Archive for the ‘Rail Travel’ Category

Service of Keep it Down: Use Your Indoor Voice Please

Thursday, June 27th, 2024

There are 58 posts in the travel category of this blog. I may have covered this aspect previously but not recently.

I’m no stranger to traveling on Metro-North. For some 25 years I took the train upstate every Friday and for 15 back to the city as well. There were bad trips such as the one I described in 2015 in “Service of No News is Not Good News.” It starts, “In the time it took us to get home on the 7:06 [pm] from upstate NY Sunday night, [normally 2 hours], we could have been in London.” You get the gist.

I love traveling on trains, both here and in Europe however, I suffered one of the worst rides last Sunday evening.

The woman behind me did not take a breath. She screamed into her phone for 1.7 hours. Her voice was raspy and irritating. She mostly spoke in an indecipherable foreign language sprinkled with English and on occasion, a shriek of laughter. I wondered if the person on the other end had left the room because the woman literally didn’t stop talking the whole time.

And I didn’t have my earbuds with me.

Something told me to tolerate the intrusion as awful as it was. I couldn’t see her: was she fierce? Unhinged? You ask, “why didn’t you move?” The train was full.

The conductor might have suggested she take it down a notch had he noticed, but either he didn’t or he wouldn’t. Mary was an old school conductor on the 5:19 upstate out of Grand Central on Friday nights for years. She counseled “her passengers” not to reprimand another passenger. That was her job, she said. I heard her tell a commuter babbling incessantly into her phone to lower her voice. The next time she walked by, when nothing had changed, she asked her to hang up. Mary retired years ago.

What would you have done in my spot? Have other passengers ruined a trip for you?

Service of Busybodies

Monday, June 13th, 2022


Image by Prawny from Pixabay

An incident at the Metropolitan Museum of Art made me think of busybodies I have seen on TV such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, Norton and for that matter Ralph Kramden on the “Honeymooners,” Kramer on “Seinfeld” and Marie the mother/mother-in-law/neighbor on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” For those watching the Australian soap “A Place to Call Home,” there’s the well-meaning Doris Collins.

Some are endearing, others annoying. The one at the Met was the latter. As we entered an exhibition one of my friends remarked on how dark it was and I suggested that it might be to protect the pictures. A woman piped up loudly, “You’re wrong! It’s to create a certain ambiance. It has nothing to do with the paintings.” I’d not have remembered the incident had her words not been accompanied by an irritating tone, part edge/part know-it-all arrogance that I dislike. Even if she was correct, I didn’t appreciate her interference.

I asked a guard about this. He said he thought darkened spaces were to preserve the work. Some, he said, happy to chat, are exhibited for only short periods. He referenced the iconic “Great Wave” by Hokusai Katsushika. I looked into it at home and found in the museum’s online archive a 2014 reference to the summer exhibition of Katsushika’s work, the last paragraph of which was: “To prevent fading, we will rotate different impressions of ‘the Great Wave’ from the Met’s collection throughout the summer.” The works are on paper.

And then there are the nosy parkers who beat their breasts over something they see and do nothing. An acquaintance overheard a conversation in a store in which two women were carrying on with the shopkeeper about youngsters about 3 and 4 left alone in a car down the road–windows open, temperature 75. They assumed that the adult[s] were inside a store buying food. But all they did was blabber and point fingers. So what good?

I’ve previously reported on the nosy passenger who told a Metro North conductor that I was cheating the RR out of a fare. In fact the conductor on the first of two trains to get to my destination had mistakenly clicked two squares, including the one for the second part of the ride. He’d circled, dated and initialed his error on my 10 trip ticket. The conductor said to the busybody, “I believe her,” and moved on. The busybody glared at me. His companion shrank in his seat.

Have you come across busybodies? Are any your favorites in literature or film?

Service of Peeking Out of the Pandemic

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Image by bridgesward from Pixabay

Last week represented a few firsts for me since early 2020: I took a short ride on Metro North to have lunch with my sister and a few days later I went to a bustling landmark Manhattan restaurant filled to the gills.

As I exited the train in a Northern NY suburb the air was clean–different from the cocoon  Manhattan had become. There were no homeless people sharing the sidewalk by the railroad. In fact, there were few people around as most in this commuter town were probably at work either at home or in the city.

Image by analogicus from Pixabay

A few days later staff took guests’ temperature at the Manhattan brasserie. The room temp was warm and merry. Exhilaration of wait staff and guests practically levitated indoor and outdoor tables. I felt the same wonder I’ve felt as a tourist in a wonderful foreign city, but I was in my hometown.

Alan Burdick wrote that while exciting it felt “slightly nerve-wracking” as “social life has begun to bend toward a semblance of normalcy: dinner parties, restaurants, spontaneous encounters with strangers, friends and colleagues on the street or in the office.” I didn’t find it “nerve-wracking.” Joyous and grateful was a closer description.

And I didn’t experience “a period of heightened anxiety as we meet people face-to-face,” as Adam Mastroianni predicted people would in a phone conversation with Burdick reported in the latter’s New York Times article “So You Want to End the Conversation?” Mastroianni is at Harvard working towards a Ph.D. in psychology. For one thing, we each knew the others had been vaccinated so there was no worry there. And we were so glad to see one another.

I admit I’m not in a rush to attend a gathering with many people and I did have concerns about the safety of public transportation I needed to reach my destinations.

Were you apprehensive about first in-person gatherings or experiences after an overlong intermission?

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Service of Loosey-Goosey with the Time: Tut-Tut Amtrak!

Monday, August 5th, 2019

I am spoiled by Grand Central Terminal and passionately dislike the way Penn Station in NYC operates because it treats its passengers like cattle. You can’t stroll to your seat at leisure as early as 15 to 20 minutes ahead of departure as at GCT. Instead you’re lined up like convicts and treated little better than cattle. More about my recent on-boarding experience below.

Because I’d not been to Penn Station in a dog’s age, I visited to buy my ticket the Monday before a Thursday trip upstate. I had no idea what the lines were like on a weekday in summer and with an 8:15 a.m. departure, didn’t want to get there early yet still miss my train.

I asked for a one-way trip to Whitehall, NY. My hostess told me the time and I’d confirmed it online.

“That train leaves at 7:15,” said the ticket clerk. In fact, it did. [My hostess was surprised because she’d called Amtrak the day of my arrival and the voice message matched the online information, confirming an 8:15 a.m. departure.] I wonder how many people missed the train that travels only once a day.

For no reason I could fathom we subsequently had a 45 minute layover in Albany.

I asked for a schedule—to learn the destination station and also the stop just before mine. “There are none,” said the clerk.

On my second arrival at Penn Station at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday I found two lines of passengers and asked the person ahead of me, “Does this train go to Canada?” Answer: “Yes.”

Turns out there were two trains going to Canada: one to Montreal and the other, Toronto. I had no idea where my train was headed—remember: there were no schedules to reference and my ticket [photo above right] identified only my destination.

Meanwhile an Amtrak employee was shrieking at the passengers, treating us as though we were imbeciles if we were in the wrong line. The secret was in the number that was printed on the ticket. There it was on mine, along with many other lines of numbers, without any ID as to what that number referred to.

At Grand Central there are stairs to negotiate to reach a few tracks otherwise there are mostly ramps and an optional elevator or escalator broken up so each ride is short. For Amtrak, to reach the platforms, there are steep, narrow escalators that aren’t convenient if you’re juggling a suitcase, handbag, tote with reading material and cup of coffee. [I won’t buy a cup of coffee before boarding again if my hands are full!]

Fortunately I thought to pull out my ticket to show the angry, screaming Amtrak employee before I reached the front of the line that headed for the escalator, where she stood. With all her caterwauling, never once did she ask the passengers to have their tickets in hand. She was a terrible representative for any business.

This intro to the trip was a shame as the train itself was comfortable, clean and accommodating. Unlike Metro North’s commuter trains out of Grand Central, this one had upholstered seats, tray tables, a waste container, several WCs and water as well as a snack car.

Have you been surprised–good or bad–by a travel experience lately? When confronted by a grouch who screams at you and the other passengers, do you respond in kind?

Service of Assumptions That Get You Into Trouble

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

The old saying “to assume makes an ass of you and me” can cause far worse repercussions than a spot of embarrassment–it can be dangerous. It’s best to assume nothing.

Tuesday morning an elevator operator survived a four story fall down an elevator shaft in Manhattan’s SOHO neighborhood.  According to ABC 7 New York “the 49 year old man was on the third floor of the building when he stepped into the open shaft, but there was no elevator there.” He landed in the basement. Amazingly his injuries were not life-threatening. He must have assumed that as it was every other day, the elevator was in place when the doors opened that morning.

As I write this I haven’t read or heard what the motivation or thoughts of the driver of the vehicle in the horrendous accident on Tuesday might have been. He [or she] swerved past the closed railroad gate while bells announcing the oncoming eastbound train clanged at a Long Island Railroad crossing. My conjecture: the driver assumed he could make it and thought the risk was a better option than the wait. The westbound train also hit the car and the three in it died. The impact was so fierce that first responders couldn’t identify the make of the car.

New Yorkers and other city dwellers walk into elevators countless times a day. Do we pay attention before stepping in to confirm that it—and not an empty hole—is on the other side of the open doors? Do people take outrageous chances, like the driver in the terrible LI Railroad crossing accident, assuming that they are fast, clever, agile or smart enough to survive a potentially deadly choice?

Service of Upgrades that Are and Aren’t

Monday, October 29th, 2018

Shiny Apple

Some upgrades are amazing. Apple gave my iPhone 6 a new lease on life with a recent upgrade that allows it to act pretty much like one of its pricey new phones. I read that this was the latest marketing strategy for the company that formerly encouraged customers to upgrade frequently.

Even so, hearing the word “upgrade” these days sends shivers my way and, in my experience, for good reason.

No Service Self Service

Have you tried the new USPS self service mailing machines? They don’t work. I don’t mean they are complicated—they literally don’t function and the old ones worked like a charm.

I tried to use several at the Grand Central post office on different days and at a satellite office with no employees. The former wouldn’t respond to light or heavy finger touches by me and countless others who ended up behind me on line for a clerk; the scale didn’t work in the latter which was problematic because I had a package to mail.

Exploding Devices

Last week almost 3,000 new body cam devices were pulled from use by the NYC police department. Why? One exploded.

Out of Order Train App & Info Man

The Metro-North app. “TrainTime” has issues. I couldn’t link from the TrainTime app to the specifics about substitute busses for trains I usually take so I stopped in at Grand Central Station’s customer service desk. The link was dead last Friday. The attendant explained that Metro-North needs to upgrade the app. He also misinformed me about the bus situation. Fortunately, another staffer set him—and me—straight. His excuse: “I just got to the desk.”

Not My Car

General Motors emailed to tell me that my 2016 Chevrolet has a soft tire and to bring the car in for service. I knew this had to do with the 2016 we turned in for a 2018 earlier this year because that car always had tire issues. So I informed the dealership, from which we’ve bought and leased cars for 20 years, that GM needs to update its records. When we first dealt with the dealership our salesman took care of everything and there was never a hiccup. Since then it has upgraded with specialists in various areas of the business. This is the second such glitch we’ve encountered since we leased the 2018 model so the specialists aren’t clicking our info in all the right places.

Does the word “upgrade” excite you or make you anxious? Was it always thus? Have you encountered either super or dismal results from a recent upgrade?

Service of Why

Monday, June 27th, 2016

I ask questions in every post and the question word also appears in a few titles. Today I share some unrelated observations and ask WHY:

  • Do you think a mother pushing a stroller gave her young child a tablet to stare at when there was plenty to look at on the street between the traffic, other pedestrians, store windows and dogs passing by?  The child was so little—around one–and the screen so large that he could hardly hold the device that was crammed in between his legs and the stroler. We weren’t near each other for very long but while we were, not a word passed between them.
  • Do I go to the right in some elevators and to the left in others to reach the floor control buttons and inevitably, my instinct sends me the wrong way? Why aren’t these buttons installed universally either left or right?
  • Do telemarketers hire people who mumble? I asked one last week—an American—to repeat what he’d said. The phone volume was fine, I clearly heard the end of his intro—“and how are you today?”—yet totally missed who he represented or the reason for his call. He slurred his words while repeating, at 200 mph, what he’d uttered countless times before. When I couldn’t decipher or isolate a single word on the second go-‘round, I hung up.
  • Do companies require their live operators/receptionists to answer the phone with a ridiculously long greeting—and not because the name of the firm is of the “Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith” variety–thus wasting everyone’s time?
  • Do some general call-in numbers never work? Take 511. I access it to confirm train schedules and to learn if the railroad is running from upstate NY to NYC, and not a substitute bus. [If a bus, passengers must arrive at the station 40 minutes before scheduled departure time. Miss the bus and you wait two hours for the next one. And the website isn’t always accurate.] From upstate, the electronic voice on the phone announces I’ve reached information for the Hudson/Catskill region. So far, so good. After that, whether I respond to prompts with my voice or by punching numbers on the phone, I end up with Long Island bus or NYC subway schedules and for the life of me, I can’t reach an operator or information about the Harlem Line I take.

Do you have answers to any of these or questions you’d like to pose?

Service of No News is Not Good News

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

In the time it took us to get home on the 7:06 from upstate NY Sunday night [normally 2 hours], we could have been in London. I don’t blame Metro-North for the downed tree on the tracks. It is culpable of having no emergency plan, exhibiting inertia in extremis, and providing neither communications/information nor safety for its passengers. Goodness knows what they would do if they had to deal with injuries.

We were whisked off two trains with no explanation other than that only one track was in service. The first train we were on was jammed. Most passengers had suitcases, dogs, cats, bicycles, and packages or some combination.

After the first passenger dumping, when a second train arrived, a trainload of disconcerted people piled in the closest doors. We ran on the platform with our suitcases toward the back where the cars were emptier and we could sit. With many still on the platform—us included–the nasal beeping noise warning that the doors are about to close rang out at its standard time. But the numbers of passengers to embark was many times the usual. The warning was the only sound. Where was a conductor to say: “Please move along quickly but don’t worry, we’ll wait for you all to get in.” Nowhere.

Settled in the second train we were soon shocked when a conductor announced that we must all exit the train at Pleasantville and take a bus to North White Plains. Still nobody said why.

There must have been 1,000 people pouring out of the station on to the street. Eventually we saw three traditional yellow school busses. The scene reminded me of exiting the train station in Venice to access water transportation. In Italy it was also crowded and unnerving but we didn’t wait long and soon we, and our suitcases, were on board a vaporetto.

We confronted a very different situation in Pleasantville. Like Cinderella’s sisters—remember they tried to squeeze their huge feet into the diminutive slipper–hundreds surrounded each bus with hopes that they’d be one of the 45 adults to make it inside. It was survival of the fittest, strongest, pushiest and youngest. Friends who exited the station from a different place reported a woman pulled a man off a bus by yanking at his leg. One said, “I can still see a woman pushing her bicycle onto the bus. She was the first on and there was no room for the bike.”

Between our luggage and the ridiculous, frantic crowds we weren’t going near the mobs to try to get on.

I approached a man with a florescent orange vest with RR logo [like the vest in the photo from wn.com, at right–not this person] who was texting in the shadows behind the crowd. I asked what the backup plan was as clearly we weren’t fitting on a bus. He said there were four busses [we’d seen only three] and that it takes 25 minutes to drive to North White Plains. Half an hour later a fourth school bus arrived causing another riot scene. That one left with every inch of space filled with people—even in the aisles–which looked dangerous. The other drivers took the maximum permitted and didn’t leave the station until the aisles were empty. The crowd had become more frustrated by this time and this driver didn’t fight it.

We spoke with the only police officer we saw. He knew—and did—nothing but said: “I’m here to make sure you don’t kill one another,” and then he walked away. He wasn’t near the mobs.

 In all this time not a chirp from Metro-North. We wanted to know if a crew was working to remove the tree, if someone was scouting up grownup busses with room in the belly for suitcases—anything official. Passengers continued to spill out of trains from up north to face scant transportation with us.

After an hour+ our friend John stormed into the station and down the stairs to the platform followed by Bob and us. He said it was clear that the only way we’d get back to the city was by train. Guess what we found: A train with people pouring out of it because it was changing direction and was now heading to Grand Central. There had been no announcement to alert the passengers upstairs.

I’ve enjoyed and depended on the railroad in many countries as well as here. I am fond of many of the conductors who take our tickets on the Harlem Line. Yet I feel ashamed that a major source of transportation in the NY metro area is as backward and unprepared as this line was on Sunday.

Why:

  • Would the RR accept more passengers from other stations when it couldn’t deal with those already waiting for busses in Pleasantville?
  • No megaphone or intercom updates from headquarters or the employee on location?
  • No local authorities to organize the passengers so we’d have a safe, fair way to get on a bus in a civilized manner?

And, how well could this crew handle a derailment with injuries or other emergency?

Service of Travel II

Monday, June 17th, 2013

It’s vacation travel time again—three friends are leaving for trips this week.

I’ve covered the topic in countless ways: About a friend’s nightmare–literally spending the night at an airport when her flight was cancelled in “Service of Travel” and in “Service of Gagging Customers,” about the aftermath of the Costa Concordia accident. There was “Service of Good Samaritans,” about railroad travel and an amazing, caring conductor; “Service of Tourism,” about Portland, Maine that does a stupendous job and more.

Here’s today’s lineup:

Wait a Minute or 20

A colleague was on hold for 22 minutes Friday in response to an urgent message left by her airline about her return flight three days later. The recorded wait message repeated incessantly “we will be right with you” instead of a truthful “There are 40 people ahead of you,” or “Your wait will be approximately 20 minutes.”

Once there was a live voice she asked the customer service staffer why she’d been bumped and was told “I don’t know” and was then given an option for her return flight of the day after her original flight.

Could the airline run smoothly if its operators and crew showed up a day late for their jobs? And what if, for this phone call, she wasn’t on a landline or with access to electrical outlets but on the street or on a bus with a mobile phone that needed a charge?

All Aboard

Arthur and Pauline Frommer are my companions on Sundays as their weekly radio travel program coincides with house and garden work and errand time. I looked up Arthur’s early May blog post “Americans Were Recently Made Aware of How Much We Spend on Air Transportation As Compared With How Little We Spend on Rail Transportation,” because I couldn’t forget what he’d said.

As a result of reports about the Sequester’s affect on air travel, he figured out that air traffic controllers cost the Federal Government $13 billion a year, “And that’s only a fraction of the much larger amount spent each year by the federal government on air transportation,” he wrote. He continued: “By contrast, we spend about 1 billion dollars a year subsidizing Amtrak.”

He reported that he’s reprimanded every time he suggests the government subsidize railroads with comments such as: “How horrendous!” and “How incredible to suggest that the federal government should dig into its pockets for rail transportation. How anti-American! How anti-free-enterprise!”

He wrote that he responds, “Absent from their arguments is any mention of the infinitely greater sums the federal government spends on highways and vehicular traffic, and on airports and aviation.”

CNN.com corroborated Frommer’s figures and identified the fact that many are choosing the railroad.  “In fiscal year 2012, Amtrak was approved to receive an operating subsidy of $466 million. The remainder of government help for capital improvements and debt service was estimated at $950 million,” according to CNN.

“Nearly 90 percent of the rail service’s ridership since 1997 has been on trips under 400 miles. Along with a 55 percent jump in passengers, it generated a positive operating surplus of $47 million in 2011, according to a new report released by the Brookings Institution.”

Ruining It For Others

In “Service of Reviews,” in a previous post, I wrote about the self-serving, fraudulent kind, a subject also inspired by Arthur and Pauline Frommer.

In a recent program they mentioned yet another executive caught red-handed. I found, on line, the complete story in the article “TripAdvisor reviewer exposed as hotel executive: A senior executive at one of the world’s largest hotel groups has admitted breaching TripAdvisor’s rules by posting dozens of glowing reviews about the firm’s properties,” by Oliver Smith in The Telegraph.

Smith reported that Kwikchex–that he described as an “online reputation management firm”–identified the reviewer and his true stripes. TripAdvisor rules, wrote Smith, state that reviews “‘written by ownership or management; including past employees or anyone associated with/related to employees of the property in question’ will not be permitted. It adds that ‘individuals affiliated with a property may not review other properties of the same type (accommodation, restaurant, or attraction) within the same city or town, or within 10 miles of that property.’”

The executive admitted he’d written the reviews explaining that he’d visited and graded each property, had given high ones to competitors and hadn’t always been complimentary about his own. Smith quoted why the executive chose to use a pseudonym: “Because I cover such a wide range of travel experiences, it would not be appropriate to review them as a company representative….. However, it is fair to say that my professional position should have been mentioned in any reviews of hotels.”

Shop Early and Often

“Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent—And How To Reclaim Our Skies,” a book published last year by a well regarded travel journalist, William J. McGee, opens eyes on a range of topics.

The disclosure that Arthur Frommer landed on in his blog is worth sharing. He wrote McGee “is claiming that numerous airlines have begun collecting data on their passengers and would-be passengers–their previous purchases, the extent of their cost-conscious attitudes, their race, income and gender, whether they make impulse purchases or else ‘shop around’–and then tailoring the prices offered to them according to those personal characteristics. Two passengers requesting the same flight at the same time are quoted different prices on the airlines’ websites!”

In Pauline Frommer’s interview with McGee it was clear that you get the best price if you don’t buy the first time you visit an airline website. Keep checking at different times.

Unrelated to this interview, Pauline Frommer has frequently advised callers planning to travel with others not to book all the tickets at once because you’ll pay more for each ticket than if you book one at a time.

Do you have tips—and/or positive/negative airline customer service experiences–to share? Do you believe online customer reviews? Should the government increase its railroad subsidies?

 

 

 

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