The Amtrak Diaries

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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.

7 thoughts on “The Amtrak Diaries”

  1. Spokane to St. Paul is 30 hours or so and it definitely involved sleeping in my chair. Probably not something that would be so fun now that I am nearing 30, but at 21 I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  2. I thought about taking the train home to MN a few times. Something like 98 hours through Seattle for more than a plane ticket. The novelty is the only reason those trains don’t run empty

  3. I’ve taken the Philly/NYC train. It’s nice. Now consider doing it for 2 days straight and sleeping on your chair and not letting in any air.

  4. I took the train between Spokane and St. Paul a couple times. I loved it. But, I really appreciated the time. It gave me a chance to decompress between my two different worlds (home & college). Also, that route runs along the south end of Glacier National Park, which gives you some amazing views.

  5. Hey, long time follower first time commenter I suppose.

    I can’t believe trains are so terrible out there in western America. Over here I used to ride the train into Philadelphia once a week, two hour trip one way, but it was some of the most comfortable and relaxing trips I’ve taken.

    Although, I gotta sympathize on the freight train front. I remember we had to wait near 35 minutes for a freight train to pass, and then stood around for another 20 for no reason.

    Looks like you’re trips off to a great start so far. Fun stuff to read.

  6. I’m sure someone will remind of you of this post, but only because things are starting to get interesting. Sure, discomfort for you, but for the rest of us we get exposure to a world we have never seen. Which is, I suppose, the whole point of this blog. Any video yet??

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