Three words: Shut it down. Yes, like Gitmo. Just do it.
A few days ago, I returned from a trip to the Southwest and California on a 30-day Amtrak rail pass. A colleague had warned me the food on Amtrak is terrible, but I didn’t believe her. In the 1990s, I’d taken a long train trip. I knew the food was nothing to write home about, but it’s a train. Give ’em a break.
On this cross-country trip, I was traveling with an old college friend who’d been diagnosed with cancer. She was often in pain. Sometimes she felt queasy. One time she needed a bathroom fast. We were in the lounge car, so I grabbed her hand and brought her downstairs.
“What are you doing down here? We’re closed!” the attendant barked. “Didn’t you hear the announcement?”
“My friend needs a restroom,” I said.
“Well, there’s not one down here. Get out!”
We were traveling first class, I should add. I saw this same attendant snarl at passengers in the dining car. “You can’t sit there!” she yelled at two children who were perfectly well behaved.
I’d seen those children in the sleeping car, so they too must have been traveling first class. Glad to know that Amtrak spreads the love around. So democratic of them.
I told my friend I was going to retaliate by wincing every time that attendant looked in my direction.
During the last leg of my journey, on an entirely different train with an entirely different staff, a passenger in the lounge car brought up the subject of the staff. She was appalled at the rudeness. “And it’s not like I’m naive,” she said. “I’m a public schoolteacher. I’m quite familiar with civil servants. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
I replied that on my entire 30-day journey – six different trains – the staff had treated my friend and me like disobedient children.
“Yes!” the woman said.
“Or stowaways. Like we were trying to get away with something. And on most of these trains, we were traveling first class.”
“No competition – that’s the problem,” she said.
Amtrak equipment is old, creaky and dirty. Large swaths of silver duct tape patched seats in the lounge car.
And then there was the food.
My friend’s teenage son spit out the first bite of his $23 “flat iron steak.” I didn’t blame him. Looked to me like the Mystery Meat I used to get in school cafeterias.
On the beautiful San Francisco-to-Chicago run, the air conditioning went out. By afternoon the temperature in the dining car exceeded the temperature outside. There would be no dinner with our fellow passengers as the canyons and rivers flew by.
We were treated as if it was somehow our fault that the compressor went out. And yet every passenger I observed was polite and good-humored, despite the trying conditions.
Sleeping car passengers had already paid for their meals, since the cost is included in their tickets. So, in our first-class rooms and roomettes, we got box lunches of fried chicken. Except that the chicken wasn’t fried. Some other ghastly cooking method was used. Inedible, unless you were starving. My friend’s son ate only the mashed potatoes. I ate the coleslaw and biscuit.
The next night we got sandwiches made from the kind of “wheat bread” you suspect is really the 50-cents-a-loaf white bread darkened with food coloring. As for the meat, well . . .
“I ate one bite,” I told my friend.
“I ate twice as much,” she said. “I ate two bites.”
Were there free drinks or any other perks to compensate the passengers? Of course not! Plenty of attitude, though.
The government needs to let this disaster of a company go bankrupt so it can start from scratch. Unfixable, in my opinion. And that’s coming from an Amtrak fan. Or former fan, I should say.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]