Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

August 3, 2008


High price of gas causing many people to travel by train


          The soaring price of gasoline is affecting the way people travel. Some are staying at home, unable to afford the usual family vacation. Time-consuming security measures and higher fares are persuading others to give up flying. And many folks have decided to ride the train because “it’s cheaper.”

          My wife and I chose to go by train to New York last month. We were joined by my two sisters, Neva and Margie, and two grandsons, Jake and Josh. After a bit of Internet research, we reserved “Roomettes” for our journey.

          Since Amtrak has no passenger service from Montgomery we had to go by car to Birmingham. The train station is downtown. It is absolutely deplorable. Ugly describes it better. There were six or eight parking spaces outside. The entrance looked like the doorway to an abandoned bar and grill on a country road in rural Alabama. We sat in the car for awhile muttering to ourselves, “Surely this is not the Amtrak Station.” But it was.

          Inside we found the ticket office but no attendants. A crude sign in the window indicated the office would open in an hour or so. We were scheduled to depart at 2:44 pm. There were a few seats available in the small room but most of us had to stand.

          About ten minutes after two o’clock one man showed up to open the ticket counter. He explained to someone that he had it all to himself since two of the workers were out sick. After checking tickets the man began checking baggage. Then abruptly he announced that most of us would have to take our luggage on board. “They will check your bags on the train; I don’t have time to check any more.”

          Dragging our luggage we followed the crowd down the hall and up 30 steps to the waiting train. No elevator was in sight. The words “Red Cap” struggled to the surface of my aging brain but in Birmingham the plan is “every man to himself.” We walked briskly 50 yards down the platform to board our “sleeper car” as the waiting porter admonished us to hurry up.

          Our roomette seemed comfortable. Our seats faced each other. Later the porter would pull them together as a platform upon which a thin mattress would rest. What was not obvious at first was just how small a roomette is.

Once the top bunk was pulled down in place, there was about 12 inches between the bunks and the door of our room. With the door closed I could face the bunks or I could face the door but I could not turn around. The only way to undress was to drop my pants to the floor, pull my feet out and stand on my pants. I was suddenly claustrophobic.

The ride was smoother than I expected except when the engineer tried to make up for lost time. At high speeds the cars were rocking sideways, sometimes throwing us first left, and then right. In the dining car we had to brace ourselves carefully or risk falling into some other diner’s lap.

The food was fair to good but not worthy of the price. Scrambled eggs were alright but the hash browns were yucky. The French toast was so tough I had to cut it with a knife. My most enjoyable meal was roasted hen; it was delicious. The service was professional but not always gracious. We kept hearing over the intercom the announcement that they were short-handed; they were simply not prepared to handle the increased number of passengers.

Some roomettes have a commode and a small wash basin.  On one leg of our trip we had a roomette without the toilet and wash basin. Down the hall were a shower and a small bathroom that we share with other passengers.

Though our car was called a sleeper, we did not do much sleeping. However, it was nice to be able to lie down and rest during the night. The engineer kept blowing the train’s horn at every crossing until the sound was like background music.

Our train, the Crescent, runs between New York City and New Orleans. Along the way the train makes 32 stops. Between Birmingham and Washington, DC, we made 19 stops to load and unload passengers. But at no point did I see a station as appalling as the one in Birmingham.

In Washington, DC, we changed trains after a six-hour stopover. The second train was bound for Chicago. We got off in Pittsburgh, rented a car, and drove the rest of the way to the Lake Findley Family Bible Camp in Clymer, New York. There I preached daily for seven days. The people were gracious, the weather was wonderful, and God was good. At week’s end we reversed our steps and came home by way of the same two Amtrak trains.

I wanted to kiss the ground in Birmingham. Late Monday we were back in Elmore County with no plans to travel anywhere but to Wal-Mart. All six of us sighed and agreed that we have had two Amtrak Train rides, our first and last. If it costs too much to travel by other means, we will stay at home. + + +