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18 September 2012

The USA -- we're Number 1 in slow, undependable, crappy, smelly, uncomfortable trains! All aboard! / Send Joseph H. Boardman to prison

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LandscapeWindscreen has left a new comment on your post "1st Day Issue / Postalo Vleeptron: Bob & S.W.M.B.O...":
Oooh is that the train that comes down from Montreal ? Been on that one from NYC to DC, but that was ages ago….but this tells me that it is still difficult to get to DC by plane…..

I had a slight hangover from a bar visit in Manhatten the night before and behind me sat two nice elderly ladies from Quebec happily chattering away in french, rightly thinking that 99 % of the passengers would not get what they say. Oh, those bloody americans, no taste, horrible trains, and even the clouds look different, but in a tone that was far from mean. Shortly after we left NYC I took a nap, while the two ladies went on about this and that in their strange accent, which is quite difficult
to understand even if your french is below average, became the ambient soundscape of my catn[a]p.

Suddenly I felt a bump behind me and I woke up. Of course the ladies apologized for waking me up, they said they were very sorry. So I told them in polite french that it did not matter and everything was all right. They were a bit shocked and in their surprise (I got almost every word they had said about "those bloody americans") they asked me how come my french was so good. I told them where I come from and for some time we had a nice chat. I forgot what they wanted to do in DC, but I have fond memories of that train ride.


I hate commercial airline flying, I hate everything about it, from entering the airport, the paranoia of the post-9/11 security, the strange radiation exposures, the frothing killer-sniffer dogs and the SWAT police, the crappy overpriced food, the ... well, I could go on and on, but I just hate it.

Certainly I hate every aspect of it in the USA and everywhere in the Western Hemisphere I've had to fly.

I don't hate flying itself -- and in fact I love flying in screwy little fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, I love crazy straight-up-straight-down STOL planes. I love single-engine or twin-engine propeller planes. And the screwy places I like to visit, these are the kind of planes you got to fly, so it's all a wonderful Flying Adventure to me.

What's the best airplane trip? A flight where half the passengers quietly make the sign of the Cross
and whisper a prayer on landing and takeoff. I've been on a lot of those flights -- and if they asked me to pay $25 extra for a Prayer Flight, I would.

It's different in Yerp. The trains are great, dependable, and even in the Eastern Zones, the trains may suck, but they're really interesting and real old -- so it's not just train travel, it's often Time
Travel too.

I don't think I've ever flown anywhere IN Europe. Oh, okay, after Schiphol, one short connecting flight to Berlin Templehof (opened 1923, closed 2008). I only fly when I need to cross a big ocean from continent to continent. (And once I said screw that and crossed the Atlantic on Communist Polish Ocean Liner TSS Stefan Batory, London to Montreal. That was a total blast!)

You can't SEE where you are from an airplane! You can't see the land, the country, the roadsigns, the people, the cars, the cows, the horses, the sheep, the architecture, you can't see the hectares of gorgeous tulips. All you LEARN from commercial flying is the insides of big airports. (Schiphol's my favorite, I'd happily spend the day in Schiphol even if I wasn't flying anywhere; Keflavik is always a big treat,)

Okay, so what's left of my hometown family is in the Washington DC area. And I live in western Massachusetts (not near Boston).

Amtrak is the USA's quasi-governmental passenger rail system. Its charter for the last 30 years has been to destroy and discontinue passenger rail, and discourage people from riding the few crappy trains that survive. (VIA does the same shameful, pathetic job in Canada.)

But by a very happy set of accidental coincidences, the Northeast Corridor passenger train line -- roughly Boston-NYC-Washington DC -- is the USA's ONLY dependable, reasonably modern, comfortable, well-maintained and even profit-making (!) passenger rail route.

We get up early (no commuter traffic, highway all to ourselves) and drive south 2.5 hours and park at a very efficient, safe big garage next to the New Haven train station. (It's safe because the neighborhood is seedy and creepy, but the train station is right across the street from New Haven
Police Headquarters -- the place is infested with hundreds of uniform cops and cop cars.)

The big old Greek Revival train station has been cleaned and sandblasted and made safe and efficient as you wait for your train. If you pay top dollar, you ride the Acela train -- very modern (Euro-made) engines and passenger cars, that are the fastest passenger trains in the USA today. This one track line has been upgraded and well-maintained, so it's safe to run the Acela at high speeds -- the warning sign above is one of the zones where Acela zips along at 150 mph = 241 kph.

Big-city airports are typically 20 miles / 32 km from downtown. So after you park at one airport in the
middle of nowhere, you fly to another airport in the middle of nowhere, and take some kind of expensive taxi or bus or light rail line to your downtown city destination.

But the Northeast Corridor passenger rail route is a relic from the 19th century, and its big stations were the grand architectural centerpieces of the big cities. So today, the USA's high-speed (and slower, cheaper) trains can regularly get you from Downtown to Downtown in a time comparable to,
sometimes even faster than the same trip by commercial airliner.

Then there's weather. Bad weather may not shut down airports, but it regularly slows down airport operations and delays flights for hours -- in blizzards, for a day or two. Trains may have to throttle back a bit during bad weather, but they keep moving up and down the Corridor far more dependably.

Amtrak's current President is Joseph H. Boardman. I know a lot about his passenger trains, but I don't know much about Mr. Boardman. I sincerely believe, however, that after appointing an independent prosecutor and impanelling a federal grand jury, Mr. Boardman should be sentenced to 3 or 4 years in one of those nice white-collar "country club" federal penitentiaries. Not so much for his crimes, but as a re-education experience, and when he gets out of prison, he can continue to be Amtrak's president -- but with a New Attitude, and a Much Sharpened Sense of what his proper duties toward train passengers should be.

Oh -- and wherever the top executives of Amtrak must travel, by a new law (Bob's Law) they MUST travel only by Amtrak trains, and NEVER in 1st Class. If an Amtrak official must travel from Washington DC (Amtrak HQ is in DC Union Station) to Oakland, California, she or he MUST travel by Amtrak train.

Ah, you rode The Montrealer, and so did I a few times, and what a wonderful train when it went where it claimed it went!

It was also special to me because for a few years it made a quick depot stop, jump on, jump off, about 15 miles / 24 kliks from my house, a 20-minute drive, and no traffic because it stopped here in the middle of night, oh around midnight. No trouble parking at the Amherst or Northampton depots -- hell, almost nobody ever there. 

In Amherst the depot is a mile from Amherst College, one of USA's -- well, it's one of the Ivy League private colleges, the kind of place parents commit child murder to bump their kid up the student acceptance list. So if people there at all, they're smart (or rich) college students. If money and tweed and really nice haircuts can make you handsome and pretty, they're as handsome and pretty as money can make a guy or a grrlie. Even tastefully. It's quite a depot. puts a smile on your face, eavesdropping is very cool.

As far as I can figure out, The Montrealer exists so New York City people who want REALLY GREAT SKIING can zip up to Quebec in about 12 hours -- the trains I rode often were shoulder-to-shoulder downhill skiers. And that made it an Unusual Train. You learned a lot of stuff, and in a lot of lingos. A lot of good stories were exchanged.

I think the Montrealer travels north through the Adirondack Mountain Chain Old-Growth Forest, full of pristine blue glacier lakes, every one a full-color picture postcard. If not, take the train that does.

I hop on in Albany-Rennselear or Saratoga NY statem, both new modern red-brick well-architected and very functional train passnger terminals -- new depots of the 21st Century that Work.


When I took that Big Train Canada Walkabout a few years ago, I chatted up a couple, married, maybe a young-ish 50. They were from Wales, maybe Cornwall. They were bright and attentive and were having the adventure of a lifetime on trains in the USA and Canada.

But they were very geography-challenged and history-challenged. They had a fuzzy memory of taking a class in school that mentioned Canada and Quebec, but that's all they knew. They didn't know a word of French, and now, 4 hours before the train stopped in Montreal, they were getting more and more alarmed to find themselves in a French-speaking land. Thomas Cook hadn't told them that when they got to Quebec (formerly New France), TLM was speaking francaise seullement.

 Or maybe Thomas Cook DID tell them, but they didn't read that paragraph.

Montreal is also a great Gare -- I rank it with Helsinki's train station as Transportation Treasures.

We all schlepped off the train and toward the Main Hall, and when I got to the Info desk, there were 2
uniformed VIA women, and I asked them "SVP, ou est l'Hotel Reine Elizabeth?" and they smiled and pointed me to a nearby escalator, (My hotel is a skyscraper right above the Montreal Gare.)

The Welsh couple had overheard, and the guy asked me a nervous little joke about suddenly switching gears to another language. He was just a little startled and confused. And clearly needed to get a more accurate assessment of his and his wife's new situation. 

When in Roma ... that sort of thing.

I sort of sighed tristement and said 

Listen, uhhh, you're in the middle of a Real Big Really Old Hatred Zone. In the '70s they were using machine guns and explosives. And all the hate -- le Hain, merci -- is aimed at people who just speak English / Anglais.

Then I told him that he and his wife had a Choice: They could either have the most wonderful, delicious, happy holiday, with smiles and courtesy everywhere they went.

Or they could spend their time in Quebec surrounded by people who hated them, wished them nothing but trouble, and hoped they would fall down a flight of stairs and break a long bone, or get food poisoning and diarrhea. If they wanted food, people would sell them artificially overpriced 2nd- class food, or worse.

But all the Welsh tourists had to do to get the Happy Quebec Holiday was use the few words of French they remembered from school -- merci, ou est ... bonjour, combien, pas de quoi, etc. They could pronounce it terribly, didn't matter.

But if they demanded English Only they were demanding a shitty holiday in Quebec. Maybe even a dangerous holiday in Quebec.

The guy listened carefully and seemed to get it.

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