Alas, Amtrak

With gas prices up in the stratosphere, Amtrak is getting a lot of attention these days. Here’s an essay I wrote a few years back, after riding the California Zephyr to Denver. I can’t imagine much has changed. /sm

After huffing down $25 Billion in tax crack since 1971, and with a deficit that’s mounting despite growing ridership and a Congressional mandate to balance its books, you’ve got to ask the question: is Amtrak worth saving? That’s precisely what Mrs. M and I set out to discover when we booked passage on the California Zephyr from Martinez to Denver.

The Zephyr is one of America’s great historic rail routes, crossing both the Rockies and the Sierras on its way from Chicago to Oakland. You know the story: the line with the gold spike in it, the one that opened up the West to millions of Yankee yahoos. Today it’s one of the biggest money-losers in a money-losing system, and a prime candidate for the budget axe. We figured if we were ever going to experience this slice of living history, we’d better get aboard pronto. As it turned out, we were indeed taking a trip back in time, but not to the era we thought. Instead of the old West, it turned out to be more like a ride through communist Russia.

Running a little late? Not to worry, comrade. The Zephyr blew into Martinez forty minutes behind schedule, giving us ample time to admire the shiny-new multi-million dollar station, full of hardwood and soaring ceilings and tinted concrete, as sunny and empty as a freshly-built retirement home, situated right across the street from the lovely old station house with the realtor’s sign in the window. Martinez is only the second stop on the line; by the time the train got to Reno, after a full day of alternately crawling through the hills on rotten track, then sitting motionless in the trees somewhere yielding right-of-way to some westbound freight, it was nearly three hours behind schedule. We asked the stationmaster in Reno, a jolly bald man with thirty years on the job, what time the train normally arrived, and he laughed so hard he nearly coughed up a lung. “Normal? Define ‘normal.’ Sometimes there’s a schedule, sometimes I’m here until all hours. I honestly never know when I’m going to get home.”

But of course, if punctuality were paramount we would have flown. Taking time to enjoy the journey is a defining aspect of train travel, a squandering of potentially fertile hours that ought to be enjoyable in its own right. But even with a willing suspension of one’s disbelief in timetables, Amtrak is not a slow-food kind of experience. On the contrary, the food was just as fast as the ride was slow, and it made airplane meals look savory by comparison. At least the airlines don’t charge you $6.50 for three sickly pieces of microwave French toast and a wee plastic tub of artificial syrup. And any self-respecting In-N-Out manager would commit seppuku before he’d serve up an Amtrak hamburger. We had our choice of either eating in the dining car, where our second-class status was pointedly reinforced by a surly attendant demanding payment in cash, or visiting the snack bar down in the bowels of the lounge car, which was manned by a madcap who sang every other line like he was in a Broadway show, and had a laugh like a Canada goose. This gold-pinned union lifer presided over an impressive display of vending-machine snacks, painstakingly removed from their vending machines and dispensed much less efficiently by an overpaid human who expected a generous tip. Like every member of the crew he was old enough for an AARP card, yet he wielded the “iron rice bowl” of the unfirable worker, an attitude familiar to communists everywhere, from the Chinese apparatchik to the American postal worker. In the case of our snack car man, as with several others on the train staff who appeared to have lost their minds, it was difficult to tell whether he was just a colorful eccentric or a desperate man on the brink of something terrible. He reminded me of an elevator operator I encountered once as a child, so poisoned by his own anachronism that it made him mutter and snap like a crazy dog.


“Maybe it’s the water,” the Wife suggested. “The ‘drinking’ water tastes like Giardia.”  The idea seemed unthinkable to me, and for that matter what does giardia taste like, but to be safe, I stuck to four-dollar canned beer after that. The attendant assigned to our coach car, an elderly black woman who cordoned off her seat like an imperious bag lady with mountains of personal effects, made it clear that we were fools to take the train’s hygiene for granted. “Don’t be walking these aisles with your shoes off,” she admonished us over a misfiring PA system. “They don’t wash these carpets much, and they never been sanitized. Plus, pieces shake loose off this old train and you might get a piece of it stuck in your foot, and then you’ll be blaming Amtrak for it, so you just keep your shoes on and nobody gets hurt.” Her long list of do’s and don’ts fell mostly on empty seats. Despite some aggressive pricing promotions that made most of these seats cheaper than riding the bus, we were a quarter full at best.


We took advantage of the elbow room to enjoy some quality time in the lounge car, with its floor-to-ceiling observation windows. The scenery was spectacular, though it might have been better if someone had washed the windows since the Korean War. After it got dark, they played a reasonably current movie, a popular comedy about a wacky ethnic wedding, but no one could hear it because the volume levels were frozen by some secret order of the Party, and none of the workers could turn it up or down for any amount of rubles.


So, besides the occasional communist who’s nostalgic for the insult that is a state-run railroad, who rides Amtrak these days? Passengers seem to fall into four major categories: the ignorant, the ancient, the unwashed, and the adoring. The Wife and I, like a lot of the passengers we met, belong to the first group. We hadn’t ridden Amtrak in a lot of years, and simply had no idea how bad it could be. Over the course of our journey we heard it again and again: “This is my first trip,” accompanied by a nervous laugh that said it all. European tourists belong to this group by definition, since anyone who comes from a place with clean, modern trains is categorically excused for the logical but stupid conclusion that American trains must be at least as good. The “ancients” comprised the second largest class, in some cases because they hadn’t ridden since World War II (“Remember the troop train, darling?”), and in others because they were no longer capable of cross-country driving. We met a gentleman of the second sort in the dining car, a strong and self-reliant old farmer from the Central Valley who was only on the train because he had suffered a stroke, and his offspring had relieved him of his car keys. The third group, the unwashed, should be familiar enough to anyone who has ever ridden a Greyhound: recent parolees, bikers without bikes, speed mamas without teeth, and an assortment of bad-luck youngsters being shuttled from one uncaring family unit to another across multiple state lines. The fourth group, the adoring train geeks, are easy enough to spot: they’re the ones with the Choo-Choo Charley hats and the handheld radios tuned to the automated track information system, listening to the computer-generated reports on track temperature that are broadcast every ten miles, then recording the data in little notebooks and plotting the train’s progress on folding maps.


I witnessed a spirited discussion between two of these rail fetishists on the subject of railway nomenclature. Train geek number one, it seems, had presented a paper to his local chapter of Amtrak Maniacs proposing that the company rename all of its long-haul routes from “long distance” to “national services,” on the premise that this sounded more vital to homeland defense and would thus make the routes less of a target for axe-wielding Congressional train haters. Train geek number two, a diminuitive man with a dark beard who exhibited symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, objected to the word “national” on general linguistic principle, and embarked on a ponderous lecture concerning America’s ineligibility to use the term due to our lack of a unifying race, language, or culture. Later in the journey, the act of debarking sent him into an autistic panic when he realized he would have to cross the tracks on foot. “I can’t cross the tracks,” he kept repeating, blocking the exit for the rest of us. We named him Train Man.


It’s easy to make fun of the Bolsheviks, but at least they were trying to make the trains run on time when they put together a state-run system from the ashes of the Czar’s railways. Amtrak, on the other hand, seems to be built on the deep bedrock of failure, the end result of 100 years of obscene corruption and big-money looting. It was created in 1971, a Nixon’s monster stitched together from the corpses of various private rail assets and paddle-whipped with a billion volts of public money. Faster than you can say “It lives,” the railroads got out of an unprofitable passenger business, the unions kept their payroll intact, and another public/private mutant freak had its hungry organizational maw firmly affixed to the Federal tax tit.


It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the 1890’s a man named Pullman revolutionized train travel by building cars that were actually comfortable to ride and sleep in, and serving gourmet food instead of the usual hardtack and buffalo hump. I saw a California Zephyr menu from the turn of the last century in a Reno shop window and it nearly made me weep: a five-course dinner featuring oysters Rockefeller, poached salmon, and prime rib of beef, priced at one U.S. dollar per person. It’s more than a little ironic that one hundred years later, the world’s leading free-market state is somehow last in line to privatize an industry that even the most die-hard reds have long since abandoned to the capitalist jackals. Great Britain, for example, is in the midst of a railway renaissance thanks to entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose Virgin Rail recently placed the country’s largest-ever order for rolling stock. Around the world, no fewer than forty nations are currently overhauling their national rail systems through privatization.


Like the train geeks, I too have a dream, but mine is a vision of the future rather than the past. I am imagining a world where you can ride from LA to the Bay Area on a mag-lev bullet, and the Napa Wine Train runs all the way to the Rockies. I am visualizing pre-mixed cocktails and canned beer yielding right-of-way to a well-stocked, full-service bar in the lounge car. I am dreaming of rolling through the desert in a well-appointed Hilton sleeping car. I am envisioning a future where tourists will come from all over the world to experience America’s magnificent scenery in high style, or at least through a clean glass window. Please tell me it’s not a pipe dream.


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