Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I Have Had Enough Of This #^!@$ Chris On This #^!@&$ Train!

As the anonymous writer of the revolutionary pamphlet Virtues of a Deep Fried Hot Pocket, Properly Aged it may come as a surprise that I am very picky about restaurant food.  In fact, Gordon Ramsay would probably be telling me to keep my voice down, it's not that bad if we ever ate somewhere together, like a train.

Meals came with the sleeper ticket.  Much like the sleeper compartment itself, the passenger feels obligated to use what has been paid for to the utmost.  As a result, I found myself shambling towards the diner car more than once, despite knowing what was waiting for me.

First the good.  portions are very large;  no one goes away hungry.  Second, meals come with a side salad.  They were always fresh.  No overly ribby lettuce, and the tomatoes had no rancidity to them whatsoever.  The salad was also dry, a pleasant change from the soggy ones I often get.  Third...  uniforms of the dining crew were nice...?

The bad:
Seating.  They have communal seating.  Even if there are plenty of booths available they insist on seating four at a table.  They call it part of the experience, I call it lazy. I also call it terror on the tracks. If you don't time your arrival perfectly, you could wind up by the window with no way out and no barrier between you and your boothmate.
Bread.  A little under cooked, still white on top.  Dry.  Nice hollow sound when thumped.  Breakfast biscuits the same way.
Meal One, Fish.  Mushy.  Served with vegetable medley.  I hate side dishes that are lumped together as an afterthought.  Cold.  Also served with vegetarian chili.  Interesting.  Nice try, but if you are going to be innovative, get it right.
Meal Two, Eggs and Bacon.  Think the bacon was microwaved.  No much of an aroma.  Ordered eggs scrambled dry, but got a plain omelette instead.  Scrambled eggs are supposed to be fluffy, but they poured mixed eggs into a pan and let it cook until the bottom was done , then put it on the plate.  Still jelled on top.
Meal Three, Half a Roast Chicken.  Not totally fond of chicken, but I do enjoy a roasted one in a bistro setting.  Rather bland, skin not crunchy. Few too many bone splinters. Green beans were cold.
Meal Four, Steak.  Actually good!  Too bad it took an hour and fifteen minutes to get it from the moment I sat down.
Dessert:  Not freezer burned, but they had a texture which is difficult to describe. Imagine if something is very deeply frozen, then quickly thawed.  It's as if the cheesecake kept the crystalline form internally despite being  soft all the way through.
The Staff.  Some were inattentive, others were inexperienced.  Chef  stewards were professional, but the rest need some help.

Overall, probably not as bad as I make it out to be.  You have to take the circumstances into account, but I've eaten in places where full meals were freshly prepared in areas much smaller than the bottom deck of a train carriage.  I didn't make a snobby visit to the kitchen, but I suspect the main problem is over reliance on the microwave.  Cook something, then put it under glass right away; that's the main impression.

Better than airplane food I imagine, but sixteen dollars plus for a plate should get you something really good. All the trains also had snack bars on board where you could get drinks (cans, not bottles) packaged food and cold sandwiches, all pretty affordable.  That is probably the future.  Amtrak could do a lot to improve efficiency and reduce waste, but I imagine an outside vendor (sorry Aramark, but I hope it's not you) taking over meal services with an expanded selection in the snack bar.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Your Chamber, Sir.

Accommodations are pretty snug.  The sleeper cabin measures six feet long and three feet high.  It's not claustrophobic though, because if the upper bunk is kept folded, there is plenty of headroom.  It's definitely designed for the thinner generation of the 70's: I thought there was a nice (thoughtfully carpeted so you stuff wouldn't fall off) end table where I kept my wallet and stuff at night.  Turns out they were the steps to enable the more spry member of your party to vault himself into the top bunk.  

Everything is built solid.  Metal and glass abound.  Ergonomics are a buzzword of the future.  It's kept up well, but there are the usual problems of stuff that is getting old.  Speakers don't work and lights don't always come on.  It's not always a bad thing though.  There is supposed to be a closet in the room, but it is only a few inches wide and not very practical.  The closet is missing in many rooms, and that provides the perfect space for a suitcase or bag. Biggest problem quelle horreur! is that there is only one power outlet and..  and..  NO WI-FI.   You would think that's a problem considering the two-day aspect of the trip, but time moves pretty quickly.

Overall it's comfortable.  During the day.  At night, no.  The two seats in the cabin lay flat, and a mattress that is stored on the upper bunk is put on top.  The seats don't meet all the way, and the mattress is thin, so you will wake up with a backache right about the spot where there is no support.  What is a gentle rocking during the day becomes violent shaking at night.  Also expect a cherry "Rise and shine!" from your cabin attendant no later that 7:30 AM.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pt.2: All Aboard!

The first thing I noticed about train travel is  a comparative lack of security.  There were no guards at the doors, my bags were never searched and no one ever asked me for ID.  If you had a valid ticket, you were good to go.   In fact, they didn't have any problem with non-passengers waiting in the lounge or coming out to the train with you.

Part of this reflects good sense.  What are you going to do with the train now, Mr. Terrorist?  Move it back and forth after the passengers have jumped out the windows and doors?  The other part is that they intentionally cultivate a "family atmosphere", in fact, the train to Dallas was 45 minutes late while they kicked off some kids for smoking weed.  Cause trouble, and they stop the train.  I took sensible precautions, but I never worried about leaving my stuff unattended at any time.

The bad about this casualness is that it's very confusing at times to figure out what is going on.  Sometimes they scan your ticket at the door, sometimes in your room, and sometimes in the lounge.  Train 20 to Chicago won't necessarily have a big "20" on the nose.  Like any other mode of mass transport, the speakers don't work very well; of course I was next to the lady (my grandmother did the exact same thing) who was loudly reading the ingredients off of a Chicken McNugget  sauce packet while I was straining to hear which door I was supposed to assemble at.  I just acted like one of those cleaning robots that trundles along until it hits a wall:  Asked the first Amtrak employee I saw which way to go and went that way until I saw another Amtrak employee.  I repeated the process until I was firmly in my seat.

Next: amenities.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Chris Starts Training

I wanted to look at monuments and statuary without the insane hassles which come with flying, or the exhaustion which comes with days of driving.  Since my preferred method of travel, zeppelin service, is not yet available, I elected to give Amtrak a try.  Here is how it went, for those of you (like me) who haven't taken that mode of travel yet and are curious.

First of all, thanks suckers!  Amtrak burns through taxpayer cash faster than a solar energy startup.  Of course, railheads like to point out that other forms of transportation have public funding involved as well, and they are right.  Even the profitable freight lines on whose rails Amtrak has to run wouldn't be there without the public handing them large tracts of America way back when.  My personal view is that infrastructure is a vital part of keeping America together and government has a role to play in that.  Exactly what the role is, and how involved are subjects for debate, but like any other program, if it is offered, one should at least consider taking advantage.

With politics set aside for now, let's move on to packing.  I have actually not traveled very far in the last few years, and it has been a very long time since I went anywhere in anything other than a car.  Two things became very apparent to me:  First, you have to be more careful about your packing.  In a car, you can overdo it because it's your car.  You just leave the excess stuff in the trunk or back seat.  Second, the last few years have seen an upsurge in electronic devices.  before I knew it, I had put in my bag the cellphone charger, the e-reader (and charger) netbook (and charger) digital camera (with case, batteries, and memory cards) DVD player (with charger and selection of movies) GPS (with charger) plus the multicard reader and connecting cables.  Don't even get me started on medication.  I'd no idea how much space pill bottles take up.

All told, my bag tipped the scales at about twenty pounds.  My first mistake was to put it in a gym bag, figuring twenty pounds wasn't that much to carry.  Wrong!  When I got to DC, I switched to one of those bags with the telescoping handle and wheels.  Not only do wheels make it easier to haul around, they let you take your stuff into a restroom with a urine soaked floor without getting anything messy except the wheels.  A minor error was to get a hard sided case.  A softside would have been easier to squish into the cabin, and  the extra zippered compartments would have been useful.  Still, the hard case kept everything safe, and it is a snap to clean.

Second mistake was to cram everything into one bag.  While on layover in Chicago, I put my bag in storage, which left me having to carry camera and e-reader in my hands.  My moment of panic was when I returned to the lounge and realized I'd left my Kindle in the restroom.  Amazingly, it was still there when I raced back, but it underscored the necessity of having something to keep your vital stuff with you as well as freeing up your hands.

Next:  Train Inspection