Amtrak computer fails, leaving riders in long lines Ticket system covers entire United States

November 30, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The computer system that controls Amtrak's reservations and ticketing for the entire country broke down yesterday, leaving thousands of riders on the busiest travel weekend of the year standing in long lines as clerks wrote out tickets by hand.

Ticket agents around the country lacked printed tables of fares and were unable to look them up on their computers.

In some cases, they just guessed, leading some riders to complain that they had overpaid.

Unable to issue handwritten tickets fast enough -- it was taking about five minutes per ticket at New York's Penn Station -- ticket agents told passengers who were anxious about missing their trains to just get aboard and buy tickets on the train from a conductor.

At Penn Station, crowds were somewhat larger than normal in the afternoon but had dissipated almost completely by evening.

But at Union Station in Washington, a ticket agent described "very long lines and humongous crowds, total chaos," lasting through the afternoon.

It could have been worse. Most travelers, anticipating the heavy traffic, had bought their tickets in advance, so their journeys were not affected much, said an Amtrak spokeswoman, Maureen Garrity.

No trains were delayed by the breakdown, she said.

Louise Harpman, 32, of Manhattan and her husband, Scott Specht, 33, both architects, waited in a long line in Washington and then found that no one knew quite what to charge them for the trip to New York.

"You get 10 different stories from 10 different people," Harpman said.

In the end, she said, they were charged $106 for two tickets and then were told by a conductor on their train that they should have paid only $88.

When she complained to an Amtrak representative in New York, she said, the response was surly.

"You get attitude from the customer service people," she said. "We love mass transit, but this is no way to treat your loyal customer base."

People who boarded without tickets often fared better.

Conductors carry printed tables of fares and, despite overwhelming demand for tickets, handled the situation with aplomb, according to riders.

The trouble began at 12: 30 p.m., when the hardware that allows ticket agents around the country to communicate with the central computer failed, Ms. Garrity said.

BTC By late yesterday, the system still was not operating, and officials could not estimate when it would be working.

This is the busiest week of the year for Amtrak, with 250,000 riders along the Northeast Corridor alone.

But yesterday was not one of the week's heavier days.

Pub Date: 11/30/96

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