Friday, February 18, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Something to Rail About

by Peggy Robin

I’m typing this column on my netbook in the “quiet car” on the train on the way to New York. I’ll be there in under three hours, but I expect to write just part of this column now and resume writing the second part on the trip back. To occupy myself when not writing, I have downloaded two movies, and have brought along two books and a magazine. That way, if I start a book or a movie and don’t like it much, or just feel in the mood for something else, I can switch. Yes, I know if I had an iPad or a Kindle I would not have to haul anything along but would have thousands upon thousands of choices of entertainment at my disposal, just a few simple clicks away. I ponder on that each time I get ready for a trip. One day I’ll bite. But right now I’m satisfied with my reading/viewing arrangements.

Right now the train is a few minutes out from Union Station. I’m on the 2pm Acela, scheduled to arrive in Penn Station a little before 5pm. Normally, for a trip to New York, I would take the Bolt Bus or one of the other $25-and-under bus lines that I have praised before in this space (see: This time I am on a very tight schedule, both going and coming back, and can’t risk being late if the four-and-a-half- hour bus ride should stretch to five or six hours due to traffic. I have little choice but to shell out the exorbitant charge of $135 for the train up and then $186 for the ride back, for a total of $321.  If that makes me hypercritical of what I get for my money, so be it.

Fifteen minutes along and a man in the quiet car answers his cell phone and begins to talk in a very loud voice. He’s yakking away, but then someone must have spoken to him (yay for them!) because he shouts into the mouthpiece, “Hey, I’m in the quiet car so I gotta move.” He walks out to the vestibule between this car and the next, where the doors stay open if there’s any movement within range of the sensor. He’s still talking very loudly, so that everyone in the quiet car can hear his every word.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to connect to the free wifi on the Acela. It seems I’m connected but then it’s taking forever for a page to load. Finally, the guy in the vestibule shuts up, and at the same time, I get online. I am able to use the internet for about twenty minutes, and then, as the conductor announces “Arriving in Baltimore,” the connection cuts out. As soon as we roll out of the station, I am able to reconnect. Sort of. About every 15 minutes I lose the signal and have to log in and reload my pages all over again. Grrr.

Somewhere between Baltimore and Wilmington the train glides to a halt. We’re not in a station. I glance up from the netbook and see we’re in the woods. It’s very pretty, but we’re at a complete standstill. We stay that way for a minute in silence and then the conductor’s voice comes over the PA. It seems we have hit some “debris” on the track. There will be a short delay while the track is cleared. There is an apology for the inconvenience but no estimate of how long a “short delay” is, or any information on what kind of debris would cause the train to stop. (No, we did not hit anything. I was once on an Amtrak train that hit a deer on the track. Wham! The passengers definitely felt the impact. That caused about an hour-long delay; this was nothing like that.)  I was curious to know what needed to be cleared from the track, but in any case, after about fifteen minutes, we were rolling again.

In Wilmington six college age girls get on. The quiet car is fairly full at this point and they can’t sit together. They hover over the seats, discussing how they will split up. I’m thinking about how they will manage to chat with each other if Girl One is two rows up from Girl Two, who is three rows up from Girl Three, and so on down the train car all the way to Girl Six. Fortunately, they conclude there may be less crowded cars with freer seating arrangements on the train, and head off on the hunt. Whew.

I put my head back down to my web page, but the Internet is out again. Time for the book. I pull it out of my bag and read in silence, no longer worrying about staying connected, until we reach Penn Station. Only 17 minutes late. Not as bad as I thought. Not great, of course, but no major complaints. Overall grade: C, that is "average," not to be mistaken for "good" -- and certainly not "excellent."

Now I’m on the Acela return trip, hoping that the GPA for the round trip can be raised by superior performance this time around. We’re off to a good start, leaving right on time. Everyone in the quiet car is quiet, but it’s still early and the car is fairly empty. Let’s not get overconfident, because noisy groups can always come aboard in Philly or Wilmington. The internet is steadier this time around, and reasonably fast.

This return trip started at 11am, and with my tight scheduling for this trip, I did not have time to pick up a bag lunch to eat around noon or 1:00pm. Not a big deal. I’m well aware from many previous trips that dining is Amtrak’s permanent weak spot. I’m not expecting anything other than a pathetic selection of chilled, pre-wrapped sandwiches and salads, or microwave-ready frozen foods. Which is just what I see on the menu. I go for the “teriyaki chicken brown rice bowl.” It sounds healthier, at least, than the frozen-microwaveable cheeseburger, the hotdog, or the pizza. On previous trips I've sampled Amtrak’s packaged chef’s salad (frozen lettuce, not well thawed) and wraps (soggy vegetables and tasteless turkey rolled up in some sort of soggy tortilla with the consistency of damp cardboard), and so think it really would be hard for the teriyaki bowl to be any worse.

I’m not exactly wrong about that: It’s not worse ... but it’s not any better, either. Call it a draw. The teriyaki sauce tastes salty but otherwise has no flavor. The chicken is rubbery. The rice and vegetables are spongy. And the serving is so tiny, it seems designed for a toddler. But why complain that you don’t get a lot of food  if you don't want to eat it in the first place? Well, because at $4.75, you at least want to get something for your money. I’m back at the dining car looking for another choice. Cheese and crackers for $3.75. All pre-packaged and predictable. Nothing to go wrong there. I plunk down the money, open up the plastic box, put the cheese on the crackers, eat, and in an instant imprint on my brain the warning, “Never board an Amtrak train at lunchtime without bringing on your own packed lunch.” No matter how pressed for time I am, next time around, you can bet I’ll remember that lesson.

Back to my seat. Internet still going strong. Quiet car still quiet. Nothing more to complain about on the ride. I arrive in Union Station right on the dot. Unlike Penn Station, which despite a gazillion-dollar renovation, still makes passengers haul their luggage up and down staircases to get from the trains to the station level, Union Station provides a level rolling surface to allow me to pull my wheeled luggage behind me all the way to the Metro escalator. Which, against all odds, is working perfectly! And the Metro train arrives quickly and takes me back to Cleveland Park without a hitch! Return trip grade: B+

Now compare that with the grades I gave the Bolt Bus (B) and the Tripper Bus (A-), when I wrote about my trip to and from New York on June 4, 2010. Total tranportation cost for that round trip was $48. Now that was money well spent! In retrospect, and in comparison to Amtrak, I think I would grade on a curve, and raise the Bolt Bus to an A- and the Tripper Bus to a full A. And now you know how I’m planning to get to the Big Apple next time, unless once again I'm squeezed for time.  If that's the case, watch this space for the report card on the shuttle from DCA to LGA.


If you have had better luck on the Acela, or worse luck, and would like others to know, by all means tell your story in the comments section below.

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