Rolling low and slow across the real America

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 27, 2017 19:28

Beautiful new Denver depot

By Chris Bateman

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle is on the outskirts of San Marcos, getting gas.

It isn’t a scheduled stop. “But our locomotive is low on diesel and now we’re waiting for a tanker truck,” the conductor tells us over the train’s PA. “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Excuse me? Our engine is nearly out of gas? Just 50 miles beyond a crew-change and service stop in San Antonio??

It all hearkens back to my early 20s, when in the middle of some spontaneous road trip to Vegas or L.A. I’d suddenly check the fuel gauge on my ’63 Beetle and be astounded that the needle was bottoming out.

I’d screech into the nearest Rotten Robbie on fumes, scrounge through my pockets for quarters, buy two or three gallons, then carry on.

“We’re refueled now,” the conductor says after a 90-minute pit stop. “As soon as we run the credit card, we’ll be on our way.”

The Zephyr, Winter Park, Colorado

Credit card? Well, I’m sure since it’s a U.S. government account there’s plenty of room for another thousand gallons of diesel.

But really, is this any way to run a railroad?  Like a college student on a beer-fueled weekend jaunt? Did the Orient Express ever run out of gas? The 20th Century Limited?  Any train that Cary Grant or Grace Kelly rode?

Of course not, but this is Amtrak. And for us rail fans, it’s the only game in town. So we look for humor in its shortcomings, and usually find it.

We’re kind of a cult, we train buffs. Amtrak employees refer to the most fanatical among us as “foamers,” and I can hardly blame them.

So what kind of people are we?

With time to spare over President’s Day weekend, one of my tablemates in the diner decided to go to New Orleans.

Not to drink, listen to jazz or enjoy Mardi Gras parades down Bourbon Street, mind you. Instead, he hopped aboard the Sunset Limited in L.A. on Friday night, got off in The Big Easy on Sunday, grabbed a cab to the airport and flew back to LAX.

Mission accomplished. “I’ve never been on the Sunset before,” he shrugged. “I just did it for the ride.”

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle makes a night stop in Alpine, Texas

Another tablemate was concluding a three-week “rail safari” that included several Amtrak trains and the Canadian, which runs from Vancouver to Toronto. Eight thousand miles in the slow lane.

A third was riding from Dallas to the Chicago area to get cancer surgery. “They told me to stay relaxed,” he says. “If you can’t relax on Amtrak, forget it.”

I, too, am guilty. My current 10-day vacation to Arizona and Illinois includes five days on trains: The Texas Eagle from Tucson to Chicago and the California Zephyr from Chicago to Sacramento.

The Eagle was two hours late leaving Tucson, but I didn’t care. Nobody in a hurry rides Amtrak. There are no hard-charging captains of industry, tech moguls or anyone facing any sort of deadline aboard its trains.

Instead they attract retirees, foreign tourists, families, people afraid to fly, folks from small towns served only by train, and us rail fans. One more thing: Former VP Joseph Biden is one of us: “Amtrak Joe” is not only a regular rider, but has that laid-back, regular-guy personality you find on trains.

In Winnemucca, running five hours late

Another plus — or minus, to some — is that Amtrak has no WiFi. The rail line is almost daring you to look out the window or talk to your fellow passengers – two things that happen far less often aboard airliners.

And those train windows? You’re not seeing the country from 30,000 feet or from a six-lane interstate festooned with signs for fast food, motels, gas stations and casinos.

Instead you get the real deal. Aboard the Zephyr, you can climb the front range of the Rockies in a blizzard, emerging from the six-mile Moffat Tunnel in a foot of snow at Winter Park. Next you follow the Colorado River for 238 miles, winding through one narrow canyon after another.

On other places, you see gritty, wrong-side-of-the-tracks squalor. Outside San Antonio, for instance, I spotted a backyard littered with rusting cars, played-out appliances, scrap metal, busted toys, hemorrhaging recliners and more. Over it all presided a weather-beaten statue of the Virgin Mary, her arms outstretched in an “Our Lady of the Junkyard” blessing.

Now that’s the real America.

Historic hotel at Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Another thing you don’t find on planes is legroom. Amtrak coaches have plenty of it, but if you get a seatmate with chronic, hacking catarrh, you might be stuck with him for two days. Same goes for unruly kids, squalling infants and shake-the-windows snorers.

Sure, you can buy a sleeping accommodation, but even phone-booth-size, elbow-banging roomettes can be pricey. So reserve months ahead of time for the best rates, and check fares for several different days, as they can vary widely.

As long as we’re talking about money, let’s consider the cost and future of Amtrak.

The current federal subsidy for our national passenger rail network is about $1.4 billion a year – which is less than two days’ worth of Medicare costs, a little more than half a day of Social Security payments, and less than fighting the war in Afghanistan for a week.

Amtrak’s 31 million annual passengers (the airlines carry 895 million – nearly 30 times as many), cover the remainder of the rail line’s $6.7 billion annual budget. So would paying billions more to maintain service, build new bridges and tunnels and update an aging fleet of cars and locomotives be money well spent?

Maybe not: Despite more than four decades of promises, Amtrak has failed to become self-sufficient even as its ridership climbed.

Labor costs are a factor.  Thanks to overtime restrictions and union rules, Amtrak’s more than 20,000 employees on average earn more than $40 an hour – nearly twice what I made at the peak of my now-waning journalistic powers. Plus, all those aging engines, sleepers and coaches tend to break down. Also, the food service is a money loser, and so are most long-distance trains.

Sunlit sky near Donner Summit

But the quasi-public corporation (there is such a thing as Amtrak stock, but God knows who’d want it) has no corner on inefficiency. It’s no more than a bit player among the federal government’s many bloated, cash-hungry and intransigent bureaucracies. Think USPS, IRS, EPA and the rest of Washington’s alphabet soup.

So when Donald Trump unsheaths his budgetary machete, he’s likely to find many more inviting and politically palatable targets than Amtrak – which I can’t remember being mentioned even once during the exhausting 2015-’16 presidential campaign.

Politics, in fact, may work in its favor: Amtrak’s 44 routes run through 46 of the nation’s 50 states (among the lower 48, only Wyoming and South Dakota are without service) and its trains stop in 251 of the House of Representatives’ 435 Congressional Districts.

Constituents in those districts, believe me, are far more liable to demand that a new Amtrak station be opened than insist that an existing stop be eliminated.

So I think our passenger line will muddle on for a few more years. But if it wants to be part of the 21st Century transit conversation, Amtrak will need more riders – maybe doubling customers to one-fifteenth of those who now grit their teeth and travel by air. We foamers can’t do it alone.

Finally, Amtrak needs to keep an eye on the gas gauge.

I asked our conductor about the Eagle’s 90-minute diesel fuel pit stop and he rolled his eyes. “Ask the managers,” he says, jerking a thumb at offices above the Fort Worth station. “I just run the train.”

Author and certified ‘foamer’ Chris Bateman

Our sleeping car attendant groaned. “It’s happened before,” he says. “If this were a private company, somebody would be fired.”

For Amtrak, that might be a good start.

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 27, 2017 19:28
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  1. Thad (Himself) February 28, 22:07

    Keep up the good writing. I enjoy your stories.

  2. Allan Mandell March 1, 10:01

    Another ABSOLUTE CHRIS BATEMAN CLASSIC MASTERPIECE!!! I laughed my butt off reading this and laughed even harder on my second reading. This piece of writing is priceless! Chris Bateman remains THE BEST DAMN COLUMNIST IN AMERICA — and there is NO close second!

  3. Wells March 5, 08:02

    I think it’s time to schedule a train trip…and bring my banjo!

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