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 ticket jacket. My ride from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles seemed to 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.[1]

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 Phoenix, 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., get me a flight out of here!

[1] 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 C-Dawg.)

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!'

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