Riding the Rails to Dixieland

Many years ago, say about 40, my wife and I and two small sons traveled several times to Florida by train.  Amtrak had just taken over the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and kicked it off with attractive family rates.  Back then, the trip was almost like camping.  It was 24 hours, and getting through the night in a coach seat was grueling. The dining car food was so bad and expensive we carried on board most of what we would eat.

So, I was looking forward to seeing the changes after all these years by traveling to Richmond by train, about 5 hours away.  It was an experiment.  Conclusion: Traveling by Amtrak is very unlike air travel, still an adventure and not much changed in those 40 years.

The first shock had nothing to do with the train; it was the parking.  How much do you think it would cost to park for a weekend in almost-deserted, dinky old Wilmington for a weekend?  More than at the Philadelphia airport, without even a shuttle service.

Next was the station.  Thanks to our famous resident train-traveler, Joe Biden, the Wilmington station was one of the first to get funding for an expensive and unneeded makeover.  The outside is now a beautiful park alongside the Christiana River used by lunchtime office workers, but the inside, the part used by travelers, is all chrome metal benches and glaring fluorescent lights.  They obviously do not want to encourage lingering that can easily become loitering in that part of Wilmington.  There were signs about areas restricted to ticket holders only and requirements for photo ID, but no one checked nor even cared.

Then the train.  The seats were comfortable but with far less room than they used to have.  Remember the old seats that reclined way back with a foldout foot rest?  No more.  Few people today travel over 24 hours by train, so I guess the special seats are no longer needed.

The seats are not reserved, so getting one is like public transportation anywhere.  The first people take the window seat, then pile their belongings on the seat beside them and avoid eye contact with those following.  You  have to specifically ask if the seat is taken, stand there while the irritated passenger removes their belongings, and spend the hours of the trip beside someone who wishes you were dead.  They say all seats are reserved, but in Amtrak-talk that only means you are guaranteed a seat somewhere, and that somewhere is up to you to find.

To be fair, all of this is for the cheapest coach seat.  For $30 more, you can go business class which, as far as I can tell, only entitles you to a free newspaper.   But maybe there are other advantages.  At least it would lift you above the unwashed masses.  Going first class on an Acela, as Joe Biden did, would cost way, way more, but that train only goes as far as Washington, anyway.  The worst part, from Washington to Richmond, would still have to be on the local.

The train zipped along to Baltimore, and arrived on time.  During a short stretch it paralleled I-95, and I guessed we were doing about 80 mph, a little faster than the cars.  From Baltimore to Washington, it was slower with unexplained slow-downs for no reason I could see.

At Washington, there was a 55 minute layover while they changed engines from electric to diesel.  This was exactly as I remembered from 40 years ago.  The layover is just long enough for the brave-hearted to take a quick look at the magnificent Union Station.  They recommend that you stay seated with the warning they will leave without you with no reimbursement.  They do not warn you that the nearby escalators only take you up to the main station.  You cannot return by retracing your steps (except by running down an up escalator),  and you will have to find another route back, then find your one train among many (mine was on track 26).

Once past Washington, the train ambles on listlessly with occasional unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere.  The conductor is nowhere to be seen to ask why and for how long.  Sometimes it is to let a faster train pass, but other times they seem to be just mocking us.  With these mysterious stops, the timetable becomes a vague, optimistic guideline that only tells you the earliest something could happen.  On the return trip, our train leaving Richmond was listed on the board as 25 minutes late which really became 45 minutes.  No explanation, and no complaints from the experienced passengers.  Just resigned acceptance.

The Richmond station is small local station on the outskirts of the city, no bigger than Lansdowne’s SEPTA station.  It is more convenient there, but has the air of a Tennessee Williams play with a few waiting passengers on their cell phones and some employees dozing uncomfortably in the corners.

The whole Amtrak experience was vaguely familiar, like I had recently seen this miasma of dull inefficiency before.  Of course!   The post office!  Amtrak is best understood as the post office on rails.  Things do get done—eventually.  But the employees move with a glacial slowness and the detachment of someone with a tiny, unimportant part in a huge operation they do not understand.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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