Amtrak Can Suck, But Not Nearly as Bad as Flying

The CascadeMagoGuide must sadly acknowledge that the Amtrak Renaissance (such that it was) is fading. Perhaps it was one of the (very) few good things to come out of the “Dubya Years” — given that Amtrak’s popularity took off during the Financial Crisis and remained high during the Great Recession and subsequent “recovery” right up until the Great Oil Crash. Now that the economy has dragged itself out of a vicious liquidity trap and fossil fuels are way cheaper than dope, tourists are flocking with carbon spewing abandon to the airways and the highways again (also it’s sooooo much easier to transport firearms by car or even airplane than on a train where you have to notify them 24 hours in advance, so why leave any of your arsenal at home unused?). See this page for more information on transporting firearms by Amtrak.

It was nice when you could bring your own wine to the dining car
We used to be able to take nice wine into the dining car

Declining revenues are taking their toll on Amtrak. First they confined carry-on booze to sleeper cars. Prior to that thin end of the wedge, you could bring your own wine to the dining car where the wait staff would happily open it without a corkage fee. Those confined to coach class used to be able to imbibe decent potables at their seats, but no more. The reason for this unreasonable policy change involves the intersection of monopoly practices juiced by inelastic demand. Too much economic jargon? OK coyo, on Amtrak’s Cascade from Portland to Vancouver, I paid $7.25 for a twelve-ounce bottle of Pyramid IPA, sasa ke?

And the trains are not getting refurbed with anywhere near the speed of a few years ago. Indeed they have begun to deteriorate again. Team Mago’s last overnight on Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Whitefish to Portland saw the re-emergence of wash cloths and duct tape pressed into service in our sleeper to soften the infernal rattling and grinding that are the byproducts of bad tracks and antiquated railroad cars. All those nice amenities like a free welcome drink and friendly pro-active stewards have been relegated to an increasingly romanticized recent past (can even Donald Trump make Amtrak great again?).

Four person seating on the Empire BuilderOf equal importance, efforts to bring all Amtrak routes up to a uniform standard of service have evaporated. The most notorious example of this practice that Team Mago has recently experienced is the raw deal awaiting anyone riding the Empire Builder with the temerity to prefer Portland to Seattle. In Spokane, perhaps the most boring city in the Pacific Northwest, the dining car is assigned to the (one assumes) more popular Seattle route, so that those riders going to Portland are deprived of a decent breakfast while transiting the stupendous Columbia Gorge (ditto dinner in the opposite direction). Portland bound passengers must make do with really odious crap from the “club car” for their meals and mediocre alcohol due to the aforementioned draconian drinking policy.

Fish on the Empire Builder
Fish and lamb in the Empire Builder dining car… this is what we were expecting.

This arrangement effectively removes yet another of the major perks of the sleeper cars, meals in the dining car are included in the ticket price. Instead, Amtrak’s most devoted ridership outside the Acela corridor get free “meals” from the club car, sometimes delivered by the car’s porter, but sometimes not. The styrofoam and plastic wrapped meal Team Mago endured on our runs from Montucky to Rip City was so vile that even a 2005 claret of impeccable breeding (brought on by us and allowed because we were in a sleeper) could not rescue the experience. It would seem that Amtrak has made a secret pact with the emergent “Make Portland Shitty Again Movement,” which is a grass roots protest against carpetbaggers from 1) California and 2) Montana (business before pleasure dude). Since Amtrak controls the passenger train vectors into Portlandia, the complicit nature of this post-modern Pact of Steel is all too obvious.

Family friendly

Amtrak seems to have been putting what little money it has into upgrades for its business class service. There is good news and bad news here. The business class sections are pleasant compared to coach, with a two by one seating configuration interspersed with two and four facing table set-ups, comfortable reclining leather seats, plenty of legroom, and copious over-head luggage storage space. In other words, Amtrak business class is a lot like coach class on a modern European high-speed train (except in Europe you can bring your own goddamn booze and the freakin’ road bed supports genuine rapid transit in western and central Europe).

The bad news is that in trying to attract business passengers Amtrak has made a bunch of promises about in-train Wi-Fi Internet that they are having a hard time keeping. Case in point, just as I finished my ridiculously expensive IPA, the Internet died in biz class. Several riders protested and several Amtrak employees tried to help out, to include the train technician who informed those passengers who had counted on and paid for in-seat internet that he could not fix the system in the business class cars — because he did not know where the breaker was in these new cars that would allow him to reboot the router — but that if passengers would only bestir themselves to stand between cars or go to the (far less commodious) “club”, excuse me “bistro”, car they could get a very strong Internet signal.

When a particularly frustrated passenger pointed out very politely that he had paid a non-trivial amount of money for the non-functional functionality, the tech quoted him Amtrak’s customer service phone number and opined that they might offer him some form of compensation if he called it (good luck getting a cell phone connection in rural Washington state about three hours after Amtrak’s east coast India-staffed service call center shuts down, by the way).

Anne Potter, Trail Interpreter
Anne Potter, a Trail Interpreter came on the train and told us some history of the land we were passing through. You don’t get that on an airplane!

Now here is the good news about Amtrak’s declining quality and service: the airlines—which like Mordor, to paraphrase Tolkien, suffer no rival and laugh at flattery—remain secure in their ability to deliver the worst travel experience in the multiverse. The same sequence of events described above would have run a decent chance of turning into a riot at 30,000 feet, forcing the plane to land. On Amtrak, everyone involved laughed off the whole mess with suggestions that the technician push the emergency stop button or ask the engineer to reboot the electronics for the whole train at full speed. Equivalent suggestions concerning an airplane’s avionics will get you an escort off the plane followed by an interview with the FBI.

As execrable as the comestibles are in an Amtrak “club” car, they are still better than the equivalent fare in airborne coach (that is, when then airlines do bother to feed you). And the food and service in an Amtrak dining car (when you are on a train that has one) are within shouting distance of business and not too far behind even first class on a plane, unless you want to give a ton of your ducats to an airline owned by a fundamentalist Persian Gulf Emirate or a dictatorial Asian city-state. Plus the boarding experience is nirvana compared to any airport in the developed world.

Beautiful sunset

And then there is the ultimate intangible of train travel, the incomparable scenery of whatever part of the world you are transiting. Right now I am looking at freighters in Puget Sound. Recently Team Mago has crossed the Rockies and the Cascade mountain ranges up close and personal. Even driving cannot compare to train routes carved during the nineteenth century through some of the most beautiful parts of the planet’s landmass. Frustration, stress, and anxiety fade during the analogue reality of train travel, abetted (much as we might not want to admit it) by disconnection from the consensual binary hallucination of cyberspace. The difference between tourism and travel is that while tourism is an increasingly digital experience, travel remains fundamentally kinetic.

Amtrak Update

While familiarity breeds contempt, comparison amps the rantitude to a whole new level. To wit, having spent four glorious nights in The Canadian’s prestige class between Vancouver and Toronto as well as a thoroughly pleasant stint between Toronto and Montreal in business class on Via Rail Canada, I am once again in Amtrak purgatory and well within sight of hell itself. Team Mago is working on a separate review of The Canadian’s particularly sybaritic experience, but in the meantime…

If Amtrak’s service between Portland and Vancouver (The Cascade) has a business class and the ability to check bags regardless of level of service, why in the name of sanity does their train from Montreal to NYC (The Adirondack) have neither? The only difference between the two routes is that the Adirondack takes longer (as in Zeno’s Paradox longer). Oh, and the equipment is also far older on the Adirondack, which means that not only does the WiFi Internet not work, but the air conditioning doesn’t either.

The Amtrak staff is proving just as helpful, however. The tech support on this train is also clueless as to why the Internet is inaccessible; while the explanation for the lack of a/c is that (and I am quoting verbatim here) “our system is having trouble coping with the 90 degree heat.” Soooooo, the a/c only works when it is not needed? And this same system is supplying cool air to other cars. Not really a good explanation.

And they have added yet another level of gouge in beer land, a category called craft microbrew actually offers an IPA for $8.25. My only solace for the next five plus hours is that several planeloads of poor suffering bastards are flying between Montreal and NYC while we crawl through beautiful upstate New York (that and the fact that I am almost to the point of seeing what that ludicrously expensive IPA is all about).



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Morgan Hart

MagoGuide.com was launched in 2011 as a website and virtual storefront to showcase Patti's software and Morgan's content. Dedicated to slow travel, culinary excess, and ripping good yarns, MagoGuide is the digital scriptoria for the Mago Scrolls, Morgan's historical fiction series about the Punic Wars in general and one Mago of Syracuse in particular. Although Morgan has written a great deal of non-fiction over the years in the form of specialized journal articles, book reviews, op-ed pieces, and (his personal favorite) the most unpopular coffee table book in the history of the planet, he always viewed himself as a happily frustrated novelist. Get more information about Morgan's novel and travel writing at our Products page.

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