Saturday, March 14, 2009


So. I found myself in Savannah with five choices for how to get home. I could fill in the hitch-hike-home box, and never get there. I could take a bus and perhaps get back in a week. I could take a plane and be home in a few hours. I could take a train and hmm who knows when I'd get home. Or more likely, I could be forced into some odd combination of all these. I ended up taking the combination of first train, then bus, and automobile.

L dropped me off at 10:00 P.M. at the Savannah Amtrak Station. After I picked up my boarding pass from a self-service kiosk ala the airport, I learned that the train was not to leave until later. So, I waited in a pleasant waiting room with other passengers: families, individuals, and college students going on Spring Break. I boarded the Silver Star and settled into my coach class seat, about 12:30 A.M. Friday morning. The train had sleeper rooms if so desired at the front of the train, a dining room, cafe or lounge car in the center and coach class seating cars at the rear. Coach class seating was equivalent to business class seating on an airplane to give you an idea of the amount of space available in a seat. I didn't venture into or eat in the dining car nor observe the occupation levels in the sleeper cars.

It's been almost 30 years since I rode Amtrak my first and last time and frankly I wanted to experience it again. It didn't have much if anything to do with going green, even though Amtrak's on-train magazine Arrive informs us that taking a train is 21% more efficient than taking a car and 17% more efficient than taking a plane, on a per-passenger-mile basis. And since it's about to receive more taxpayer largess, I'd like to describe my experience and intersperse some opinion. It's not black and white in my mind as to whether more support is warranted--but from my experience, I think it's needed. I'll try not to argue for or against but just comment on the idea.

What is good, really GOOD, about taking a train? Well for one, you have an opportunity to meet people. I'm not one to talk about that ancient thing called meeting and chatting, as I spend way too much time in front of a computer for my work and personal pursuits. These are very solitary endeavors, i.e. I don't interact directly, face to face with other people much. But on a train you have people on all sides, from different places, each carrying different bits of news and ideas.

The lounge car is the central meeting place on the train--it's a comfortable, spacious place with tables and booths, and a little underused to my observation. It's a place you can walk to, get a snack and refreshment, and then sit down to talk or just watch the world go by. (Some trains have planned activities in this lounge area, but alas not this one.)

It was in the lounge car that I learned from the lounge car attendant, a combination: bartender, snack salesman, stand-up comedy act, and truth and information purveyor extraordinaire, that this train makes the Miami to New York trip in 30 hours. After arriving in New York's Penn Station, it is refueled and serviced overnight and makes the return trip the next day departing just before lunchtime. Since I met this fellow in my pursuit of a quenching Sam Adams Boston Lager Friday afternoon, I'll call him the bartender. He informed me that he works the 30 hours straight will little or no rest, sleeps in New York overnight, then does the same back to Miami at which time he has four days off. Lather, rinse and repeat. This bartender (a Steelers fan!) was a font of information and fun. He definitely made the trip more enjoyable for me.

The lounge bar had a selection of macro lagers, said Sam Adams, and mixed drinks, sodas, juices, and such. Suffice to say that I could be very happy drinking at this bar.

Also in the lounge car, I met a fellow from Cary North Carolina, on his way to visit relatives in Washington D.C. We got to talking on a wide-range of subjects like education, the financial difficulties in America right now, Jon Stewert versus Jim Cramer, and of all things we found some common ground on beer. Yes, beer! We talked about the laws governing beer and alcohol in general and he informed me that his grandfather sold the ingredients to make beer, hops and barley, during Prohibition, with the express and openly displayed purpose that you could take these ingredients home and make beer. Now you couldn't make it for a person and sell them the finished product, but you could sell them the ingredients and tell them how to do it themselves. This was perfectly legal and not some underground commerce activity. He related how his grandfather displayed various quality levels of ingredients with which one could make regular, premium, and ultra premium varieties.

Back in my seat, sitting in the seats in front of me, I met a mother and son traveling to New York to visit the son's father. We kept up a happy game of peek-a-boo the last portion of the trip from Baltimore to Philly. He learned my name as Tony and he soon gave me the moniker of Tony the Tiger. Just as fast I learned his name, Omar and after some time, prescribed him the nickname: OK Omar.

I suppose that there are as many stories like this as there are people, if you only open your eyes and ears and make the effort to engage and listen. And on a train there are ample opportunities for both as there's ample time and people.

At some point in North Carolina, the track changed from the clickety-clack type to an unbroken silver ribbon that was smooth and almost silent. I could not fathom the reason for this other than thinking that this might be the point where Amtrak had to stop upgrading for lack of money. After leaving Union Station in Washington D.C. track quality seemed to improve yet again (was it that we were now riding Acela rails?) and I noticed for the first time banked corners. It was here when the engineer brought the hammer down and where I guessed we reached our maximum speed of about 100 miles per hour. I would say that the maximum speed on all the other portions of the route were perhaps 65 MPH.

Even though my ticket said we were to leave at 11:30 P.M. Thursday, we left Savannah 12:30 A.M. Friday, causing me to worry would I still be able to make my Martz bus connection at 5:00 P.M. Friday afternoon in Philly. The worry was needless as we pulled into Philadelphia at about 3:45 P.M. Friday, 15 minutes late. Put another way, across a 30 hour trip we arrived within .8% of the scheduled trip time. Not bad. Amtrak Joe being in Union Station Friday afternoon probably delayed us a little!

I think that selection of an automobile (model, color, etc.) is an individualistic one, much like the choice of a horse which it replaced (and the trains that it replaced, by and large, for that matter). A means, like a mirror, of telling the world something about our individual characteristics, itself a declaration that we are individuals, valuable and special. And nothing says America more than its love of the open country and a car with which to go wherever the hell we please to explore it. On this basis alone, taking a train could be viewed as anti-individualism and a country fed on Westerns will always have a hard time going seemingly backwards and accepting the togetherness aspect of train transportation.

In Eastern PA it was the exception where the 1000 person `burg didn't have passenger train service. Shickshinny for heaven's sake had a train station and you could get anywhere in the country from there! What am I trying to say: trains once had a much vaster network of rail than they do now. (Thankfully, much of the right of way is still here.) I don't have data that would tell us though, if the companies running the trains back then made money at it. That would be interesting to research and find out though. Suffice to say the physical network could be enhanced to provide service to more people if we so chose to do that.

I don't think we'll soon reach a point of widespread mass train transit in this country. I do think that what we have can be made more efficient in terms of saving energy. It does seem to be excellent for short distances city-center to city-center. It is viable for longer distances, if you can afford the time. Are we as a people ready to accept slower transport for the benefit of less energy consumed? I wonder if it ultimately comes down to that? Is time in human terms dynamic in nature in the sense that if I don't have a job, I have all the time in the world for other things and if I do, I don't and have to do other things like get around, faster?

The accommodations are an absolute plus and in fact may be unmatched--really the only thing coming close to this in transportation is the ultra-high end international flights with sleeping rooms, four star dining, etc. The intangibles like meeting people and learning new things are also a plus, to me.

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