Amtrak Guest Rewards

So, as I’ve mentioned before, for both monetary and affection-for-train reasons, I chose to take Amtrak to get my person back to Savannah from Cleveland a few weeks ago.  I’ve taken Amtrak quite a few times before — I’m actually an Amtrak Guest Rewards member — so I’d come to expect the obligatory several-hours lateness that comes with the territory.  That being said…

My first train was scheduled to leave Cleveland at 12:35 on Friday morning, but didn’t pull out of the station until almost 2:30.  Two hours late — no biggie, and not entirely unexpected.  The train was clean and fairly empty, so I was allotted two seats all to myself — happiness.  I’d come armed with a pint of rum, some Coke (a-Cola), and a backpack full of reading and writing material.  I made my way to the lounge car, and proceeded to sit alone drinking and writing and watching the the middle of the night lights go by.  "This is what I like about taking the train," I remember thinking.  Eventually, I fell asleep to the rocking of the train, sprawled out on my two seats, dreams full of remembrances of train rides past floating through my skull.

At some too-early-in-the-morning point, I was shaken awake by a conductor or some sort of train-lackey and asked what train I was changing to in Washington (D.C.).  "I’m going to Savannah," I groggily replied, before putting my head back down and falling back asleep.  Several brief dreams passed before I was shaken awake again by the same train-person and asked what number of train I was connecting to.  I said I had no idea, and the person indicated that if I was on so-and-so train that I would have to get off in Philadelphia and take a bus to Washington.  I sat up and fumbled through my bags for a long while before I was able to locate my ticket, show it to the train-flunky, and then return to my pancake-flavored dreams. 

My first train was scheduled to arrive in Washington at about 11:30 on Friday morning, and my second train was scheduled to leave at 7:30 that night, leaving me plenty of time for my meeting with President Bush.  Unfortunately, my first train didn’t end up arriving in D.C. until approximately 5:30, which only left me two hours to gallivant around Union Station, so I was forced to call and cancel my meeting with George — he cried a bit.  The only Washington D.C. site in the vicinity of Union Station was the National Postal Museum, which sounded about as exciting as staring blankly into space.  After staring blankly at the facade of the National Postal Museum for about an hour, I decided to get something to eat and find out how late my second train would be.  I had a chicken sandwich and a lemonade while sitting next to a man who was reading a science fiction novel while repeatedly making disgusting noises with his nose and mouth — words fail to describe the horror and disgust I felt.  I kept looking at him with an accusatory face, but he seemed either completely oblivious to his noises or so accustomed to the sort of looks I was shooting him that he was able to effectively ignore them. 

The second train seemed, at first, to be relatively on-time.  They started taking tickets and letting us out onto the platform at about 7:30, but as soon as we got out on the platform things started to go wrong.  The always-inept Amtrak staff was apparently unaware that they didn’t have enough cars to hold all the new passengers, until they had us all huddled together and sweating on the platform, that is.  So, about a hundred passengers (including myself) stood on the platform for an hour while they attached another car to the back of the train.  As soon as the car was attached, they opened the doors and a free-for-all race for seats began.  I ended up sitting in a window seat next to a family of about six, which inspired me to immediately mix a cocktail.  As I was transferring a healthy dose of rum to the bottle of Coke I’d bought at the station, I noticed the man sitting next to me was giving me looks — dirty looks, drinking = bad looks.  It was at this point that I noticed the latest issue of Watchtower sitting on his tray table, which I took as my cue to exit. 

I made my way through the packed train to the lounge car, which was fairly disgusting — it reminded me of a high school cafeteria, except with lots of swarthy people in it.  I got relatively drunk, I wrote, I read, I stared blankly into space, I got very drunk.  At some point I decided that I should probably try and sleep, so I ambled back to where I last remembered my seat being, only to find that there were people sleeping in every seat everywhere around the last place I remembered my seat being.  It occurred to me at this point that I should have pissed on my seat to mark my territory, too little too late.  I stumbled around a bit more, haphazardly looking for somewhere — anywhere — to sit and pass out, and also realizing that I needed to recover the possessions I had left at my initial seat.  Eventually an Amtrak-employee-person came around and I explained what happened, and he fixed it — I got my shit back and a seat to pass out in. 

After sleeping intermittently for five to seven hours, I woke up as the train began to slow down and then stop.  It was daylight outside, and we were scheduled to arrive in Savannah at around 7:30 (Saturday morning), so I assumed that we were almost there.  Looking out the windows indicated that we were not stopped at a station, however, but at a place most aptly described as "the middle of nowhere."  Amtrak trains share the rails, and are subservient to, freight trains, so brief stops are not unusual, and are usually the cause of the perpetual retardation of the trains.  After sitting motionless on the tracks for almost a half-hour, however, people (including me) started to wonder what was going on.  After sitting motionless on the tracks for over an hour, people really started to get pissy, and then we were finally told by an Amtrak-tard that an axle on the engine was broken, and that they were "trying to fix it."  Soon after that, the power went out, and with it the air conditioning and the cash register for the cafe — so, no food or drink, and increasing heat.  At this point, the normally neutral social atmosphere of public transportation began to deteriorate.  Rapidly.

Over the next few hours, we were told that the engine was broken-broken, and that they were going to need to bring in a freight engine to pull us into Savannah.  There would be no electricity for the remainder of our trip, and it was unclear as to how long this whole get-new-engine-and-pull-us-to-Savannah thing was going to take.  Nobody was allowed off the train, as we were in "the middle of nowhere," so I was essentially… no, not essentially, I was stuck in a hot metal box with a bunch of angry strangers in the middle of South Carolina.  The situation took a Calcutta-esque turn when the fresh water ran out and the bathrooms began to back-up.  As the smell slowly wafted into the cars and combined with the sweat of the passengers a scent was created… how to describe it?  Imagine a locker room filled with shit and piss, and then add jungle-like heat and humidity.   It was about one in the afternoon.

At this point the filmmaker in me should have pulled out my camera and started taping, but I was too busy wallowing in the surreal crapulence of the situation.

I did meet some interesting people…

  • The middle-aged guy who I ran into by the doors at the very back of the train swearing into his phone and swilling whiskey out of a plastic cup.  As soon as he got off the phone, he looked at me and said in the thickest of drawls "that was my paw, I told him I ain’t gettin nowhere anytime soon."  He then asked if I had any whiskey, and I told him that I had finished my rum the previous night ( which was true).  "That’s a damn shame," he responded.  I agreed.
  • The old man wearing the train conductor’s hat who stood by the doors smoking Pall Malls and talking about how "in the old days, you could run yer watch by the trains."  I liked him quite a bit, actually, as he was one of the few people on the train who actually seemed to be enjoying the situation.
  • The huge and belligerent black guy listening to hard-core gangster rap through enormous headphones.  I know it was hard-core gangster rap because he rapped along with it loudly.  At one point he was standing between the cars rapping along ("this motherfucker ain’t cuttin’ no shit," or some such), and there was this cute little girl just staring at him, listening to him shout words that I wouldn’t want my kid exposed to until they were at least ten.  I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to please censor himself in front of the kid, and he walked away dismissively.

Eventually, we started moving towards Savannah again, and ended up arriving just eight hours short of our scheduled arrival time, at about 3:30 on Saturday afternoon.  The train, and most of the other passengers, were supposed to be headed to Jacksonville, and my understanding was that they were going to have to wait at the Savannah train station another three hours for a fleet of buses to take them to their final destination. 

I took the first taxi I could find back to my apartment.

5 comments to Amtrak Guest Rewards

  • Aunt Rosamarinara

    I once thought it would be exciting, relaxing, and maybe even a bit romantic to take a train from Ohio out to the west coast. Well, not so much now after reading about your experience with Amtrack. As you so aptly put it, “…stuck in a hot metal box with a bunch of angry strangers…” is not my ideal way of getting from here to anywhere.

  • Katy

    Depends, we did a trip from DC-SF-DC by train a couple of years ago and loved it! It was during winter and we got stopped a couple of times by snow issues, but it was just so great to be able to take our times, watch videos, listen to music, read, relax. All the things we can’t do when we reach the in-laws house lol.

  • Katy

    Forgot to say – you started out poorly. The postal museum is a real blast, really. I didn’t believe it either until I went there. It’s all in how you start out the trip.

  • Jef

    I should probably add that I did call and complain to Amtrak customer relations about this mess of a trip, and that they were very understanding, and that they gave me a voucher for almost the entire cost of my trip.

    And Katy, the postal museum may be an enjoyable place to visit, but it is not – and will never be – “a blast.”

  • Anonymous

    surreal crapulence

    This needs to be published somewhere, under that exact title. Perhaps there is some kind of journal for such discussion. The Woeful Traveler or something…

    good god…

    Well, not that this compares, but we did just spend 11 hours on a bus in Korea to get 1 hour FROM the east coast, only to turn back to Seoul as 76 hours of heavy, constant rain resulted in mudslides and road closures. Mind you, we waited IN traffic and at a stop where we COULD of turned around about 10 different times. Apparently the highest number of broadband customers in the world doesn’t imply information flow to bus drivers. Oy.

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