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Riding the rails can engineer civilized travelers

Life isn't a timetable, after all. Though the U.S. rail system is infamous for lateness, "train rage" is nearly non-existent.

By CHRIS RODELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


train artMore than seven hours of thoughtful consideration have led me to conclude there is no such thing as "train rage."

Agitated airline passengers will heave drink carts down the aisle, motorists routinely set down their cell phones long enough to fire off some shots at the grandmother who failed to apply her turn signal, but gentle train passengers won't even raise their voices when given the opportunity to vent to unarmed executives.

Whether the passengers have been lulled by the rocking rhythm of the rails or a history of low expectations, train customers seldom have it in them to get angry at Amtrak.

In what has become an increasingly frequent occurrence, one day last fall hundreds of passengers were stranded for seven hours waiting for Amtrak's Three Rivers run from Chicago to New York. I was one of them.

It was 9:10 a.m. when I parked my car at the unstaffed Latrobe, Pa., station prior to the scheduled arrival of the 9:37 eastbound for New York. The Three Rivers was supposed to arrive in Penn Central at 7:37 p.m. That's what was printed on my $115 round-trip ticket: 7:37 p.m.

You have to admire an industry that aspires to such precision. But the train did not reach Manhattan until, oh, 'round about 3:15 a.m.

You get to do a lot of thinking while you're waiting seven-plus hours for a train. During that time, I counted 17 freight trains roaring past. They were hauling coal, steel, automobiles. Then, finally, at 4:10 p.m., came Amtrak.

Train travel east of the Mississippi occasionally remains tangled, some apparently caused by glitches initiated in last summer's merger of Conrail into Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads. Complex logistical problems have ensnared some of the nation's freighters, leaving Amtrak passengers stranded in the caboose as far as priorities are concerned.

Historically, that's nothing new.

"The railroads prefer freight to passengers," a railroad official once confided to me. "Freight doesn't complain about the food, the service, or if the train arrives late. And if something goes wrong and you injure freight, all you get is more freight."

That seemed to make sense until I saw the reactions of my fellow passengers that late fall day when our traveling lives were plunged into chaos. Nonviolent protesters, heed the mannerly nature of Amtrak passengers. Unlike airline passengers, my fellow strandees that day did not rage, nor even shout lawyerly threats.

That, no doubt, comes as good news to Martin J. Rush, Amtrak's product line director. Coincidentally, he was onboard for a long portion of this particular ill-fated journey. Apologizing to passengers through the train's public address system, Rush said he would be in the dining car if anyone wished to talk to him.

Now, this seven-hour delay had already cost me a much-awaited dinner reservation at trendy Cite and an evening's libations at a Manhattan sports bar and was jeopardizing my room reservation on the Upper East Side. Thus, for entertainment, I would have to settle for the bloody spectacle of a corporate executive being thrashed by an angry mob. Sort of a hockey game in the club car.

But instead, I witnessed harmony.

"You'd be surprised," said Rush, who appeared genuinely contrite. "Most people are very understanding. We explain to them the situation and try and accommodate them as best we can. Believe me, we're not at all happy about the situation. But we're at the mercy of the freight lines, and it has been a mess since (last) June."

Rush added that, unlike airplane passengers, "Train passengers really enjoy the ride, the journey and the view. They're more understanding. Many people feel like they're part of the herd in a plane. . . ."

He is right. Even with all their problems and an inferior safety record, trains still inspire songs; planes inspire life-insurance policies and sarcastic comedy routines.

Nonetheless, some stranded trains idle for hours, waiting as a mile or more of freight cars effectively severs the heartland.

It has gotten so bad in the tiny western Pennsylvania borough of Millvale, pop. 4,000, that police officers have issued citations to conductors. Not for moving violations, mind you. In fact, the violations are for not moving at all. "It's in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, 6907, obstructing public crossings," said senior officer Dean Girty. "With court costs, that's a $400 fine."

Which meant nothing that autumn night in New York City: My hotel had, indeed, canceled my reservation by the time I got there, at 4 a.m. Because the room was empty, I at least got to rest in it briefly. Sleep deprivation robbed me of coherence the next day, as I shuffled through a scheduled round of meetings.

The train back to Latrobe was "just" three hours late. Within a month, Amtrak had sent the apologetic paperwork that led to the only compensation they felt was justified: a voucher for another train trip.

Chris Rodell is a freelance writer who lives in Youngstown, Pa.

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