Amtrak does a fine job promoting its Northeast Corridor railroad passenger service, making travel between Washington and New York sound like a real piece of cake. Most of the time, especially in slack hours, trips by train turn out that way.
But if W. Graham Claytor Jr., Amtrak's president, would like to spend a very interesting -- and probably aggravating -- evening, MetroScene suggests that on almost any Sunday he try riding the 7:30 p.m. train destined for Washington from New York's Pennsylvania Station.
Waiting for and getting onto that train at Penn Station is like being in a wild animal reservation. The experience is almost enough to sour one on railroad riding, however pleasant the ensuing trip may turn out to be.
First, some background: Amtrak has bargain round-trip fares on the line but those who want to stay the full day in New York must wait for the 7:30 p.m. train to use them. The result is a huge crowd of weekenders, including both college kids and seniors. The 7:30 out of New York originates in Boston, and often is late, as was this past weekend's train, by close to an hour.
For some reason, Amtrak seems incapable of announcing the track on which the train will leave until the very moment the gate is opened. A result is crowds milling about, people tripping over one another, many carrying one or more pieces of bulky luggage, seeking eventual speedy access to the platform. A couple seeking two seats together must claw their way onto the cars. But the crowd thins out at Philadelphia.
If Claytor were to take the trip, he'd find it less fun than his company's ads suggest. In fact, we speculate that he might tell his minions to (1) do better at timely posting of train departure information, (2) consider whether some kind of organized queuing system would work and (3) consider scheduling a separate Philadelphia train to leave perhaps 15 minutes ahead of the one that comes through to Washington to skim off the initial chaotic overload. (At least, some cars could be provided that are limited to Philadelphia passengers.)
A postscript: Boarding some of the early Monday morning trains from Penn Station on the same run is almost as hectic.
The problems of leaving Washington for New York are rarely troublesome. The tracks are invariably posted early, and the passenger lines are organized.