SOUTH BY SOUTHEAST
By Joe Brancatelli
October 9, 2008 -- Nobody has ever mistaken me for Cary Grant, but I thought a night on a train, complete with a sleeping car and an assignation with an attractive blonde in the dining car, a la North by Northwest, might finally do the trick. I even brought along my own blonde (my wife) as we hurtled South by Southeast on Train 97, the Silver Meteor.
The fantasy took a quick ding when I learned you can't just saunter into the dining car, as Grant did in Hitchcock's 1959 masterpiece. These days, you have to make reservations. Well, not so much make reservations as take orders. Someone called an LSA appears at the door of your sleeping car and announces a series of absurdly early dining times, then demands you choose one.
So there we were, waiting at the door of the dining car at 5:30 in the evening. We're directed to a narrow, plastic booth where two women, uncomfortably seated side by side, are already perusing the menu. Before I can even object, the waiter lays out the rules: You sit side by side, four to a booth, because they need all of the tables. (The unspoken reality: Stuffing four people to a booth is easier for Amtrak, not a necessity.)
My fantasy now pretty much shot, it shouldn't surprise you that the meal wasn't exactly the stuff of a Hitchcock thriller, either. Let me put it this way: Know those hot meals they no longer serve in coach? They've been transferred to Amtrak's dining cars. And they're even worse than you remember.
Allow me to back up and explain that this journey--27 hours roundtrip between New York's Penn Station and Charleston, South Carolina--was not totally about my attempt to be Roger O. Thornhill, the suave Cary Grant ad man who blunders through several iconic 1950s business-travel venues (the Plaza hotel in New York, the Ambassador East in Chicago, Midway Airport) as he chases James Mason and Martin Landau to the face of Mount Rushmore. It was also about not wanting to get on another plane and hoping that Amtrak might offer a rational alternative.
I've tried this before, of course, most recently in 2004, a tale I recounted in a column called Stranger on a Train. Now, as then, the train seemed better than my flight options: a $700 a person roundtrip Delta itinerary from my hometown airport in Newburgh, New York, via Atlanta, on four tinny, tiny regional jets or a $500 a person roundtrip on Continental from Newark on two tinny, tiny RJs.
Instead, for about $1,000 roundtrip for two, my frequent-flying wife and I chose Amtrak. That bought us a "roomette" going down and a "bedroom" coming back on the Viewliners, Amtrak's newest long-haul trains. Bundled into the cost: the appropriate meals (dinner down, breakfast back); all the juice, coffee and bottled water we could drink; soap, towels and bed linens; admittance to the Acela lounge at New York's Penn Station; and the service of attendants to make up our cabins and generally guide us through the Amtrak experience.
And Amtrak is, if nothing else, an experience.
I've been riding the rails all of my life, mostly short-haul commuter trains, city subways and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor service. But that doesn't prepare you for long-haul Amtrak travel. For one thing, I don't know how to read a train schedule. For another thing, being able to read a train schedule doesn't matter much since Amtrak's schedules are so limited. Amtrak had temporarily cancelled the other New York-Charleston service (the Palmetto), so our only choice was the Silver Meteor. That meant leaving New York at 3:15 in the afternoon and arriving in Charleston at 5 the next morning. Coming home, the Silver Meteor doesn't leave Charleston until nearly 10 p.m.
See the problem? Try showing up at a hotel around dawn looking for an early check-in--or asking for a late check-out until after 9 p.m. So riding the train meant we had to pay for two extra days at the hotel. A car rental was equally problematic. Although I counted four old-fashioned, wooden telephone booths at the Charleston station, there are no car-rental counters. We cabbed it to the hotel and rented later in the day from an in-city Budget Rent A Car station. The problem there? We were headed back to New York on a Sunday and Budget's in-town station closes at noon on the weekends. To return the car, I had to drive to the airport and then take a cab back to the train station.
Now a little bit about Amtrak's Viewliners. In the mid-1990s, when I held the absurd title of "Travel Adviser" at Travel Holiday magazine, I was invited on the inaugural run of a Viewliner in commercial service. I demurred, but did ride the train from New York to Washington.
Needless to say, the intervening baker's dozen of years has not been kind to the Viewliners. The seat covers are faded and stained. And lots of things are broken or missing. On the ride down, the reading lights and call buttons in our "roomette" weren't functioning. On the ride back, some of the lights in our "bedroom" were broken and the armchair had been removed. Our attendant also explained that we'd have to schlep to the lounge (when it was open) for coffee because our car's dedicated coffeemaker was out of service.
That said, our sleeping accommodations were interesting and mostly comfortable. The roomette is snug, with two facing chairs that convert into a bed. A smallish upper bunk pulls down from the wall. There's an exposed toilet and a fold-out sink. The bedroom is substantially larger, with a sofa that converts to a decent-sized bed. A large upper bunk descends from above. There's an enclosed toilet stall that doubles as a shower room and a sink and mirror that will remind you of an aircraft lavatory. As I say, there's supposed to be a separate armchair in the bedroom, too, but many have been removed.
One stunning disappointment in both types of accommodations is the workspace. There are wall outlets for power and you can convert your cellphone into a modem, of course, but lots of luck using your laptop productively. The pull-out table is dreadful because it has a badly placed lip that ensures you don't have a flat work surface. You might as well read, watch a DVD or play a board game instead. (A checker/chess board is helpfully embedded into the table.)
Truth to tell, the quality of your ride depends on Amtrak's personnel. Both of our room attendants were outstanding. They were gracious, accommodating and had a sense of humor about the state of Amtrak. Going down, our attendant arranged for a cheap upgrade so we could have two roomettes and spread out. Coming back, our attendant met us on the platform at Charleston, greeted us by name as we approached him and handled our luggage. Both guided us through the vagaries of riding the rails and were quite protective and solicitous.
Other Amtrak employees, not so much. It wasn't that they were rude or unhelpful, but that they were busy making sure that you followed their rules and didn't do things that might inconvenience them. One example: During breakfast, we fell into conversation with our boothmates. We were jabbering away when I noticed that there was now just one other occupied booth. The dining-car waiter approached the booth, and, in a voice loud enough for us to hear, said: "I need this booth back. Breakfast's over." The bewildered riders looked up at him and he said again, "Breakfast's over." They grabbed their belongings and scattered. We got the message, too, and moved away before he came to roust us.
I wouldn't recommend Amtrak as a long-haul replacement for business travel. But I wouldn't warn you off it, either. It was an adventure, even if it wasn't the fantasy I hoped for. Let's be honest, my shot at Cary Grantdom is nothing more than a fantasy, even when I supply my own blonde.
And I will report this tidbit: From what I could tell as I walked through the dining cars at the appointed hours, most of the conversations between the thrown-together boothmates were about their decisions to take the train instead of flying…
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.