Amtrak tests my maturity and I fail
November 6, 1986
Amtrak plies the rackety tracks between Illinois’s capitol city and its capital city a few times a day. For those of us who visited the big city regularly by rail, riding Amtrak—not marriage, not child-rearing. not listening to budget addresses without snoring—was the ultimate test of maturity.
"Because of the time change," the operator had said.
"Because of the time change," the ticket agent had said.
As I trudged toward home in the drizzle from the Amtrak station in downtown Springfield, I turned that phrase over and over in my mind, like a man with a scratchy throat sucking on a lozenge. I had arrived only minutes previous, bearing a ticket bought the day before, to catch Amtrak's Train No. 22, The Eagle, which leaves Springfield for Chicago every day at 10:21 a.m. When I arrived, I and my fellow passengers were told that the Eagle had been rescheduled, and now departed at 9:41 a.m.—forty minutes sooner. The train had already left, in short, so I left for home in the rain.
True, at 2 a.m. that same morning, October 26, clocks in Illinois had officially been set back one hour to Central Standard Time. But Amtrak schedules conform to local time; the system is notorious for it, actually stopping cross-country trains dead on the tracks for one hour in the fall during time changes to allow the clocks to catch up with the trains. And even if Amtrak had been on standard time, how could setting back clocks sixty minutes result in a forty-minute change? And why—as I confirmed with a glance at the sign board at the station—was only The Eagle's departure time changed while all the other trains out of Springfield were the same?
I wouldn't have minded leaving forty minutes earlier, you understand, even if it meant leaving the house on this particular morning in the middle of coverage of the Grand Nationals NTPA Tractor Pull competition from Ft. Recovery, Ohio. I did mind missing a train and delaying my trip by six hours because no one bothered to tell me that a schedule change was imminent. I had seen no sign at the station on Saturday, when I bought my ticket. The change had obviously been contemplated well in advance, because new schedules had been printed up, as I discovered when I showed up to board on Sunday. A copy of that new schedule, inserted into the envelope with each ticket bought, would have spared many travelers much inconvenience and Amtrak many curses.
And, why, why had the ticket agent not warned me? As angry people do, I sought an explanation sinister enough to justify my ire. "Because of the time change," they had said. Of course! Amtrak chose Sunday morning, October 26, to make The Eagle's schedule change effective in the expectation that many people are confused about the time. Arriving at stations up and down the line, those passengers would blearily assume that they had somehow misunderstood the schedule, that it was their fault, that they had somehow misread or mis-set their clocks. Amtrak thought it could spare itself the inconvenience of explaining the change and get away with it. And I thought the State Department was bad.
I fairly ran home, pushed along with the urgent desire of the wronged for justice. I wrote, mentally, as I walked, the column that would expose Amtrak's crimes to an outraged readership. Not content with pointing out the villain, I planned to heap scorn on him as well. I would give The Loop (the special train added last spring, consisting of an engine and two aging commuter cars, which is typically pushed backward down the tracks from Chicago to Springfield) a more fitting name which would darken the dreams of Amtrak's marketers forever: the Toonerville Trolley.
It was a glorious revenge I envisioned as I crossed first Seventh, then Ninth Street. My column—"Is This Any Way to Ruin a Railroad?"—would circulate among men and women of power. Pointed questions would be asked in Congressional committee rooms. Press releases would flutter from Amtrak PR machines like doves at an Olympics opening day. Amtrak employees, asked their occupation at parties, would mumble something vague about being in transportation. Dick Durbin would ask me to sit on a fact-finding commission, where I would come to be known as the Richard Feynman of what the world would quickly come to know as the Eagle disaster.
I got home. I crashed through the door, leaving my bags dripping in the hall. Not pausing even to change into dry clothes, I sat down to the typewriter and began clacking away—one hour, then two. No one likes being pimped by a bureaucracy, but columnists can at least make money out of it. We are the journalistic equivalent of the destitute Koreans during the war who used to jump in front of passing U.S. Army Jeeps in order to collect injury awards, except that our collisions with out-of-control bureaucracies are usually inadvertent. The steam fairly boiled off my still-wet neck. B. called just as I pulled the last page from the machine. "You sound cocky," he said. "So would you be." I replied, voice rising, "If you had just single-handedly destroyed the United States' national passenger rail corporation!"
Column-writing, you see, is a lot like sex, in that the euphoria of a few moments is purchased at the price of regrets and self-doubt that linger for hours. Oh, a certain irritation with Amtrak is justified. I love trains, although Amtrak has made it hard to love riding on them. It is for the sake of that affection, and my belief that no civilized country can call itself civilized which does not boast a first-class intercity rail system, that until now I have foresworn that favorite pastime of the commuting state worker—Amtrak-bashing. 1 have made allowances, even excuses, like a jilted Romeo who cannot quite believe the perfidy of his beloved.
My being jilted by the 10:21 to Chicago was hardly the first tiff between Amtrak and me. On one early morning ride north I found that the cafe car had run out of breakfast snacks by 8 a.m., so my first meal that day thus was a microwaved cheeseburger; that train also had no water in any of its restrooms, so washing hands or flushing toilets was impossible. Delays are commonplace; not one of the last half-dozen trains I have been on has run on time. (Amtrak schedules resemble Reagan budgets, in that they reflect a hope rather than reality.) Due back in Springfield, where I was scheduled to appear on a panel recently, The Loop was thirty-five minutes late, making my own arrival a very delicate thing. One of those delays occurred in the yards of Chicago, where the driver and a construction crew chief on the ground engaged in an angrily obscene colloquy sparked by the realization that the radio each carried was tuned to a frequency unknown to the other.
While I rumbled north on this trip, I began to have second, even third thoughts. Columnists have obligations to things other that) their own anger, of course; it is what separates us (along with their social status) from most mass murderers and some presidents. One of those obligations requires that blame be accurately placed. Amtrak is not the author of many of its delays, but rather their victim. The company is obliged to run on track owned by other roads, in this case the Illinois Central Gulf, whose track would not pass muster for the goat cheese traffic in remoter Yugoslavia. Amtrak inherited its rolling stock from other roads as well. Economy is thus purchased at the price of efficiency. (I believe Governor Thompson experienced something like this after the 1982 elections with Mr. Stevenson's platform.)
Mechanical failures thus must be forgiven. But what explains the failures of courtesy and common sense that one sees on the nation's trains? I can credit the occasional rudeness of a conductor—imagine spending forty hours a week riding Amtrak—but as a paying customer it is hard to excuse it. Those employees who are courteous, I suspect, act thus because they are courteous people and not because courtesy is required of them by their jobs. Amtrak confirms the trend evident in the advanced democracies for some decades, namely that large public enterprises—the postal service and the armed forces also come to mind—are run for the benefit of their employees and not the public.
Specifically, I was still chewing on the unhelpfulness of that ticket agent, trying to soften my anger enough to swallow it and be rid of it. A long residence in Springfield will lower one's expectations of public employees, and I had been ready to assume the worst about this one. But emptied for the moment of anger, my recollection of the moment cleared. The scene at the ticket window had been confused, I recalled. The Chicago marathon was being held the next day, and the station was filled with runners, fans, and families. I was distracted by conversation as I bought my ticket for Sunday—Y. was there, explaining that he had entered the race, and Miss F. explained that she was meeting a sister. I did recall clearly the agent reminding me to set my clocks back one hour later that night. Then he said something like, "Remember that that last train now leaves at five" some-thing-or-other.
I paid little attention to the remark at the time. I was leaving for Chicago, not departing from it. His use of the word "remember" suggested a reference to some existing reality, which I took to be the current schedule, which I knew well. In fact, I realized, that remark had constituted a reminder about the now-changed schedule. The last train from Chicago is The Eagle, which used to leave at 6:10 and which would now henceforth depart, as of the morrow, at 5:15. The information was utterly irrelevant to my own travel plans, which is why I paid it so little heed. But the agent, seeing me at his window in the company of dozens of runners, had assumed that I was heading to Chicago on Saturday, not Sunday, and that I, like most of that bunch, would be coming home via the Sunday's Eagle, the first (and last) post-race train.
Thus the agent had been guilty less of incompetence than of misdirected competence: as usual,. misunderstanding did more to produce an unhappy outcome than did malfeasance. If the ticket agent had been somewhat derelict in his role as advisor, I had been equally derelict in mine as traveler (though I still think it wouldn't have killed anybody to stick a copy of the damned schedule into my ticket envelope) and I spent most of the miles between Dwight and Joliet editing outrage into something more like complaint.
It was thus a chastened James Krohe Jr. who stepped off Car 21823 at Union Station. I took pains to thank the conductor. 1 even smiled at the trainman, who looked back at me as if he detected something in it other than gratitude. True, the train was thirty-five minutes late into Chicago, but what do you expect? It's Amtrak. ●