Saturday, April 22, 2006

Train 49; and so to bed...

I reckon I passed my first night with about five, maybe six full hours of sleep. Wow. I didn't think it would be that easy.

I followed some pieces of advice from past travelers and packed an eye mask (found for a couple of dollars in the Pharmaprix on ave. Mont Royal and Blvd. Saint Laurent in Montreal) and ear plugs (again, you can pick them up for a few dollars in your local pharmacy). With pink foam ear plugs and a black mask, you do look a bit wierd, but I slept like a babe for most of the night.

Amtrak will give you a rather meagre pillow, so an inflatable one is a good bet. If you sweet talk your coach attendant, you might be able to get another, and then it's just a matter of placing them and rolled up sweaters etc in strategic places to cushion your sleep.

I woke up at about 06:00. The coach was pretty quiet, with maybe one passenger for each pair of seats... many, like me, had been able to get a good couple of hours sleep in. Back home, I would normally wake up around 06:00, so I'm happy to un-mask, un-plug and un-fold my contorted body and watch the foggy morning creep past. We were maybe thirty minutes behind schedule when I went to sleep last night. Assuming we hadn't lost much more time, we should therefore be getting close to Toledo, Ohio.

I walked down through the coaches to the cafe car. Unfortunately, the look on the lead conductor's face who was there told me that we had lost some more time.

"So, how far behind are we now?" I ask in a bright, naive, British-guy-on-holiday tonne of voice.

"'bout three hours now. Couple of freight trains broke down near Cleveland last night. We should be getting into Cleveland soon."

And so the Amtrak dream continues. As I've mentioned before, and as most rail passengers know, Amtrak doesn't own many stretches of track. In fact, about 95% of the train lines that they provide service on belong to privately owned freigh companies. So if a freight train breaks down, runs late, or just doesn't clear the line as fast as it is scheduled to, Amtrak have to wait. That's the problem of being a company that is effectively stuck between being a government owned service and a private company.

I'm not phased, however, and make my way to the restaurant for breakfast. After all, I'm not making a rushed connection in Chicago, and after all the reason for this trip is the experience of the ride, not necessarily the destinations. If you're in a hurry, take a plane. If you want to see the scenery, take the train.

I'm one of the first in to the restaurant in the morning. The Lead Service Attendant is there, a friendly man who has the air of someone who has been doing this for a while. He's joined by two attentive and extremely polite assistants.

My budget for this trip is limited - after train travel (which covers my accomodation for half of the trip) I'm on just C$30 or about US$25. So on any one day, I ought to limit myself to having just one restaurant car meal. Other meals come in the form of tupperware boxes I'll be preparing at each big city layover.

Amtrak's menu isn't the world's most sophisticated, but it does what it does very well. As we pull away from Cleveland, I order pancakes. They come with coffee (weak, but I'm used to the quantity making up for that everywhere over here by now) and juice. Leaving Cleveland our train runs alongside the tracks of the city's light rail line. Just as I'm pouring syrup and melting butter on my three hot, soft pancakes (hey, I'm making up for the caffeine shortfall, ok?) I can't help but feel a bit awkward. A two car transit train is alongside us for a few minutes, and about a half dozen workers, all black, are on their way to their first shifts. I make eye contact with one, and feel less than comfortable sitting at my table, with shining cutlery and soft lighting.

Our trains parts as the Lake Shore Limited starts to accelerate, but I'm reminded of many differences in this world.


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