The Last Amtrak

47 arguments for nationalizing railroad travel

The following night is Friday; I ask the hotel clerk to be sure. And at 10:00 p.m., when I should be out listening to a rare performance of Esteban Steve Jordan -- the legendary conjunto player and San Antonio original -- I'm instead in my hotel room yelling at an Amtrak voice machine named Julie and getting ever-changing updates for the arrival time of the Sunset Limited. I've finally cracked, I'm consumed by a violent obsession with Amtrak like -- Inspector Clouseau, with one of his crazed cases, like Holmes in the Case of the Dancing Men.... A nervous tic forms under my left eye, and I start to titter hysterically whenever I think of trains.

The schedule tells me the train is due in at 2:45 a.m., but Julie is telling me 4:45. I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. But when I call as soon as the alarm goes off, I'm told the train is already sitting in the station. I rush to get ready, yet thinking to myself, Why? It will never leave, anyway! And sure enough, when I arrive, the train is indeed sitting there, waiting for a rerouted busload of passengers from Dallas. "I'd like my meal voucher, the money I was supposed to get yesterday," I say to the bleary-eyed agent, who disappears into the back room and returns with a paper-clipped wad of cash. I count the money -- five ones wrapped around five $100 bills. Is this hush money? Karmic retribution? But before the devil can appear on my shoulder to tell me to take the money and run, I'm handing the wad back (I'm handing it back! Stop!). He was a decent guy, I tell myself, overwhelmed like the rest of the grunts by disaster and bureaucracy. (I gave it back!)

With the regular passengers arriving on the train, those delayed in San Antonio, and the busload of passengers rerouted from Dallas, this damned Amtrak is packed! I find a seat next to a guy from the bus, Bill, a Birkenstock-wearing retired Marine from Oklahoma; a troupe of latecomers stalks from car to car, searching for an opening. "You're all gonna have to get up," a woman barks loudly in the predawn train to every lout sleeping across two seats ...

By the time we finally pull out of San Antonio it's well past daybreak, 6:30 a.m., and my two-day unplanned sojourn to Jim Bowie's and Davy Crockett's resting place is over. It's all downhill from here, I tell myself, and indeed the trip goes relatively smoothly(!) from here to Los Angeles. We're terminally late, of course, but we experience no more derailments(!), or two-day stops(!), or natural disasters ...

Jennifer, the New York traveler, pulls out her guitar and sings her entire repertoire of five Beatles songs (the same song list that netted her $75 busking in San Antonio), to the gleeful delight of five kids from Mobile traveling to California with their mom. Bill the Marine tells funny stories from his military days, with a few gruesome hints of his tour in Vietnam. And Skip from Cleveland, wearing an Indians cap and long hair, somehow convinces the lounge attendant that the conductor has promised him free beer for the remainder of the trip. He sells the extras on the side for a dollar, and racks up a bill rumored to be $68 by the time he's caught and escorted off the train in El Paso. He goes happily, though.

We arrive in Los Angeles at 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, seven hours behind schedule. And for me, two days beyond that.

But I'm free!

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