I recently had to go to a number of cities for business and family matters that were nestled across the country. “Self,” said I, “why not take the Amtrak challenge, write on the train and relax for two days going to Denver from New York?” Silly me.
Traveling is not wonderful during the winter months no matter how you go, and I was prepared for the inconveniences of Mother Nature. However, how a service deals with those inconveniences separates the men from the boys, and sadly, Amtrak, or AmCrap as my fellow travelers dubbed the company, clearly has to grow up.
You know when you arrive at the airport and it says delayed on the boards? Well, Amtrak says ‘on time’ until it’s a lie to be saying it (in other words, the departure time has passed), and then they alert you to the delay. I did ask at the counter when it was boarding time if the train was in the station and the man behind the counter was clear about the fact that it wasn’t.
“I see that it now says the train to Chicago is delayed. Is it in the station?”
“Oh, that’s odd. If they knew it wasn’t even in the station, why did they wait until departure time to change the ‘on time’ listing to delayed?”
“I dunno. It’s not even in the service area.”
“Oh, well how long does it take once it’s in the service station before it comes to the station to pick us up? Is there time for me to go out and run a few errands?”
“I have no idea.”
“Could you ask someone?”
Ok then. I head back to the lounge area and eat the soup that I bought just before they changed the marquee. I thought it would be cool to eat hot soup in my roomette (Isn’t that a great name, Roomette?)
We board an hour later, and I lug my luggage to the rail car where my first class roomette awaits. I have a large, heavy bag filled with papers etc. for the business part of the trip, and I stand looking at the gap between the car and the platform wondering how I can lift it across as it clearly can no longer be rolled. I am reminded in that great film A League of Their Own when she is running next to the moving train and throws her luggage, the luggage of her sister and then her body onto the slowly moving train. She wasn’t embarrassed at all at her grunting and so I thought, “well if it’s good enough for Geena Davis, then it’s good enough for me.” I heave ho my bag over the Delaware Gap of Penn Station and notice the porter for my first class car standing just inside.
“Hi, I’m Christine, and in Roomette #5.”
“Well, it’s back there,” he says pointing.
“Oh, well is there a place to store my bag?”
“No, if you didn’t check it, then it has to go in your room. You are going to be crowded.”
I’m wondering why they didn’t tell me this when I checked in. I maneuver my way to my room and realize it just ain’t big enough for the both of us.
And, surprise, surprise, the porter for our compartments has disappeared.
The train pulls out; I’m sitting on the chair in my roomette with my legs on top of the bag which just fits lying on the floor. My knees are higher than my chest, however, and I’m concerned about sitting like this for two days and if the blood clots from sedentary sitting are worse if your legs are higher than your heart.
My door is open and a family of three from Australia is setting up in the roomettes next to mine. It appears that we are the only three in the car, but alas the porter is still not around to answer questions. I wonder where he can possibly be hiding. We are not talking about many places to get lost.
We chat for a bit, and I think this adventure is getting better. It’s agreed that we will go to dinner together. In the meantime I make some calls and watch the partially frozen Hudson as we run alongside it and the sinking sun. Very pretty.
We get to dinner and the first sign that this is not quite the first class dining experience we’re used to is when there is only one menu for the entire table and it’s all been crossed out with a pen with other entrees entered in with misspelled precision by the hand of someone who clearly couldn’t care less.
I’m quickly reading my turn at the menu when our waitress announces,
“You can’t eat breakfast here; we have no water.”
“Oh, well where will we be eating?” says the Australian father politely.
“You can get something in the back if you want, but other than that, I don’t know.”
We are then given sheets of paper to sign for our dinners which she leaves on the table.
“Don’t lose those papers,” she admonishes. “If you do, I’m docked $25 for each of them.”
I am starting to feel testy.
“Then don’t leave it here on the table,” I said with a hint of irritation. “I can’t take on this responsibility right now. I’m trying to unwind.”
“I have to leave them here until dinner is over. It’s the rule.”
About twenty five minutes later, four paper plates of still bleating lamb are slapped down in front of us just as the lights go out. I figure this is a gift from God, and I’m grateful. We eat in the dark for 15 minutes and then one of those neon wands is put on the table. You know the ones. They use them at concerts, and I’m thinking I might lift it up, wave it around and sing a heartfelt rendition of God Bless America.
I ask the waitress as she comes by for another diet pepsi.
“Not unless you pay $1.25 you can’t.”
“Ok, I will pay the additional funds. But could I point out that since you have no water to serve, it seems to me I should get the diet soda for nothing.”
“You can get water,” she says. “It’s on the shelf in your car just up there.”
Oh, I get it. I should get up from my dinner and walk to the next car and get the water there and bring it back. Right.
We are sitting making the best of a meal that only gets worse, and I’m drooling from stories from the Australian couple about the great trains in Europe and the train from Paris to London. We decide to rise above those around us, get my computer and watch a movie. I get the computer, come back and set in on the dining room table.
“Oh, no you don’t!” cometh from the Amtrak Gestapo Waitress. “You ain’t watching that in here.”
We decide to retire to the rooms and head for bed. Somehow the festive mood is lost.
Our porter is no where to be found. It’s now 9:30, and I wonder about how tipping works and what exactly his responsibilities include. I figure out how to work the bed, lower it and get ready for the night’s adventure.
I lie on my berth watching the night pass and the lights of Ohio and Pennsylvania going by. I realize that the second diet pepsi which I had to drink all of to make my point is making sleep impossible. But the night is cold and the window gives me a doorway into sleeping America that I find very comforting. I watch the passing scenery as the train lumbers through the countryside. I am reminded of the enormity of this land of ours and how Amtrak transverses it daily like a mother walking through her den. I’m happy to be on the ride.
It’s the next morning, and I head to the dining car. I see that there are some women eating oatmeal, and I think all is not lost.
“I’ll have the oatmeal please.”
“No oatmeal. We have no water.”
“They have oatmeal,” I say pointing to my neighbors.
“Well, we had water a while ago and now we don’t.”
Another woman walks up and asks if I want oatmeal.
“I can get the water from the car up there and make it.”
I look pointedly at Gestapo Lady and ask her what her name is.
She answers, looks me straight in the eye and says. “What’s yours?”
My neighbors arrive and sit down. He wants the egg and cheese sandwich and the oatmeal.
“You can have one or the other, not both. And if you want the cheese sandwich you have to go the car back there and order it with the rest of the passengers.”
Could I possibly make this up? By this time it’s about National pride and dignity. All I can think of is the stories from the night before about European train service and I’m ready to pull out my flag and show them how this country works.
“Ok,” I say looking right into her eyes. “Let’s review. You can’t serve us the breakfast we paid for because you have no water. Now you are telling this nice man that he can’t have what he wants which is available for breakfast. This is not working for me. Who is in charge and please ask them to come to the table.”
We see her walk back and talk with the other waitress and another woman at length, clearly explaining the situation. Now I become Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail when he’s trying to get the woman at Zabars to take Meg Ryan’s credit card.
She walks to the table, and I make the case.
“These nice people from Australia paid – as I did – $1,000 for tickets on this train to ride first class from New York City to their destination in California. You can’t serve them the breakfast they paid for. We understand that the water isn’t working because the pipes froze. But, now you are telling him he can’t have both oatmeal and an egg sandwich? If Amtrak can’t give them what they paid for, then the way Amtrak needs to respond, like this. “We are so sorry for the inconvenience. How can we make it better? You want the egg sandwich from the back and Oatmeal? I’m on my way.'”
She looks at me and starts to explain.
“No,” I interrupt holding up my hand. “Explanations are over. Are you going to help him or not?”
“You are not listening to me explain our procedures and how they are just following the rules.”
“No, I’m not listening. I’m the client and your job is to murmur, say you are sorry and to recognize that we are at our wits end.”
To her credit, she looked at me, said she would take care of it and did. I thank her from the bottom of my heart for showing them that in America, reason can prevail. The message to AmCrap? No wonder you are in the state you are. Wake up, smell the roses and change your rules. They aren’t working.
We arrive into Chicago two hours late. Our porter is all over me with helpfulness when we pull into the station. I tell him that I find this insulting, and I hope he has a nice life. I have just enough time to run to a museum I want to see before the next train takes me to my final destination of Denver. Maybe that train will be better.