Romance of the Rails?

Waiting for my train to come in, Prague

What is left of train travel

There is a beautiful Phil Collins song which you may not know. I heard it on one of the best trips of my life. It calls to mind the train station in Pisa, the hotel lobby in Brussels, and all the nostalgia of the trips I never took: “So you’re leaving in the morning on the early train…And I saw you walk across the room, for maybe the last time, I don’t know…And when I hear the whistle blow I’ll walk away and you won’t know that I’ll be crying.”

So you’re leaving in the morning on the early train. If only romance was reality.

I don’t want to tell you there is no Santa Claus. Like the romantic comedies which give us a glance at the life we can only hope to lead, a chance encounter leading to a life of love, laughs, bubble baths from our posh Manhattan suite, leaving behind the studio in Brooklyn, this vision of train travel is a myth – at least in America.

You see, I have great memories of the train. I remember our parents waking us, pre-dawn, driving in the black of night through the empty fields to the nearest metropolis (using the term loosely). Here we would enter the brick train station, set at the edge of a once-thriving, then-surviving, now trying-to-hang-on downtown. We would walk down the large marble staircase, foot tracks worn into the soft stone, into the waiting room, with the large wooden benches. They don’t make them like that anymore. There was a small ticket window. I remember bars on the window, as if Jesse James wanted to stop here, between robberies, to pick up a little cash in the Mattoon train station. I remember going to the bathroom and using urinals large enough to stand in. I was smaller then, and the urinals were larger, since regrettably replaced by the 1990’s wall-mounted model.

The romance of the rail
Yet there is one thing which I have not whitewashed in my memory, and that is the dubious delays. We knew the City of New Orleans would not arrive on time. The question was, would the delay be 20 minutes or 2 hours. I am certain sometime in my youth, in the course of our twice-yearly travels to Chicago, that the train was on time. But this I cannot recall.

And while my father can remember taking the train from Sullivan to Benton, I can only remember the delays from Mattoon to Chicago. Years later (but now over 10 years in my past) when I wanted to travel to Chicago, I instead took the Greyhound, due to better schedule availability, a choice of 5 departures instead of one. Ah, the romance of the rail, if you want to leave on one of two daily departures, leaving at times inconvenient both for leisure and business.

I didn’t expect the cross country trains to leave on time, hindered they are by right-of-way issues, frozen track, a myriad of ills. Yet I was excited to move to Washington, to experience the northeast corridor, the pride of Amtrak. Here, people commute to work on the train. Washingtonians ride up for a business meeting in New York, spreading their legs in cars with ample footroom, plugging in laptops, arriving refreshed.

Oh reality, where are thou?

I chose the early Saturday departure to New York, since I needed to come back Sunday night, I wanted as much time in the Big Apple as possible, time to see friends, museums, Times Square. So we arrived early at Union Station, surprisingly well kept, with seating in the gate areas. We boarded on time, settled in Business Class (let’s see if it’s worth the $30 splurge, we thought). The cafe car is next door. We will get some breakfast soon, a cold drink. First, I’ll take a nap.

I awoke thirsty at an unexpected stop. Our 5:00am wakeup was too early for breakfast, so I had thrown a granola bar in my bag, preparing to eat it with a beverage purchased in the cafe. I was ready to eat, but the train had stopped, somewhere between the Baltimore Airport and Baltimore. The train was broken, power was out, the cafe was closed, an Exxon food mart beckoning out the window, across the tracks, by the red light. Time passed slowly. I ate the granola bar, which left me more than slightly parched, but at least no longer starving. Time passed. The newspaper was read. We sat obediently, neither coming or going, not wanting to let in the cold air from outside, since there was no power for heat.

Perhaps 45 minutes later, we were herded (I use passive tense because there was no active tense, sleepy and parched as I was) via a urine-scented stairway under the tracks, to the other platform, where we huddled together to wait for the next train, the food mart still beckoning us. If I run fast enough, can I get a Pepsi, a candy bar, a bag of pretzels? We stood on this commuter train platform (not intended for 8 Amtrak cars full of people), chilly but not frozen.

The person in front of us was pooped on from a bird on a line above us. So we moved 20 feet to the left, only to have Todd pooped on by what I am assuming to be the some ornery bird.

Oh the romance of the rails. Delays. Cold. Bird Poop. Thirst. We should have been riding comfortably between Philadelphia & Newark, not stranded somewhere in Maryland midwinter.

Well, the next train arrived. This train had no business class, but it would not have mattered. 250 people boarded, seeking any of the 25 open seats. We were among the last to board. Seeing the futility of walking from car to car, searching Geraldo Rivera-like for a treasured seat which was not to be found, we sat in the first available spot on the floor, in a quiet corner, across from, but thankfully not in, the restroom. A dozen followed our lead for floor space. The rest were forced to stand, holding on to the backs of seats and overhead bins for what I call the world’s longest subway ride.

At this time, it was a trip of faith. We didn’t know where were being taken, if we would enjoy this subway ride all the way to Penn Station, if we would be dropped in Baltimore. I became comfortable on the floor, the lightness of the journey upon us. With no appointments on the other end, an acceptable (if not quite comfortable) seat, this mundane trip turned adventure became somewhat fun. Except for my thirst of course. The aisles packed with standees, there was no point in seeking the cafe car, unless I could crowd surf there. But I don’t think that would amuse anyone (except for me).

After a while they announced the plan. We would get off the train in Philadelphia. Then we would be rescued by a gallant knight in a silvery train.

I ran up the stairs at the Philadelphia station, afraid to miss the connection. I grabbed a Diet Dr Pepper and a cinnamony hot pretzel in the beautiful Art Deco station. This station was the romance of train travel, reminiscent of the days of yore, before they tunneled Penn Station into an underground cavern. This is where ladies in pillbox hats and hard-sided luggage waited. This was where the teenagers arrived at college. This is where moms sent their children to visit grandma, where soldiers left on duty. But at this time of morning, the only romance was the threesome between me, Auntie Anne, and Dr. Pepper.

We arrived the same day in New York, over 2 hours late. The funny part of the story is that the train which rescued us in Philadelphia was the same train which had stalled us in suburban Maryland. It was back in working order, a few hours late, just as I would expect from Amtrak.

Next time, I’ll write about the romance of the big grey dog.

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