Letter from America 3

I am now in Baltimore, which I rather like, except  that as with all these big American cities, it is very quiet at night, even on the nice  harbourside, which has been done up in a similar way to countless other ones – Bristol, in particular, comes to mind.

Two things, among many, have particularly surprised me about America. First, I am surprised at the way Amtrak operates. It sort of thinks of itself as an airline. It is so so bureaucratic.You are expected to check in half an hour before the train arrives, for no good reason, and then they don’t let you on the track – the platform – until ten minutes before departure.

Moreover, these long distance trains are not run with any haste in mind. As someone put it so aptly on one of my previous blogposts, they are not really a public transportation system, rather a tour operator. But actually in some places, they are an important part of the transport system. In Montana, for example, airports are few and far between, and several people who got on there told me that for them it was the cheapest and best way to travel, especially as the distances are enormous. But Amtrak does not seem to take that into account. Indeed, I would be interested on its executives thoughts as to what the purpose of these trains are.

Don’t get me wrong, they are a great was of seeing America, if you want to do it at the pace of driving rather than flying. The seats are comfortable, the little compartments cosy – and thankfully most do not have toilets, as those on the east coast trip from New Orleans to New York do – and you can watch america go by at leisure.

But the service is, well, rigid, a combination of BR circa 1970 and the Soviet Union before Gorbachev. Although ostensibly friendly, do not even think of breaking the rules. Suzy, the main server on the Empire Builder, was all very charming and jokey when calling in the dinners but a couple of times she admonished people for arriving two minutes early.

And near Atlanta, the conductor tried to stop me going through the buffet car to go to the toilet because they were counting the money and it was against the rules. When I disobeyed her, she locked the door so I could not return to the sleeper cars – which had toilets in the compartments that I was reluctant to use since I was sitting there all day – until we reached Atlanta.

When I tried to change a ticket, it was going to be a $3OO surcharge, and even if I downgraded to coach -American for second class –  they were still going to charge me eighty dollars more.

And even when root beer, my favourite, was available in the coach buffet, they would not serve it in the dining cars… and so on. As I travelled round the system, the service got worse, though with exceptions. Mel, the head guy on the Coast Starlight, down from Seattle, was funny, kindly, solicitous and generallyhelpful. So was Alan, his colleague in the parlour car. As ever, it is down to inviduals, as one of the servers confided to me: ‘you get good crews and bad ones’.

Undoubtedly, the worst was on the Crescent where my server was surly beyond rudeness, and seemingly more eager to tell me what was not on the menu than what was on it, and playing nasty little tricks like moving us out of the dining car – ‘we are very busy sir’ – when all but one of the other tables was empty. It has started in Seattle with little bottles of champagne – none on the Crescent – and ended with a server I refused to tip, much to the shock of my neighbours. Oddly, though, the food on the Crescent was the best, with rather nice tasty local dishes such as scampi and grits [ground corn]. Delicious

The other surprise, was obesity, the level, extent and age range. It is utterly tragic, and undoubtedly partly down to transportation. In New York, where everyone takes the subway and Broadway was jammed packed with walkers, there are far fewer of the Balloons as I started calling them, that you see elsewhere. The size of these people is really quite extraordinary  – 2O stoners are frequent.

Transport, of course, is not the only cause. Soda – coke, lemonade etc – is a big factor, with Macdonalds offering as much as you want for a dollar – and cheap fast food, with a lethal and deliberate mix of salt and sugar added by the producers, and the medicalisation of lifestyles, so that there is a pill for everything all contribute. The drugs ads on TV are amazing,with so many rejoinders on the harm they will cause you that I am surprised that anyone ever buys them. Obesity has become a major issue, one that I would even characterise as a national tragedy. And as I say, transport is a big factor.  

Oh well, back to the land of the thin tomorrow – which is sadly moving in the same direction.

  • RapidAssistant

    Interesting observations Christian – must say you were brave being out in Baltimore in the evening given some warnings I got from some people when I was there three years ago…..the thing that has always struck me about the US has just been the sheer conspicuous consumption of resources without any consequence whatsoever whether it be fuel, foodstuffs or anything for that matter – it does make the mind wonder just how sustainable this way of life actually is in the decades to come.

    I was in Dallas a year ago – one observation that was heartening (despite the very obvious Texan obsession with steakhouses, massive pick-up trucks and of course, guns), was the expansion of the city’s newish tram system, where they are carving a new north-south route out to the suburbs by re-instating disused freight lines around the city limits. OK – the trams are just little 2-car affairs (barely bigger than say a Pacer/Sprinter) that run at street level in the city centre.

    I went ‘downtown’ on a Sunday mainly to see the JFK museum and have a wander around, but the train was standing room only in both directions, most passengers on the train opting to use the park and rides that had been provided at every station. So they are learning – slowly! The cost was $2 for unlimited use all day which was good value.

  • Leytonstoner

    Me and the missus travelled from Boston to Washington DC (alighting at Baltimore BMI actually) about a year ago, plumping for Amtrak rather than flying. We opted for the standard service rather than the very slightly faster/dearer Acela Express. It took about six hours and as the train was crowded we opted to sit in the deserted buffet car. It wasn’t a great ride but I have no real complaints. What I did like was the ticket pricing. In stark contrast to the UK, ticket prices for an Amtrak trip don’t vary by date or time – the price is the same whenever you travel. I liked that.

  • Michael Willis

    I have an Idea for a railway film loosely base on a World War II ‘reversal of fortune-flip it upside down’ scenario.
    Giving the present state of the abandoned massive Michigan Central Train Station in Detroit, Michigan, my home town, it has the look of ‘post blitzkrieg’.
    Lets travel back with Dr. Who to the 7th of December,1941—Pearl Harbor, Hawaii is attacked by bomber planes of the Imperial Japanese navy, along the East coast of the USA multiple attacks are underway by German battleships, U-Boats and Carrier Luftwaffe dive bombers.
    Since Detroit was named ‘The Arsenal of Democracy’ during WWII, due to its massive industrial output of munitions, the ultimate target of both Japanese & German forces is the capture of Detroit.
    Get the point?
    The ravaged majestic 13 story collosus stands towering over its immediate landscape, one of abandonment and ruins…

  • Michael Willis

    Christian writes really ‘as it is’ in America. Balloons…I definitely agree
    Recalling the famous TV newscaster Walter Cronkhite ‘that’s the way it is’ statement at the end his nightly CBS network broadcast.
    Obesity in America is directly linked to a lack of any form of public transport in most US villages, townships, suburbs and cities.
    Close to where I live in Troy, Michigan is the William Beaumont Hospital and medical office complex of buildings. The development is 20% structures & 80% car parks, there is no public transport that services the facility. Here is a cost to health care that is not accounted for: subsidizing car parks for the visiting Balloons.
    Drive-thru fast food = will make-U- very, very, very fat.
    My neighbourhood is filled with ‘Car-Captive-Ballons…not quite a Balloon myself. All commercial centres are placed too far away for walking and sidewalks have not been completed, so if you do choose to walk, be prepared to dodge monster trucks/SUV’s and try not to fall into open drainage ditches. When you reach an intersection or commercial centre, it is a hodge-podge of gazzoline stations, fast food outlets, dollar stores, zillions of acres of paved parking, as far as the eye can see—looks just like a sea—and the sea gulls love to feast on all the junk food leftover scraps that the Balloon-drivers toss out of their car windows.
    Check of 15miletransit.org to see what local political official have been discussing/procrastinating about for 10 years. The general state of mind here is anti-public transport/pro-automobile… ballons of blubberland.
    How about this title for a re-make of “The Red Balloon” —The Big Red Ballooners?

  • Phil form London

    I agree about silly beauracucy
    We have just returned from California
    When purchasing Amtrak tickets from one suberb of Los Angeles to the central union station the ticket vendor demanded ID to enable me to buy a ticket
    Rather silly because
    a) you can buy a ticket from a machine on the same station which does not require ID
    b) We produced our British Driving Licenses which the chap in the ticket office has no way of knowing if they are real or produced by MIckey Mouse, but it enabled him to tick the box
    A bigger waste of everyones time I cannot imagine

  • Tom West

    America does have this curious obsession with rules… try seating yourself in a bar or resturant (however unposh) when the sign says “wait to be seated”.

    Tipping at a certain level is expected in the USA, but equally that tip is expceted to vary from the base level (10%) depending on how good the service is. I recall on one trip not leaving any tip after a poor meal (food took forever and was cold). The server (very politely) pointed out I hadn’t left a tip and asked why. I explained – and you can bet he went and told the cooking staff he was out of pocket because of their faults. (Ideally one would tip chef and server seperately).

    Oh, and I reccomend a trip or two to Canada!

  • RapidAssistant

    On the subject of rules – one hilarious sign I saw in a restaurant in Texas was “leave all firearms with the concierge” – I’m not sure whether it was meant in jest or whether they were being deadly serious…….no pun intended!

    Another observation is that Americans have perfected the art of driving nose to tail on a motorway at 60mph+ meaning that an Interstate freeway will finally grind to a halt a lot later than a British motorway – even allowing for more elaborate design.

  • Dan

    Good post and good comments here. I note your experiences on Amtrak were a little as I predicted in my comment on your ‘Letter from USA 1’ – it’s ashame when Amtrak has much to offer. Partly it must be down to poor management, but also worker custom – as customer service culture is so high in the US in general this makes a stark comparison – whereas in parts of UK you could easily get more of this and the same on an avg trip to the shops, finished off with what Rapid calls the Ryanair service culture model!

    Mind you vis a vis customer service in Canada – we were on Via Montreal – Halifax (The Ocean) and whilst most staff good there was one dining car steward who was rude in the extreme – much like your Cresent Experience – which given we’d paid 1st class + add on for dome car access would not have been matched on a UK train in 1st class.

    As for obesity – we will certainly get it here I fear!

    Christian – what is the book your are researching with these travels? – it sounds interesting.

    It’s interesting that contrary to UK at least if they build the infratructre in USA the fares are reasonable (eg Dallas Tram – compare that with UK HS1 ‘jack up the fares’) – this is commendable.

    The staffing model and acces to tracks etc on Amtrak as you mentioned is indeed daft. We had an amusing incident when baording the California Zephyr in Denver in that we were on the platform and boarding the sleeper car before the attendant had had time to realise passengers were coming – he was quite taken aback we’d actually found our compartment on our own!

  • Dan


    However, I don’t think it is because Amtrak thinks it’s an airline – I suspect this was how it always was on long distance US trains back in the glory days, and the airlines copied it back in the 60s when they started taking business of them (and security reasons mean they can’t scrap it really – as they would if they could).

  • Bluecaster

    A few years ago I had a free day in Washington and thought I would go to Baltimore to look at the (then) new tramway. I was so baffled by the prospect of booking on Amtrak, and so dismayed by the price, that I was about to give up when it was suggested I try the local service. Half the price, just about as quick, and just buy a ticket and join the train. Also two routes between the cities for variety.
    By the way the tramway was most impressive, if quite out side rush hour. En route two hulking great chaps, around 6ft 8in and with shoulders wide enough to have to turn side ways through a door, boarded the tram. They were in the undertaking’s uniform but also sported nightsticks, handcuffs, pepper sprays and sidearms! They chatted to the driver and as they seemed friendly I asked what they did in the organisation, explaining I was from England. “Waal”, said one, “I guess in your country we would be called ticket inspectors”. “Oh!” I said, “Do you get many fare-dodgers?” “Waal”, he said, “I guess not”. Perhaps there is a lesson here for some UK operators who suffer from fare evaders. Pay up or we shoot!

  • Ben Rayner

    enjoyed all your Amtrack stuff but a little confused by your strictures about the toilets – in the compartments? Were these chemical pottis or just horrible unflushed etc? Too bad to live with!

  • Christian Wolmar

    Ben – on the Crescent trains,which are more modern, the little compartments each have a small toilet, narrower than the normal ones and therefore very unsuitable for many Americans, with a lid whih makes it a bedside table. Now I can’t be the only one who would rather use a public loo than do my business in a compartment in which I am sitting all day. If it had a separate door, as it does in the more expensive rooms – where the beds are sideways rather than parallel to the track – then it would be ok.

  • Dan

    I guess these compartment loos are for use in the night when you get caught short maybe. I seem to recall something like that but not being bothered about it, but don’t think I used it. Being the USA they were spotlessley clean, as I recall – which would not be the case in UK of course.

  • Ha! I haven’t had to deal with the business side of my Amtrak trip as it was paid for, but I can relate to obesity which still shocks me after 16 years in America but the service of course doesn’t compare to what I grew up with in Russia. Now I wonder how British train service compares to American 🙂