Been there, done that, this is crap

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, August 22, 2012

There is nothing I hate worse than to say a fellow journalist is full of it. But that is the fillup I offer Alexis Flippin of Frommer’s Travel. Lady, do your homework, or leave us alone.

On AARP’s web site, Frommer’s offers up “Outside Your Picture Window,” the five best scenic adventures on Amtrak. Okay, opinions do differ. But if you have any sensitivity to the subject, you have to be put off by the Thomas-The-Tank-Engine-type illustration that AARP put up for this (see the photo I lifted from AARP's web site). That is not the fault of Ms. Flippin, and indeed, I offer her my condolences. God save us all of us from art directors.

No, it is her judgment that begs improvement. I have no problem with choices 1 (Empire Builder) and 2 (Coast Starlight). I less appreciate choice 5 (Pennsylvanian). The Pittsburgh-New York Pennsylvanian is equipped with Amfleet cars not well suited to seeing the mountains this train passes through. But it gets worse.

The number-three Amtrak train to reveal “both the majesty of the American landscape and glimpses into the nation’s storied heartland” turns out to be the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans. Now smoke is coming out my ears. This is not a train to see America’s “storied heartland” but rather a train to see America's storied underarm. The schedule and service are acceptable, based on my experiences. There is just nothing to see or set this train apart from any other one. But of course Ms Flippin seems not to know this because she offers no evidence that she ever rode this train, the fatal flaw of most travel writing. Instead, she invokes the imagery of Steve Goodman’s classic song, offering no specifics whatsoever.

Next comes choice four, the New York-Montreal Adirondack. Unlike Ms. Flippin, I’ve actually ridden this train, and two years ago it was the worst experience I’d had in memory on Amtrak, and (believe it or not) I am very forgiving. First, the conductor in Montreal loads everyone into one of the five cars, meaning that the east (Lake Champlain) window view is offered to a very few. Second, the rest of train is empty. Third, the snack bar offers only fattening food to people like me who are trying to make amends, and soon even those entrees run out. Fourth, the conductor falls asleep in the snack car, having told me I cannot move to a Lake Champlain-side seat in one of the forward, empty cars, but I’m afraid to try to relocate and possibly be ejected. Fifth, why do you even want to know more? Avoid this train! I call this the Adiracrapola. If Amtrak can’t do better than this, discontinue the train and reduce my income-tax rate.

But of course Frommer’s Travel doesn’t know any of this because it didn’t do its homework. Instead, it seems as if a story was written by press release and illustrated by someone at whose last recollection of trains was Thomas The Tank Engine as a preschooler.

My own choices in place of the City of New Orleans and Adirondack? In place of the City book thee upon the Chicago-Oakland California Zephyr. West  of Denver, it is the single most over-the-top scenic experience Amtrak can offer. And in place of the Adirondack, ride any of the Amtrak California trains — San Diego-Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo, Oakland-Bakersfield, or San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento. All are well equipped and run over scenic rights of way that will not disappoint you.  Ms. Flippin, may I be your host? — Fred W. Frailey

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