Saturday, April 16, 2011

Amtrak: 40 Years Old And Still Useless

Stella's big birthday-ending-in-0 comes up in late July.

Trying to figure out something unusual and enjoyable for us to do to celebrate, I recalled our trip for Stella's last birthday-ending-in-0, an adventure in multiple modes of transportation: flying to Seattle, taking a small boat in the Strait of Juan de Fuca for two days and a night in Victoria, BC; returning to Seattle (stopping for a night of truly great jazz); renting a car to visit Olympia and some of the nearby national parks; driving back to Seattle and boarding the Coast Starlight for a mostly tedious but occasionally stunningly beautiful journey down the West Coast; eventually arriving at Oakland where we were met by a Berkeley-based musician friend for a day's visit before flying back to Houston.

Somehow I doubt we'll be able to match that adventure this time around.

Both of us do like trains, and that is one mode I can be fairly confident of being able to use. So I plunged into the Amtrak schedule to see what was available in late July starting from Houston. The short version: there's damned little available, and if we want a short trip, e.g., to Austin or San Antonio or Galveston, either ya can't get there from here, or the trains are already booked solid (please note... it's three months in advance!).

In any case, back to the post subject. Amtrak was founded in 1971, so it is 40 years old this year. It was useless back then (at least to Texans), and it's just as useless and considerably more expensive now. No one, at least no one in this part of the country, can use rail for business travel because the actual trip times (including being shunted onto sidings, sometimes for an hour or two, to let higher-paying freight trains pass) are excessive by today's standards. And as for using trains for recreational travel... well, I hope you have deep pockets and a gentle(wo)man's lifestyle providing you with unlimited time.

A local train enthusiasts' club is arranging a day trip to/from Lafayette, LA on May 6, but that's not a good time for us, and I at least have no reason to go to Lafayette at any time. So I am once again left without any travel-related ideas. No, I won't fly anywhere; apart from my principled objections, the sheer logistics of flying when you live in a huge reinforced boot and walk in a standard walker wider than a typical aircraft's aisle are just more than I could bear.

Maybe we can ride Metrorail downtown, and Stella can load me in a wheelchair for a sweaty walk to Discovery Green, which I have never seen because they built it while I was busy becoming a cripple. Oh, yeah, that would be lots of fun, especially for Stella!

As they all say, getting old is not for sissies...


  1. Love trains! When I was a kid I worked summers for the Denver & Rio Grands as an assistant lineman, climbing poles, fixing wire, and collecting purple glass all day. Saw spectacular scenery in Co and Utah..... I miss em....especially the Zepher. We could bum caboose rides back then and ride down into Denver (pre-smog days). If only this country weren't so regressive and we had coast to coast high speed. I used to regularly travel high speed from Tokyo to Osaka decades ago and the good ole' USA seems antiquated by contrast. I tried to figure out how to visit my Wyoming cousins in Cheyenne a few years ago and the cost of traveling from CA was astronomical.

  2. mandt, of course I enjoyed my trip on the Coast Starlight a decade ago, but my fondest memories of trains are from the summer I worked in Europe in 1978, in Austria, teaching the collegium musicum at an institute in Graz. From Graz, Austria, as in most of Europe, passenger trains go everywhere you want them to go, at an affordable price. From Houston, TX, passenger trains go hardly anyplace useful, and you don't want to think about the ticket prices. :-(

  3. Afterthought: mandt, in the days before my father became a schoolteacher, he worked for Southern Pacific, but not on the trains: he worked at the docks where they loaded and unloaded cargo. During his entire time at SP, neither he nor our family ever took one single passenger train trip... it just wasn't within the family budget to do that just for recreation.

    I watched trains come and go at the station in the tiny Texas town near which my mother's parents farmed, but trains seldom even stopped there; they just hung out mailbags to be grabbed as they flew through the station without stopping.

  4. Even the 'Hound is getting expensive nowadays and no longer goes a lot of places it used to go. It appears that the powers that be want us to be either in aluminum sausages in the sky where we can be groped/stripped at the gate, or whizzing around in individual cars. My brother in Lafayette is handicapped and can do neither (well, he could be driven, but he can't drive), so he's sorta screwed that way too. We have to settle for Skype teleconferencing, which is not a sufficient substitute for being here in California :(.

    My brother did take the Amtrak from Lafayette to Los Angeles one year. It sat on the siding for SIX HOURS outside LA before finally being allowed to come into town, eight hours late. No food was served or anything. Six hours of being told "real soon now", with not a bite to eat or a drop to drink...

  5. BadTux, I had one of those six-hour waits, but fortunately it was in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, as with your brother's experience, it was just outside a city. This was early in the era of cell phones, and with repeated attempts, I was eventually able to phone the guy who was to meet us. Hey, what did I expect? It's not London in the late 19th century, with trains going everywhere all the time, and postal deliveries up to 8 times a day...

    Re: buses. For a while about 20 or 25 years ago I had a girlfriend in Waco. I also had an ancient Ford Falcon which was not especially reassuring to take on the highway, so I often visited her by way of the 'hound. Prices were acceptable, and there weren't too many stops on the Houston-Waco run. In a search just now, I found that route appears no longer to exist. And all the special deals on ticket prices overwhelmingly favor travel in the Northeast and Midwest. The 'hound just doesn't want to carry Texans, I suppose.

    OTOH, selected buses now provide free WiFi...

    These days I can drive 10 or 20 blocks to a grocer or my doc's office, but I can forget about using the freeways. Those things were manifestly unsafe even BEFORE I had to use a hand control!



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