The Last Amtrak

47 arguments for nationalizing railroad travel

"I suppose," he admits, when I ask if the smaller size of Europe makes a difference. "But in Europe you've got something like twenty different countries, and each one has its own national rail line. But at the same time? -- like when I was a student? -- I traveled all over Europe. I took a train from Paris to Prague, then from Prague to Madrid, and all the trains arrived on time, almost to the minute. It might be socialist, but it works."

We slip back on the train just in time to hear a rare, discernible announcement: "Starting with the last car, all coach passengers need to line up outside the dining car to meet with Amtrak customer-service representatives," says the disembodied voice. "Wait for your car to be called." We're in the first car, and the last to be called. But order quickly dissolves. Hector ignores the rule and gets in line. "Fuck this shit," he says. "I waited long enough already." Others follow. Tempers flare. But there's no attempt to establish order, and no more announcements.

"I wanna know whatch you're gonna do for me," shouts a woman in line outside the dining car. "Ma'am, you're gonna have to be patient," says the voice of a male Amtrak employee. "I've been patient, from the time I got on this damn train. Now I want some results," she says.

"Ma'am, I understand --"

"You don't understand shit, you just got here, you haven't been ridin' like the rest of us!"

I lean over to see into the next car and the two figures shouting at each other, the angry woman with a finger in the man's face.

"I'm gonna have to call the policeif you don't calm down ... do you want me to get the San Antonio policein here? I'm gonna call the POLICE!" ... The Amtrak man has lost it, yelling back at the woman, who eventually gives up the pointless argument.

"I wonder if they have a brig on this train," I ask Ron and Karen.

"The brig isthe train," Ron deadpans.

We Are All Prisoners

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

"They said Amtrak is offering to fly people to El Paso to catch the train there, or to put people up here in San Antonio until the next train comes through on Saturday," says Karen, a schoolteacher, going over her dilemma. "I don't know what we're going to do. Ron hates flying, but my sister's graduation is Saturday at seven in El Paso, and the train is scheduled to arrive at 2:20 that afternoon. But I just can't risk it."

Rumors continue to filter back. One young dude, a professional skateboarder, has negotiated a flight to L.A., another to Albuquerque. "They tried to give me a travel voucher to shut me up," laughs Hector. "Like I'm ever gonna get on another train!" When I finally get through the line to the diner, there are two fortyish men in jeans and Amtrak polo shirts, sitting at separate booths. I sit down with the man on the left.

"So what's Amtrak offering?" I ask him, knowing full well. I had debated what to do, and like a shell game I choose to stay in San Antonio and wait for the next train, hoping it hides the special pea. It's an empty shell. The man fills in the vouchers on the kind of generic carbon pads found in office supply stores. Two vouchers are for the cab ride to and from the hotel, the other is for my hotel room -- two nights at the Red Roof Inn, San Antonio.

I'd like to stay and talk to the man, discuss the $521 million in federal subsidies Amtrak receives each year, or the extra $1.2 billion it's asking of Congress for the coming year, or the $10 million it loses every month, but I can only think of one thing at the moment: getting off the train! As soon as I step off, I'm reminded of the meal vouchers Amtrak is required to give us. But the train is suddenly deserted. All customer-service activity has moved into the station, and so like all the others, I get in line and overhear problems far worse than mine. "So what you're saying is that the last flight to Albuquerque just left ten minutes ago," asks a dumbfounded Colin, whose vacation time is fast running out. A plainclothes Amtrak man behind the counter flips through the yellow pages to the airline section, and starts dialing.

At the counter, it's the same fortyish, disaffected customer-service rep I spoke to before, on the train. I ask about my meal voucher. He says sorry, they're low on cash. I insist. No, he says. I insist again, and lie, saying I have no cash either. The Amtrak man standing next to him gives him a nudge and tells him to go ahead, just this once. The man counts out $25 in singles, and hands me a computer printout to sign.

When I get to the hotel, after fourteen hours parked in the San Antonio train station, I realize why I decided to stay. A real bed, and a reprieve from not just the train but ALL travel. I meet up with Colin the Irishman at a bar in the city's Riverwalk, and after two hours my meal voucher money is gone.

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