Saturday, September 02, 2006

All About the Mass Transit

I'm up at the APSA meetings. In Philadelphia.

On Thursday, I thought I would come up here on the Amtrak. Given everything I had heard about bad service and lateness, seemed like a natural blog subject.

What a disappointment! Consider:

1. The train was supposed to leave Raleigh terminal at 5:40 am, didn't leave until 6:30am. A great start. But we ended up getting into the Philadelphia terminal at 2:20, about ten minutes late. Not bad.

2. And this was at the downtown terminal, mind you. About 6 blocks from my hotel. Made it to my panel at 4:15 very easily.

3. I had a roomette. Nice little bed up top, comfortable seats, my own little potty and sink. Plugs for laptop, free water and orange juice. All for $255 one way. A little pricey, but worth it. Arrived rested and happy. A regular ticket was only $55, which is fine. I was so sure we'd be ten hours late that I bought the roomette, and then didn't need it.

Well, there was one thing, lest you think I am losing my knack for bizarre retail experiences. Part of the first class ticket was "free meals." So, about 12:15, I go back to the dining car (right behind the first class car, so the tubbos in first class don't have to strain themselves).

I sit down, look up, and see why railroads are disappearing the U.S.: three middle-aged white guys are working the dining car, as waiters. Now, where have you seen three middle-aged guys working in a restaurant? Only in the very most expensive restaurants. Most places pay low wages, and so hire more women and minorities. But union work rules allow the railroads to pay top dollar for rude gorillas.

Union man #1 saunters up, and hands me a ticket. "Need your name, room number, and car number, chief." Monotone, no eye contact, a smirk. This is union work, so he doesn't actually to provide any real service. And being nice is beneath a railroad union man.

I fill out the little sheet. Hand it to him.

"So, what'll it be, sport?" Staring at the back of the car, where his two boys are cutting up and giggling. At least five other tables are awaiting service.

I try to order the chicken ceasar salad. He interrupts; "Nope."

Staring at him, I ask: "Why not?"

"Don't have it." Pleased with himself. He made me ask; points for him.

"All right," I said, and handed him the menu.

Now I have his attention, unintentionally. He goggles at me. "Look, sport: we don't have any salads. Look at your menu, and pick something else."

Me: "Sir, I'm not entirely stupid. I understood what you said. You have six menu items. Five are some sort of fried something on a bun, served with potato chips. One is a salad. Even with only six items, you can't be bothered to have them all available, at the BEGINNING of the lunch shift. So, no, I am not going to pick something else. I am going to finish my diet coke, and go back to my little room."

On the plus side, this was said in a level voice and not too loud. On the down side, and for reasons I still can't explain, I said this in an increasingly strong, and entirely fake, British accent. Changing from a southerner to a Brit in the course of diatribe does not help when you want to be taken seriously.

I think he thought I must be crazy. He took the menu gently, and said, "Sorry, sir" in the most polite voice he had used yet. I later realized that passing up fried food and potato chips (crisps, I should say, in my Angloglossiac dementia) was so foreign to him that he might actually have BELIEVED I was a Brit.

Sat and finished my soda. Hoped no one else would talk to me, since speaking in bad foreign accents accidentally is not something I am proud of. Each of the three guys would occasionally get up, the other two would sit, and the one "working" would go and pester a couple of passengers for about five minutes. "Everything okay here?" " haven't brought our food yet." "Okay, good, I was just checking." Union guys must have their irony bone removed at a young age.

So...overall, the trip was a real solid B+. And if you bring your own food, probably would have been an A-. I am going to take the train again, for trips in the Eastern corridor.


Stephen Karlson said...

Years ago, the rule was, "If you haven't been west of Chicago on a train, you haven't been on a train." Despite nationalization and mega-mergers, that apparently is still the case, if your experience on the Florida train and my experience on the Southwest Chief are representative.

On the other hand, you did well to get away from Raleigh that close to time. Amtrak is preparing Federal cases (literally!) against CSX (your Raleigh to the Official Region) and Union Pacific for dispatching freight trains in violation of various Amtrak enabling legislation.

Michelle said...

I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I had to read the paragraph about the inexplicably emerging British accent about three times, chortling all the while.

Dirty Davey said...

Unfortunately, as I learned in my pre-car-owning days, the trains from NC to points north can be pretty unreliable. Driving can be faster, since the trains go slowly and the route is suboptimal.

Trivia question: if you board a northbound Amtrak train in Durham, what is the next stop?

Answer: Raleigh

Now the great thing about transportation from the Phila Convention Center is that it sits right on top of the regional rail tracks. I was staying in the "Towers" section of the Marriott and basically the trains--including a nice cheap direct-to-airport line--were in the basement of that building. Less than $5 for a train that was MORE convenient to my hotel room than a taxi.

The best thing of all about a Philadelphia convention is the proximity of the Convention Center to the Reading Terminal Market. I didn't order a single conference lunch while I was there--just went downstairs and ate better and cheaper than I have at any other conferences.


Mungowitz said...

Yep, I spent quite a bit of my time at Rick's cheesesteak counter in Reading Terminal.

But there is other great stuff, too. The fact that the subway is so convenient all along Market and Broad is a plus also. I liked Philadelphia a lot!

Anonymous said...

Mungo, was your $255 comped?

I hate to ask such a blunt question but it would seem that would have a big effect on the strength of your recommendation.

Mungowitz said...

Not sure what you mean by "comped", anonyman.

I pay for conference travel out of a budget. I usually exhaust the budget, and pay for any overage out of other funds.

Since these funds transfer, or carry over to future years, the opportunity cost of a dollar is about 100 cents.

Still, I did not pay out of my own pocket, on this trip.

But I would have, and will in the future, for pleasure travel. The "arriving in the center of the city" part of train travel is really very convenient indeed.

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