Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Amtrak: The Nightmare

The Adirondacks as seen from the Adirondack. One of the top ten train-rides in America, the crew told us, and one of the top ten of my life, running neck-and-neck with another 11-hour visual spectacular, Oslo-Bergen, which I did one August, so I got to see Norwegians in bikinis on skis having snowball fights with each other by thermal springs glowing with psychedelically-colored algae at the foot of a glacier.

No bikinis in early March, of course, not in upstate New York, and it was a bit early for the really spectacular view of Lake Champlain, which was indistinguishable from all the other white stuff except it didn't have shrubs and trees growing out of it. Still, the idea was to get to Montreal in as picturesque a manner as possible. I've done this seveal times, and I know the ups and downs. For instance, the "club car," which is what remains of a fine dining tradition. A friend of mine, many years ago, remembers taking the train from near San Francisco to Philadelphia, where the other half of his family lived in the 1950s, particularly the stop in the Rockies to load on live trout and strawberries for the dining car. This year, the conductor announced that chips and hot sandwiches were available there. "I'm not sayin' it's good," he said, "I'm just sayin' it's hot." Us seasoned Adirondack hands know that at Albany, the stop to change crew and switch engines is long enough to stomp up the escalator, grab some somewhat reasonably-priced chips and soft-drinks and some unreasonably-priced sandwiches (unreasonable mostly because they're lousy -- but at least they exist), pay for them, quickly check your e-mail on the iPhone if that floats your boat (no wi-fi on Amtrak, although I understand it's been on the Canadian trains for a while now), and get back to the train before it pulls out.

Mostly, though, on the way up, once you've gone through the gauntlet of submachine-gun toting security guys (contractors, from what I could see) at Penn Station, what you want to do is stare out the window. So much history, so much scenery. At one  point we were stopped at Lake Champlain and I realized that that odd-looking building over there was Ft. Ticonderoga, which I'd just read about in Manituana, that astonishing look at the race up to the American Revolution seen through the eyes of loyalist tribes of the Iroquois nation. It gets dark after the customs stop at Rouses Point, New York, and by the time you get to Montreal, it looks like a real city, with skyscrapers' windows dotting the night sky in grids.

I've done this a number of times at different times of year -- fall is kind of mind-blowing -- and loved it. It's peaceful, beautiful, and you wind up in Montreal or New York, depending on which way you're going. What's not to love? I've recommended it to dozens of my friends, and I recommend it to you.


It's Amtrak. And sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

You do have to accept some things when you step onto an Amtrak train. You have to accept that it's kind of funky. You have to accept the inedible food at mind-boggling prices. You have to accept that you will never, ever be on time, and that 30 minutes late is "on time," the same as it is in Montpellier. You have to accept that a certain number of your fellow passengers will be gibbering idiots or sullen drunks, and hope they're not sitting in earshot or next to you. But the train's almost never full, so you just claim your turf, look out the window, and wish you'd remembered to stop at that deli on your way out of town.

The morning I woke up in Montreal on the day I had to leave, it had snowed six inches overnight, that on top of what had already been there. It was still snowing hard. To get to the train station was easy: I left Rodney and Victoria's house, turned the corner, and walked a few hundred feet to the Metro station. By the time I got there, out of breath from tugging my uselessly-wheeled luggage, both hands were an unpleasant blue color (I have gloves, but I can't find them, since I've never needed them in Montpellier). But I got to the Central Station via the Metro in plenty of time to not only buy a bagel for breakfast, but also some kind of sandwich for lunch.

It was pounding down snow as we left Montreal across the bridge, and it got worse as we travelled into rural Quebec. The engines failed once before we got to the border, but were restored by the time we hit Rouses Point, which is good: the heat in the cars depends on electricity. The Customs and Immigration guys did a good quick job, possibly because only one Arab guy was on the train and only one black guy had an attitude, a large Jamaican chap who thought each question was an attack on him personally. The trip didn't turn hellish until we were in the U.S.

Rodney had said something about six inches being nothing: it was looking like 18 inches before this was over. Being in a train, and having done plenty of train travel in Germany during bad winters, I was just thinking that it was probably nicer than flying when the first major outage hit. It was a total whiteout; no way to tell where we were. The train stopped, the lights went out. It began to cool off. Then the lights went on, the train lurched a few hundred feet, and the lights went off again. There were two conductors who were serving the train, a tall Irish-looking guy who looked like his older brother might have been NYPD, and a short, brash young woman who had a clear, piercing voice. They gave us status updates whenever they had something to report. This start-and-stop stuff went on for about three hours. It was, from what I could make out from the reports, due to the engines just refusing to accept this weather. "It's been like this all winter," the young woman told me. "The engines are just worn out; it hasn't been like this since '07."

Then, a miracle: the electricity caught and stayed. We could, if the tracks were still good, keep going and only be an hour late. Ah, but the tracks weren't good. But no worry: at the cost of some more time, a vehicle was being sent up to correct the problem. It arrived.

It derailed. It tipped over.

Another crew was sent out to rescue the repair vehicle. Which would then still have to fix the tracks so we could proceed. We were shunted onto a sideline. A freight passed, going the other direction. The sun began to go down and the sky became a colored grey instead of grey. It's hard to say what color or colors were infecting the grey and cheering it up some, but it sure looked nice, briefly. It was sometime after four. We were somewhere south of Rouses Point and north of Plattsburg. We were there for four hours.

There's not a whole lot to say about waiting. We waited. I read just about everything I'd brought with me for the whole trip. I gave up on a New York Times puzzle from the Friday paper and finished the last Sunday one I had with me, wishing I'd been somewhere I could have gotten the new Sunday Times magazine, which has been redesigned. The Jamaican guy complained; he was going to Washington D.C. I was wondering when we'd get in. An attempt to book the same hotel I'd had earlier in the trip for Monday night had failed, and I'd had to pay more than I'd wanted for a room, but it was in the magnificent New Yorker Hotel, whose Deco architectural details I'd been able to see out the window of my last hotel, and I was eager to see what it was like on the inside.

We paced. We went into the club car, where free "snack packs" filled with questionable stuff (one pack of white, salty triangles had a notation that said for ingredients, we should call an 800 number or write, which was ominous, although they seemed to be rice crackers, but...is that legal?) were handed out. There were Starbucks Frappuccinos to keep me awake. Finally, the crew passed through to tell us we were ready to roll, that Plattsburgh would be next in about twenty minutes, and the train started up.

But we were late. There were still stops to be made, although no one got on or off. Rebellious smokers found a car to smoke in, or just outside of in the vestibule. I was stiff. And we still weren't at Albany. At Albany, there'd be a crew change and a ten-minute layover. Experienced Adirondack travellers said it was almost exactly two hours from Albany to Penn Station.

We hit Albany at half-past midnight.

I dozed, I read, I paced to the club car, I proudly resisted the temptation of another $1.75 four-ounce bag of taco chips with so much seasoning on them they seemed to have grown artificial chili-flavored fur. I also didn't get another Frappuccino. I wanted to sleep.

At 2:34 am, we pulled in, and I finally stepped off the train. It should be noted that the Albany crew offered no apologies, there was no voucher offered for being six and a half hours late, and there was no other sort of gesture in the direction of what the rest of the world considers service. I once was delayed badly on Deutsche Bahn, and wound up with a €50 travel voucher. Several other times, I was given coupons of one sort or another for one kind or another of systemic problems. The only institutional feeling I got off of Amtrak was "Get off the train quickly so the cleaning crews can get on."

It's not a surprise that Amtrak isn't supposed to exist, that the Powers that Be in Washington have been trying as hard as they can to kill it for decades, that its rolling stock sucks, that the trillion-plus miles Americans drove last year were good for them, and that President Obama's attempt to introduce a high-speed rail network such as other civilized countries have is doomed because there's no Federal money for it and the states in which it would run (with the exception, apparently, of California) have rejected it because their Republican legislators don't want no damn Negro telling them how to travel and besides, they, too, are broke. As someone who's been riding the European train lines for nearly two decades, all I have to say is you don't know what you're missing. Of course, you'd also have to upgrade the service, but gee, that would mean hiring semi-skilled people and training them to do things like walk a snack cart with nearly-edible offerings on it up the aisle, use a boil-in-bag setup for hot meals, and have a coffee cart with decent coffee on it.

As for the end of the trip, I bolted out of Penn Station, with the New Yorker two blocks away, stepping over people sleeping on the floor, having fistfights just inside the door, and leaking bodily fluids of various sorts, ran to the gorgeously-lit lobby of the hotel, and discovering that they couldn't find my reservation. Thirty additional minutes later, it was discovered that Expedia Canada had hyphenated my middle name with my last name, resulting in my not being with the Ws, but I got my key, went upstairs, threw my clothes into a heap on the floor, and, between 3:30 and 8:00, slept in the New Yorker Hotel like I'd wanted to do since I was a kid. I really must go back some day to enjoy it: it's old-school New York (the heavy bathroom, the firehose shower), with all mod cons (wi-fi, excellent bed). But at 8, I was up and getting ready to go to Philadelphia.


  1. Oh my God! Amtrak is bad enough!
    But...Philadelphia ???

  2. I don't know, Ed - as disastrous as it sounds I still envy you! The sights, the drama, the characters. Ah well, we're going to Germany next week so I'll get my travel fix (will email you the Berlin details).

  3. I found this very funny because often as I have been stuck on Amtrak, it was never as bad as the 6+ hours all the D-Bahn trains here were stuck on the tracks on Christmas eve, between Berlin and Hamburg. Otoh, I have never heard of it happening as frequently as I know it to happen on Amtrak: that's why I always drove NY to Boston in the winter, even though I would have preferred the train.
    It's really a desire to destroy the public transportation system that you see in the US. It's incredible that Amtrak not only manages to hang on but still sells out at certain times on the NE route. Imagine what would happen if any money at all were spend on infrastructure and staffing!

  4. I am late to the party but I want to comment because high speed trains are an important but very misunderstood issue. Simply speaking, it won't work in the US:

    1) It needs dedicated infrastructure, which is pharaonically expensive to build, but the states and the Fed are all bankrupt (although the latter still denies it).

    2) Likewise maintenance costs are high because so is wear and tear; in a country with a famously bad record of infrastructure maintenance that means those lines would remain high-speed only for a few years.

    3) The prerequisite foe running a high-speed service is being able to run a normal one and, whoever is to be blamed for that, the US can't even operate normal trains anymore

    Even in Europe the staggering costs of high-speed have forced countries that went heavy with it, like France, to starve the conventional network of funds, resulting in a 2-tier system, with very degraded conditions and wave after wave of station closures in the conventional part, so that on the whole it cannot be deemed a success (IMO). A contrario the germanic countries, which have largely eschewed high speed (yes, even Germany), have maintained a more consistent and better overall experience.

    As JH Kunstler reminds us tirelessly what is to be done in the US is to reactivate the existing network of mothballed lines (esp. for freight) and get the country back up to ca. 1950 conditions, which could be done cheaply. Only then will it be time to discuss high-speed.


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