NOT THIS YEAR FOR SURE
Training it to Vancouver
Since this first Christmas without Carolyn is a first rate train wreck, it’s appropriate I’m riding Amtrak’s Cascades line to Vancouver, BC. Upon boarding, I did stifle the impulse to ask the conductor to show me the emergency brake, just to prove to me he knew where it was.
Accompanying me on what I hope will not prove to be a quixotic quest for a safe arrival is Tom Zoellner’s 2014 book, Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World. In a 2015 Washington Post essay, “Why is Amtrak such a mess?” that appeared shortly after the fatal Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia, P.A., Zoellner contrasted the essential difference in philosophy between Europe and the United States when it comes to rail service. “The United States,” he wrote, “never suffered catastrophic bombing during World War II, and thus had no need to give special attention to its massive network of privatized systems…”
The lack of a purposeful public-private partnership to develop an efficient, affordable, dependable and, most importantly, safe passenger rail system as had occurred in Europe out of necessity after the war, has left America’s passenger rail service, in Zoellner’s words, “with a starving system that might embarrass former Soviet bloc countries.”
I’m looking forward to Zoellner’s book clearly explaining why taking Amtrak in 2017 remains not quite as risky as, say, skydiving without a parachute. I’m not so sure. Both the 2015 Philadelphia derailment and the most recent Dupont, WA accident of my own Cascades line were allowed to occur by a failure to implement 1970s era technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC). Amtrak explained its failure to implement PTC by saying the Congressionally-mandated deadline for activating the system had not yet been reached. That has the same Orwellian ring as the Vietnam War era’s “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
So, I’m riding a system today that knowingly, if not cheerfully, has not been made as safe as it could be. If a commercial airline pilot got on the mike and announced, “we haven’t activated our emergency braking system, but we’re gonna fly anyway,” how many of us would remain seated, seatbelts fastened, tray tables and seatbacks in their upright positions? (Another thought just occurred to me: why don’t trains have seatbelts?)
In September I rode the sleek, modern French railroads for almost two weeks. On one leg between Bordeaux and Paris, the high-speed TGV train I was riding hit a top speed of 198 mph. Amtrak’s self-defined “high speed” Cascade train hit its top speed of 80 mph, and Amtrak still couldn’t keep the damn thing on the tracks.
Yet, there remains certain amenities to train travel that airlines can’t match. The morning I left Vancouver, I walked from my hotel to the handsome Beaux-Arts edifice of the Pacific Central station. After completing my customs declaration, I walked to the gate, showed my ticket and passport, walked to customs and then onto the waiting train. No queuing, no blaring, unintelligible PA announcements (the stations I’ve been in so far can make their announcements by simple voice) and best of all, no stuffing of passengers as if into a toothpaste tube. Yes, Delta will get you from Seattle to Vancouver in just over an hour, as opposed to the four plus hours during which Amtrak will lumber you there. And yes, Delta won’t fly if its emergency automatic braking system is not activated. But still…
Once again, I chose to pump my dollars into the luxury of the train, rather than the hotel. I had a single window seat in Business Class, which also privileged me to detrain before Coach, and thus be at the head of the customs line. The Patricia Hotel, unfairly maligned for its unfortunate location amidst a homeless enclave in Vancouver’s Strathcona section. offered rooms that were clean, safe and efficiently accommodating in their lack of commodiousness. (Its en suite bathroom featured a toilet and shower configured cozily that one might conduct his or her business and wash one’s hair at the same time.)
It was, though, yet another accommodation that Carolyn would endure once with me, but just once. As such, it was a perfect place for me to distance myself from some of the fondest Christmases she’d ever gifted me.