I stare out the window at a few clouds hanging over a vast expanse of empty desert, dotted with thirsty pinon trees.
“Flyover country,” they call it.
I quit flying several years ago because my eardrums burst when the plane touched down, landing me in the emergency room. Despite that, I can still travel long distances, thanks to Amtrak.
Last December I treated myself to a 5,198-mile train ride through America that cost me $340.
I visited Milwaukee, New York and Montreal starting from (and returning to) my home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I bought an “Explore America Pass” that allowed me to make three stopovers in any of the cities Amtrak serves.
Actually, the trip cost me $40. American Express paid the rest. They gave me six $50 Amtrak gift certificates when I sent them $110 for their prestigious “Green Card.” (And they later refunded a good portion of that $110 after I canceled the card a few months later.)
I climbed aboard The Southwest Chief in Albuquerque at 1 p.m. on a crisp wintry day and settled into a large, reclining coach seat on its lower level, right across from the bathrooms.
After the conductor collected my ticket, I went to the café car and bought a bottle of cabernet sauvignon for $8. There I met Robert Kahn.
Bob writes the editorial page of the North County Times in Escondido, California. His last plane ride was on Sept. 10, 2001. He stopped flying after he read wire stories about the last cell phone calls passengers made to their spouses before their planes slammed into the twin towers.
Bob reminisced about Albuquerque: “Ten years ago I lived here briefly on skid row, escaping an insane wife, fired from a lousy job, listening to drunks fight on the other side of a flimsy wall, wondering when the gunshots would start, clutching a bottle of beer.
“Now I'm on vacation, heading east to see the love of my life, whom I have seen only once, briefly, in the past thirty-one years.”
I asked him about his new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“He's just Gray Davis with muscles,” Kahn said. ”All California's problems could be solved if he just hiked the price of gas 20 cents a gallon, but he won't do that.”
It was still dark at 7 a.m. when the Southwest Chief pulled into Kansas City for a long service stop. I brushed my teeth and then accidentally flushed a paper towel down the toilet. This clogged the plumbing and caused all the other bathrooms in my car to soon be declared “out of order.”
Delouris, the attendant, promised they would be fixed before long. Fortunately, the bathrooms in the other cars worked. When I got back to my seat, a husky blind man had taken the place of the pretty young lady who had been sitting next to me.
“It's like musical chairs around here,” I yelled to Delouris.
The vestibule was crammed with luggage and she was working hard to keep the aisles clear.
“Is that supposed to be a joke?” she muttered.
“I call that Chicago humor.”
“Well, I don’t appreciate Chicago humor,” she snapped. “I’ve got a trainload of passengers to keep track of and I’m not in the mood for Chicago humor.”
We crossed the Mississippi River at 10:30 a.m. I was seated in the observation car, feeling sore from sleeping on a seat with worn-out cushions. I had gotten some rest thanks to a remarkable sleeping pill my doctor had prescribed. A single pill knocked me out for eight solid hours even though I was surrounded by noisy children, amorous adults, cell phones, CD and DVD players.
At noon the bathrooms in my car were still broken and I mentioned this fact to Delouris.
“Since it’s a weekend,” she said, “the bathrooms won’t be fixed unless Amtrak is willing to spend $65 an hour to hire somebody — my mistake in misleading you.” She playfully slapped herself on the cheek as though she had been bad.
The Southwest Chief finally arrived in Chicago on time, about 24 hours after leaving New Mexico. I slipped Delouris a dollar on the way out, which she gratefully accepted.
I gazed in awe at Union Station’s Great Hall, with its soaring domed skylight, marble floors and Roman columns. My feet fell naturally into gentle impressions left by millions of travelers on a marble staircase leading to Canal Street.
I climbed aboard Amtrak’s Hiawatha for a 90-minute train ride to Milwaukee to visit my old college buddy.
Owen took me to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which looked like a cross between a Galactic battle cruiser and a sea gull. At noon the museum’s addition — the Quadracci Pavilion — turned into a colossal moving sculpture when a huge sunscreen suspended over the glass-walled lobby was lowered and raised.
Santiago Calatrava built the pavilion, the same architect who will design the $2 billion commuter-rail station at the World Trade Center site.
After touring the museum, I begged Owen, an orthodox Jew, to take me to Miller Valley, home of the second largest brewer in the US.
“A Miller rep told me their beer was certified Kosher,” I said.
“I don't need no damn hechsher on my beer before I’ll drink it!” he barked.
I misheard him.
“I am not lecturing you!” I cried.
It turns out a “hechsher” is the little symbol found on a food label that certifies it as being Kosher. And, it seems that most domestic beers are Kosher with or without the symbol.
We had a good laugh when that was all cleared up.
The Miller tour began with a multi-screened video Owen called “the longest beer commercial” he had ever seen. We were led through the vast packaging plant, shipping center, brew house and the creepy “historical caves” while being doused with tons of statistics.
We finally arrived at Miller Inn, built in 1892, where we were rewarded with three large free samples of beer. Our guide said she knew a man who has been taking the tour every week for five years because of the free beer.
Next morning I returned to Chicago on the Hiawatha and checked my bags in the coin-operated lockers at Union Station. At $1.25 a half-hour it was not much of a bargain, but it felt great to be free as a bird.
I flagged down a trolley that catered to Christmas shoppers and got a tour of the shopping district and the Magnificent Mile. I saw the historic water tower — the only thing left after the great fire of 1871 — Soldier's Field and the Tribune Towers.
A few hours later I was back in the jammed waiting room at Union Station, on Christmas Eve, sitting next to a pay phone that wouldn’t stop ringing.
My train, The Lake Shore Limited was practically empty when we finally left Chicago, two hours late.
Unlike The Southwest Chief, 120-volt outlets are plentiful on the East Coast trains and can be used to power electronic devices and recharge cell phones. (A surge protector is a good thing to bring along.)
I inflated my neck pillow, plugged in my heating pad, covered myself with a blanket and made a cup of tea using an immersion heater.
My seatmate was a Southern gentleman named Roderick, born in North Carolina and now living in Montana. Rod had strong opinions about evolution and the environment and seemed determined to get my goat. But since we seemed to agree on just about everything, the goats stayed where they belonged.
On Christmas morning I watched empty freeways and businesses, stately Victorian homes, red brick factory buildings and churches with towering spires pass by. I wasn’t sure if I was in Rochester or Syracuse. Riding the rails had become like wandering through an art museum: I was ignoring the labels and focusing my attention on all the pretty pictures.
The train raced along the Hudson River in a Southerly direction. Vast factories and storage tanks replaced towns and then came hills and giant rock formations. Well-heeled mansions sitting on sizeable estates soon caught my attention.
As night fell, we rode through caverns that delivered us, three hours late, into Penn Station. My sister Shelly was outside waiting in her car on 34th Street with a chicken sandwich, spinach pie and a cupcake.
We cautiously inched our way down Broadway and entered into the heart of Times Square. A Liz Claiborne model glared down at me from a billboard, news headlines streamed across the front of buildings and the logos of companies like JVC and Toyota helped turn night into day.
Shelly double-parked on a side street next to Lord and Taylor's so I could study their display windows. A series of intricate dioramas told the story of Virginia, the girl who wrote a letter to her local newspaper, asking whether there really is a Santa Claus. The next edition printed the famous column, ”Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
In the morning, Shelly and I drove to Central Manhattan to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and check out its daguerreotype show. Louis Daguerre created the world’s first photograph when he exposed an image on a silver-coated plate in 1839.
Buildings and monuments were first used as subjects because exposure times were interminably long. Portraits became popular when exposure times got shorter and they became really popular when people started taking off their clothes in front of the camera.
The erotic daguerreotypes were all the rage with the museum crowd, especially the ones where the models were engaged in “audacious poses,” such as, ”Two Young Women Entwined, 1848.”
Even more audacious was the cost of parking in the Met’s garage: $26 for three hours.
Our next destination was The New York Transit Museum, aptly located in a decommissioned subway station in Brooklyn Heights. The 60,000 sq. ft. facility is the largest museum dedicated to public transportation in the US, spanning over 100 years of New York transit history.
My sister and I studied a number of antique and modern turnstiles, boarded 19 subway trains dating from 1904, checked out their seats and hung from their straps.
After emerging from that subterranean museum, we walked along the spectacular promenade in Brooklyn Heights overlooking the Hudson River, the New York skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge.
I left for Canada the next morning. The Penn Station lobby was absolute chaos because Hillary Clinton was speaking next door at Madison Square Garden. A heavily armed soldier in army fatigues approached me and asked why my knapsack was blinking. I opened my pack and showed him a bicycle taillight that I use at night to flag down buses and cabs. It had somehow turned itself on.
Security closely examined my passport (“You got a haircut,” said the inspector) and three people checked my ticket before I even boarded The Adirondack.
I found a window seat to myself with plenty of overhead storage space, stowed away my bags, threw off my boots and put on a cozy pair of Acorn slippers. I hooked up my heating pad and made a cup of tea using the electrical outlet next to my seat. We were soon racing northbound beside the Hudson.
At 3 p.m. we approached Lake Champlain, our train flanked by cliffs and birch trees. Fluorescent lichen clung to solid rock beneath gray skies and misty mountains.
Choppy waves lapped the shoreline, reflecting the angry heavens. Rivers poured down from the Adirondack Mountains, rushing into the lake while the locomotive’s whistle blasted through the wilderness. We climbed northward along a single, lonely track and pulled off on a railroad siding to let the southbound train pass.
After clearing customs we crossed the St. Lawrence Seaway and entered Montreal at 6:30 p.m. Suddenly everybody was speaking French and exchanging what looked like play money.
I arrived in Ottawa, the capitol of Canada, on a swank, though cramped, Voyageur Bus.
My sister Linda put me up at the historic Albert House Inn, a charming B&B built in 1875. She made fun of Amtrak, calling it Am-Schlep.
The next day we toured the Canadian Museum of Civilization and its featured exhibit, “Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” I found myself staring at a fragment of 2,150-year-old, first edition biblical text. That fragile parchment influenced more people than Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg combined.
My secular mind could only stand so much culture, however, and I was relieved when Paul, my brother-in-law, suggested we hit the bars.
Ottawa has a great many watering holes. My favorite was Pub Italia, modeled after a Belgian Church, in the heart of Ottawa’s Little Italy. I was told the bar boasts many loyal customers who are members of the clergy.
We walked through its chapel and found a seat in the abbey beneath a large glossy oil painting of the Virgin Mary, with a snake at her feet. Our server, Elen, gave us a menu, bound in leather, on which was stamped, in gold type, the word, “Bible.” Opening it, we found The Pub Italia Prayer:
My vacation time was running out. I returned to Montreal and jumped on the southbound Adirondack.
I connected with The Lake Shore Limited in Schenectady, NY for a roller coaster ride on tracks poorly maintained by the freight companies. Breakfast in the dining car lifted my spirits: Spinach quiche with a side order of potatoes, a flaky croissant and a buttermilk pancake with orange juice and coffee, for $8, including tip.
During my six-hour layover at Union Station in Chicago I checked my bags in a locker and jumped on a city bus to the lake. As I approached Michigan Avenue, I saw a sign for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I walked through the door and was told that the three-hour tour of historic skyscrapers would begin in one minute.
Our little group braved the freezing cold and visited the lobbies and exteriors of The Rookery, Field, Marquette, Monadnock, Fisher, Auditorium, Chicago Board of Trade and Santa Fe Buildings. I gazed in awe at the interior of the Continental Bank Building covered with classical murals and inspirational quotes such as,
“All the progress of men and nations is based upon sacredness of contracts.” (CW Barron)
“First and foremost,” our docent said, “Chicago was built as a place to make money. There are, after all, not many churches in the historic skyscraper area of Chicago. Commerce and industry is reflected everywhere.”
The tour having finished, I crossed the street and purchased a delicious roast beef panini and drank an ale at the historic Berghoff Building on West Adams Street, built in 1872, one year after the Chicago fire.
I was refreshed when I returned to Union Station and climbed aboard The Southwest Chief for the conclusion of my East-Coast vacation whose highlight was, perhaps, the train ride itself, a ride that lasted 100 hours.
Few people seem to share the same passion I have for traveling by Amtrak. That is, until they have actually climbed aboard a long distance train. They say, “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t have the money” and even “I didn’t know that passenger train travel still exists.”
Well, it does exist and long distance train travel is growing steadily in popularity as more and more people get fed up with flying.
Long Train Runnin'
Don't you just feel a chill run down your spine every time you see Amtrak's Southwest Chief pull into the downtown station bound for Chicago or Los Angeles?
I gave up flying altogether five years ago and have been traveling long distances exclusively by Amtrak ever since. We are truly blessed to have the train run right through the center of town.
Traveling by passenger train is a fascinating Traveling by passenger train is a fascinating from a technical standpoint, as well as ecologically (the Sierra Club loves it) and financially (it's dirt cheap). Train travel has also taught me that people are in way too much of a hurry to get from A to B. I mean, what's the rush?
Unfortunately, if you have never traveled cross country by Amtrak, you may never have the chance; Amtrak is in danger of becoming extinct.
You may never know what it is like to eat outstanding food served to you on linen tablecloths by attentive waiters in the dining car. You may never know what it is like to lounge in the observation car and watch the scenery pass you by.
Amtrak is very much on the chopping block this year. Although it may manage to survive on the East and West coasts, its long distance routes are in jeopardy.
The High Speed Rail Investment Act (S.250) is now before Congress and if it passes, Amtrak will have the means to stay alive and improve its service. Senator Bingaman is a member of the Senate Committee on Finance to which this bill has been referred and would like to hear from you.
Senator Domenici wrote me a personal letter on June 13. He said, “I recognize the importance of Amtrak to our nation, and to New Mexico in particular. Amtrak provides many Americans with a viable alternative to air and highway travel.”
“In addition, as America continues to grow exponentially, we must have the necessary infrastructure to utilize different modes of travel, including rail transit.”
“Amtrak serves as a safe, energy-efficient mode of travel, providing transportation for Americans of all levels of income.”
In the U.S., the taxpayers spend more money on road salt than they do on passenger rail travel.Consider the numbers: Last year we spent $33 billion dollars on highways. We also spent $14 billion to support air transport. But we only spent around $500 million on passenger rail.
Amtrak ridership has been going up dramatically in the past few years thanks to its low fares, its “satisfaction guarantee” (the only guarantee of its nature in the travel business) and its new frequent rider program.
The revenue generated by Amtrak has also gone up. Furthermore, Amtrak is now diversifying its services to carry mail and freight as well, which will further cut its costs. So why on earth would we want to disband Amtrak?
Highways and airports do little to generate money that will support their own infrastructure. They contribute to urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, and the mortality rate. They are also the most fuel-inefficient means of transportation.
Write, e-mail or phone your Senator or Congressperson right now and tell them that you want to see long distance passenger train travel continue and flourish in this country.
Because if you haven't traveled by Amtrak, you don't know what you're missing. Start your journey at www.amtrak.com
The Death of The Southwest Chief
People ask "What brought you to New Mexico from Chicago?"
I say, "The Southwest Chief."
I’m talking about that coach-sleeper-dining-sightseer-baggage-freight-combination that makes up the best damn train ride in the continental United States. (And don’t forget those four massive 4,200 hp GE locomotives, each capable of generating enough electricity to light 800 homes!)
I am talking about one of only 16 surviving long-distance, overnight national treasures that the politicians in Washington want to kill. When Amtrak, our national passenger train system is gone, the only way we’ll be able to get of town will be to hop on an airplane or jump on the freeway.
I don’t give a damn if the locks on the bathrooms of those 70’s-era Streamliner coach cars open by themselves. I don’t care if the ride’s a little bumpy because the roadbed is pulverized by freight trains. And I don’t care if the Southwest Chief travels at only 90 miles per hour.
I think Amtrak runs a heluva fine railroad with the crumbs Congress throws their way and it would be a crime if they gave it the axe. And it looks like Amtrak will die in October 2002, unless a miracle happens soon.
Did you know that Amtrak spends about as much to keep its 22,000-mile intercity passenger rail system running as San Francisco spends on its 95-mile Bay Area Rapid Transit system? Or that Amtrak serves over 500 communities in over 45 states?
Did you know that over 23,000 people got on the train in Albuquerque every year and 22,000 people got off?
Did you know that the elimination of Amtrak's long distance routes would only save enough money to build 12 miles of interstate highway?
Last year, Amtrak served over 23.5 million people: The rich, the poor, the handicapped, tourists from home and abroad, all enjoyed the tiny subsidy taxpayers enthusiastically invest in rail transit.
Those oilmen in Washington actually think somebody would be crazy enough to buy the Southwest Chief and run it in the place of Amtrak. Do you know any buyers? England spent the last five years privatizing its railroads and all they got out of it were spectacular train wrecks, skyrocketing ticket prices and bankruptcy.
Let’s face it: When The Southwest Chief is gone, intercity train travel will be gone and the U.S. will be the only industrialized nation without a national passenger train service.
As it is, I know I can buy a $120 round trip ticket to Los Angeles and visit my Mom or go to Chicago round trip for a couple hundred bucks. Along the way I’ll eat gourmet food served on a white tablecloth in the dining car and watch a nimble waiter pour a hot stream of coffee from two feet high and not spill a drop.
Where else can I kick back in an observation car with a bottle of wine, meander through pristine wilderness and watch a buxom Amish woman attempt to control her impish children? Where else can I get a seat in coach next to somebody like Albuquerque-based massage therapist Martha Hillegass, become the best of friends and end my long voyage with a free Hawaiian Lomi Lomi treatment?
Fact is, I just can’t just jump on a jet fuel-guzzling plane like the rest of you. First I’ve got to go to Lovelace Hospital and subject myself to a macabre $1000 operation where the surgeon implants little "pressure equalization" tubes in my eardrums. Having done that, my eardrums won’t perforate when the plane lands, causing me to scream and frighten the other passengers.
But the tubes are more trouble than they’re worth: They fall out after six months and cause infections: That’s why I gave up flying five years ago.
Yes, The Southwest Chief brought me to New Mexico when I was a gangly 14-year-old on my way to the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in Cimarron. And it brought Lamy, New Mexico when I was a know-it-all 18-year-old on my way to St. John’s College in Santa Fe.
In the last six months alone, I have traveled 11,679 miles on Amtrak, from Vancouver B.C. all the way to Miami, Florida. And I loved every single mile of it.
But unless a miracle happens, long distance train travel will no longer be regarded as basic, affordable transportation for the American public. Passenger rail will go the way of the ocean liners: Only for people with money to burn.
I have written my congressmen, published letters in the paper and driven my friends crazy discussing Amtrak: I am an Amtrak activist and I am praying for a miracle.
However, I am also beginning to see the writing on the wall and am preparing for the worst.
George W. Bush has decided to shut down Amtrak forever. His proposal also includes ending support for service on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston, New York and Washington D.C.
The death of Amtrak will result in the overall loss of 22,000 jobs and will leave millions of people with one less transportation option.
In his 2006 Budget, Bush proposes zero taxpayer dollars for the national railroad. The President said that if intercity railroad system will exist at all, it must be paid for by the states.
Bush's hatchet-man, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, put it this way, "If a train goes through a state and that state is not willing to pony up the state's share, then we would run the train through that state, not stopping and keeping the doors closed."
Bush has proposed $360 million to help save a few commuter operations but the National Association of Rail Passengers says that money is not enough to do much good and it will only be available after Amtrak declares bankruptcy.
During the past couple years Amtrak has run a tight ship. Not only are its costs under control but ridership and revenue rose over 5% between Oct. 1, 2003 and June 30, 2004.
Up until now, it was rumored that Bush would just shut down the long-distance trains and provide funds exclusively for the NEC because of the claim that long distance trains lost money. But Bruce Richardson, President of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, says the exact opposite is true.
Richardson said that trains in the NEC are lightly used and overdeveloped “relative to actual demand.” He said that long distance routes are heavily used where they are offered and sharply underdeveloped.
“The federal subsidy cost of producing one revenue passenger mile of transportation output in the NEC is 53.55 cents; in the long distance markets, it is 11.26 cents,” said Richardson.
“Each capital dollar invested into a long distance market produces about five to seven times more revenue and output than the same dollar invested into any short corridor market, especially in the NEC,” he said.
Many politicians on Capitol Hill are fuming in response to Bush’s proposal to scrap Amtrak.
"President Bush is willing to spend billions to send a couple of people to Mars, but not one dime for Amtrak's 25 million annual travelers who want better rail service to destinations on this planet," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
$30 billion that has been spent on passenger rail in the US during the last 30 years. During that same period, the government spent $1.89 TRILLION on airports and highways. Over 50% of the transportation budget is spent on highways, about 25% on aviation and less than 1% on Amtrak.
In 2005 alone, China plans to spend $12 billion on improving its rail system. How ironic.
During the last year, Greyhound bus service has discontinued service to over 260 Western towns, with more cuts to come. With gas prices rising and transportation options diminishing, the need for a viable national passenger rail system has never been so great.
It seems pretty clear that the Transportation Department would love to hand millions of Amtrak riders (and their money) over to the highway airline industry and the people that make the highways.
Whether you happen to have physical problem (like myself) and cannot fly, or if you happen to be terrified of flying, please remember that your reasons for taking the train have merit.
Don't fall for the argument that train travel is obsolete, because it isn't. And don't believe that passenger trains are the only subsidized form of transporation, because they aren't. Not by a long shot.
Subsidies traditionally finance select groups of people, like farmers and students with special needs. Amtrak's tiny subsidies benefit all of America, rich and poor alike, and anybody can take advantage of them by simply climbing aboard the train.
The billion dollars that taxpayers give to the government to run Amtrak is not going to break or save this country. Why George Bush is making such a fuss over this is anybody's guess.
Each individual American taxpayer gives about $5 a year to keep Amtrak running. The only people who will benefit from the death of Amtrak are the car companies and the airlines.
If Amtrak survives we will have preserved a mode of transportation that uses as much energy to transport a person from place to place as does a motorcycle: A form of transportation that travels through some of America's most scenic regions and helps keep our highways uncongested and moving.
Please write your Senator and Congressperson immediately and ask them to fund Amtrak in the 2006 budget.
Thank you for visiting Chucksville.