Travelers through Baltimore’s Penn Station, scanning the tumbling tote board that posts the glad tidings of arrivals (late) and departures (later), know well the notice that the fabled Silver Meteor (latest) from Florida is running behind schedule. It’s a fixture in the day-to-day comings and goings of trains along the Northeast corridor. Its delays are measured in geologic time.
The name alone— Silver Meteor— is worthy of pranksters, for no car is silver and the speed of the meteor is figurative. When the Silver Meteor eventually limped into New York City last New Year’s Eve it was 28 hours late— which was making good time considering that it spent 24 hours in the woods of southern Georgia when its path was blocked by a derailed freight train. Accounts of the trip— tabloid fare at its liveliest— were nightmarish unless you actually ride trains in America. In which case, they were hardly surprising.
The drive from Baltimore to Manhattan takes about four hours but the train promises to whisk the pilgrim along in 2 hours and 15 minutes. If only that were true. The sleek new Acela trains rarely run on time (when the brakes work). In fact, the only difference between an Acela run to New York and the lurching, old filthy regional coach that stops in every middlesex, village and farm is a matter of 13 to 20-some minutes.
And often there is no difference— except in the preposterous price of the ticket. It requires no engineering degree to realize that trains cannot go 100 miles per hour on poorly maintained rail beds. The cars pitch and jolt with such force that even Karl Wallenda could not carry a cup of hot coffee from one to another.
It costs $306 round trip to take the Acela from Baltimore to New York City, the most expensive 135 minutes in Christendom. (You can fly to London on British Air for $63 less as I write this.) I know there are travelers who require those minutes— kings and emirs and magi— but if you’re not doing Her Majesty’s business or traveling with the papal envoy, you might as well resign yourself to the milk train, as it’s nearly onethird the cost. Though, let’s be honest— the cheap train is still high at $120— less if you have a AAA card and buy your ticket in advance! (A bus ticket is a fraction of that but involves the ninth circle of hell that is the New Jersey Turnpike.)
Besides, the view on the cheap train and the Acela is the same, if you can see out the grimy windows: the gutted rowhouses as we leave Charm City, discarded mattresses, piles of flaming tires, abandoned buildings, fetid ponds, three-legged dogs, “TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES,” wastelands where gangsters bury the dead. True, this is a railroad right-of-way and one cannot expect Ladew Topiary Gardens or the Vale of Avoca but the vista is a grim one.
Let us begin with Penn Station, which has been under construction since the Second Battle of Bull Run. Abu Simbel, Hadrian’s Wall and Nineveh were built in less time. Penn Station is a grand old building sorely lacking in the services one normally associates with train stations. The concessions feature bad coffee (with a snail’s pace waiting line) and worse food. Last year they closed the shoeshine stand. (Naturally in a city where thousands are idle there is no one to shine shoes.) And the preposterous and grotesque Male/ Female statue outside reminds us daily what suckers we are for bad art.
Everything that can be devised to torment the traveler has been tried. Most recently the imps of Satan installed automated parking machines where one pays one’s ticket before exiting. These often do not work. And, of course, there is no one actually on duty.
The trains are squalid (standing water in the lavatories), the employees ornery. The temperature in the cars can range from sauna to walk-in refrigerator. Weather delays— though it may be clear from Block Island to Cape Fear— are inexplicable. What weather?
On a recent trip, an old lady begging for help with her handicapped husband had the temerity to ask a red cap to assist her in leaving the train in Philadelphia (this more than an hour before we arrived). You’d have thought she’d demanded a sedan chair carried by a brace of eunuchs over a platform strewn with rose petals. When the red cap finally arrived, a disheveled elf in an ill-fitting uniform, he could not lift the couple’s luggage. The conductors looked on with the contempt of sommeliers. That’s not my job. Finally two strapping youths— paying passengers — assisted.
In Baltimore, the incivility at the information desk is of a level normally found only in the very best French hotels or Miami supper clubs, a mixture of sullen indifference and incompetence with just a soupçon of contempt for the wayfarer— the weary American taxpayer who funds this embarrassing charade, what the folk song called the disappearing railroad blues.