Last night I staggered off the train from Cologne, which I’d boarded after getting off the train from Paris, fifteen minutes late, the apologies of the train crew, broadcast on the intercom, still ringing in my ears. What a difference from Amtrak, I thought.
I’d wanted to visit Montreal on this trip, because I hadn’t seen my old college friend Terry in what turned out to be 19 years, which is way too long. I also wanted to visit a couple of friends I knew only from the Well, and, mostly, I figured that after four days, I’d want to get out of New York. I’d remembered how wonderful the trip up there was when I’d taken the train — a long trip, sure, ten hours or so, but among some of the most gorgeous scenery the East Coast has to offer. Idly, I went by the website and found I could make the round trip for a whopping $113, or just under half what a similar trip on Deutsche Bahn would cost. How could I resist?
So last Friday morning, bright and early, I found myself in Penn Station, sticking my credit card into a machine which identified me immediately, had me punch in the code they’d sent me in confirmation of the purchase, and seconds later two tickets slid out. Boy, that was easy. Easier than Deutsche Bahn’s website, which works until you get to the moment of purchase, and then crashes, and which won’t quote you fares or sell you tickets if you’re leaving Germany, for some reason.
At 8:30, we pulled out of Penn Station on schedule. I found it rather odd that, although the ticket said “reserved” on it, there wasn’t a seat or car number on it, as there would have been in Europe. Still, there weren’t enough people on the train to make that an issue. Unfortunately for the scenery, it was raining hard. Maybe, I thought, this will let up at some point. Didn’t really matter when; the whole trip, pretty much, is scenic.
It was at our first stop that I noticed the first big difference between Amtrak and European trains. There’s a board by the exit, just as there is here, but it only gives you the name of the train, and, for variety, a couple of ads for Amtrak, including one for something called Rail Fone, long superceded by the cell phone. Where were we? I had no idea, and, having grown up in the area, I had some interest in knowing. But there was no indication from the board, and no announcement over the loudspeaker. Nor were the signs at the station terribly visible. It was Yonkers, I think.
Later, I discovered that in the snack car there was a stack of timetables, French on one side, English on the other (hey, it was going to Quebec; no sense in risking a fine!). This was good as long as you were capable of remembering what the last stop was or could find a sign (some of the stations we stopped at were so small only one car was opened at the stop, while the rest of the train slopped over each end). But really, folks, what’s wrong with making an announcement? Or jiggering the sign so it shows the station, and maybe even the next station with estimated time of arrival and all?
Sad to say, as we proceeded up the Hudson, the scenery was behind a scrim of driving grey rain, so any sightseeing was restricted to the marshes just off the river and the river itself. There was an awful lot of wildlife: several species of ducks, blue and green herons, and, once, a glimpse of a group of those flat-shelled, bottle-nosed snapping turtles. I’d have thought it was too cold for them by now.
Once past Albany, though, you’re off the Hudson, and you plunge right into the fall foliage as you work your way towards several other lakes, winding up with the huge one which divides Vermont from New York, Lake Champlain. This is summer tourist country, and yet it’s very nice at this time of year (well, it was a week ago: a couple of good cold rainstorms and that foliage just says good-bye). The train zips through some nice granite outcroppings, and you realize just how depopulated bits of upstate New York are.
Poor, too. That was one thing that shocked me. Of course, the nicest parts of anyplace are rarely found by the railroad tracks, for obvious reasons, but in Europe that usually means either industrial or immigrant areas. You don’t see rural poverty in the parts of Europe I’ve ridden through on trains — largely Germany, France, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway. Only in Poland have I seen dwellings I assumed belonged to poor people. But it’s a shock in America: some of the houses out there in the country are downright hovels, and yet there were people living in them. This was a shock not only after relatively affluent Europe, but after deeply sanitized New York, which seems to have had a soulectomy since I was last there about eight years ago.
The border check was painless. We’d been warned at the start of the journey to attach tags which had been stamped CANADA onto all of our bags, and I, of course, managed to drop one on the way in. I was afraid my camera or my laptop would be impounded on the way in. Fortunately, I found it on the floor, but the conductor said there was no worry about them anyway. The Canadian border guards were friendly, joked in French and English with the passengers, and got in and out fast.
By then, the sun was going down, and it looked like we’d make our destination only a half hour late — not, again, that anyone was telling us this except for Dean. Dean looked like one of the Village People, specifically the one with the leather cap, and was one of a number of homosexual stereotypes in our car; perhaps there was a convention that weekend, because there were two more of them sitting across from me, going “Tsk” loudly every time Dean made or received a call on his cell phone. Oblivious to the fact that we didn’t all want to know the intimate details of his life, he shared them with his friends and us in a voice that I’m sure carried to the next car. It was, however, useful for knowing how close we were to Montreal.
Thirty minutes late is early for Amtrak, sad to say, although things have improved since the day in the early ’70s when, frightened out of the sky by a plane ride from hell that had nuns praying at the top of their lungs and the businessman who just a moment earlier had been saying how boring flying was yelling “I don’t want to die” at the top of his lungs, I took the train from San Francisco to Austin — well, San Antonio, which was as close as it went — for my first visit to that city. It was understood we’d take the bus to Oakland, because there was no train from San Francisco, but when we got there — and I am not making this up — the train from Seattle was 24 hours late. Thus, we took the bus from Oakland to Los Angeles, where there actually was a train.
The ride back from Montreal, though, wasn’t nearly as punctual, and this one was more of a nail-biter, because I was staying in New Jersey, and the trains there don’t run all night. The U.S. border guards took several people for questioning into the snack car, but they all — all the ones I saw, anyway — returned to their seats without incident. We were a good 2 1/2 hours late getting to Penn Station. No apologies, let alone the discount cards Deutsche Bahn hands out when things like this happen.
Oh, and I mentioned the snack car? I’m going to do a post later on some of the food I encountered, but let’s just say that Amtrak is still upholding some great traditions: I fondly remember biting into a roast-beef sandwich on that early ’70s trip and finding the center frozen solid. This time, I bought an “Italian sandwich” on the way down, fairly certain I’d get back to Jersey too late to get delivery pizza, even (I was right), and although the guy stuck it in the oven for a goodly amount of time, when I took it out of the cellophane, there was a comforting cold, wet spot directly in the center. The mighty Hudson still shows off its colors in the fall, and Amtrak still can’t manage to defrost a sandwich.