Saturday, 24 January 2009

Happy Holidays! Riding The Rails

Finally it was time to leave both Brandy and the Big Apple and head back up into Canada again. We'd decided to mix it up a bit and take the train to get there. Johnny had been looking forward to this train journey since Andy had first made him aware of The Adirondack; New York to Montréal in ten hours, undoubtedly passing through stunning forested scenes, frosted with snow. Andy's Amtrak catalogue reinforced the picture of scenic, 1950's golden-era elegance, with glossy pictures of Vista-Dome observation cars, uniformed porters and small pockets of well-heeled retirees enjoying their SKI* funds.

The reality, of course, was very different. Despite its noble history as a unifier of a vast nation, American train travel has unfortunately been relegated to, at-best, a third-class mode of travel behind the automobile and the aeroplane.

The dismal experience began at Penn Station, a subterranean maze of dingy, claustrophobic corridors populated by shambling hordes of drunks, the homeless, and the insane. And the occasional horrified European, accustomed to the airy, clean, businesslike style of modern terminals like St. Pancras or the Gare de l'Est. We had arrived with plenty of time to spare - our train hadn't yet been allocated a platform - so we spent a couple of minutes obtaining bagel and coffee supplies. Unfortunately, during that time, the platform was announced, and a truly epic queue had formed at the escalator leading down to the platform.

After a shambolic documentation-check (America still struggles with international formalities, despite sharing the world's longest peaceful border with Canada) we boarded the train, and quickly forgot any notions we'd had about Vista-Dome, Electro-Glide style. The train was clearly insufficiently long for the number of passengers, and the carriage's internal styling was a mixture of the forced intimacy of a Greyhound bus and the porthole windows of an aircraft, reminding all passengers of their exact position in the American travel pecking-order.

Seats on board were in short supply and none could be reserved in advance, resulting in jockeying for position which as unassertive non-Americans, we had no chance of competing with. So the two of us ended up sitting in line-astern, hoping that one of our neighbours would get off at the next stop - they never did.

As an aside which illustrates the blackness of Johnny's mood, here's an excerpt from his original set of blog notes written during the journey:

Hypothetical time: You have a gun with one bullet; which fellow traveller do you shoot, the snoring old lady next door or the eye-wateringly smelly guy in the seat in front?
I'd take the snoring old bat - it'd shut her up, and if the stinky guy was dead he'd only start getting smellier. Hypothetically of course...

The train clattered on through some pretty nice scenery, it must be admitted, but none of our photos really turned out because the windows of the train were so dirty. Pretty symbolic of the whole experience really. America's railways could be, and should be, great. Instead they have been allowed to rot away - what a horrendous waste.

*Spending Kids' Inheritance

1 comment:

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