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.

I take a stroll to the lounge car, past the distinguished-looking Chinese couple, the wide-eyed Euro-kid with the brightly colored backpack, the balding man with a rim of dreadlocks. And then there are those passengers, grave middle-aged types -- veteran train travelers? -- with their grocery bags of supplies, hunkered into their seats like soldiers prepared for a siege. Their jaws are set. What do they know that the rest of us don't?

Haines City. A citrus smell from the sprawling orange groves beside the track.

The conductor announces that Sunset Limited riders won't be getting off in Orlando, something about running late (us, them?), and instead we'll be making the connection in Jacksonville. It's a little unsettling, this news, putting a wrinkle in my smooth idea of the great trip. But the sun through the window and the monotonous landscape have made me drowsy, and as long as we keep moving like we do, pushing the Amtrak speed limit of 79 mph, it's all fine with me, I suppose. I think I overhear talk of a derailment, somewhere in north Florida, or maybe South Carolina. I go back to sleep.

We arrive in Jacksonville just after 4:00 p.m. to an already-packed station. Bored passengers sit amongst their luggage sprawled out on the platform while a news crew from local WJCX-TV loiters next to an idle train. I learn from the television in the lobby that there was an Amtrak derailment near Coosawhatchie, South Carolina. The train hit a log truck at a crossing. Of the 137 passengers, 15 sustained injuries; long delays for passengers resulted here in Jacksonville (the camera sweeps over people slumped with their bags along the platform). I assume the news anchor is right, since a harried station attendant tells a group of passengers to hold on, that the buses will be here soon to connect them to a waiting train north of the accident.

We wait, set adrift in the station without a word. And except for the occasional baggage handler, there is no one from Amtrak to explain the situation. I can only assume that as a train derails, so does a schedule, which must be often considering the almost weekly reports of train accidents reported throughout this summer. According to the Federal Rail Administration, Amtrak was involved in 191 accidents in 2001, leading to 715 passenger injuries and 3 deaths. But with a total of 2987 accidents for all trains this year (freight and passenger), the odds are high for delays somewhere along the line.

After several hours at Jacksonville -- a fifteen-minute stop, according to the schedule -- and with a vending machine for dinner options, a line starts to form at the door of the station. "I guess we're boarding," shrugs a man wearing a Coast Guard cap. I queue up with the rest of the fools and file past an Amtrak agent who has suddenly appeared at the door. He's sitting behind a card table, looking jaded; I show him my ticket and squeeze through the door past other squeezing people.... Finally: the Sunset Limited, with its massive 73-ton double-decker cars in streamlined silver. And true to its name, the train pulls out of the station as the sun falls over the horizon at around 8:00 p.m., three hours late. The train is more than half-filled, but I find two seats together in the first car of the coach-class Superliner, then check out the glass-covered observation car and lounge -- a snack bar with microwave pizzas, prepackaged sandwiches, chips, and beer. I'd chosen coach to be among the People, and because a sleeper would've cost an additional $500. The seats are comfortable enough, reclining with a footrest that pops up La-Z-Boy style, but the thought of this as my bed for the next three days suddenly seems a bad miscalculation.

Seated behind me are Ron and Karen, an early thirtyish couple from Tampa on their way to see her sister in El Paso, Texas. And behind them is the stocky Hector, a 25-year-old Puerto Rican guy with a Knicks jersey from Miami, on his way to Los Angeles to visit relatives. Like me, all are new to long-distance train travel.

The next morning I wake early with the sun slanting over my shoulder from across the Gulf of Mexico, stiff from six hours of "sleeping" in a chair in meat-locker-cold temperatures -- a whim of the conductor, who's naturally not around to complain to. After a breakfast from the lounge car of weak coffee and prefab corn muffin, I settle onto a couch in the observation car and watch the pelicans home in over the bayou as we approach Mobile, Alabama. It was here, on September 22, 1993, that a barge rammed a bridge support in the middle of the foggy night. Eight minutes later the Sunset Limited bound for Miami arrived at the damaged bridge and plunged into the water, killing 47 people and injuring over 100, the deadliest accident in Amtrak's history. But the serene views through southern Mississippi and Louisiana, as the train glides like an airboat above where the bayou meets the Gulf of Mexico, give no hint of disaster.

We cruise past dilapidated fishing shacks and bass boats, people lounging in porch chairs and congregating outside a Baptist church. All turn to watch the train go by and everyone -- man, woman, and child -- waves. The faster we move, the more vigorous the wave. Nobody waves at a slow train.

Of course, the Amtrak now slows to a crawl, then stops altogether next to a John Deere farm-implements dealership in a small village. It's a constantly recurring event, this slowing and stopping, and never with an explanation. When I look for a conductor to ask, there are none around; only the terse lounge attendant who looks up from his book to say he doesn't know what's up. We sit for fifteen minutes like this, a time that seems to stretch to hours on a train where constant motion is expected and stops, even scheduled ones, seem an unnatural frustration. The faster we move, the better everyone's mood. Suddenly a freighter whistles by at top speed, rocking our car back and forth and sucking the air from between the cars in a great whoosh.

With Amtrak owning only 3 percent of the 22,000 miles of track it uses throughout the country, freight lines who own the rest, like CSX or Southern Pacific, have an economic priority. Their cargoes of grain, truck beds, and chemicals are far more profitable than Amtrak's mere humans. So when two trains meet on the same track like this one, Amtrak usually loses, and pulls over to wait.

According to the schedule, we were supposed to arrive in New Orleans at 9:20 a.m. and depart at 12:45 p.m., enough time to take a cab to the French Quarter for lunch and a stroll. But it's just before noon when we finally pull into the Crescent City, so instead of muffuletta on Decatur Street, I grab another plastic sandwich in the station and rush back to the train to wait in vain; we finally pull out at 1:15.

Postindustrial Travel

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

After New Orleans, I wander back to the lounge car and take a seat at a booth across from a young woman wearing hiking boots, organically stressed jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. She scribbles notes in a journal between long glances out the window at the passing landscape of rice fields and marshland.

"I'm Jennifer, from New York," she says after I introduce myself.

"I'm just traveling," she continues when I ask about her journal. "I was in New Orleans for a few days, and now I'm on my way out to San Diego. I have a friend there I'm gonna stay with. I spent the last year traveling through Europe, mostly Spain and Italy, and when I got back I wanted to keep going. So I waited tables for a while in New York. I'm just gonna keep traveling until whenever. I don't really have a plan."

While we talk, Jennifer has set up shop, unfolding a piece of velvet cloth on the table and carefully filling it with a small collection of cheap jewelry -- earrings, necklaces, and rings. The passengers who walk past give curious glances, but a group of young kids, a boy and his two sisters, come right up, handling each piece and asking for prices. Finally a deal is struck and one of the girls holds up her new $2 butterfly earrings.

"Is he your boyfriend?" asks the girl, referring to me.

"Yep, for as long as we're on the train," I joke.

We talk some more, exchanging travel stories, but before I can think of the train version of the mile-high club, the kids are back and dragging my "date" off to get her guitar, while I go in search of an attendant to see about defrosting the coach car. "I'll see what I can do," he tells me.

The next morning I wake around 8:00 a.m. feeling surprisingly not frozen. But I realize we're not moving, and notice a sign outside the window that reads "San Antonio." "We've been sitting here since 3:00 a.m.," says Ron, a computer analyst, looking sleepless and exasperated. "Oh, and in case you're wondering, the a/c went out around then too." I look at the schedule and see nothing about a five-hour layover.

I'd like to get out and explore, stretch my legs and breathe some real air, but the platform agent tells me the train could leave anytime. When, exactly, he doesn't know. So I breakfast on more weak coffee and prefab muffin and stare out the window at an empty lot and wait till the train finally rolls out mid-morning, nearly six hours behind schedule.

But we're moving, and even though the a/c is broken, the conductor has opened the exit-door windows on the lower level of the train car. I take in the warm breeze and flatlands of Texas with James from California, who sweats uncomfortably in the humid heat while sneaking a smoke -- a concession the conductor seems willing to allow under the circumstances.

An hour out of San Antonio, in the middle of an empty prairie, we stop. "Man, what the hell we doing now, the conductor gonna pick more flowers again," says Hector, giving voice to the growing frustration sweeping through the car. The ennui of our motionlessness has moved us past angst to a simmering anger. It's in the strained faces of the passengers, and the besieged and helpless looks of the attendants -- the objects of growing murmurs of protest.

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."

"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 police if you don't calm down ... do you want me to get the San Antonio police in 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 is the 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.

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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