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I’m With Stupid – November 27, 2015

by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallI suppose it was only a matter of time. You see, I live with a train-obsessed 8-year-old son, and we live a half-hour away from a stop on Amtrak’s California Zephyr line, which follows the route of the old transcontinental railroad from Chicago to the Bay Area. My son has been dying to take the train for most of his short life, so on Saturday, we got our tickets and he, my wife and I climbed aboard for a trip from Glenwood Springs to Martinez, California, to go spend Thanksgiving with my brother-in-law.

So how did it go? Let me put it this way: It’s a testament to how unbearable air travel and airports have become that a 26-hour train ride was much more pleasant than a three-hour flight.

I’m not saying everything about the trip was great, mind you, but I think it could have been with a modicum of improvement on Amtrak’s part. However, I think my gripes about the trip hint at some of the problems rail travel faces in this day and age and help explain why such an improvement probably isn’t forthcoming.

First of all, the main selling point of a train journey is that it isn’t an airplane journey. So it makes absolutely no sense that the food served in the train’s dining car was supplied by a company that supplies food for airlines. The end result is that the dinner and breakfast we had on the train were — and I’m being charitable here — practically inedible.

For dinner, I had a half-chicken that was tougher than shoe leather, and for breakfast I ordered scrambled eggs (the only style available), and I guess that’s what I got, but you wouldn’t have known it to taste them. They were so rubbery and bland that even generous amounts of Tabasco couldn’t impart any flavor to them.

The other area in which Amtrak could set itself apart from the airlines is in its bathrooms. It seemed to me that there was plenty of room on the train cars for decent-sized facilities, but the toilets actually may have been smaller and even less pleasant than those on an airplane. Seriously, if you’re planning on riding the Zephyr, either hold it in, get your hips surgically narrowed or get a colostomy before you go.

So those are two aspects of the train that could probably be upgraded without too much effort, but unfortunately for Amtrak, those upgrades would be unlikely to increase the number of riders, leaving the company with no financial incentive to serve good food or retrofit the restrooms. Indeed, the whole train appeared to be silently slipping into decrepitude, but with most of the seats unfilled, I doubt it will ever get the facelift it could desperately use.

But those minor inconveniences aside, the trip was wonderful. The employees were friendly and helpful — in part, I’m sure, because their job descriptions don’t include nagging riders to turn off electronic devices or informing them that their flight has been delayed three hours.

The train itself was much quieter and smoother-riding than I ever would have guessed, and the scenery was mostly beautiful. We spent many pleasant hours in the glass-topped lounge car taking it all in. It was enough to make me think that if more Americans rode the train, more Americans would eschew our despicable airlines and ride the train.

Sadly, though, that brings up the unenviable Catch-22 that American rail travel faces: If the trains were nicer and faster, they’d probably be more popular, but unless they get more popular, they’ll probably never get nicer and faster.

The answer — at least as far as I’m concerned — is to make a concerted national effort to build a network of high-speed railways across the country. I’m probably being naive, but I envision something along the lines of Eisenhower and his interstate highway system, which I’m told is the envy of countries everywhere.

And I know it would cost a lot of money to make such a plan a reality, but I just read something that claimed the interstate highways have returned $6 for every $1 spent. If a railway network could do something similar, it would be a great investment.

Ah, but I’m kidding myself, aren’t I? If we can’t summon the political will to fix our crumbling bridges and highways, there’s no chance we’ll upgrade our railroads, so I guess the charms of a rail trip across the West will be reserved exclusively for those with train-obsessed kids.

Todd Hartley reminds you not to touch peccadilloes. They can cause leprosy.

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