Saturday, March 6, 2010

Of windows, wi-fi and salads

A speedy window cleaning crew attacked the grime during the Denver stop. They were partly successful.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado – In my role as self-appointed Junior Inspector General of Amtrak, Long-Distance Train Division, I hereby offer the following report on my journey this week from Chicago to this town in western Colorado aboard Amtrak No. 5, the westbound California Zephyr:

Our departure from Chicago was inauspicious. The wi-fi in the Amtrak first-class lounge in Chicago Union Station was down again, and the cars of the Zephyr were caked with a thick layer of dust. I resigned myself to taking photographs only outside at long station stops; the windows were too filthy. Amtrak, I figured, still has trouble with the details.

My sleeper, one from the original Superliner order of the late 1970s, clearly was getting long in the tooth. Edges were worn and panels beginning to discolor from age, tarnish and corrosion. The car needed to be retired and replaced before long, as Amtrak has proposed in its latest capital equipment request. But the plumbing and heating still worked --even the shower -- and the interior car cleaners had done their jobs well.

Shortly after departure on time at 2 p.m., the conductor announced that we would be two hours late into Omaha because of slow track orders that would cut our 79-m.p.h. mainline running to 60 m.p.h. in several places. I hoped that did not mean an equally late departure from Denver the following morning, causing us to arrive in Grand Junction, a town unfamiliar to me, in darkness. I would have to walk to my hotel (Grand Junction reportedly has only one taxi) following a Mapquest printout, and it's easier to find one's way in the day.

I awoke at 6 a.m. in western Nebraska, the train running three hours late. We had left Omaha the forecast two hours behind, but lost another hour while a broken rail was replaced west of McCook. We arrived in Denver three hours 15 minutes late.

During the 45-minute layover there, four female window scrubbers – two for each side – proceeded apace down the train, one wielding a 10-foot mop and one a similarly long-handled squeegee, removing the worst of the dirt from the windows. This was the first time I'd seen the Zephyr windows cleaned at Denver since the early 1990s, when Amtrak still used mechanical car washers.

Photography still wasn't going to be good but not as bad as I had fretted.

We departed Denver still 3 hours 15 minutes behind – and 20 minutes later stopped on a siding west of Arvada for more than an hour, owing to a slow Union Pacific freight with a sick engine. When we finally got under way, the delay had grown to 4 hours 30 minutes.

The dining-car victuals were as expected – reliable American Road Food, hardly anything to praise but nourishing and sometimes even tasty. The first night out, the steak was tender and juicy, the rice and vegetables perfectly done, the lemon sorbet excellent. The roast chicken I had the second night seemed a little lackluster in comparison, but was OK all the same.

The breakfast quesadilla was fine and so was the veggie burger at lunch.

Only the salads (as they always are!) were lacking – a few shreds of lettuce and one lonely plum tomato. Why Amtrak bothers with them is beyond me. Surely it wouldn't hurt the railroad's bottom line to add a slice of cucumber and one of green pepper, or leave it to the chefs to spice up the salads on their own?

This was the third consecutive Amtrak trip I'd taken since the end of January in which the on-board service crew was uniformly excellent. The dining-car attendants all were cheerful and attentive, and I've never had a sleeper attendant as hard-working as Paul, who seemed to pop his head into my compartment every hour on the hour asking if I needed anything.

Nor have I ever seen sleeping-car facilities as clean as the ones Paul kept. Every time someone used a bathroom, Paul fell upon it with disinfectant and mop, so much so that his passengers wondered if he was an obsessive-compulsive with a can of Lysol. Not that any of us minded.

No. 5 arrived at Grand Junction after dark, three hours late (the schedule is loose enough so that some time can be "made up"), but I was able to find my hotel in the dark without much trouble.

If my return trip is as satisfactory as this one was, I will tell you this: Things are looking up for Amtrak. If it could only keep the windows clean, the wi-fi working and tart up the salads a little . . .

MARCH 9: Indeed the trip home on the eastbound Zephyr was just as good. Robert, the sleeper attendant, was both jovial and attentive, and so was the diner crew -- and the conductors. Amtrak, I learned elsewhere, has been re-training its personnel with emphasis on customer service. That seems to be working out well.

Incidentally, No. 6 was delayed 3 1/2 hours at Dotsero just east of Glenwood Canyon by an avalanche that buried the tracks in snow, stones and small trees.

While Union Pacific crews labored with backhoes and chainsaws to clear the mess, we worried that if time went on, the UP would have to drag the train back through Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs so that passengers could be "bustituted" to Denver and points east. That would mean a 200-mile detour north, because just the day before, Interstate 70 between Glenwood Canyon and Denver had been closed by a massive rock slide in which a semitrailer-sized boulder punched a deep hole in the westbound lanes and tore up part of the eastbound.

The conductor kept his passengers informed with frequent updates on the progress of clearing the slide on the tracks -- a nice touch of customer service that often in the past has been missing when the elements delay trains.

The only negative of the homebound trip was a visit to the coach immediately following the lounge car. The ancient car itself was in such bad shape that it seemed right out of the Third World, and the view wasn't helped by the unholy mess the passengers -- some of whom were rough trade -- had made of the interior and especially the bathrooms. Amtrak badly needs replacement coaches and sleepers, but there isn't much the railroad can do about certain members of its clientele.

I say "rough trade" advisedly. At two points the lead service attendant came on the intercom to announce that remarks about race, religion or national origin would not be tolerated and that offenders would be put off the train. We discovered later that anti-Semitic epithets had been hurled in the lounge car.

And oh, yes, on this trip the chef added croutons to the salads. Every little bit helps.

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