Amtrak ride from Hell
Sunday, July 6 2003
setting: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Our hotel kicked it up a notch this morning and served croissants with their "continental breakfast." Well, they weren't really croissants. The dough was wrong and didn't really have the layers. But someone did manage to get the fat content right. Over breakfast we found ourselves talking to a guy who had ridden up from New York City on a motorcycle with his bleach blond girlfiend. They were fun, and we might have talked to them for awhile, but we had no Canadian money left for a cab and a train to catch.
We walked briskly down to the Gare Centrale and joined a massive line waiting for the New York City Amtrak. All indications were that we were going to be packed in like sardines on this seven hour train ride, but somehow we found a car with enough spare seats to give both of us window seats and an absence of seatmates. We spent most of the ride reading, or at least trying to.
Things started looking grim when Gretchen went down to the dining car to see if they had veggie burgers (sometimes they do). She came back and said that not only did they not have veggie burgers; they didn't have pizzas. The only vegetarian item she found was a corn muffin which proved inedible. Later it was revealed that our train's cook had all sorts of food in his pantry that he couldn't be bothered to get out. He was only making available the things that were easiest for him to prepare.
Gretchen wasn't the only one dissatisfied with the train's cook; a group of very large men in our car an extended conversation about the unusually poor service in the dining car. later it turned out that they were part of a very large group of Americans returning from some sort of convention of barbershop quartets. These barbershop people were all over the train and could not be escaped. They all had a number of undesirable features. They had a strange tendency towards obesity that in some cases caused them to occupy more than one seat. They tended to be overly-familiar with strangers, imagining that everyone wanted to either join in their conversations or overheard everything they said. Their conversations were so loud that it was difficult to pay attention to the book I was reading, Fast Food Nation, fascinating though it was. Eventually we had to leave our car and find seats in another. At that point we had to deal with another hellesque problem, if cold can be considered hellesque. The air conditioning in the quieter car was on overdrive, and we hadn't brought any winter clothes.
The barbershop quartet people had been trying to round up a quartet for hours, but they couldn't manage to find a baritone anywhere. They kept asking around if anyone was a "barry." They even interrupted me from my book to ask me if I was a barry, and I icily replied that I was not. When they finally had their quartet, we'd moved up to the freezer car and could only hear them in the distance. But the barbershop people proved impossible to avoid, and eventually a group was quietly assembled in our car. But their harmonies were actually easier to tune out than their conversations had been.
Canada was unconcerned about our departure and let us escape without stopping us. But Jimmy Christ, the United States sure was interested in our arrival. They kept our train well over an hour at American customs. Perhaps someone with brown skin and a camel was seated down there beyond the dining car. But Homeland Security troops certainly didn't spend much time interrogating the people in our car.
At Saratoga Springs our train took on so many additional people that there were not enough available seats, and people were forced to stand in the aisles.
By now Gretchen and I were playing a game of Scrabble. I'd stuffed some paper in the air conditioner vents to keep them from blowing on me. Gretchen had asked a conductor if the air conditioning could be turned down and he'd said no, giving some ridiculous excuse that included the word "condensation" but made no sense at all.
Just inside Albany, the train stopped for what must have been at least a half an hour and just sat there dead. We were only about a mile from the station where Gretchen and I would be getting off. In the time we sat there, Gretchen and I probably could have walked to our car. What the hell was the problem? We were now almost two hours late, and no one was offering any explanations. Gretchen went off to investigate at one point and found that all the conductors had barricaded themselves beyond the dining car, away from all the pissed-off riders. Around this time our train began to back up. I kid you not!
It went backwards towards Canada for about a mile, stopped again, and then resumed its southward progress at an incredibly slow speed. If Kafka needed a train as a character in one of his novels, ours would have been a good candidate.
Those of us getting off at the Albany station threw a spontaneous celebration on the platform. Judging from this experience, there must be no incentive at all for Amtrak staff to get their trains to their destinations on time or give their riders any sort of pleasant experience. Most puzzling was the behavior of the cook. At least he gets tips when he's making customers happy. Under the present oil-industry-friendly administration, could there possibly be a new incentive program to discourage Amtrak ridership? After digesting the James-Bond-movie-villain-level evil revealed in Abuse Your Illusions and Fast Food Nation, I wouldn't be surprised. I would, however, still be surprised if I were to discover that the Bush administration had replaced even one foreign leader with a clone. (A clone of whom?)
When one falls off a horse, one is encouraged to get right back on so as to avoid forming any kind of psychological complex. No, we didn't get right back into a train. But, in reaction to another bad experience a few days ago, we went to Central Avenue in Albany to try out another Indian restaurant. This time we went to
Shalimar, a Pakistani place. Like the nearby
Gandhi Indian Restaurant, Shalimar didn't serve alcohol. But, also like Gandhi, their food was both inexpensive and excellent. As I mentioned to Gretchen between forkfuls, it's worth driving to Albany for the Indian food if we can think of just one other reason to go.
A view from the train south of Montreal.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next