All right, all right. Amtrak may not be the most timely train service in the world. It may, in fact, be less on-time than the average of all planes (and sometimes planes just decide not to show up at all).
But we don’t need to go around bandying words and calling Amtrak “the shame of the developed world” and “Russian quality at Swiss prices” (Vox.com’s Max Fisher) or “[Fisher] was being a little too generous” (Wonkblog’s Chris Ingraham.)
Look, Amtrak set some goals, and just because it didn’t meet those goals and left hundreds of riders trapped in Delaware for four hours doesn’t mean that Amtrak is a failure. Delaware is a nice place. “Trapped,” in fact, seems like far too strong a verb for Delaware. Amtrak riders just got to take a deep breath and spend a little unprogrammed time in a great state. That sounds better.
Train rides are delightful, and just because they are sometimes a little longer than they are supposed to be (what is an hour or three among friends?) — well, why should that sour us?
Amtrak and I are kindred spirits, in this regard. It sets itself a schedule and announces that it is going to be 95 percent on time with things. And then it shows up two hours late, whistling merrily.
Trains are not supposed to be efficient. They are the elegant travel method of a more civilized age, when we measured travel time in days, not hours, and took big steam-ships across the Atlantic. And the train compares favorably to other travel technologies that have been around since the 19th century. It is much faster than a horse. And you can fit a lot more people on.
Besides, in the United States, you can’t have really fast, efficient high-speed trains. People cannot fight comfortably on top of those.
Trains have much to recommend them. Compared to babies on planes, babies on trains are the souls of courtesy. And if they aren’t, you can throw them off without exposing yourself to dangerous pressure conditions.
There are no flight attendants on trains, and the people who announce the next station generally do not go into long comedy routines about how “if oxygen levels drop in the cabin, pick which child you love most!”
Trains have large, spacious bathrooms whose only problem is a tendency of the doors to spontaneously open and spring wide when you thought you had locked them securely. I am sure this is my fault somehow.
Some of the problems with Amtrak are Amtrak’s fault, though. Amtrak trains are all designed to lull you into a false sense that the train is going to arrive quickly. For instance, the “California Zephyr.” That sounds like something that would travel pretty quickly, doesn’t it? But no. Like cars, the faster the name, the slower the train. The California Zephyr is on time only 34 percent of the time. And don’t forget the Coast Starlight (nothing’s faster than light!) and the Texas Eagle. Or the Empire Builder. (Although empire-building, as various Bush advisers can tell you, can leave you stuck in one place for years.)
My only complaints about the Amtrak are not the usual Acela Corridor Wonk complaints — “Boarding the train requires an inefficient bonus step where they check over your ticket! This serves no purpose!” Far from it. If these wonks want efficiency in their travel, they should be taking the train in Japan.
The only trouble with trains, I think, is the people who ride them.
I make a point of sitting in the cafe car. That gives you the closest access to the point where you can pay $4.50 for a tub of hummus. It also gives you a little surface to write on. Generally, this is fine. You settle there with your laptop, log on to the WiFi (which only works well when nobody is trying to use it) and try to look as busy as you can. This is essential. If you do anything that invites conversation — even just glancing out the window for a moment or carelessly saying something about the temperature or asking what time the train gets in — you might be stuck conversing for three hours.
Sometimes, if the person opposite has that hopeful glint in his eyes that signifies that he wants to engage you in a long discussion of The New Doodad He Got For His TV, you can try the time-honored trick of asking him to watch your stuff and hide in the bathroom for 40 minutes, hoping he will get off at Baltimore. But eventually you have to come out. Meanwhile, he has been storing up things to say to you, like an old friend he has not seen in many months.
Then you are stuck. You cannot go to the bathroom again, unless you have laid the groundwork by murmuring, “Ahh, the old stomach complaint, I expect” when you went in the first time.
What is especially painful about train conversations is that there is always the tantalizing hope that the other person might get off before you. But this is never the case. “Lynchburg,” his stop, which sounded like maybe it could be in Early Delaware, turns out, in fact, to be several stops farther down the line than yours. Instead, you have to listen to him ramble on about the Fine Art of Storytelling or The Plane He Took To Ukraine Once That Was Full of American Men With Social Problems Looking For Cheap Brides or Those Awful Feminazis Who Kept His Daughter Out Of The Theater Department Where She Went To School. These conversations actually happened to me. They went on for hours. I tried the trick where you set your phone alarm and answer it and carry on a long conversation with no one, but the instant I hang up, they launch right back into the topic with a will.
I suppose the alternative is the Quiet Car. But I hate the Quiet Car. Everyone there seems so irritable when you talk on the phone.
But I am getting away from the subject. Amtrak trains are great. They have chargers on board (wonderful, for people like me, who never remember to charge our phones.) Admittedly, these only work when the train itself is working (the same is often true of the air conditioning) but — well, who needs a charger that works all the time? Also, they often depart a few minutes late (wonderful, for people like me, who never quite get places on time and hate missing our trains). Sometimes they stop for hours for no apparent reason, but they never get lost. You can feel convinced that you will get where you are going — eventually.
I suppose all these things would be a little bit of a pain if you actually were an efficient human being with your life in order who wanted to get where you were going on time. But who’s like that?