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An Amtrak Trek North By North

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The trip, this non-Kerouac ramble is from jungle-Mexico up to tourist-Mexico, on board a cruise ship toward Miami, then New York and back to Miami for the medical games for which I came. This is not the journey of Jack, Mrs. Kerouac's son, nor his roll of paper to document the journey across the land. This is not Robert Frank's photo-trek across the landscape of American people and faces, waitresses and signs, the landscape of hope and despair. Frank worked with film with real grain, gritty pictures pushed to the limits. Kerouac had a grainy head, highly sensitive and harshly ready to show itself to posterity, that generation down the road of time.

It is my trip into what I thought would be the lonely road of the forgotten railroads washed over by time and jets, federal highways filled with vacation throngs. Not. There is a new view of the rails in America. Changes are happening fueled by the forces of Arab threat and hellish security.

In 1959 Cary Grant crawled into the upper berth of a spacious room on the 20th Century Limited to Chicago in order to hide in the corn rows from the biplane of doom. Back in 1954 or so this boy watched the Silver Meteor in its diesel aerodynamic glory ring its glory bell as it pulled in Tampa's Union Station from New York. The stuff of dreams, of travel, of exotic New York and of that shiny fine locomotive of gleaming power.

Eisenhower's federal highway system grew from a semi-military, cold war path for missiles into the economic arteries of America. From it came the red highway network of coast-to-coast trucks and the slow strangulation of the passenger rail, the ascendancy of the four-car family and the blossom of airline routes tying the nation together at high speed, business travelers rushing to the airport gate to be stopped by all the other travelers headed for the gates.

Came 9/11. Air travel had already become first class or steerage with both lacking service and charm. Pack them in like 650 mph sardines and see how many delays and lost bags the industry can survive.

America reacted to another Pearl Harbor. It installed guards at the gates to shut the barn doors and guard them with machine guns against explosive shoes. Air travel which had fueled great industries began to be painful. There seemed few alternatives. Passenger ships were mostly gone and Amtrak had lost the luster of the glory days of romantic rails.

An Amtrak Trek: Part I

This expatriate came visiting America again but needed to keep going from Miami, where the ship left his non-flying soul, to The City — New York. Ah, the romance. Ah, the luxury. Bring on that Pullman porter and hear the bell ring and the proud conductor call “All aboard”.

It is 2007. The ticket was booked online. I made this trip about 10 years ago from Rhinebeck, New York, through the City to Tampa to visit my ill mother. I was broke that year — could barely afford a coach ticket. It was better than I thought but the coach for 27 hours was stiffening, the train and toilets clean until somewhere in the South when everyone was too tired, the trip too long.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThis is another year, another life and I splurged on the roomette for luxury, for survival and perhaps for the romance of railroading. The roomette was an extra $185 dollars over the $113 for the ticket. It was said to be fine for two but there is only one of me. Super-sized Americans may not fit into the roomette with ease.

Meals in the dining car are included along with bottled water and other first class perks. I didn't believe it would be worth the money. Trains are great for medium distance intercity travel. New York to Washington, Albany to New York, throw in a Boston and these are great trips of luxury, speed and comfort delivering the traveler from center city to center city without the taxi ride out to where they hid the airports.

My Internet ticket in hand I took the red-eyed me in a taxi from downtown Miami to the Amtrak station in North Miami. It is no longer in a Union Station but a nondescript building. There are two trains from Miami and both leave early in the morning. Mr. Night Person managed to wake at 5:30 and make the half-hour-before 7:15 departure. Security was a sleepy-cranky dude who attached tags to the checked baggage. Sleepy folk lined up for the coaches and I said, trying not to be pretentious, that I was in “the sleeper”. I was ordered into a golf cart and hummed off to the cars at the front of the train — locomotive, baggage car, three sleepers, dining car and a string of passenger cars. The sun was coming up over industrial Miami landscapes.

I was welcomed aboard by the sleeper car attendant and shown to the room — or was it a coffin with seats? I did not pace it off for there is no room to pace but estimated 30 square feet. There are two seats that recline a little, a big window, a sink that folds down and supplies hot and cold water and “ice water” I didn't try. A desk folds out, folds open from under the window with a chess board inscribed in it. A toilet for midgets is under the sink, directly beside one seat. I had my worries about using it. The room had a few lights individually controlled and a thermostat that worked, room for me and another non-supersized person facing each other. Curtains could cover the three windows onto the narrow passageway. A “shower” was at the end of the car. It looked much like a vertical sarcophagus and, the train bouncing and swaying, I did not avail myself of the cleanliness I so desperately wanted.

There were also bigger rooms (with bigger price tags) in the car. They have more space and gathered families. I, alone, would have liked the space but not the 100% additional price.

The blogging traveler will revel in the power outlet that ran my laptop. I had remembered to put movies on the hard drive and could relax with a good one although I should have planned for North by Northwest or Keaton's The General. There was no wireless connectivity, intermittent cellular service.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThere is a dining car and the food is better than it might be but not as good as it should be, the car about 65 F, the tables too close to the benches for the super-sized Americans who tried to share my table but couldn't fit. Fittingly we talked of their world of working in a hog processing factory. Like dog owners, they had grown similar to the 32,000 hogs a day their factory butchered. The food was better than the Marriott's restaurant the other night when I was too tired to walk out in search of anything else. The hospitality, service, and room were so good that I regard the hotel restaurant as something for which I should have known better.

I have eaten in the frigid dining car a breakfast of weak coffee and a decent quiche with potatoes and a lunch of a chicken breast sandwich with packaged mustard, slightly wilted lettuce, tomato, and more weak coffee. Dinner is now done and I chatted with a professor of psychology and ethics in a university. He had the beef and pronounced it "good" and I the roast half chicken, baked potato, string beans and salad. It got an “OK”, better than the lounge car with its nuked, packaged dinners. One RR dining car attendant was pleasant, cheerful for the entire trip and helpful. The woman who brought the food was the expected RR worker — surly and on the verge of rude, to be ignored. Still, my first trip I had bought a dinner to go near Penn Station, fearing the worst for the dining car and learned the next morning that they would make me an egg-white omelet and the tablecloths were clean, the company often enjoyable on the rigid table and benches that are shared at the order of the dining car attendant.

After two or three hours we rolled out of the nearly endless urbanization of the southeast Florida corridor of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, this beach and that beach and began to see green again. Up Okechobee and Sebring way the view began to look more like the way I remember my Florida of 50 years ago. Here we clattered past not just a few yachts but whole marinas full of them and lines of marinas, a fenced lot of Bentleys and Rolls, the town of Winter Park that the Amtrak Route Guide describes as “the birthplace of the Temple Orange” and the place President Chester Arthur (not one of our most memorable) described as “the prettiest place I have seen in Florida.” It looks neat and clean and manicured and boasts the “largest outdoor art show in the country.” It looks rich and stuffy and I wanted to get off and wander around anyway.

We have rounded a curve and I have seen the train clearly for the first time It is a long train with at least a dozen cars behind the three sleepers and the dining car. Train travel is not dying, maybe growing, merely needs to embrace the European spirit, the Japanese vision of trains that move and trains that serve up a travel experience just a little more like the cruise lines, huge, mass tourism movement and Marriott's Courtyard business model of service to the customer.

I am not the first to notice this phenomenon. A Fodor's article on how rail ridership had increased 6% this year is on my RSS reader. More people are noticing this alternative to the shoe searches and nasty security people looking for hate in all the wrong places. With luck or intelligence Amtrak and the Congress that oversees it will see the new riders lining up and try to raise the level of American rail service. Business Week has an article on the plight of the airline industry post 9/11, “The Summer Of Hell”.

My movie done, it is about 11 and the sleeper attendant arrives to convert my room. The two chairs slide out and a bunk can slide down from above. There is only me so he merely takes the thin foam pad and pillows that were stored above and the two seats become a bed. I sleep fitfully, wake often. The engineer loves the sound of his own train horn and it wails in the night. The sheets and thin blanket are somehow tighter than military. I fit in as if in a pod, a shroud in this small coffin of a room. But I am alone, my beloved laptop and cameras safely with me, my teeth brushed and a sink to shave in before arriving in Manhattan. I have stopped in the lounge car and I have looked at the “public” toilets and decided that tiny, private one is worth trying and lo, it works. Why do I have a house? Why do I worry that an apartment might be too small? I have lived in 30 square feet and liked it.

Morning and there is breakfast and a view. We are in Virginia and, finally, enter Washington, D.C. The Monument is visible in the perfect light of a September morning. We stop for a while in D.C. while they change engines from, I think, CSX to Amtrak, and increase speed through the Northeast Corridor, past 19th century trestles and warehouses; the wrong side of the tracks is on both sides of the train now. New Jersey passes in this tired dream and then we are in the tunnels of the City beneath the metropolis.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWe dock below Penn Station. I gather my carry-ons, one too many as always, and gird myself for the hot, muggy, crowded chaos of the big waiting room I know to be waiting. Following a Red Cap (they are still there — “Oh, porter… porter” said Fred Astaire wooing Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee) with someone else's baggage, he takes them into a First Class Lounge and asks if I am from the sleeper. Amazed, I find a great perk. This lounge puts many first class airline lounges to shame. Plush, A/C, clean with paintings on the wall, coffee and soft drinks, a “business center” and WiFi, it gives extra value to my room. A red cap is called for me and goes out into the chaos for a long time where he stands in line in the hot sweatiness while I have coffee and chat with a fellow passenger. Then he takes me and my luggage to the taxis for the trek to Grand Central for the last leg of my journey into the New York suburbs on Metro North which have also improved their service for the affluent commuters to Westchester County.

I check in with Amtrak as soon as I have an idea when I am returning. Rooms are priced by “supply and demand” says Amtrak. The day I want to go they are $380 additional on one of the trains, sold out on the other. People are going south. The train another day is about $250 and I feel guilty but I crave my private 30 square, my midget toilet and the (sort of) romantic dining car.

Photos are ©Howard Dratch, 2007. From top: An industrial landscape from my roomette in Florida. Second, an ultra-wide shot from one seat to the other of my 30 square feet. Third, Harlem from the Metro North train's elevated route north into Westchester County.

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About hfdratch

  • Thanks for the comments. Mark: time for me to read the Theroux. Elvira yest it did have a “relatively” pleasant time. In the morning I board the Silver Star for the return.

    I posted a similar article on my own blog, 7 Color Lagoon which garnered a wonderfully informative comment by Jim L. It is really worth the read for more of the Amtrak passenger rail situation from the keyboard of a real railroad man. I hope he will also post it here.

    RNB. You may be right about the percentage of travel by rail but that could mean that there is a lot of room for the country to go back to the future.

  • Hey Howard–good stuff. My b/f and I took Amtrak twice from NYC to Wisconsin. What a schlep, and the route was not very scenic. The second time I brought a ton of sandwiches for the road because the sandwiches etc cost a fortune. We didn’t travel in “style” but I noticed that the supposed “sleeper” seats were identical to the regular ones. I guess you got the real deal though.

    The conductors can be rude and unhelpful. You’re right about the lack of security–one time we went right after there was a big announcement that Amtrak would be checking security more closely but apparently not.

    My b/f went out to Ohio recently by plane to visit his folks, and though it was a short trip it was hellish nonetheless. He is very hesitant to ever take a plane trip again after that ordeal.

    But it sounds like you had a relatively “pleasant” time of it in exchange for the extra bucks.

  • wow, really great stuff howard.

    reminds me of shorter (and far less scary) version of paul theroux’s The Old Patagonia Express

  • RNB

    Passenger rail carries less than 1 percent of the intercity travel in the U.S. That’s not a transportation mode, it’s somebody’s hobby.