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 The Brancatelli File

joe STRANGER ON A TRAIN

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 18, 2004 -- I spent 23 hours on Amtrak last weekend and came to several inescapable conclusions.

In its best moments, a ride on Amtrak beats the hell out of another flight. In its worst moments, a ride on Amtrak is at least as bad as any Big Six flight you've ever had. At all times, Amtrak exists in a bizarre fantasy world that bears almost no relation to the product and service actually on the tracks.

Before we proceed on this unfamiliar journey--After all, when was the last time you took a long-haul business trip by train?--let me disclose my own bias. I'm a New Yorker, which means I've lived most of my life on trains. These days, I watch about 70 trains a day--commuters, Amtrak and freight--glide by my office window. I use Amtrak almost exclusively in the Boston-Washington Corridor. I like trains and I've used them on five continents.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to take the train when I needed to get to The Greenbrier Resort last weekend. I thought the 21-hour roundtrip from New York's Pennsylvania Station to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, might shed some light on the current state of Amtrak and also be a good test of how far you can push rail alternatives to flying.

Now I admit my determination was fueled in part by our friends at US Airways. As the sole provider of service to Lewisburg, the closest airport to the resort, US Airways wanted more than $940 for a New York/LaGuardia-Lewisburg roundtrip. And I'd have to fly two turboprops and two RJs, connect in Pittsburgh, spend more than seven hours in the air and lord only knows how much time at the three airports.

So off I went to the Amtrak Web site. It offered up The Cardinal, a thrice-weekly train that meanders from New York to Chicago via White Sulphur Springs. The train's schedule was fortuitous: I could leave New York around 9:30 a.m. on Friday, arrive at the Greenbrier by 7 p.m., then leave Sunday afternoon around 1 p.m. and be back in New York by 11:30 p.m. The fare: $160 roundtrip for a coach seat.

Two things you should know about that fare. It was $160 because American taxpayers subsidize The Cardinal to the tune of about $200 a passenger. It was also $160 because the Amtrak site wouldn't let me book the more costly sleeping-car accommodations that the schedule said existed on the train.

And here is where the reality of Amtrak begins to diverge from the fantasy world of Amtrak. I got to Penn Station early last Friday to solve the mystery of the sleeping-car accommodations. The clerk at the ticket counter insisted there was no sleeping car on The Cardinal. There's never been a sleeping car on The Cardinal, she insisted. I persisted: What about the schedule that shows the existence of just such accommodations? "Look," she said. "There's no sleeping car. What else do you want me to tell you?"

The truth of the matter is something quite different. In various guises, The Cardinal has been on the schedule since Amtrak was founded in 1971. And it has almost always had sleeping cars. But what I learned this week after some further inquiry in rail circles was that Amtrak had pulled the sleeping cars sometime in January. Then they reappeared this week. One other thing: This New York-based clerk was in no position to talk about "never." Until last fall, The Cardinal didn't even serve New York. It used to originate in Washington, D.C., but was extended to New York in October so that Amtrak could continue to perpetuate the fiction of long-haul rail service.

Had I known last week about The Cardinal's recent appearance in New York, I wouldn't have been surprised by what happened next. As I approached the train to board, an Amtrak employee stationed at the door asked: "Where to?"

"White Sulphur Springs," I said, showing my ticket.

"Where the hell is that?" he said, quite seriously.

"Don't you know?" I said, surprised and a little concerned.

"Hey, pal, I get off the train in Washington. What do I know? You might as well get on the train."

Which I did. I threw my briefcase and my weekend bag on an overhead rack, plopped myself down in a big, cushy chair and began to experience the nice side of a business trip on Amtrak. My laptop fit easily on the drop-down tray in front of me; the electrical outlet provided uninterrupted power. There was plenty of room to spread out and work in comfort. I plugged my mobile phone into my laptop, configured it for use as a modem and was able to access the Internet without serious interruption. The train glided into Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Virginia and I hardly noticed. I worked nonstop until a little after 4 p.m., when we pulled into Charlottesville, Virginia.

This was a hell of a lot more comfortable and productive than squeezing into an RJ and a prop and schlepping through airports, I thought to myself. And, for about a moment, I was getting romantic about trains. But just then my cell phone lost signal and the train began to buck so violently over the rough track bed that it became impossible to keep working.

So I went in search of the lounge car, which the schedule promised. There was no lounge car. I then searched for the dining car, since the schedule promised that it offered complete meals. I wasn't expecting Cary Grant and Eva Maria Saint a la North By Northwest, you understand, but I wasn't prepared for a dreary-looking cafeteria manned by a lone fellow named Kenneth, either.

"Complete meals?" Kenneth said from behind the counter. "Haven't had that in some years, sir. I only have sandwiches and snacks."

I spent the rest of the ride in my seat, watching the charming scenery. At 6:45 p.m., we pulled out of Clifton Forge, Virginia, and a polite Amtrak employee touched me on the arm and said, "We'll have you in White Sulphur Springs in an hour."

"Oh, thanks," I said. "But I thought we were scheduled for 7 p.m."

"Honey," she said sweetly, "we are never on time."

On Sunday's return trip, The Cardinal pulled into White Sulphur Springs about 10 minutes late. When I approached the one open door to board, an Amtrak employee said, "Take Seat 21 up ahead."

I looked at my train ticket. There was no seat number on it, but it didn't seem important. So I went to Seat 21 and plopped myself down. The chair, which was reclined, wouldn't come back to the upright position. There was no way I would be able to work. So I sought out the Amtrak employee--her name was Dara--and explained.

"I can just move, right? I mean, this isn't an assigned seat."

"Just go sit there," she said, kindly enough, "and I'll see what I can do."

Suddenly, I felt like a stranger on a train. I didn't understand why I had been assigned a seat or whether I had to honor the assignment. But I sat back down and waited for about an hour. No Dara. So I got up and walked back to the car behind. It was almost empty.

Confused, I found Dara and asked if I could sit in the empty car.

"I have a big party coming on in Charlottesville," she said, politely. "I don't know if there's room for you. I have to check with the conductor."

"But I don't understand," I said. "These aren't assigned seats, are they? Why do I have to sit in a broken seat and then hope people coming on later don't fill seats that are empty now? I wouldn't complain, but the seat is broken. I really shouldn't have to sit in it."

Dara looked at me. At first I thought she was going to scream at me. Then I realized she might actually break down and cry. So before she could say anything, I said: "I'm going back to Seat 21. Just promise me that you'll get me out of the broken chair before Charlottesville, okay?"

"I will," she said.

Dara was as good as her word. When she came to fetch me, she apologized. "Seats really aren't assigned. But we try to group people together to make it a little easier on us. I'm sorry I didn't notice it was broken."

"It's okay," I said. "But what are those monitors up there?" I said, pointing to the banks of TV screens bolted into the overhead racks.

"Once upon a time we used to show movies. But Amtrak decided they were too expensive to maintain and repair, so we don't show movies anymore."

As the hours dragged on--and the train fell further behind schedule--I began to notice the state of this particular iteration of The Cardinal. The sinks in the lavatories leaked. Chairs and countertops and side panels were held together with copious amounts of duct tape. Luggage overflowed from the skimpy storage racks at the back of the cars and into nearby seats.

As we neared Washington, we were an hour behind schedule. The conductor came on a wheezing intercom system and gave new arrival times for several stations. But he claimed the train would arrive on schedule in Washington at 7:30 p.m.

So it did. And, then, we sat. Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes. Forty-five minutes. An hour. Two or three trains arrived and departed on the track across the platform. But we sat motionless.

Finally, I got up and sought out Dara. I found her in the vestibule, sitting on a yellow stepstool, surrounded by irate passengers.

"Don't blame me," I heard her say. "It's not my fault. There's no crew. They're not here yet."

From what I could gather, The Cardinal changes crews in Washington and the Washington-boarding crew drives the train to New York. But tonight, the new crew hadn't appeared.

In fact, no crew appeared for almost two hours. It seems the crew that takes over in Washington actually comes down from New York. And on this particular night, the train they were coming to Washington on never left the New York yards. So they had to catch another southbound train.

"Why would they send crews from New York to run the train up from Washington?" I asked Dara.

"Beats me," she said. "Amtrak does the weirdest things. They probably extended this train to New York for political reasons. It sure doesn't make operational sense. We have about 20 trains a day between New York and Washington. We sure don't need this train to go all the way to New York. You could have all switched here and been halfway home by now."

When the New York-based crew finally arrived--surly and obviously frustrated--they barked at everyone to get on the train. We left at 9:30 p.m., two hours after we arrived. The conductor put the pedal to the metal and we flew north. We reached New York in just three hours rather than the scheduled four. All in all, we arrived an hour late, at 12:30 a.m.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.