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Fun on Amtrak (April 28, 1999)

Boy, did our friends envy us. We were headed off on a cross-country rail journey via Amtrak, whose shiny bright brochures promised a return to the thrilling days “when getting there was just as much fun as being there.”

Fun? Sure. If your idea of fun is, say, settling into your dentist’s chair for a bit of root canaling.

Our Amtrak adventure began after my wife Gerry and I boarded the California Zephyr last summer, bound for Chicago from the railroad’s Emeryville depot near San Francisco.

It was to be three days and two nights in the very best of Amtrak accommodations — a Deluxe Bedroom, described as “the ultimate in sleeping car travel.”

The luxurious 6.5x7.5 foot lodging featured a rock hard sofa that made into “a wide lower berth” 40 inches across and a fold-down platform attached to the wall above it that held a “comfortable upper berth” 28 inches wide.

It was fun, though, meeting the challenge of rolling off a ladder and onto the upper berth without banging your head on the ceiling just inches above. A safety belt kind of thing was attached to the bed to prevent sleepers from sliding off. Wise precaution, given the train’s nocturnal swinging and swaying as it got up to speed in invariably vain efforts to make up time lost during the day.

Sometimes the train was shunted to sidings to make way for freight trains which had priority. At other times it was stopped by malfunctions in the computer system that regulates Amtrak comings and goings.

The California Zephyr, anyway, ran behind schedule at almost every stop, and too bad for passengers trying to connect with other trains.

We even had a bathroom in our cozy little space, a marvel of miniaturization, not much more than two feet wide that encompassed a toilet and what was imaginatively advertised as a shower.

Some shower. It required you to sit on, well, the only thing in there on which you could sit, then hold a portable shower nozzle over your head with one hand and with the other press a button on the wall to get 30 seconds of spray. We didn’t bother.

But it could have been worse. We might have bunked in one of Amtrak’s Standard Bedrooms. I’ll spare you the painful details concerning those teeny-weeny quarters.

We did have a picture window through which to view the slowly passing scenery. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to wash it.

As you might imagine, we were terribly disappointed that Amtrak didn’t deliver on its promise that the attendant who made up the beds would “offer you a bedtime sweet.” We had to fetch our own. They were stored in a corridor near an elegant black plastic garbage bag that held ice cubes for fetching by those who might wish to pour themselves a refreshing beverage in one of Amtrak’s elegant plastic glasses.

Two varieties of cocktails of the pre-mixed bottled kind could be had in the Lounge Car Cafe, along with soft drinks, snacks and packaged sandwiches. But passengers missed the “first-run evening movies… and cartoons for kids.” The VCR was broken.

The exceptional service promised by Amtrak certainly was exceptional. The train was so understaffed, for instance, that the cafe had to close when the sole attendant took his lunch break.

For at least every three jobs that needed to be done, there seemed to be but one crew member — often a crew member who, to put it charitably, was less than competent. Some were downright rude and surly, none more so than the maitre d’ who assigned passengers to tables in the dining car with a great show of reluctance, as if doing them a very special favor. The overwhelmed, generally slow and unresponsive food servers under his command weren’t much better.

Neither was the food in what Amtrak’s inventive brochures called “the finest restaurant on wheels.” Although prepared by “on-board chefs,” the meals were at best mediocre, the menu extremely limited and the “chefs” better described as microwave cooks.

The most exciting aspect of the Amtrak dining experience was the “community seating” that threw together by the arbitrary selection of the haughty maitre d’ four people at each table, at least two of them usually total strangers.

What fun trying to make conversation under such circumstances, especially when you had to sit at the table waiting and waiting — and waiting — to finally be served, as we did at breakfast, at lunch, and at dinner.

The brochures were right in promising we’d encounter interesting “new friends.” Among them was a flannel-shirted auto parts salesman from rural Missouri whose hobby was shooting prairie dogs.

“I suppose you might not like that,” said he, while nevertheless rambling on about the joys of blasting away the furry critters. They pop their little heads up from holes in the ground, he said, and — pow! — you plug ’em.

Another tablemate was an 80ish guy sporting a red straw boater and food bespattered white dickey. He told us, in non-stop detail, about his alleged show biz career, tossing off the names of one famous performer after another with whom he said he had shared billing, informing us of their great talent and asking rhetorically, “Am I right? Am I right?”

Our new friend never did get around to eating his lunch. It grew cold as he talked of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and other stars of stage, screen and radio.

“Don’t believe me?” he asked, flipping his hat along an arm and up onto his head in a deft single motion as evidence of theatrical prowess.

We didn’t need an alarm clock. We knew that at 6:30am sharp the dining car steward would be on the public address system loudly intoning, “First call for breakfast!”

At last we arrived in Chicago, only 3.5 hours late.

The Emeryville-to-Chicago ticket, by the way, cost $1,468 for the two of us.

After a much-needed R&R layover in Chicago, off we went to Washington DC, aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Limited — “a first-class train in every sense of the word.” It left Chicago — surprise! — two hours and ten minutes behind schedule.

The Amtrak brochures indicated, however, that this trip might be different. They guaranteed “the utmost in comfort and service.”

True wonders awaited us in the dining car: “A delicious dining experience that is truly pleasing to the palate… crisp white linens and gourmet menus prepared by outstanding chefs who’ve trained at the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America … fine cuisine … fine china.”

What’s more, lunches and dinners would include “your choice of complimentary wine, soda or other hot and cold non-alcoholic beverages.”

So why were we charged for mealtime drinks? Amtrak, a waiter explained indifferently, had changed its policy. 

Also without notice, Amtrak abandoned the “on-board accommodations that pamper and please,” including “in-room dining” and “24-hour beverage service.” No excuses, either, for the absence of promised nightly feature movies.

The train had departed Chicago so late passengers were sitting down to dinner at 11pm. It’s amazing we ate at all. A single waiter was saddled with serving 32 tables — 32 tables with up to four diners each.

He had to do it again at breakfast. Getting a second cup of coffee — and sometimes a first one — was impossible.

The tables actually were covered with tablecloths that, while not quite the promised linen, were at least white (or off-white anyway). But the utensils were plastic. Plastic. 

Ah, but that plastic would provide us our finest Amtrak moment. It was during our very last on-board meal. We were seated with two young men who clearly did not care to communicate with us. As usual, we awkwardly waited, and then waited some more, inwardly fidgeting but outwardly silent.

Finally our lunch came, and finally dessert. We hoped against hope that it might leave us with a good taste after our typically less-than-tasty meal. The waiter, however, laid before us what looked like a snowball. It was undoubtedly the most nearly impenetrable serving of vanilla ice cream in American culinary history. 

Did I say the ice cream was hard? It couldn’t be penetrated with our plastic spoons, leading Gerry to attack it with a plastic knife and fork. That worked, but I was determined to use a spoon. It is not proper to eat ice cream any other way.

I dug into the white mound before me. I pressed hard. I pressed harder. Snap! The spoon broke off at the bowl. The bowl sailed across the table and off the cheek of one of our mute tablemates. The ice was broken at last. He laughed.

The remaining legs of our cross-country journey — Washington to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to New York City — were mercifully short day trips and actually pleasant. We were not required to eat Amtrak food or sleep on Amtrak beds.

We returned to San Francisco by plane.

One Comment

  1. john ignoffo October 25, 2021

    I’ve ridden both trains several times. Not gourmet cuisine, but not bad (granted the fake “silverware” is tacky). Sometimes on time, sometimes many hours late. Enjoy the post industrial scenery! Snuggle up to your beloved and the bed Is plenty big. Still the smallest carbon footprint and so much roomier than plane seats. Some interesting dining companions, some duds of course. (That it helps pay my pension in no way affects my objective judgment!)

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