I have always loved the notion of train travel. I rode on my first train in 1972, but even before that, I’d spent years romanticizing about it. It seemed so glamorous. Remember the movie, “Double Indemnity”? The Barbara Stanywck/Fred McMurray 40′s flick which was the “Body Heat” of its era? You know the one—he plays a romantic lead and calls Babs “baby” incessantly. It’s about her desire to exit her marriage while keeping her wealthy hubby’s estate intact. Guess he didn’t trust the bitch either because he’s got some weird ass, über specific clause in his insurance policy which states his widow can recover in full, providing he accidentally dies on a westbound train with gold carpet in every other car, with a porter named Henry, on an August morning between 9:18 and 9:29 while wearing a grey tweed suit with a half pack of Lucky’s in his left coat pocket.
Did I also mention that his body had to be recovered while dressed in pink silk panties with a severely chipped maxillary second molar (left side) that he affectionately called “Ernest”?
All the movies involving train travel….especially the old ones… always made this mode of transportation to be intriguing and classy. Even a mid 50′s “I Love Lucy” episode made their trip back to New York from Hollywood where Ricky filmed the movie, “Don Juan” which according to “Variety”, was supposed to be (and I quote) “A three million dollar color spectacle” which to the best of my recollection, was never released. Al the passengers seemed so polite, well dressed and yes, clean.
So rcently, I treated my niece and her four year old daughter to trip to Houston to visit another niece. I did it for the experience. No one knows how much longer passenger rail will be around. My baby girl behaved beautifully, but to be honest, we were a bit afraid for here.
I type this with some remorse. Here’s why:
We had three coach seats reserved but luckily, we were able to sit where we wanted. It was a morning trip and the only one that was Houston bound. The cars were barely a quarter full. Empty seats were everywhere. Amtrak’s schedules are infrequent in this part of the world. You see, in Texas, the internal combustible engine is king. We love to drink a V-8 while driving one and if we can’t drive, we fly and if fiscal matters necessitate, we take buses Train travel is an afterthought. The reasons are many. It’s inconvenient in a way that air travel isn’t. Apparently, rail travel started its decline in earnest, after the Korean War. Then in the 80′s, it damned near died. We all know the airlines have hammered the nail in the coffin….we flew more and steamed less, but I feel train travel also started its downward spiral because some people remembered its advent. Many held grudges against the old robber barons. Tycoons. Future monopoly game pieces. These were financier industrialist types with last names you’d recognize. They broke the law while creating it, by forming huge monopolies and made millions as the railroad became the principle mode of transport for cargo, human and otherwise. Yes, it unified the nation with a mesh of steel beams and wooden ties, but it also took capitalism to an extreme. As a country, we were young; we didn’t know any better. Industrialization was unfolding. We thought Anti Trust was married to an uncle. We played it by ear and learned as we went along.
A lot has happened since then. Times have changed. In an effort to cut costs and remain competitive in the transportation industry, costs had to be cut across the board. The train runs specific routes at specific times on specific days; Monday, Wednesday and Friday and that’s all. It also ditched the good china and tuxedo clad wait staff in the dining car and replaced it with plastic and cups with short shirt sleeved “rail hosts and hostesses” for which I still seek appropriate adjectives. They were nice enough and helpful in their capacities, but there was something amiss. I suppose I can sum it up by saying there were quite a few staffers who were obviously unhappy in their current career track.
Pun completely intended.
Another reason that was patently obvious? The damn thing is filthy. And not in a the kind of cute train dirty that greeted us each week when Charley Pratt and Floyd Smoot, the conductor and engineer respectively of the The Hooterville Cannonball (from TV’s “Petticoat Junction”) rolled into view. These guys were covered with soot and coal dust, but that was okay. How else could one get from Pixley to front veranda of the Shady Rest Hotel without their labor?
As for our experience, most of the time, the three of us sat in the observation car with wall and ceiling windows. Great view–I think–the windows had phlegm on them. If Mother Nature could hock loogies, invariably they would land on these train cars. You could write your hemoglobin count in the dirt. And if you want to keep a normal hemoglobin level, I strongly suggest you refrain.
The seats and floors were no better. If there’s a housekeeping staff, we didn’t see them or really, any evidence this exists. My niece found a fingernail lying the on seat beside her. It was a painted in a shade that Sally Hansen discontinued in 2003–which was probably the last time the car was cleaned. The restrooms? I’ve been in nicer kennels.
We had breakfast and I’ll admit this much: the food wasn’t altogether hideous. We rather enjoyed being able to eat and watch the variations in landscape between Central Texas and the state’s east side
I knew it wasn’t going to be the Orient Express, but I didn’t expect it to be as unsettling as it was. I assure you, I’m NOT a snob, but I do believe in hygiene. I can’t cut it slack just because its mass transit. Based on the number of empty seats, I feel its’ safe to take the word “mass” out of the equation.
Where does the fault lie? I guess it begins and ends with Amtrak. Yes, I know you’re cheaper than flying and for those with little to help them finance a way of getting from Point A to Point B, thank goodness for the Iron Horse, but must you smell like one?
I would travel by rail more often as would other passengers with whom I spoke, but it’s going to have to clean its act. The staff was nice enough and we got to our destination in one piece. We did have to stop on several occasions for reaons I know not. Perrhaps to yield to a freight train or for cows on the tracks.
Maybe the Amish.
I know those you along the east coast will have diffent experiences. Train rides are daily affairs for many of you, but please keep in mind I report from a completely diffrent perspective and I lament that my point of view is what it is.
This train reminded me of a sad story you’d see on an episode of E! True Hollywood Story. A once beautiful actress with so much promise, learns a life lesson the hard way and then, responds to her own tragic nature by adopting 12 cats, gaining 65 pounds and ”takin’ up drinkin’” while all but living in a soiled T-shirt she’d gotten free during a neighborhood’s auto repair shop’ s promotion for discounted brake line flushings. It was sad. I don’t like trashing the grande dame with wheels but I can’t praise her either—not in the way I’d like to talk her up . And perhaps I might travel this way again–I think—later on, but it would be minus the child and with far more boxes anti-bacterial wipes in my purse.
It was THAT bad. In
fact, All I wanted to do once I stepped off the train was to get what we here in Texas call, “a good scrubbin” and then take a little restorative nap. The shower felt great and the nap would have been stellar, but damned if I didn’t dream about being chased by a large fingernail painted in bashful rose, while attempting to dodge fecal smears on a track made of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s beard.