Monday, May 9, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different

In the interests of providing the readership more choice, I'm pleased as punch to present some work by my newest guest author Doktor Inferno.

I've known the Doc for nearly two decades and have always been astonished at the range and depth of his knowledge of minutiae and ready wit. Not to mention his business card which proudly states that he is in fact, a Super Genius.

No, it's not his picture and I will leave it to the readership to figure out who the cat in the woodcut is, I suspect is one of Doktor Inferno's distant relatives.

Narrative provided by:
Doktor Inferno

With the recent talk about threats to the US rail system, I thought I would tell you of my experience with Amtrak.

Due to the ridiculous "security theater" shows put on by .gov types at airports and the fact that I am an incurable smart-ass with those who assume that they have some authority over me (as well as the fact that I cannot really afford the type of legal representation that I would probably require as a result of the combination of those factors), my wife and I decided to travel from our home in Atlanta to New Orleans via Amtrak's "Crescent" line. We have driven this route many times in the past and know the driving costs in both time and money. The dollar cost of traveling by Amtrak was quite reasonable. Even after we upgraded to a private "roomette" the ticket price was about the same as the fuel cost for our car. Considering that most of the cost of our ticket is borne by taxpayers who have no interest in riding the train, this was not surprising. The time cost was about 25% longer: 12 hours from ATL to NOL. We decided that the extra time cost was worth it since we wouldn't be spending all that time driving.

We paid for our tickets online and received a sheet of instructions with a barcode to be scanned at the station to print our actual tickets. The sheet included a list of prohibited items, the usual "passengers are subject to search" language, and that passengers must present a valid state-issued ID before being allowed to board. Upon arrival at the station we scanned the barcode at a kiosk in the station and got our actual tickets. We had no checked baggage as the amount of baggage allowed in the "roomette" was quite large and we travel light. When the train arrived we walked down the stairs to the train car indicated on our tickets and met our first Amtrak employee, who helped us aboard with our baggage and told us where to find our room. After a few minutes the train began to depart and this employee came by, introduced himself, and asked to see our tickets. He did not ask for ID. He did check to see that our tickets were signed where indicated.

Since we had upgraded to the "roomette" all of our meals onboard were included in the ticket price, so the dollar cost was accurate. The time, not so much. The first inkling that this was not to be came before we even left the station. The train was an hour and a half late arriving. We were told that the delay was due to snowfall along the train's route from New York and that the train would still arrive in New Orleans on time. This didn't seem too likely. (It wasn't.)

I won't bore you with the details of the numerous delays but suffice to say that they fell into several categories: Waiting on a siding while a freight train passed. Waiting on a siding while a freight train didn't pass. Waiting for a rail construction crew to complete some arcane task that apparently involved moving at glacial speed on a track that we weren't on, etc., etc. Most of these things happened more than once. Also, when the train was actually moving it seldom got above fifty miles per hour. As a result, we arrived in New Orleans four hours late. That's right kids! A sixteen hour train ride in cars built in 1981! At least we had some privacy, a toilet, a sink, and a bunk-bed type of arrangement. Those passengers riding coach must have been miserable.

The next week we're at the station in New Orleans to return to Atlanta. The same routine as before. In New Orleans I did see two police officers at the station. No ID demanded, no searches, no baggage check. The train left on time and stayed on time until Hattiesburg, MS. Where, for some reason, after boarding passengers at the station we pulled out of the station and down the tracks about 150 yards and sat. For a half hour. (I should mention here that there is no smoking anywhere on Amtrak trains. On the way to New Orleans there was supposed to be a stop in Birmingham for 15-ish minutes to allow smokers to get their nic on. Because of the delays, that didn't happen and smokers just had to tough it out. There was an announcement reminding people not to smoke in the compartments between cars. Considering that there was one 15 minute smoke break on a trip scheduled to be 12 hours this 'no smoking' plan was doomed to failure anyway.) Hattiesburg was a nice-looking station. The entire platform was covered. Why couldn't passengers who wished to leave the train for that half-hour do so? Why did we pull out of the station and sit? No explanation was ever given. The train continued the same pattern of delays seen on the first trip.

We arrived back in Atlanta only two hours late. I don't know what time the train eventually arrived in New York.

The Amtrak employees we met covered the gamut from very friendly and competent to minimally functional and mildly hostile to mostly invisible. About what you'd expect. Let me point out here that the dining car staff was friendly and efficient. Food wasn't bad, either. But it was expensive! The meals being included on our upgraded ticket was definitely a good deal.

That's just an overview of our trip. Slow and boring really sums it up.

Here's one thing that you may have noticed: The train didn't blow up. It wasn't seized by terrorists. I didn't get to jump backward in slow motion from a 100-foot tall railway trestle into a river while shooting pistols with both hands as my wife and I escaped "the terror train". All of this despite the fact that no passenger was ever searched, asked for ID, or questioned about anything other than did they sign their ticket. No baggage was searched. I could literally have carried on a duffel bag full of AK-47's and the Amtrak attendant would have handed it up the stairs to me. It's been that way for years. There is no need to get all paranoid about rail security now. Besides, if terrorists wanted to destroy a train they wouldn't need to be on it. Destroying the aforementioned 100-foot railway trestle at the right moment would work fine. Haven't these people ever seen a WWII movie?

(Speaking of WWII, rail passengers weren't inconvenienced by searches and questions from people whose last job involved a fry basket. Instead, the railroads posted their own armed guards at trestles and tunnels to guard against saboteurs. No attacks occurred.)

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