Sunday, March 25, 2012

The good and the bad

I did some traveling over the past week (my spring break). There are good things and bad things about traveling in public. I take Amtrak, partly because I'm too claustrophobic for planes (on Amtrak, you may be in an enclosed area, but at least you have a normal-sized window and you can see, like, the Earth out of it.) But also because I don't like "security theater" in the airports where I'm essentially "told" by the actions of the Agents that they think I'm a potential criminal and therefore better watch myself. On Amtrak, at least thus far, any security checks are minimal - I'm asked to show a photo ID when I hand my ticket to the conductor or car attendant, and once or twice they've done spot checks asking people to show their ticket stubs en route, but I've never been patted down or had my bags examined. I've heard of TSA agents coming on the train, and I've seen them milling about some of the bigger stations at "big" travel days (I remember seeing them at Thanksgiving) but I've never been stopped by seems they're just kind of there, maybe as a deterrent to things like pickpockets more than anything.

There are some problems with train travel:

Dude #1, carrying out a business convo on the train so loudly I could hear it in the next compartment. I would have written down and used the stock tips he was offering except he sounded like an idiot otherwise, so they'd probably be no good.

Laughing woman: I have no idea what was so funny but DAMN she laughed for like an hour. Loudly. So loudly I could hear it down the hall.

Children screaming and pounding on the walls of the compartment behind me, and then their parents yelling at them to be quiet.

Dude #2, in the dining car, all cursey and stuff. Look, I'm no angel, I use harsh language sometimes - but not in settings where there are children or other people who don't want to hear me mouthing off.

And while I don't remember it happening to me, I do remember seeing people "stranded" at a table in the dining car with three fellow seatmates, all of whom were totally engrossed in their smartphones...leaving the fourth person sort of an odd man out, left to stare out the window. While I don't expect to make lifelong friends on the train, I do think it's nice to at least speak to the people you're assigned to eat dinner with...

And there's always the potential for delays...even weather delays, even with Amtrak. And there's the potential for unpleasant employees but I have to say nearly all of the Amtrak staff I've dealt with recently - sleeping car attendants, a conductor, the people in the dining car - have been friendly and nice. (I think part of the secret is to say "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me" and generally recognize the people as fellow human beings. Well, I also tip, and that probably helps, especially when I get the same people working the dining car that I've seen before...)

There are also some really nice things about train travel.

I mentioned the lack of "security theater" before - and the feeling of being safe on the rails (even if airlines are perhaps statistically-speaking, safer). But there are other things:

As I said, I get a compartment. That means quite a few hours of mostly-uninterrupted (if the parents in the next compartment can persuade their kids to stop banging on the walls) reading time. I read a couple of books this time; one on Ice Ages in general, another one on the Little Ice Age (the roughly 1300-1850 time span of colder European temperatures). And part of a book on the lost colony of Roanoake.

And there's the scenery. It's not always great - we seem to pass a lot of junkyards and blighted neighborhoods, probably part of that is NIMBY at work - but there are also lots of nice small towns and interesting Ozark scenery (though I'm usually asleep for that).

Just as you get to see the annoying people, you get to see interesting people. I stepped out at one of the longer station-stops (a crew change stop so they let people get off and walk or smoke) and I saw a group of Amish teenaged girls (I think they were teenagers; they were about the height and build you'd expect of young teens but it's hard to tell from the clothes) running races up and down the platform for exercise. (Lots of Amish and the more-traditional Mennonites (you can tell them by their dress; some of the more liberal Mennonites don't dress differently from an ordinary person) use the train.) An older couple with a teenaged disabled son helping him out, he was really excited to be traveling on the train. A young couple apparently on honeymoon taking their photo next to the train car they were in. The usual crew of train buffs or retired train employees who will tell you all kinds of interesting stories if you let them...

I also like most of the employees I come into contact with. I'm sure there are the "bad seeds," the people who know their job is probably largely a sinecure (I don't think it's easy to fire a federal unionized employee) but most of the people I come into contact with seem to enjoy working on the train and seem to enjoy people. Several of the dining car attendants who are regularly on the run I take greet me almost like an old friend. I don't know if that's because I tip fairly generously, or because I'm polite, or because I don't make crazy special-snowflake requests (and trust me, I've seen those, in the dining car) or some combination...but it's kind of nice to walk into the dining room and have someone say, " must be on break again!"

1 comment:

Dave E. said...

I love that some Amtrak employees recognize you and say hi.

I'm trying to convince Dad that Amtrak could be a really fun way for him to travel now that he is retired. He loves to see the countryside but driving cross-country might be a bit much for him these days. I think a sleeper compartment might even be my own preferred travel method the next time I go out to LA or NYC.