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All aboard! Ride the Nostalgia Express

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

In fond and fervent hope that the tracks will stay unbuckled, the budget undepleted and the passenger cars upright, I have purchased tickets for an Amtrak trip -- which may well be my last on that line.

I love rail travel, and a ride I took from Toronto to Vancouver on Canada's ViaRail a few years ago remains one of my all-time favorite trips.

The accommodations were luxurious. The food was so good that there have even been television specials about it. There was a special viewing car with a plexiglass dome and a cocktail lounge at the foot of the stairs leading to the viewing deck.

And every single person I dealt with was polite, friendly and enthusiastic about the train and about his or her job.

But it looks to me like nobody in an area to do anything about it has tried to do anything about preserving Amtrak and making it a viable business, so I'm grabbing one last trip for nostalgia's sake.

I took Amtrak from Dade City to Montreal three years ago and, with the exception of dealing with a couple of surly employees, had a comfortable trip. First-class sleeper compartments on Amtrak (when you can find and afford them) are comfortable, private, afford a nice view and have a shower in them.

Minor problems aside, I was prepared to take the train round trip to Colorado this year, until I found out that a first-class ticket would cost me more than twice as much as two first-class airline tickets, a total of about $4,000.

I'm not rich enough to travel first class either way. I was until first-class air fare went through the roof, but I have sometimes sacrificed other things for the comfort of top-level accommodations. My former wife of 21 years, who died in 1997, had health problems that really needed the extra comfort and maneuverability of first-class air and rail accommodations, and I was glad to share them.

It turns out on this trip that I would be out of luck if I needed to go first class.

The first-class sleeper car, in fact any kind of sleeper, no longer is available for the 12-hour ride I will be taking, although I can get a business class seat for slightly more than regular fair. That, as far as I can tell, gets me a wider seat and free coffee.

And I won't have to be confronted by anyone peremptorily ordering me out of the dining car, as happened on my last trip when I showed up five minutes early for breakfast, since there no longer is a diner car on the train that goes through Dade City.

I can, I am told, buy microwaved sandwiches in the car where they sell cocktails.

So I will be arriving in North Carolina bathless, probably hungry and after a probably sleepless night. Fortunately, the friend I am staying with has seen me in far worse condition over the past 45 years.

That is, of course, if the latest infusion of emergency cash into Amtrak holds out until my September travel date and if the apparent problem of tracks buckling in high heat and causing a derailment doesn't crop up again. (I will be traveling mostly at night, which, I figure, gives me a slight edge there.)

Other nations manage to have efficient, working, comfortable rail systems. Ours, for reasons that aren't completely clear, does not.

Some blame the American love affair with the automobile and a perceived need for speed and immediacy. As far as I can see it may just as well be a business that regularly offers less service for more money and then wonders why things aren't going well. Italy once shrugged off a vicious dictator's brutal regime with a then-popular remark, "he made the trains run on time."

I hope we won't have to go as far as tolerating a paranoid, fascist regime that came to power by dubious means and is trying hard to establish a police state while leading us into a futile war and economic disaster just so we could have a successful passenger rail operation and trains that run on time.

Thank heavens that could never happen here. But if we were part of the way there already . . .

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