The Amtrak Diaries

April, 9th, 5:15pm CDT, Somewhere between Cleburne and McGregor, TX

I’m writing this on the Texas Eagle. Train number 21 out of Dallas en route to San Antonio. They just called for people with 5:15 reservations in the Dining car. I’m sitting in my seat watching the idyllic middle Texas countryside roll by.

If you have never taken Amtrak before on a long journey, I can give you one word of valuable advice: Don’t.

Long distance rail service makes no sense as a competitive mode of transportation in the US. How does Amtrak suck? Let me count the ways:

1) Its slow. I don’t have any data in front of me, but I have to believe that a bus is as fast or faster than taking a train. We had to make several complete stops to let freight trains go by. It took two hours to go from Dallas to Fort Worth. When the track ran along side a road, we were regularly passed by cars. You’d think that a train would be faster than a bus, but I can’t see how in any realistic sort of comparison of the two. (The only exception might be in North East Corridor routes between Washington and Boston, where routes actually make sense) It’s a four-hour drive from Dallas to San Antonio. The scheduled time for the train (not the actual time which is longer) is a little more than 10 hours. Comparisons to plane travel are so obvious as not to warrant mention.

2) Its not comfortable. Dallas to LA is about 48 hours. A standard coach class ticket doesn’t give you a sleeper car space, you have to sleep in your seat. If you want to upgrade to a sleeper car, you’d have to pay more than the price of a plane ticket. The ride, in general, is bumpy. About the same as a plane flight in turbulence. Unlike a bus on a highway, you can’t get cell service along most of the railroad track. The train stations are on a par with bus stations in terms of cleanliness. Often, they are the bus stations. The seats are larger with much more leg room than a plane, but given the length of the trip, it would have to be. The food they serve is expensive and not very good. Complain all you want about airline food, but at least the flight is over in a few hours regardless how well you get fed. The seats don’t recline all the way to let you lie down, even though there is enough room. The total experience isn’t hell, or as bad as a similar length bus trip, but it’s not like a hotel either.

3) The cost isn’t worth it. If you want cheap, take a bus. if you want fast, take a plane. Rail travel sits in awkward no man’s land between air and bus travel, where it takes as long as a bus, but costs almost as much as a plane.

All that being said, people still take the train. I’m amazed. I’m doing it just for the novelty of it, but there are a lot of people on this train who are not.

8am CDT, somewhere west of San Antonio

I’d say it was one of the worst nights sleep I’d ever had, but that would imply that I got any sleep. Even with two seats to yourself and lots of legroom, it’s still near impossible to get any sleep. The pillow they give you is the smallest pillow I’ve ever seen. It’s about the size of my hand. We pulled into San Antonio at about midnight which was cool because there was fog all over the city. The train station is right next to the Alamo Dome. I walked the five minutes to go to Denny’s for something to eat because I didn’t want to get gouged in the dining car. While I was “sleeping”, they unhooked our car and attached it to the LA bound train. I don’t know if anyone can sleep through a railroad car getting hooked and unhooked.

I’m in the lounge car as I write this in hopes of getting an outlet. No dice. My battery is down to 8%. I know there are outlets somewhere. The one in this car isn’t working. I’ve seen lots of laptops on the train, so I’m amazed there aren’t more outlets. It would seem to be the natural thing to supply electricity for people on long trips and would be something to differentiate trains from other modes of transportation.

6pm MDT, El Paso

Doing some back of the envelope calculations based on the Amtrak time schedule, it takes 48 hours to go from New Orleans to Las Angeles. The total distance is 1995 miles, resulting in 41.5 mph. I think that much of what ails passenger rail transport in the US could be solved by just doubling the speeds of trains. We’re not talking about Japanese bullet trains here. Just something going 80-100 mph would turn trips of unreasonable length to something much more reasonable.

The problem is that Amtrak doesn’t own the rails it runs on. They’re owned by various freight companies. (Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, etc) Amtrak was created in the early 1970’s because the railroad companies didn’t want to be in passenger business anymore. The Nixon administration created Amtrak thinking it would die in a few years on its own. It has since shown much more skill at lobbying than it has at running a business. They lose about $1 billion dollars a year which is subsidized by the federal government.

To make passenger rail effective, you’d need separate tracks for passenger and freight trains. The rail for passenger trains needs to be designed for much faster trains than freight. If you doubled the speed of passenger trains, you could effectively remove all the sleeper and dining cars from all but the most lengthly runs, and all the staff needed to cook food and manage the sleepers. That would in turn decrease costs (Amtrak employees make on average 20% more than airline employees) and make rail travel more attractive on both ends: time and money. New tracks would be expensive, but you can amortize it over a very long length of time.

Most of the people I’ve met on the train are very nice, ordinary folk. A few, however, are batshit insane. One woman was going out of her way to tell EVERYONE about another woman who spilled some water on the floor. She began muttering to herself when there were no people to talk to. She started talking to herself about how she would confront the woman with her lies and how scriptures warned of wickedness…..all about a water fountain that shot water a bit too far. When the woman who spilled the water eventually came by, she tried to confront her and the woman said “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t notice”. The batshit insane woman was then all “oh, I’ll clean it up”, after spending the last half hour doing nothing to bitching to everyone about the water and not cleaning it up.

There was another woman last night who took the time to talk to every Amtrak employee on the train last night to tell them her life story and how she should get an upgrade to a sleeper car. A woman a few rows ahead of me I think has an IQ as low as you can get without being retarded. She has the speech patterns and intellect of a 12-year-old in the body of a female offensive lineman with no muscle mass. If you’ve read the Onion, think Jean Teasdale.

Amtrak trains also smell bad. For whatever reason, my car doesn’t smell. Every other one does. Unlike a plane, you have lots of people going to the bathroom, eating and throwing away garbage. On top of the bathrooms and garbage, you have an enclosed space with lots of people who haven’t showered in days. You also can’t open the windows.

I passed on eating in the dining car for every meal so far, but I have “reservations” for 7:30 tonight. “Reservations” means that you eat in shifts because they can’t fit everyone into the dining car at once. Its about as expensive as eating in an airport.

8:51pm MDT, Somewhere near Lordsburg, New Mexico

I just finished dinner in the dining car. I was seated next to a man who must have been in his late 70s or early 80s. He knew everything about the railroad having worked in it for 32 years. He has ridden every Amtrak route in the US. He was also one of the biggest pessimists I’ve ever met. To him, everything was going to hell, everything was worse, everything was horrible. Unlike most people, I tend to be pessimistic towards individuals but optimistic towards the world in general. I didn’t argue anything too forcefully because it was dinner and he was old. We are as a people are better off in almost every possible way than we were decades ago. By any measure, we have more food, bigger houses, more income, longer lives, and a better environment than we did before. Good news doesn’t sell, however. Good news can’t be used to pass legislation. We have bombarded with bad news all the time and it’s no surprise why most people think things are always getting worse. Moreover, this has pretty much always been the case. The old days we can see with 20/20 hindsight and it was understandable and safe. The future is always ambiguous and unknown. I don’t know many people willing to resort to a 1970’s lifestyle, let alone a lifestyle from the 1940s or 1900s.

The meal itself OK I guess, for being served on a train. I did find out that for about $100 more I could have upgraded to a sleeper car and got all my meals included. That probably would have been worth it for the meals alone on a two-day trip.

As I write this, there is a small group playing guitar and singing in the lounge. I’ve had a few conversations with some people on the train, but for the most part, I’ve kept to myself and slept.

We should arrive in Tuscon around 1 am and hopefully get rid of some of the crazies in my car. The guy I had dinner with told me of a seven day trip from Chicago to Seattle to LA to San Antonio and back to Chicago. I think I’d shoot myself first.

Someone, please remind me of this post when I consider taking the Trans-Siberian Railway.

6:30 am PDT, Somewhere west of Palm Springs near the Salton Sea

Another poor nights sleep. Was awoken at the stops for Tucson and Phoenix when tons of people came on board the train. For the entire trip, everyone has had a set of two seats to themselves. For a trip, this long, cramming people in airplane style would make this unbearable. They started trying to do that in the middle of the night when the Arizona passengers started filing on. The trick is to make sitting next to you so unappealing they sit somewhere else. I managed to achieve this feat by farting just when they were seating people. Worked like a charm.

Thankfully, I slept through Arizona. Not because Arizona isn’t an interesting place, but because I didn’t want to have to deal with setting my watch for Arizona time. Arizona is now the only state in the lower 48 that doesn’t use daylight savings. I can really care less about that if I’m visiting, but the train uses local time, so I’d have to have reset my watch twice in a span of a few hours.

I don’t know what they’re growing outside of my window. It looks like a palm tree orchard. Just before I saw what looked like a farming operation for large bushes. I have no clue what grows on them.

The shops and signs in Southern California have more Spanish writing than the signs in El Paso did, which borders a Mexican city of over 1 million people.

48 Hours

If you are reading this between noon on April 9th to noon on April 11th, I’m sitting in a chair on the Sunset Limited between San Antonio and Los Angeles.

I decided to take the train for no other reason than I’ve never taken a long train trip before, and this was a great opportunity to do it. The trip from Dallas to LA is 48 hours with a 7 hour layover in San Antonio.

Other than the novelity of taking the train, there is really no reason for anyone to ever take a long train trip. If all you care about is price, take the bus. If you want to get there fast, you take a plane. The train sits in a no-mans land between bus and plane. It costs almost as much as a plane trip, but takes as long (or longer) than a bus trip. While 48 hours on a train can be more comfortable and have better scenery than a bus, its still a 48 hour trip. If I wanted to upgrade to a room with a bed, I’m going to pay more than a flight.

As it is, I’ll have to sleep two nights in a chair on a train.

The trip also takes about 10 hours to get from Dallas to San Antonio which I don’t understand, because its a four hour drive. From what I can gather from the Amtrak site, there are no stops between Dallas and San Antonio other than Fort Worth.

I’m guessing my next update will be one or more updates written from the train with a ton of photos.

Chain stores, subdivisions, and highways

I have come to the conclusion that the image of Texas I have always had is wrong. Very wrong. Texas was supposed to be oil wells, cattle, pick-up trucks and guys in big cowboy hats. It’s really nothing but an endless expanse of malls, stores, walled subdivisions, and highways.

Friday, I had no fewer than three 15 minute conversations with strangers about my trip. I think I’m going to get some business cards made with my website address on it. It will be much easier than having everyone find a pen and try to write down the URL.

I also visited the National Boy Scout Museum (I’m an Eagle Scout) and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The Kimbell is a small but good museum.

Saturday, Scott and I went to the Apple store to get a tutorial on Final Cut Express and went to Micro Center to pick up doodads. In the evening we went out to a friend of Scott and Angie’s birthday’s party. We played Texas Hold Em until like 2 am.

Today I hope to hit REI for some more waterproof bags for my electronics and a camera store for a better tripod. Also, might try to get to Daley Plaza and take some video of the conspiracy crazies.

Monday morning, I’m on the train to LA for a 48 hour Amtrak adventure.


I’m currently in Texas staying with my friend Scott Kurtz for a few days. He’s got a really nice Mac setup and hopefully, I’ll figure out what I’m doing with my video camera and editing software before I leave here.

If everyone is nice, I’ll try to have some video up this weekend.

I drove through Oklahoma this morning and it was pretty boring, except for one small stretch with road cuts. I know enough about geology to know interesting structure when I see it, so I pulled over at a scenic overlook. Sure enough, there was a big sign about the Arbuckle Anticline.


Iowa Wind Farm

I’m writing a quickie entry from a rest stop in Iowa with wireless internet access. The fact that there exist rest stops with wireless internet is a sign of the times.

I changed plans and rented a car to drive to Dallas. I saved some money and I have lots of time. I’ll take the odd photo on the side of the road.

Vegas Errata

Vegas Sign

– The strip is one massive optical illusion. All of Las Vegas is located on a very flat plateau. As such, you can see a long way into the distance. Everything on the strip is built oversized. The signs are enormous. South of the strip on Las Vegas Blvd. there is as strip mall with McDonald’s and a Subway with a sign that is over 100 feet tall out front. The effect of this illusion is that everything looks closer than it appears. It took 90 minutes of pretty much non-stop walking to go from the Luxor to the Hilton.

– I totally freaked out when I tried to download video from my camera to my laptop this week. I got all the cables out, plugged everything in, only to find out that it didn’t seem to work with a Mac. Sony says in the manual that you can only get video onto a Windows XP computer. This struck me as really funny because in all the research I’ve done, I never came across that “small” fact. The cable you used was an i.Link cable, which I’ve never heard of. I’ve never had a computer with an i.Link port so I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Moreover, the i.Link plug didn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before. Five minutes of research online and I learned something that I probably should have known. i.Link is the Sony proprietary name for Firewire (which is the Apple proprietary name). They use the same IEEE standard, but Apple uses a 6-pin connector and Sony uses a 4-pin connector. I just need the right cable and everything should be cool.

– I’ve stated this before, but the lowest job in the world are the people who hand out cards on the street for escorts and strippers. It requires no skill at all. No language skills, Nothing. A blind, deaf, mute guy with no limbs and Down’s Syndrome could in theory put a bag of cards around his neck and still do the job. Hardly anyone takes the cards, and those that do usually throw it on the ground within a few steps. I’m not really even sure how they get paid and why the people who pay them find this to be an economical way to advertise. Four color cards can’t be cheap. Are the guys paid by the hour or buy the card? I’d really like to know how much you can make doing this any why people do this over anything other job.

– There is an odd juxtaposition of things and people in Vegas. Vegas caters to the hoi poloi. This is not a bad thing. Vegas is fun and people of all strips and backgrounds can all congregate in Vegas and find something they like. This usually means swarms of people in tourist attire (t-shirts with obscene sayings, 3 foot tall margarita glass around the neck, drunk…you get the picture) Also all the casinos are open to everyone by law and by business plan, so you get all types of people everywhere. At the same time, you have some of the classiest shops, hotels, restaurants and shows in the world. The type of stuff that you would see on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or 5th Avenue in New York. Its odd to see someone with a “I heart to fart” t-shirt window shopping at Armani.

– Vegas exists not because the logic of local geography (a harbor, a river, etc) but because of local laws. There is no good reason to put a huge city in the middle of desert. (I’d say its the second dumbest place for a city in the US after New Orleans….which is below sea level, sinking, and surrounded by water). The power of local sovereignty is the resource which makes Vegas run. Everyplace else in the country places onerous restrictions on gambling and drinking. Vegas (and to an extent, all of Nevada) doesn’t care. Its the same why that indian reservations and small island nations can eek out a living. Just have laws more liberal and flexible than everyone around you and people will lead a path to your do. It doesn’t just apply to vices like drinking and gambling. It can apply to nuts and bolt things like incorporation (Deleware) or banking (Cayman Islands). It should also be noted that none of the places which have these loose laws are in state of anarchy. They get by quite well, thank you very much.

– Penn & Teller vs. Danny Gans. Everyone knows who Penn & Teller is right? They’re on TV all the time. Penn hosts a game show and had a radio program. They have written books and produced DVDs. That they have a big auditorium in Vegas is really of no surprise. If you go down the strip however, the biggest single billboard for any entertainer is for Danny Gans. WTF is a Danny Gans. (Turns out he’s an impressionist and a pretty good one at that) I’ve never seen him anywhere other than in Vegas. I’m not sure how he got top billing at the Mirage, an enormous billboard on the strip, and still can sell tickets or who goes to see him.

Back By Popular Demand (of the State of Minnesota)

My original plan was to leave for LA from Vegas. However, I have to return to Minnesota for a day or two to straighten out my drivers license situation. I received a speeding ticket in Roseau, MN a while back and the check I sent to pay for the ticket never got cashed. The story I’m told from the Roseau County Court is that the check probably didn’t get there in time, the price went up, and they didn’t cash it because it wasn’t enough. I never paid attention to it after I sent the check and it just sat there. I was able to get my car insurance and tabs renewed, so I had no idea it was still outstanding.

Turns out that my license was suspended because the fine wasn’t paid. The problem now lies in trying to undo the suspension. The fine has been paid. I know this because I sent a money order to Roseau County via priority mail. I called them and they gave me an account number saying the fine was paid. I went to the DMV before I left for Vegas and they showed the fine as being paid. I also paid $30 for a reinstatement fee. So far, so good.

For whatever reason, they still haven’t removed the “suspended” status of my license and I have no clue what I need to do anymore to change. it. I also have this twist which makes it more interesting: I’m technically not a resident of Minnesota anymore. I’m getting all my mail sent to Wisconsin. If I got a Minnesota license, I’d have to wait four weeks for the physical license. If I get it in Wisconsin, I can get it immediately. I’ll be in Minnesota however, not Wisconsin, and Wisconsin wont give me a license until the ‘suspend’ is removed from my Minnesota record. The only thing I’ve been told by MNDOT is what to do to get a new MN license, but I really don’t want one, I just want to be able to get my Wisconsin license. Minnesota is also asking me to show proof of insurance too, which is great, because I don’t own a car anymore and hence, don’t have any need for insurance.

….so, I’m hoping I can straighten this all out in one or two days. The only reason I need a license is so I can rent a car in Hawaii and I can get an international drivers permit before I leave. You need your local license to get the international permit.

I’d like to also point out that as frustrating as my experiences with my mortgage company have been in the last few weeks (and its been frustrating), its nothing compared to working with the State. No one in State of Minnesota has any real incentive to get this solved. I’ve been willing to pay whatever restitution I need to get back in good graces, but at this point I have no clue what I need to do anymore. No one else can give me a straight story either.

Security Theater

The security measures at American airports are a total joke. A total absolute joke….and everyone knows it.

I’m writing this at McCaren airport in Las Vegas, the only major airport in the US that offers free wireless internet to everyone in the airport. (This sort of shoots all the arguments about how airports have to charge ridiculous prices to cover costs in the ass)

The line at the security check point was the longest security line I’ve ever had to go through. There is no way you can effectively check that many people in that short of a period of time. I had a bag full of electronicns. Laptop, GPS, iPod, DSLR, digital video camera, tons of cables, etc. I took none of them out of my bag while going through security. It would have taken too long and I figured that if they did want to inspect me more, given the odds of it happening with that many people, the expected time spent in line would be less by doing nothing. I was right. They let it zip right through, while they did harass people for small water bottles.

The security system as airports are designed to give the illusion of security and to cover the ass of those in charge in case something happened. Shoes and water were fine until someone tried to use them in a terrorist attack. Making you take off your shoes and banning water after the fact doesn’t help security. Knowing how the system works, all terrorists would have to do are plan attacks involving laptop computers and other things people travel with and leak the plans so everyone is more annoyed.

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

Last night, I had the pleasure of having what can only be described as the best meal of my life. Period. Hands down. No debate. No discussion.

It also happened to be the most expensive meal I’ve ever had, so its a damn good thing it was the best.

We had reservations at 6pm for Picasso at the Bellagio. AAA rates restaurants on a five diamond scale and there are only a handful of restaurants in the world which merit a five diamond rating. There are none in Minnesota or Wisconsin. New York City has three. Vegas has four. Picasso has been awarded five diamond for six years running. This is the first and only time I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant of this quality level. It is also ranked as the 10th best hotel restaurant in the US by Zagut’s.

The ‘gimick’ at Picasso is that the walls of the restaurant have actual paintings by Picasso hanging on them. That’s pretty impressive. We didn’t sit near any Picasso’s however. Given our early reservation (6pm) we got a seat out on the patio and were able to get a front and center view of the Bellagio water fountains all evening. (The shows are every half hour).

The first thing that struck me was that they had a sommelier and a 90 page wine list. Picking a wine was like reading the phone book. I’ve never had a master sommelier at a table before and it was a real education. His name was Desi Echavarrie. He had a really in-depth knowledge of everything on the wine list. Who grew it, where it grew, the vine types, the soil, everything. Picking a wine from a list that large is really a crap shoot. On his recommendation, I went with a 50-50 Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Argentina. It was very good and the price was reasonable given where we were dining. (I saw one bottle on the menu for over $8,0000. For that much, a bottle of wine better take me out for breakfast in the morning)

The menu consisted of two tasting menus. That’s it. You could pick the right or left hand side of the menu. There were some options for entrees, but that’s it. One of the courses consisted of foie gras. I had never had foie gras before and had always wanted to try it. It was amazing. I anxiously await the foie gras flavored Doritos.

You can’t eat at a place like Picasso every month or even every year, but it is worth doing at some point in your life, just to say you did it.