Albert Jacobs was in New York's Pennsylvania Station. It was 3 p.m. and he was trying to reserve a seat on the next Metroliner to Washington, but the Amtrak computer kept saying, "No seats are available until the 6:30 train."
The weather was bad. Airline schedules were in disarray. Albert figured his best bet was to ask periodically whether a cancellation had come in.
Around 5 p.m., he got lucky. A clerk told him that a seat had opened up on the 5:30 train. Albert bought a ticket and got aboard.
He was astonished to find that there were empty seats in his car.
Had the computer been turning down New York passengers because it knew that many people would be boarding in Philadelphia, or down the line somewhere? No, that wasn't it either. There were plenty of empty seats all the way to Washington - and this, as the expression goes, is a helluva way to run a railroad.
Reading Albert's report pained me. I want to believe that everything Amtrak does is good. I am such a firm believer in the need for railroad passenger service that I invest some of my meager savings in the Budd Co. It builds streamlined passenger cars.
I couldn't imagine why Amtrak's computer had given passengers such a hard time. Had Amtrak borrowed The Washington Post computer that reprinted an old District Line column in Monday's first edition? To get some answers, I called Joseph Vranich, an Amtrak spokesman who cares.
Joe loves trains, and believes in them. He speaks my language - but with a little more emotion.
He looked up the records for the train Albert rode and then gave me this explanation: "As you know, Metroliner cars are self-propelled, and require no locomotive. For technical reasons, we run these cars in 'married pairs.' When we add or subtract cars, it is always in twos.
"In this case, the train was supposed to be made up of six cars, but two of them were still being worked on. Until cars are actually ready for service, we don't accept reservations on them. So the computer booked the train as if it contained four cars, not six. We couldn't be certain the last two cars would be ready for service by departure time.
"When those cars did become available a half-hour before train time, the computer immediately began accepting additional reservations. There wasn't time enough to sell out both of the added cars, but we simply did the best we could without overpromising. We'd rather promise less and do more than the other way around."
"All right," I said. "That makes sense. But tell me why those two cars were doubtful starters."
"Snow," he said. "Snow has given us a lot of problems. The air vents on these cars are on the bottom. When they get clogged up with snow, the car's motors can't function properly."
"Let me ask a stupid question," I said. "Would it help to put the air vents on top?"
"Yes," he said. "We retrofitted two test cars and found out it helps tremendously. It would cost too much to remodel our present equipment, but our new Amfleet cars have their vents on top and they just can't be surpassed for reliability and comfort. They're real beauties, and we're having 492 of them built for us - by the Budd Co."
Conflict of interest bells began clanging in my head. "Budd is a four-letter word," I told him. "I can't use it in the paper. Tell me how your repair shops in Chicago are doing."
Joe sighed. "Chicago," he said, "has not warmed up to the freezing point since last month. Almost all our maintenance shops are primitive outdoor facilities we inherited from bankrupt railroads. But in spite of these minor difficulties, Amtrak is doing its job, and improving every day. We're supplying a basic need. We've just got to succeed."
All right, so I'm prejudiced. Sue me. I just happen to believe this country needs a sound railroad passenger service.