Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Do We Still Have Amtrak?

I know, I know...Joe Biden wouldn't have a setting for those folksy, politically-motivated (and patently false) little vignettes, the one he tells in the style of a cherished recollection. They sort of remind you of Burl Ives, hot cocoa, and invoke a vision of a storybook tale in front of the fireplace.

*Sigh*...I know I just love when Joe tells those stories, about diners that he just ate in a few days ago that later turn out to have closed ten years before. Nothing says "Americana" better than Joe's revelations that he commuted back and forth from Washington to Delaware every day, just like a regular working shmoe, and met all sorts of fascinating, uniquely-American characters that have helped form his political philosophy and personal outlook...when he didn't lift them in their entirety from Charles Dickens or Jackie Collins, or maybe it was Spider Man, or whatnot.

Why, without Amtrak, Joe Biden wouldn't be Joe Sixpack --- the man we all know and love. Joe makes it seem so romantic.

Actually, having travelled many times on Amtrak, I'm surprised we don't find more mass murderers, escaped convicts, headhunters, cannibals and lepers on those trains. It's certainly not the most efficient means of travel, nor the most comfortable. I've routinely spent an average 18+ hours for a trip between New York and Charlotte N.C., for example, on a cattle-car train with a sceptic tank, eating World War II-surplus sandwiches and coffee that was probably made during the Cuban Missile Crisis at prices that would make scurvy an attractive proposition. When you ask the Cafe car attendant "What have yo got?" and he replies "Indigestion or malnutrition, your choice..." you know you're in trouble. That's a trip, incidentally, that Amtrak claims should take only 13 hours, on average.

(Editor's Note: I have driven that same distance, 730 miles or so, in a little over 10 hours --- personal best ---, and you can fly it in just over 1 hour).

In fact, to get anywhere near that 13 hour trip time, you have to leave Charlotte at 3 a.m. to get on the "good train", which at least has larger seats that recline (a little more than usual), but that ticket costs more. Forget about reserving a sleeper berth; for that kind of money, I could fly First-Class...twice. I only want to use the thing for a few hours, not take a mortgage out on it.

I've taken Amtrak many times before; to Philadelphia, Upstate New York, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Boston, Washington D.C. It's sole virtue is that, for some locations, it's infinitely cheaper (and less of a hassle) than flying, provided you have time to spare...a lot of time to spare. Amtrak is hardly ever on schedule. If you're afraid to fly and don't drive, I guess if given a choice between Amtrak and Greyhound, I might choose a train under the logical assumption I will arrive at my destination faster. Fat chance.

But this is too ridiculous, even for Amtrak.

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