One of the good things about our day trip to New York last week was that we were able to take advantage of Amtrak's "Family Plan," two adults and a 15-year-old riding round-trip from Baltimore for $127. One of the bad things about the trip was that in order to take advantage of Amtrak's "Family Plan," we had to ride Amtrak.
By contrast with some of the more perversely memorable trips I have taken on Amtrak, the rides to New York and back were relatively placid; in fact they were par for the course, which was precisely the trouble. Consider the details:
* Train #180, The Manhattan Limited, left Baltimore five minutes late. It was sparsely populated and we were able to find facing seats at one end of the car--right next to the men's room with the out-of-order sign on the door. The train was still five minutes late by the time it reached Philadelphia, then sat in the terminal for about 10 minutes. After moving a couple of hundred yards, it sat for 10 more minutes. Only after a Metroliner had been allowed to pass did the train resume its halting progress north. Racing to gain time, the train crashed through northern New Jersey, banging so furiously that it was impossible to write and difficult to read. By the time the train reached Newark it had gained back some of the lost time, but it sat in the Newark station for five more minutes. It reached New York 20 minutes after its 10:05 a.m. scheduled arrival, forcing us to eliminate one stop from our agenda in order to fulfill the rest of our plans.
* Train #187, The George Washington, billed over the Penn Station P.A. system as an "Express to Washington," left New York at 5 p.m. sharp. It was crowded, but once again we were able to find facing seats; once again, too, the nearby men's room was out of order. Though there were no stops or discernible delays, we were several minutes late arriving in Philadelphia and several minutes later leaving it. My son purchased a hamburger, which he pronounced inedible; in contemplating that information, the reader must understand that my son is a human garbage disposal. At 6:45 p.m. I ordered a glass of white wine from the cafe car; I was informed by the attendant, in a most gratuitously surly manner, that he had long since exhausted his supply of white wine. A few minutes later, after locating a bathroom in what passed for working order, I scalded my hand when rinsing it from the hot-water tap. In northern Maryland the train limped along on a side track for several miles; it did not return to the main track until a Metroliner had passed. At 8 p.m., 23 minutes after its scheduled arrival time, the "express" deposited us in Baltimore.
This is what life is like on Amtrak, and what it has been like throughout the 3 1/2 years during which I have traveled at least twice a week on trains run by the publicly owned passenger railroad system. If anything these two trains--notwithstanding their malfunctioning equipment and indifference to published schedules--were rather better than the average ride to which I have become accustomed. At least the conductors were more or less courteous, the air-conditioning worked and the bathrooms, those few that were in order, were not awash in urine. By Amtrak's standards, the trips were not bad.
But what that says about Amtrak is not good--and it does need to be said. For too long those of us who believe in the desirability of a national passenger rail system have deluded ourselves, and have attempted to delude others, about the kind of "progress" Amtrak has made since coming into being 11 years ago. Those of us who love trains and believe them to be vital to a balanced transportation network seem to be afraid to point out Amtrak's many flaws for fear that this will give aid and comfort to its enemies. The result is that the picture of Amtrak painted by its defenders is often as false as that painted by those who would take the government completely out of the passenger-train business.
To be sure, in some important respects Amtrak has indeed improved. The expensive and disruptive track-repair program in the Northeast corridor has produced a smoother ride for those passengers fortunate enough to be traveling on the high-speed rails. The cars themselves are reasonably comfortable and are kept reasonably clean. The tendency in recent years to stretch out schedules in order to present the illusion of punctuality seems to have been slowed, if not completely reversed. It is now at least possible, though in my experience it happens most infrequently, to ride between New York and Washington in something approximating acceptable speed and quasi-civilized conditions.
Indeed, if one is to believe Amtrak's publicists and apologists, the system is getting better all the time. There has been much talk in recent months, for example, about vastly improved on-time performance. Perhaps that is so for the Metroliner, the basket into which Amtrak seems to be putting most of its eggs, but it is only intermittently so for the trains on which I ride--the so-called "conventional," or regular, trains that one would assume to be the backbone of a well-run system. I wish that what Amtrak says about itself were so, but my experience says that it isn't--that it's either fabrication, distortion, self-deception or an exceedingly liberal interpretation of the meaning of "on time."
What my experience says, more than anything else, is that Amtrak doesn't care whether it runs an efficient, modern railroad. My experience says that Amtrak just wants to stay in business, or what passes for business. If Amtrak offers its employes any incentives to run the trains punctually, comfortably and courteously, they are largely invisible to the ordinary passenger whom the system allegedly exists to serve.
What that passenger finds is, above all, persistent delay that is evasively explained and almost never apologized for. "Delayed due to late arrival of train equipment" is a catch-all phrase that by now seems to be cemented into the loudspeaker system of Washington's Union Station; so is "Amtrak regrets . . .," a statement that no regular rider of the system could possibly believe--since every regular rider knows that the system's real name is Don't-Give-a-Damtrak. A couple of weeks ago a train due out of Union Station at 3:30 p.m. sat at the platform without a word of explanation from anyone. When I asked a conductor about the delay he shrugged his shoulders and said: "They never tell anything to us." At last the train pulled out of the station, 29 minutes late. The delay, it turned out, occurred because there was no water for coffee in the cafe car! In the bizarre scheme of things at Amtrak, water for coffee is more important than running on time.
As it happens, that train was loaded with home-bound college students and vacationers. Afforded a fine opportunity to show its stuff to new or infrequent riders, Amtrak did just that: It showed them the full array of its indifference and incompetence. My experience has been that this is par for the course for the holidays; give Amtrak the challenge of a large outpouring of customers, and Amtrak responds to it by doing everything as badly as it can. I sometimes wonder if it has employes permanently assigned to clogging the toilets, putting burned-out bulbs (or none at all) in the overhead lights, jamming the telephone lines, delaying the arrival of locomotives and jacking up the concession prices.
Ah yes, the concessions. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but let us return to that missing white wine. Over 3 1/2 years I have made at least two dozen late-afternoon or early-evening trips on Amtrak from New York to Baltimore. On every one of these, the cafe car has run out of white wine by Wilmington or thereabouts. This being a free market, one would think it would occur to someone at Amtrak to stock the cafe cars on these trains with more white wine, in order (a) to make more money and (b) to keep the customers satisfied. But Amtrak doesn't work that way.
In fact, my experience is that Amtrak simply doesn't work. Period. The good intentions at the top--the ones travelers can read about in Alan S. Boyd's monthly column in Express, the on-board magazine--have not penetrated to the middle or the bottom. The trains do get you from Point A to Point B--well, most of the time they do--and perhaps that is all we railroad-lovers have a right to expect from a system that loses a great deal of public money while serving an exceedingly small percentage of that public. But at least we should be honest enough with ourselves to stop pretending that Amtrak lives up to its own publicity or our own hopes for it. The experienced rider, to his or her sorrow, knows better than that.