Of all the modes of transports, travelling by trains is my favorite. There is something very appealing about the trains and everything else that comes with travelling by trains – the rhythmic sound, the slow cradelling motion, the ballet of the train tracks when they merge and separete, the views that you see only while travelling by trains. So when it came about that I have to go see a friend in New York, I opted to ride the train instead of driving into the city and thus I found myself on an Amtrak train from Harrisburg to NYC on a cold November morning. I have been travelling by the highly inefficient-overpriced-rarely-on-time Amtrak trains for about 6 years now. I board the train, each time expecting that Amtrak has probably kept pace with the changing times and eliminated the inefficiencies and inconveniences, only to be disappointed and disheartened.
The train announcements remain as mythical and incomprehensible as possible – “Next station is Mchiklakibloeville, doors open on bzzzzzzzz, train will achsghteeeeriin, please be mindful of the gap between the train and the platform. Next station Cghshhhhhiiitotatlerburg“.
I make it a point to scan the reaction of the fellow travellers in my coach. Some of them are nonchalant (these are the frequent travellers, they know their stops by now and don’t mind the Gaelic announcements). For the uninitiated ones, this announcement sends them in a momentary state of panic and they feverishly start rummaging through their bags/purses to look at the ticket stub or their copy of the “Amtrak in-train announcements for dummies” thinking that there probably lies the answer to the riddle of that message that was just air-waved to them. I cannot help but compare this with my recent experiences of travelling in trains in Switzerland. The names of the towns in the German side of the country are those typical names where they have as few vowels as possible and take a lot to getting used to (Sample these: Lauterbrunnen, Zweiletschunnen, Gruschtalp) , but believe it or not, I was able to clearly understand what the lady in the train was saying when she announced the name of the next station.
Next pet peeve – the sheer number of the ticket checkers. How many ticket checkers does it need for a train ride of three hours and a train with six coaches? I must have noticed at least four distinct homo-sapiens dressed in the Amtrak uniform in my train. None of these protectors of the Amtrak dignity ever carry a single electronic gadget to validate the tickets or to issue a ticket to someone who did the unthinkable of boarding the train thinking that they can buy the ticket on the train. (I must note here that a dehati rail minister in a third world country is soon introducing an electronic hand held ticket validating and issuing machine to its employees.) These four ticket checkers have a very stressful job of taking your ticket, punching two holes in the ticket with their antiquated punching machine, disassociating the stub meant for you from this ticket and returning the stub back to you. Just when you think – “YOU NEED FOUR PEOPLE TO DO THIS?”, they make it interesting. At this time, the ticket checker unravels a thin, long green paper stub which has some numbers arranged in the form of a mathematical matrix. This is where all the skills they acquired from the “Amtrak Institute of the Art of Ticket Checking” are applied. He carefully punches more holes in this piece of paper on precisely calculated numbers that he arrived based on some complex mathematical logic. He then slips this piece of paper in a narrow slit on the luggage holder on top of your seat. This green piece of paper (the color of the paper might change depending on what train and which route you are taking – they are not kidding with this stuff – no sir they are not!) indicates what station you boarded and where you will disembark. You are henceforth tied to your seat until your final destination. Try changing the seat in the middle of your journey and don’t move the green paper with you. The next time the ticket checker shows up and there is no green paper on top of the seat you are warming, you are in big trouble my friend! You have just yanked Amtrak’s chain the wrong way! You have dared to insult the careful research that went into creating this ingenious green-paper-with-punched-numbers system.
You don’t believe me -try doing it the next time you ride the Amtrak – just to spice up the routine of watching the dull and boring suburban vistas through the musty windows.
All these ineffeciencies are passed down to the poor traveller in the form of the “put a hole in your pocket” ticket prices. However, the optimist in me is hopeful that someday there will be a mellifluous voice announcing my destination “The next station is Zweiletschunnenville. Thank you for riding Amtrak and have a pleasant day”, someday I will not have to worry about the green paper and can nap peacefully or change my seat (just to see the sad malls and the suburban sprawl of the other side). Until that day, this is where I disembark. Happy and safe travels for the holidays.