Amtrak Transcontinental, and a little on the toilets.

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In Praise of Slow Trains

I’m proud to be an Earthling.  I don’t want to muck the air while I roam.  According to ambiance mavens, trains pass less soot per passenger mile than either airplane or eight.  At cocktail parties in Prius Nation we encourage each other to travel by public rail.  We tsk tsk about the Congressional catamites' lack of enthusiasm for Amtrak, and deplore the fiscal retentives who would derail transcontinental trains.

But I couldn’t help wondering if Amtrak really was possible for uber commuting as a stand in for my 1.6 liter 30 miles per gallon Japanese Sepiku?  Or for an airliner huffing Jet A? 

I experimented with a cross country rail journey,  Sacramento to New York round trip,  Three nights each way sleeping bolt upright in couch.  I stipulate.  Any travel writer could do the 3,000 miles easily, by renting a more or less comfortable sleeping vault that includes meals in the dining salon.  That travel scribe is not the pinched pensioner.  The transcontinental Amtrak roomette adds a grand or more to the otherwise comfortable basic coach fare.  That’s three times air fare.  I can’t afford to be green at that tariff. So the test  

If I could suffer sitting up all night in couch, I could afford a lot more leisurely long distance domestic rail.  I could support steel wheels.  And spare the biosphere.

I’m no tyro on Amtrak.  But short hauls.   For instance,  Sacramento to Yosemite, which requires a transfer at Merced to a connecting  plague ship (bus) for the final three hour approach to the national park.  I bring full camping kit and a hand truck so I can overnight at Camp Four, the stop of choice for rock climbers, gap year Europeans, and the odd thrifty senior. 

The train had been good enough for these short hops; the bus, no.  The Yosemite plague ship often is  crowded with sick people, mostly restaurant employees,.  And on a bus, you’re trapped.  The difficulty with public transportation is the public.  So, for the public option, I favor train destinations.  A train with observation lounge, dining salon, full bar.  The train where you can escape your random seatmate.

Usually for budget domestic travel, my prejudice is for the West.  California, north of the 38th parallel .  But now I’m headed cardinal East on the Zephyr for two nights, Sacramento to Chicago, and then a  segue for 24 hours on the Lakeshore Limited into Penn Station.

The experiment showed me what I could handle.  Three nights of  contortionist discomfort, four days without a shower, too much.  Twenty-four hours I could do.  That gives me a thousand miles of track in any direction out of Sacramento except West.  That was the science.

But subjectively, what about crossing the nations by train?  The granite grandeur of the mountain nation, the Sierra, the Rockies, and so on.  Not much to see in the dreary heartland.  Syrup nation stretches from Colorado to Illinois.  Amber waves of corn tassels.  Pulses standing tall for Coca Cola and Frito Lay.  Because of flooding around Omaha, trains were being diverted south, meaning that Amtrak had to share the detour with extra freight traffic.  Every minute we were being shouldered onto a siding by Buffet’s Burlington Northern to make room for a mile long cola of carbon baguettes, coal to light the lights of Broadway.  For a thousand miles:  corn and coal cars.

Amtrak Toilets

We’ve all heard enough about cross country train travel.  Instead of vaporing about scenery, or pressing the femoral and carotid of the nations, let’s go right to it.  Amtrak toilets.  No putting any fine point here.  It’s the Third World.  That is, in coach.  Each Amtrak car has an attendant.  The attendant in the sleeping car gets gratuities.  His select cohort tends to be sophisticated, well off, and interested in grooming.  The toilets in sleeper are kept clean.  The coach car attendant is supposed to tidy up the jakes in steerage, but can you blame him if he’d rather leave that distasteful job for a cleaning crew of recent immigrants at the terminus?   The closets in coach are under heavy pressure and after a few days, without much supervision…well.   They get clogged, back up, overflow.  Then they’re tagged Out of Service, which puts more pressure on the remaining commodes.

Partly, it’s design.  The coach toilets on the Lakeside Limited are shallow stainless steel basins with a three-inch flap valve and ring flushing.  On the Zephyr the bowls are a little deeper and evacuated by a startling whoosh of vacuum suction.  Both designs tend to clog when  challenged by a surfeit of paper product.   An inconspicuous notice in muted colors asks passengers to refrain from discarding paper towels, newspapers and diapers in the toilet.  It would be better if no paper at all went in.  It would be better to take a hint from Mexico.  NO PAPER IN TOILET.  Large red letters.  A trash bag nearby.

I know.  Fastidious norteamericanos are too prissy for this, without North Korean style re-education.  But ideally, the Amtrak traveler would bag up his papel hygienico in a Ziploc for deposit it in the trash.  Amtrak plumbing can’t handle paper.   If passengers accepted this reality the train crappers could survive a three day trip. 

I’ll swaddle this next suggestion in opaque euphemism.  If one encounters a completely  unserviceable and unspeakable commode, he must fend for himself.  While avoiding eye contact with the toilet, he should close the top lid.  From mid-morning Tiffin he has reserved the cardboard box that held the coffee and muffin.  Line this box with a plastic bag and set it on the lid.  After Lamaze, wrap the issue in the plastic bag and place it in the cardboard coffee cup, also saved.  Cap securely and drop in trash.  Many students, particularly the Euros, have traveled and know the reality of third world plumbing.  For them, a hint is all that’s needed.

Another simple expedient.  I used my cell phone to take a few snaps of one example of egregious marksmanship, and invited the conductor to watch the slideshow  The car attendant got the word and became busy.  If passengers posted such art to a train site such as, along with car number, date and hour, one of the drawbacks of the transcontinental train might be abated.

I used the loo closet for bathing, pretty much as described in R.L. Stevenson’s account of his transcontinental experience on the emigrant train in the 1870s.  He used a wash cloth and a tin basin.  I used a wash cloth in a quart Ziploc.  I refined his method a little by lining my underwear with paper towels, and changing the towels daily.  (In the famous author’s day, passengers could sleep lying down in coach by buying wooden planks from platform hawkers.  The planks were laid transversely across the seats to make a sleeping platform.)

Some of these water closets are tiny; it‘ll be hard to maneuver during the bath.  Also the locks often are broken on the sliding door.  And remember, we’re now a nation of heavies.  Once I slid open a WC door to find it fully occupied by a porcine pilgrim whose bulk prevented his being able to latch the door.  I’m a former police reporter, and hardened.  Someone else might have been damaged.

By the way, several gaffers of my acquaintance thought American passenger trains still dump human offal on the tracks.  That practice, so interesting to Pullman passengers of the mid Twentieth Century, and so disgusting to the gandy dancers, has been discontinued. 

Most of my fellow pilgrims were duffers.  So I heard a lot of complaining.  Mostly about being late.  Of course the conductor blamed everything on Acts of God in Nebraska.  He said he had never known any train to be as late as this one.  Usually, it kept time like a metronome, he said.  I think passengers would feel better if Amtrak didn’t publish a schedule.  The train gets there when it gets there. 

I also saw a bunch of young Euros on gap year sightseeing via Amtrak.  Foreign accent, hipper than you duds.  And the biscuit and cheese picnic from the backpack.  Copy that.  I loaded up on trail mix, nonfat cheese, apples and oranges.  I also matched the hatch on the wine.  Amtrak snack bar charges five for a tiny bottle of plonk made at a winery right up the road from my milieu in Northern California.  At discount liquor I found the same four ounce bottle offered for one-fifty, so I brought along a cellar. Train rules prohibit being your own sommelier in coach, but the car attendant didn’t seem suspicious.

Amtrak does take a tough line on smoking, and a stern voice on the intercom alleges that police will yank violating lepers off the train at the next road crossing, if caught puffing in the vestibule.  The conductor does alert the pariahs when the train is stopping long enough for a smoke break.  Step off for a smoke or a breath of fresh air, he says.  That’s to smile.  The pariahs foul the platform in front of every car.  In a better world, the dining car servers, who act like military police anyway during their usual duties, would herd the pariahs to the downwind verge of the platform.

Slow trains, but where’s the praise?   I praise slow trains because, despite caveats and  quibbles, they’re better than no trains.  There will never be high speed rail between Oakland and Omaha.  Too costly’ it’ll never pay.  But the nations need an east-west train, as an option for wandering youth and leisured senior.  And in many weary wasteland burgs, the train station is the only portal to the world.  I say, embrace what we have and accept it for what it is:  an early Twentieth  Century relic much like the rail system in Mexico. Because it has to share a single track with profitable freight, passenger trains can’t always run on time, The coach passenger will be wise to bring his own picnic basket.  Service is for those who know how to tip.

It’ll never be the Orient Express, but to make the transcontinental train more comfortable, I say make it even slower.  Forget the timetable.  Long stops at suitable stations for a walk and a meal away from the pariahs, while the johns are washed and the bar replenished (a liquor shortage struck the homebound train west of Denver).  Maybe an opportunity to RON (remain overnight) in a hotel at some midpoint.  What’s the hurry.  Leave the railroad watch at home.  It’s the slow train.