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.

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