(Click here to read the entire entry)
I've been wondering if there's a surge of new business at Amtrak, given the inconvenience and indignity of air travel these days. So last week when my sister and her husband flew to Minneapolis for my birthday and decided to take the train back to Chicago, I got up pre-dawn to take them to the station.
We arrived an hour before departure, as directed by the Amtrak agent. At this stop the "Empire Builder" (as it's called in some throw back to happier times '" or maybe not, come to think of it) does some refueling and car-switching after its long haul from Seattle, so the train sits idle in the station for over an hour.
First thing you notice when you pull in to the station - a shoebox of a building plunked down in an industrial park midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul '" is the greyness of it all and the lack of activity. The last time I saw this sister off on a train was when she left Chicago's bustling Union Station for college when I was 4 years old, and what a glamorous deal that was. This wasn't. Well, neither are we anymore.
The ticket agent waved us through, me included, without checking our tickets, ID's, or luggage. "Chicago?" he asked pleasantly, and pointed to the far end of the train.
What? No barefooted shuffle into single lines like prisoners numbed to the humiliating drill of pat-downs and strip searches? No emptying of pockets, purging of purses or swiping for explosives? No. No one asked to see a ticket, much less an ID.
The platform was wide open, except for a few blanket-wrapped passengers, bleary-eyed from the two-day trip across the country, huddled on the platform smoking.
We got on, stashed their suitcases in the luggage hold, and went upstairs to find seats. I had no ticket, but still no one seemed to care.
You forget how commodious train seats are. There's practically a small studio apartment around you. And it was quiet. No one was blathering on a cell phone about where he was in the boarding process, or saying what time he'd arrive. Of course this being Amtrak, no one had any idea. It was also only 7:00 a.m. and most people were on Pacific time and still snoozing, but even so, it felt so much calmer than the grim pack 'em in of air travel.
They chose their seats and tucked their tickets into the overhead clips. Then we headed for the observation car/snack bar for a cuppa Joe. And still no one questioned why I was wandering about the train unticketed. I asked the snack bar guy if I'd get a warning before the train pulled out. "Not likely," he said. "Last time some folks rode with us to Red Wing."
There's a down side or two to Amtrak's laid-back service. One is, well, the service. The train had no power and thus no coffee, no flushing toilets, no working anything. A man's voice crackling over a loudspeaker kept announcing that there would be no breakfast served and no coffee brewed until the power returned, but he didn't say when that would be. From the occasional slight jolt underfoot we figured it had something to do with switching cars.
When the lights came back on, I got off, but stayed on the platform to wave good-bye as I had over a half-century (yikes) ago. The window in the train door was open and we continued to chat as the conductors buttoned things up, and then with a soft sigh the train began to move. My sister handed me a camera and I took their photo, then ran to catch up and handed it back. Something about this lack of any visible security protocol inspired my pre-caffeinated old body to run alongside the train until I couldn't keep up and they rounded the bend with a fading clickety-clack. "Thought for a minute there you were going to beat it," said the stationmaster, as I headed back to my car.
Now other than the vaguely Commie-drab cast to it all, this was a delightful way to begin a journey and I don't want the easy boarding process to change -- or to give anyone any big ideas.
But I am sort of wondering. Are trains impervious to the destructive wiles of -- someone with an unfriendly agenda? Knowing what happened in Spain, or in the tubes of London, I'm thinking they're not. I know that runaway or exploding trains probably aren't a numero uno concern in a country that has yet to figure out how to protect airplanes from lip gloss or secure its ports, but is any one a teensy bit worried about who's getting on these trains and what they're carrying? I also realize there's not exactly a huge concentration of people on the Empire Builder, and even fewer between Seattle and Fargo, but still . . . Couldn't someone cause a lot of mischief if not mayhem and death by detonating a small bomb (Heck, a huge one. I could have hoisted a steamer trunk onto that train and no one would have noticed.) while going through any city along the route? Or while passing another train carrying something toxic, say, chlorine or anhydrous ammonia?
Well, I'm not going to worry about it, can't live that way. And yet, the sad reality is, I am living that way or else I wouldn't have even had this thought. Maybe it's the price we pay for being empire builders.