You're about to embark on a great travel experience.
In fact, we guarantee it.
So says the friendly writing on the outside of every Amtrak
jacket. My ride from Santa Barbara
bear out the truth
of that assertion. The commuter train left on time,
went from point A to point B without stopping (except, of course, at
points C, D, E, F, G, and H, as it was supposed to), was a
smooth ride, and a generally pleasant experience. The only minor
annoyance was when the starstruck conductor decided to augment
the automated city announcements with her own redundant rendition.
Yes, I was lulled into a sense of consumer approval by the first stage of
the trip. Then, obeying the recorded voice and using great care in exiting
the train, I stepped into the real world of Amtrak.
There was a train on the adjacent track. I asked an employee where train
number 2 would be; he points to that one and says, "That's not it. You're
in the wrong place." "Okay, " I say, "but I just got off this one and need
to find train 2." "Go down this ramp and turn left. But it's not here yet."
So I go down the ramp and encounter a tunnel with many such ramps
crossing it, one for each pair of tracks. There is no arrival/departure
information listed anywhere, so I ask another employee where train 2
will be. "Over there." He seems to think that is the level of precision
appropriate to my question. The blank look on my face finally gets the
message through to him that more is necessary. "On track 12."
I turn up the ramp labelled Tracks 11-12, and find a
long train occupying the track. Something told me not to trust the earlier
statement, so I ask if this is train 2. It turns out it is, so after being pointed
to three different cars by three different employees, I get on. The decor and
accomodations are not quite as luxurious as the commuter, but look very
serviceable. Though I do immediately notice the lack of electrical outlets,
which had been conspicuous by their omnipresence for the previous two hours.
Only about ten minutes past the appointed time, the train starts creeping out
of Union Station. Russ, the train supervisor, appeared on the loudspeaker
welcoming us and congratulating us on our choice of Amtrak; he mentions the
location of the snack bar and its hours of operation, then says we won't hear
from him again until the next morning. After a minute or two, the train makes its first stop. The man in the
seat in front of me (I never did catch his name; perhaps Nostradamus) says
"Well, just don't go backwards." Almost immediately, we start undoing the scant
progress we had made. We get back almost to our starting point and stop
again. Russ comes on again and tells us that they're going to hook some more
cars onto the train. Did they just forget that minor detail? Or had they told everyone except Russ?
About eight o'clock the next morning, we're told that we're about an hour and
a half from Tucson, AZ. A while later I doze off, and when I awaken, I hear on
the loudspeaker that we'll be in Tucson in 15 minutes. I'm amazed — I didn't really
think I had been asleep that long. Then we hear Russ' amplified voice:
Will the employee who just made that announcement please
get on the intercom?
Please get on the intercom
I'm on the intercom
Hello? Hello? I'm on the intercom...
pause, then Russ again
Sorry folks, that announcement was mistaken; we're still a good
hour from Tucson.
I don't even know how to categorize such incompetence. An hour later, we're
told "Okay, we'll be in Tucson in about five minutes. Connections to
, blah, blah, blah". And the train comes to a complete
stop, where it remains for ten minutes, after which it starts up again and maintains
a steady five miles per hour for about twenty minutes before actually arriving at
the station. (I guess they didn't want to scare it.) What the heck
can go so wrong
so suddenly that it takes half an hour to go the final five minutes? Then, of
course, before they open the doors, they make a big point of saying that we'll
only be there for five or six minutes, so the people who desperately needed to
smoke a cigarette better not wander off, or they'll be left behind. Naturally,
the train sat there for approximately half an hour.
At Tucson, where we had managed to become 3 hours behind schedule in
the eight hours since we started, the friendly Amtrak employees started
explaining to people that there was a lot of padding in the schedule, and
they would likely be back on schedule, or very nearly, by the time we reached
New Orleans. When we got to San Antonio, TX, now five hours behind,
they started singing it in 3-part harmony. At Houston, where the attendant
said our stop would be a bit longer than normal because they had to remove
one of the cars, our stop was a bit longer than normal because they added
on another car. After Houston, they no longer sang the praises of schedule
padding. At about ten o'clock (two and a half hours after our supposed 7:25
N.O. arrival time), they turned down the lights in the car and most of us went
to sleep, not very hopeful. I woke up at about a quarter to three, to the very
smooth ride of a train at a total stop (hardly a new experience on this trip),
as though it was trying to work up the nerve to hurtle itself across the
Mississippi River. Ten minutes later, it gave it the ol' college try, and made
it easily, but I guess its self-esteem still wasn't all there, because about a mile
on the other side of the river, it had to stop again and marvel about its
accomplishment. I was hoping this was one of the
let's-stop-within-sight-of-the-station stops, but when we finally started up again
after twenty minutes, the attendant said we would be at the New Orleans station
in twenty more minutes. Since I had awakened and seen how
late it was, I had been unable to decide whether I should call Templeton, who,
when I talked to her from Houston, had insisted that I call her when I arrive at
the (at that time) projected arrival of 1 AM. I wanted to double-insist that she
go to bed rather than pick me up at the station, but by the time I decided to do
so, I found that my cell phone had no coverage there.
I am so glad that I decided to take an enjoyable train ride instead
of flying, which usually leaves me very annoyed at many of my fellow travelers.
Priceline.com, get me a flight out of here!
 I conducted a comprehensive search for an outlet. After all, not only
did I need to do some E2 writeups, but I had twenty episodes of Babylon5 to
watch, courtesy of WolfDaddy. The only outlet was in the lounge car, at the base
of something that looked like a bartender's station or something. The only way
for a passenger to use it, which was clearly not its intended purpose, was either
to string the cord across the aisle, or down the aisle along the back of two seats
and then around to where the user would sit. I saw one person do this, but I was
not so inclined. (Oh, there's also one in the restroom, reports a freshly-shaven
January 18, 2003: lj sent me this comment, which I found quite funny, so with his permission I share it with you:
Thinking about How Amtrak lost my business, possibly the reason the train suddenly went from 125 mph to 5 mph would be that (I suspect) while the mainlines are computer-controlled, with automatic handing over, and super-duper points, and routes decided in advance by computer, like britain, the stations themselves do their routing by hand, using a method which I can only assume is 'My GOD! A TRAIN! What the hell will we do! This never happens! Quick, let's randomly pull some switches!'