Our minds are filled with stories about “The Romance of the Rails.” We imagine exotic tales of the Orient Express, Scotland’s Royal Scotsman, and the smart, efficient Japanese Bullet train.
These are the visions we have as we book our first trip on the Amtrak train. Traveling from Newark, NJ to Providence, RI. will be comfortable, roomy, and smooth.
It will be so much easier than driving and battling traffic. No longer will we have to pull off the highway for lunch, rest stops, and leg stretching.
In the train lunch is available, rest rooms abound and everyone is free to walk through the cars for the full four hour trip, if they choose to exercise their way to Rhode Island.
Our first impression of Penn Station in Newark is that there are an inordinate number of policemen everywhere we look. Is there a police convention nearby the day of our trip? Why else would throngs of policemen gather outside? As we step inside we notice more convention goers meandering around the station.
“Hurry up; our train is coming!”
We wheel our suitcases to the elevator, get in, and push the button to the second floor to reach track 2. I say, “What a smooth elevator ride. It feels as if we haven’t even moved.”
“That’s because we haven’t; we’re still on the entrance floor” he says. “This elevator is not working.” There is no Amtrak employee in sight to ask about the elevator’s problem, so he says, “We’ll have to walk up the flight of stairs before we miss our train.”
“Walk up all those steps with this suitcase? That’s easy for you to say,” I complain. “My bag is filled with toys and books for our grandchildren. It’s much heavier than yours.”
“Think of the bright side,” he replies, “Your bag will be much lighter on the way back home, when it’s relieved of all those massive, heavy little baby toys,” he smirks.
We drag the suitcases one step at a time, with frequent pauses after each step, up the long flight of stairs.
“Was that the train whistle?”
“We got up here just in time.”
We step inside the first train car that stops close to us and look for two adjoining seats. None was available.
“This train came from Washington and is filled with businessmen riding up to New York,” he says. Wait until the next stop, New York, and most of them will get off.”
We jostle, bump and smush together for the 15 minute ride to New York, and he is right.
“At least five people got off in New York. The train is practically ours.”
“I guess the meetings this week are in Boston and not New York. But at least we can get two seats together now.”
The train seems to stop every four and a half minutes at stops along the route. Had we made a mistake by choosing the regular Amtrak train instead of the Acela Express?
The next trip to Providence I say, “Let’s upgrade to business class on the Acela train. It’ll be a more enjoyable ride. The Acela doesn’t make as many stops, so travel time is shorter.”
It is considerably more expensive than fare on the regular line, but it will be worth it.
“We’ll pay the extra money for business class, sit back, relax and read our books.”
Never assume anything.
It is a crowded, noisy trip. The business car is over populated with single individuals sitting in double seats. The empty seats contain laptops, notebooks and briefcases.
“Excuse me; would you mind making room for us to sit here?”
Their hostile glances suggest that this is no way to make friends.
When we are invited to Providence several months later my husband says,
“OK: this time we’ll spring for First Class. That should make the trip bearable.”
The tickets are outrageously expensive.
“Did we just buy two train tickets to Providence, or airline tickets to Prague?” But if we don’t find a reasonable means of travel we’ll never see our grandchildren again!”
There is only one First Class Car, and at those prices I understand why. We arrive at the train and are pleasantly surprised at an Amtrak employee greeting us with ”Welcome to Amtrak. May I take your bags?”
We enter the car, look around, and I am amazed at what I see. Almost every seat is taken.
“Doesn’t First class seating come with reserved seats?” There are no two seats together. The first class car has its own concept of configuration. As I walk up and down the car I see mostly single seats, a few double seats, already taken, and groups of four seats facing each other.”
“Which do you prefer? Would you rather sit together and ride backwards or sit alone facing forward?” I ask.
His response is purposely unintelligible.
We sit in a four seat configuration facing a man with two eyebrow piercings, a suggestion of a beard and an open laptop which he did not glance at even once. His eyes are so glazed over that he didn’t even notice us sliding into the seats across from him.
Our feet had no room to move. Is this is the extra space of first class?
This trip has all the pleasures of being stuck in an elevator with panicky people shouting into cell phones for help. The abuse of cell phones is disturbing. The man behind me conducts his entire company’s annual business meeting during the four hour ride. I could make off with his company’s top secrets if I had the interest or inclination. His voice was so loud that I couldn’t believe he was discussing delicate information. I would fire him!
At least in the first class car lunch is served. The attendant distributes menus. I look at the menu and immediately think of a TV commercial featuring Jim Purdue, asking “Is the meat you buy at the supermarket ‘mystery meat’?” Probably not, because the Acela car has stocked all the available mystery meat exclusively for its First Class Passengers. Chopped this, shredded that and mashed something else are the lunch offerings.
“I’ll have the light menu.” I receive four apple slices and a cellophane wrapped mint.
Air travel is frustrating and irritating, driving involves wading through endless traffic jams and bottlenecks. Train travel has no relationship to the Orient Express.
Will scientists please focus on inventing time travel?