Thursday, November 23, 2006

Amtrak Heaven, Amtrak Hell--and all for Pagan Studies

Regular readers know that M. and I like train travel. We saw both sides of it on our just-completed trip to Washington, DC.

The Southwest Chief was on time to La Junta, Colorado, where we meet it, but the ticket agent was muttering about possible stoppage due to high winds.

Somewhere in western Kansas, we ended up parked for five hours. Apparently there is an Amtrak regulation against prairie travel when winds exceed 50 mph, and according to a crew member, winds at the Dodge City airport were 63 mph. Can those double-decker Superliner cars blow over?

Late to Chicago, we missed our connection on Capitol Limited to Washington, but did make it onto the Lakeshore Limited, which had been held in the station. Thus began the great Rust Belt tour: northern Indiana and Ohio, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and down the Hudson River to New York City. This time, our sleeper was one of the one-level Viewliner cars, designed to fit into Penn Station.

I could never keep count of all the old brick warehouses, piles of scrap metal, and empty factories. What is the quarter-mile long three-story white brick building in Utica, New York, that looks empty? There is just so much stuff in this country.

We arrived in New York about 8 p.m. and an Amtrak representative promised us seats on a regional train down to Washington, DC, which would have gotten us there by midnight--eight hours late, but we could live with it.

But what she did not tell us was that a freight train had derailed south of Baltimore, interrupting the "catenary" electrical system and stopping commuter trains in that sector. We got this sad news from the conductor somewhere around Trenton: our train would stop at Philadelphia.

It was too late for a Greyhound bus--the last one had left at 10:15 p.m. The rental car counters were all closed. Amtrak's Philadelphia agents were flailing around, first promising buses and then saying that there were none, and that Baltimore was worse, anyway.

Eventually, like some other passengers, we partnered with a third traveler and rented a cab. Yes, from Phillie to Washington by taxi, driven by an immigrant Indian driver who knew how to get onto Interstate 95 south, but after that had no idea where he was going.

Neither M. nor I knew our way around either. Fortunately the other guy knew the main roads--and somewhere in the south part of downtown, the brotherhood of cabdrivers was invoked: our driver pulled alongside a DC cab, rolled down his window, and shouted [assume melodious Indian accent]: “Where is Hotel Washington?” And soon we were there, heads hitting the pillow about 3 a.m.

And so I slept until about 10:30 a.m. and then trudged off to the Convention Center, arriving late for the all-day Pagan studies conference, but delighted to be there and able to say that I had paid all that money out of my devotion to Pagan studies.

It was totally worth it.

On the return trip, we were only slightly late into Chicago and right on time in La Junta. Boarding the Southwest Chief in Chicago, we looked around and realized that we were in the same "roomette" in the same sleeping car that we had just vacated six hours earlier. That never happened before. Perhaps it was . . . a sign.

Thursday, Nov. 16, apparently was no picnic for air travelers either. I spoke to one attendee who had been dropped in Pittsburgh and sent by bus to Baltimore. Others had similar stories. The travel system is complex and fragile. One thunderstorm at an airport can back up air travel all around the country, so I cannot be too hard on Amtrak for its high-wind policy.

On the other hand, I have been talking with Customer Relations and will be seeking some sort of refund, having bought Chicago-Washington sleeper tickets but having been dumped in Philadelphia.


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Anonymous ArielMN said...

Oh what a trip!

Those prairie winds can blow over semi trucks and trailers, I am quite sure that they could knock a train around.

4:11 PM  
Blogger prairie mary said...

I quite agree. Freight trains get blown right off the track here several times a winter. When they are carrying grain, Karelian bear dogs must be brought in to keep the grizzes away until clean up is done. It's especially bad if the train is on a high trestle bridge over a gorge or river.

I have no idea what the consequences would be with a passenger train. Not good.

Prairie Mary

9:56 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

I have seen one of the tall UPS vans blown over on Interstate 25 near Fort Collins, where the chinook winds swoop down from the Rockies, so I am not ruling out the possibility!

10:16 PM  

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