Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Anything but Amtrak

The keep saying gas prices are awful. Seems like they're okay in the Southland.

But since they are so high, I thought I'd take Amtrak rather than renting a car, to get back to Seattle. $50 more to fly, very uncomfortably, with a couple layovers. $50 to go Greyhound, very uncomfortably, for 25 hours. A comfortable 36 hours on Amtrak from LA to Seattle. Makes sense, right?

Before I left me and my brother went to get more fish and inverts for his aquarium. He's got a giant dinner table-sized freshwater aquarium and a smaller salt-water aqarium 1/2 the size of a dishwasher. Unfortunately, an electrical circuit fried all of his salt-water fish a few weeks ago. (The suprising part is that one survived.) Therefore he needed new fish. Pictured here is an anemone fish, and the featherduster worm with it's tentacles out to capture plankton. I had the honor of naming it "Mom", because it uses a featherduster. I also suggested "Teenage Boy" for the brittlestar, because it's all arms, but I don't think that one's going to stick.

I met up with my 2nd cousin, Leslie, for lunch, and then later Grant & Teri from Oxy days, as well as Brad Arnold. All of these people were of a great encouragement to me in many different ways, and suggested some great ideas for the future. And I got to discover that there are now some 30 channels in LA without cable- and 1/2 are now Spanish in the city of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula. (Incidently the shortest abbreviation for the longest referent in the world.)

And then I was off on the Orange Line to Amtrak, for a relaxing day and a half trip up North. (This is the part where you yell out at the blond on the movie screen, "Don't go in that door!")

Amtrak has lots of commercials about how wonderful it is to travel by train- longer, yes, but plenty of beautiful scenery. And this was indeed true. The scenery was exceptional. I found myself continuously reflecting on what train travel was like in the US compared to Morocco, which I've used much more extensively. There is a lot more room on the trains here, and they are indeed more plush. You can nearly lie down all the way in the seat to sleep. There aren't individual cars but rather the entire car of seats that you find in the Casa-Rabat train- except that most of the seats are facing the same way. Though I had bought the very last seat on the LA-Seattle run, down on the lower level, I was blessed to get an upper level seat, where you can see more of a view- another difference, a 2 level train. The lower level is for a few seats and about 5 bathrooms per car, including a large one for the handicapped and two changing rooms.

There are no dining cars coming down the aisle. (I kept on expecting it in the back of my mind.) Instead there is an observation lounge with expansive glass for viewing, and on the lower level of that car a snack lounge. The next car over is the dining car, and then towards the front the upper class sleep in sleeping cars costing between $450-$1200 a piece. By contrast, I paid only $175, though for the distance covered (the length of the US from Canada to Mexico is about the equivalent of the length of Morocco), it's still about 4 times the price you pay in Morocco.

I had expected something similar to the Cascades route, from Seattle to Portland, a route I've been on before and enjoyed- fast, with plenty of outlets for computers, and a free movie. Turns out on this route there are very few outlets, as the cars are quite old, though there are a couple movies playing in the observation car. (Never, ever, ever see RV, even if they hold a gun to your head.) But I was able to sneak the occasional socket from the observation lounge, and then get a wireless download in 1 out of 5 stations- always fun to download email and respond in the middle of thin air.

So I settled down for a long summer's ride, 36 hours. But for those of you on the East coast, a West coast ride is far different on the rails. See, on the East coast, Amtrak owns the rails. On the West coast, Union Pacific owns them, and never fails to let Amtrak know. In fact, of late, they have been trying to let Amtrak know this a great deal. At every chance they get, they tell Amtrak to pull over so that the freight lines can run through- freight takes priority over people. On the East coast I'm told trains can run at 100 mph. On the West coast, the trains could do that, but never do, because the tracks are being continually repaired or trains diverted. At times we were ordered by Union Pacific to run at only 10 mph for extended lengths of time. At other times we stopped completely for 45 minutes at a time. The final result were delays far more extensive than anything you find in a 2/3rds world country. I was supposed to arrive in Seattle at 2340. The arrival was actually 340, so I elected to land in Tacoma an hour and a half earlier. Yet a 4 hour delay is not why I would never recommend taking Amtrak again.

I wouldn't recommend Amtrak because never in my life have I experienced such a non-existent level of customer service. Actually, that is too kind. It would be better to describe it as customer attack. It was far inferior to the treatment I regularly got in Morocco.

They had troubles with their regular dining car for the upper-class, and so had to make the journey without it. Therefore all of the sleeping car folks were eating with us in the dining cart, and therefore all dining was by reservation only. Sleeping car folks had times, the rest of us waited for our names to be called. Lunch began at 1100, and by 1400 they hadn't called me. But the snack cart attendant announced that he had to go on a lunch break- one much deserved, So I figured it was best to grab some lunch, as it didn't appear my name would be called. As I sat down at 1430, I finally heard my turn called.

But I started to get pretty thirsty by 1430. I thought though that I needed to wait till the snack car manager was off lunch break, so waited till 1500. At that point I went down to the dining car, only to be told that he had just started his lunch, and I'd have to wait till 1600 to get something to drink. Unfortunate, but the poor guy needed to eat. Except that the dining car attendant told me before I could even ask if there was some way to get a drink that I must wait, to leave, and that there was no way to get a drink. (Later I found that there were water dispensers in the cars.) I was ordered away, and then he turned around and pretended like I wasn't there.

But that wasn't the worst of it. I registered for a dinner reservation with Kimberly, the reservation woman. And because I wanted to make sure I got the dinner card, I waited in the very next room, the observation lounge, for my call. And waited. And waited. Dinner began at 1500. Around 2000 they began a movie. No one mentioned that with the movie RV playing, you couldn't hear announcements in the observation lounge, one car over. At 2040 I went in to the dining car to ask if I could reserve a spot for tomorrow's lunch, as it looks like my name wouldn't be called. I later returned to my seat, only to be told by seat mates that my name had been repeatedly called a 1/2 hour earlier, around 2030. I returned to the dining car at 2100 to tell them I had been in the next car. Up till now, inconvenienced, but nothing remotely inappropriate.

But when I went to tell Kimberly that I had been waiting right next door, before I could get a word out, she immediately started to raise her voice at me, saying she had repeatedly called me. As this was now not the first time I had not been allowed to speak when talking to dining car attendants, I tried to ask for a chance to speak. She continued to loudly tell me that she had called me and that I had not come. I begged her for the right to speak. She accused me of yelling and told me not to do that in her dining car (though I had only begged loudly, not yelling, because she was loudly keeping me from speaking by continuously publically berating me). For she decided what happened in her dining car, and she had many customers to cash out. She told me if I liked, they would find a place for me to eat now, as a special favor, and that I could sit down or leave, but I may not speak to her. (I had as of yet not said anything except asking for the right to speak.) As I had the ability to eat without getting hungry for another day and a half at least, and I prefer respect to food, I told her I would come back when she was less busy so that I could tell her what I had wanted to.

Two hours later I returned, and was summarily told to sit, and speak. I told Kimberly that I had only wanted to tell her I was sitting in the adjoining car the entire time, and had not heard any announcements. That I had come in 10 minutes after she called, to say that I hadn't been called, but no one had said a thing. She focused on that many witnesses had her call my name, and it took repeated affirmations on my part for her to hear me say that I fully believed her, and didn't fault her for that. I had only wanted to say that I had been waiting next door.

It's hard when you have a nearly fully booked train, with very few dining facilities, to serve all the customers. It's a long ride from LA to Seattle. I sympathize with Kimberly and the other Amtrak employees, who have a difficult job. I don't mind having to be delayed, and having to wait to eat. Yet never in my life have I been treated by a service rep in such a low fashion, as if I were a dog kicked to the curb or chattel, with out even the right to speak, assumed to be guilty before I even opened my mouth. And it wasn't just one individual, but the regular attitude I got from those working the dining car. I might take the Sounder some time down to Portland again, but I don't think I will ever again in my life take a long Amtrak train, where I am in danger of being treated as carrion who was stupid enough to fork over $175 with the expectation of customer service.


Aimee said...

Wow, that is pretty bad! I've had some rough experiences on the train, but nothing that bad. It continues to amaze me that they manage to stay in business with such poor service.
Especially the whole thing with Union Pacific. The west coast just doesn't know anything about mass transportation.

Mike said...

Sorry I missed you in L.A., but it ended up being a good thing. I was totally sick on Saturday flying home, then Cat gets called at 2:30 in the morning Sunday for a birth. I'm a single parent all day, and Cat gets home 3:30 Monday morning. It wasn't a pleasant weekend, and I stayed home Monday.

@bdul muHib said...

Wow. Hope the birth went well. Congratulations on your 3rd child. ;-)

I hope you're feeling better, and Cat is now rested. I'm sorry to have missed you as well, but perhaps, since I'm staying through October now, something will work out in the next couple months, insha'allah.

Mike said...

I trust you're joking, but for those in your audience who wouldn't know that, Cat is a doula, and she attended a birth. I wrote poorly. ;-)

Anonymous said...

What a horrific ride!I wonder...have you looked for anyone who wants a car driven from one city to another? Or college-share rides? Or cheap flights? mom