The Last Amtrak

47 arguments for nationalizing railroad travel

"Hi! This is Amtrak. I'm Julie! I invite you --"

"Agent!" I yell into the phone.

"--to visit our Website www.amtrak.com for --"

"AGENT!!!" I strain a jaw muscle; she ignores me.

"--online reservations and service information. Okay, to --"

"AGENT!!!!" I see stars.

It's because of Julie, the perky robo-operator with the unwavering "friendly gal" act, that I finally start to unravel. No matter what names I call her or how loud I scream, she's the same irrepressible, eager-to-please Julie, a wall of positive digitized attitude that swats away my insults like Sammy Sosa swagging softballs. She only hears what she wants. "Say 'schedule' ... say 'reservations,'" she commands, leading me through a labyrinth that dead-ends in a choice of buying a ticket to Jacksonville, in English or Spanish. When it comes to options, she won't give me what I really want, a live human. But finally, after another exhausting series of hoops of "Julie says," she lets slip "Say 'agent.'" I jump on it.

"I think you said, you want to talk to a customer representative. Is that correct?"

See, Julie, I want a way out of your game. I want a living, breathing Amtrak employee of importance to see the tiny spittles of wrath flying off the corners of my mouth; to explain to me why I have to be screaming here at an answering machine in a Red Roof Inn in San Antonio, Texas, 1400 miles from where I started my "Amtrak Journey" three days before, in Miami ("Your Comfort is Our First Priority!"), and another 1350 miles from where I was supposed to be twelve hours ago -- Los Angeles! I want to know why, when I walk to the train station to vent my spleen, it's closed! And finally, the issue on which I finally turn purple, I want to know where my $25 meal voucher is?!

The Midnight Not-So-Special

*****************************

It didn't start out this way, of course. In the beginning it was all about the romance of seeing America from the rolling level of a train car, solidly planted on earth, crossing the country from one corner to the other like O Pioneers. It was about the gentle clackety-clack to rock one like a baby at night but that wouldn't spill your drink. It was the bold alternative to five hours locked in a metal tube at 30,000 feet. And instead of the unsettling view of a receding horizon at 45 degrees from the porthole window of an airplane, a train came with relaxing options: a quiet corner to watch the countryside roll by with a good Cormac McCarthy book between long naps.

Any long train journeys to or from Miami begin and end at the Amtrak station, a large nondescript building off NW 79th Street, and on a Tuesday at 7:00 a.m., it's empty. I arrive ten minutes before the scheduled departure and rush to the ticket counter, unfold the e-printout from my back pocket, and slide it under the two-inch-thick glass to one of two uniformed agents.

"ID," the agent says indifferently without looking up. An Amtrak trait, I wonder, or just Miami?

He types in a number, adjusts a creaky dot-matrix printer that spits out two forms, and slides them back under the glass.

"Sign there," he says, meaning the dotted line. "And there."

"Is there still time to check my bag?" I ask.

"It's late," he says. "But the attendant on the platform may be able to help you, if you take care of him."

But there are no shoe inspectors, no x-ray machines manned by bored or overzealous security guards, no anxious passengers waiting to board, just a man in a blue uniform pointing me to an open door on the only train in the station.

It's a typical Amtrak coach car: two seats together (68 in all) on either side of a center aisle in a color scheme of burnt orange and brown. Shouldering my own bag, I find a pair of seats near the back in the less than half-filled car. We start before I realize, a smooth and soundless acceleration as the columns of the platform slowly move past.

The Sunset Limited, as the train from Orlando to Los Angeles is called, departs three times a week -- Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Including the Miami-to-Orlando connection, the trip is scheduled to take exactly three days, one hour, and five minutes (not figuring time changes), leaving on a Tuesday and arriving in Los Angeles on Friday at 8:05 a.m. after traveling 2768 miles of track, the longest of Amtrak's lines.

"Ticket." I hand mine to the uniformed conductor, a black man in his early fifties, who tears my ticket and continues his forward march through the car. Amtrak claims a healthy diversity among its 24,000 employees, but except for one female lounge car attendant, the staff on this train is made up of men, mostly middle-aged and paunchy. Like teachers or cops, there's a no-nonsense world-weariness common to Amtrak personnel; a grudging helpfulness spread over a thin veneer of patience. And except during stops, they're mostly invisible.

To get to the Sunset Limited in Orlando, it's a five-hour ride from Miami on the Silver Meteor, a daily train that, 26 hours from now, will pull into New York's Penn Station. But for now it's the local milk run on the old Seaboard Coast Line, with momentary stops in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield, Delray, and West Palm Beach, and a free view to the back end of South Florida. Flying by the window at 60 mph: auto body shops, rusted cars in a bed of weeds, shipyard containers, manicured cemeteries, graffiti-splattered warehouses, scattered piles of wood pallets, storage facilities, industrial parks, and access roads. We cruise at around 60 mph, keeping pace with the commuters driving north on I-95, and as we pass along a series of golf courses to the west I realize we're in Palm Beach.

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