The Last Amtrak

47 arguments for nationalizing railroad travel

And then, the unlikeliest of events, we start moving -- backward. Slowly at first, then picking up full steam. "Ah man, what the fuck is this, the conductor forgot his hat in Jacksonville!?" snarls Hector. "This shit ain't funny anymore!"

"This's crazy, what's going on with this train," comes another loud voice from a row of seats near the back of the car as an attendant hurries past, trying not to catch anyone's glare.

"Hey, I'm sorry, I know it," he says, shaking his head while looking for a little sympathy.

The Amtrak personnel are now the whipping dogs of the train, like guards after a prison riot when the inmates have taken over. But their knowledge of events seems to be no better than the rumors passing from car to car, victims of the same mindless circumstances as the passengers. They have the same grim faces of bus drivers and airline ticket agents before a passenger revolt, left alone to deal with consequences of a system of bad management and communication. But so far without the snarling comebacks.

The rumor of a damaged track from a freight train derailment on a bridge near El Paso is confirmed blankly by a young attendant I'm lucky enough to corner, who claims ignorance of the details. He won't say whether the bridge burned to the ground like I'd heard.

"I don't know," he says wearily when I ask about our fate. "You'll have to wait till we get back to the station."

It's an empty promise. When we arrive back at San Antonio, the passengers stay on the train, under the threat of new information or even the possibility of pulling out again on a moment's notice, like a WWII military troop train, shunting erratically to avoid being bombed.

"They can fix these things pretty quickly, sometimes in a couple of hours," says a passing attendant helpfully.

And so we sit, with a closed dining car and no lounge services for reasons Amtrak steadfastly refuses to explain, in a train with a broken a/c full of tired and hungry passengers waiting for word. "We're like refugees from Bosnia or something," I hear Hector say. A woman I had spoken to earlier, a science-book illustrator from Biloxi, secretly slips me a pack of cheese crackers with a nod of sympathy, and gets a dirty look from her son at the costly generosity. I find a quiet corner and greedily tear into my lunch, then return to my regular seat and wait like everyone else. For what, no one knows, certainly not even Amtrak.

While President Bush has allocated $22.6 billion to highways in 2003, and given $15 billion and counting to the airlines since 9/11, Amtrak has had to fight for every penny of the extra $200 million it requested to keep its trains going through October, the end of its fiscal year. Given Amtrak's dismal service record, compounded by the numerous derailments, constant delays, and equipment failures (cracks found in the suspension of the high-speed Acela trains), it's a wonder the agency is given any money at all. But advocates of Amtrak blame its sad condition on too little funding, saying a large infusion of funds, up to $12 billion, is needed for improvements to track and train -- to lift the rail line once and for all out of its rut. And while some say a federalized system like Europe is the only solution, and others hope to see Amtrak split up and sold off to private operators, Amtrak itself seems to have hung its hopes on its new president, David Gunn, the transportation wizard who brought the New York City subway system back from disaster.

As for me, I'm thinking of the great disaster movies of the Seventies -- Airport, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure -- and wondering if there was ever one made about a train. "I'm calling the Marines," says Hector. "It's the only way we're gettin' outta this shit."

"Whaddaya think, should we risk it?" asks Colin, the Irish guy in the seat across from mine who had boarded at New Orleans. We had talked about making a break for it, taking a look around the area outside the train station for a place to eat lunch. "I think we should do it," I say. "I mean, what's the worst that can happen, that the train leaves without us?"

He gets my point, and we sneak off the train and into a new urban development area near the city's main arena, the Alamodome (Davy Crockett wept). We find a barbecue joint and duck inside, conscious of the time and with our ears half-cocked for a train whistle.

"I'm on vacation for two weeks," says Colin, 38, of his job as a software developer. "I just spent a week in Boston and wanted to see a little of America, and this seemed like the way to do it. I mean, in Europe everyone takes the train. There's some problems now in the U.K. with delays, but overall in Europe the on-time record is spotless, even in the East. In some countries you can set your watch by it."

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