of their rail transportation. One of their supervisors responded to me telling me they would get back to me, but sadly it has been taking a while for Amtrak to actually meet those really simple requests – especially to issue a full ticket refund for all this inconvenience they have caused to me in terms of communication access barriers. The issues have not been resolved so far. I feel very disappointed with Amtrak and their accessibility and customer services.
If you are a mass transit agency and want to learn more about how to make travel accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing passengers, contact us for consulting and training. Looking forward to working with you.