I took a train ride here yesterday to talk on the phone. It wasn't an ordinary telephone call, but one of the first offered commercially on an Amtrak train. The system works.
Okay, you with long memories recall, the original Metroliners on the old Penn Central line in 1969 provided calls for train riders. But the service failed, largely because (1) users had to deal with operators who placed the calls on a limited number of channels by voice command, (2) existing technology required the verbal recitation of credit card numbers, and (3) transmission would be terminated as riders moved from the territory of one phone company into that of another.
There were four between Washington and New York. Only short distances on the 227-mile line are now temporarily blanked out.
Starting yesterday, cellular phones -- similar to those available to motorists -- were put into use on three cars of each of Amtrak's premium-priced Metroliner trains under a venture with Railfone Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill. The firm is a subsidiary of Airfone Inc., which has similar telephones aboard 300 airplanes of 16 domestic airlines.
The telephones, which look like typical credit card phones (with no coin slots), accept nationally recognized credit cards, but not those of long-distance telephone companies. Cards are slid through a slot that scans an electronic tape and simultaneously provides a dial tone and sets up the billing. One simply dials an area code and number.
My seatmate coming here was Irv Hirsch, a Chicago jeweler who is a major stockholder in Airfone/Railfone. Shortly after we left Washington he called his wife in Chicago and reported perfect transmission.
After leaving Baltimore, I pondered my own options. Because a call anywhere in the nation, including D.C., Baltimore, Alaska and Hawaii, costs $5 for the first three minutes and $1 a minute thereafter, I opted for California and slid my plastic into the slot and called a friend there.
The call, after momentary voice distortion, was loud and clear, with California not detecting the roar of the train wheels that was obvious to me.
Jack Goeken, president of Airfone/Railfone, sees the phone system as one mostly attracting business travelers -- heavy users of the Metroliner but not of Amtrak trains generally.
One byproduct of the trip was my first use of the 81-year-old Wilmington train station since it, on a years-earlier visit, was a grubby, decaying pile of bricks.
Now, thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Northeast Corridor Project, the station -- like that of its larger counterpart in Baltimore -- has been lovingly restored and is a delight to use. It's clean, is well lighted, has a modern train announcement board but yet has touches of the old. And one of those is subtle and neat: All the station's interior signs, on a band of Tuscan red that rims the waiting room, are lettered in gold.
It recalls the passenger car colors of the once-majestic Pennsylvania Railroad, which built and for decades owned the station.