Cuff notes* on a rainy day

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I'm writing this in western Pennsylvania, less than an hour after leaving Pittsburgh. Out my window is a dark day, with rain and mist--not the best way to end a four-day trip across the country. I'd rather it be the other way around, that is, raining across the Sierra Nevada range and sunny in the Alleghenies. The weather makes me wish I were already home, my retriever Jack happily asleep at my feet.

I left you two days ago in Denver, and here I am 1,500 or so miles to the east. I should color that empty canvas. First of all, Amtrak continues to be an accurate barometer of the railroad business, which as I've often said this year, is flourishing; the more freight on the rails, the more slippage you see in the schedules of passenger trains. Yesterday morning we were creeping between Lincoln and Omaha, Neb., managing to take two hours to cover an hour's worth of territory, and what should zip by us going west but BNSF's Chicago-Denver Z train, laden with J.B. Hunt containers and United Parcel Service trailers. The interesting thing is, Z-WSPDEN was on time. So BNSF is doing some things right in 2014.

Most of us imagine the former Burlington Route across Illinois and Iowa and eastern Nebraska to be rather lightly trafficked, but that is not the case. What I see is a railroad stuffed to overflowing with freights, primarily unit trains of coal, grain, and ethanol. Across Iowa, the line is a mix of single and double track, and I credit the dispatchers for weaving the California Zephyr through all the freight traffic with a minimum of delay. I saw a lot of standing freight trains waiting for us to go by.

I need to say something more about the Zephyr's dining car. Upstairs, there appeared to be a service staff of four. I say "appeared" because two of the four uniformed people, both women, one of them the waiter in charge, never did anything but sit on their butts. A third person, a younger man, could be seen sorting paperwork when he should have been waiting tables. That left all the work to Milton, a slight, bent man of about 70 years of age whose hands shook.

The waiter in charge, I was told by my sleeping car attendant, is number one on the seniority board out of Chicago. She has her way of running the car, and it is a method I have never witnessed elsewhere. Nobody is served until the entire car is seated. So if you respond quickly to the first call for lunch, you and your seatmates will wait 15 to 30 minutes before Milton is allowed to start penciling orders. It takes him about half an hour to accomplish this. So you've now been sitting for 45 to 60 minutes and only now do the two cooks downstairs bestir themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of the passengers are given numbers and told to wait in their rooms or the Sightseer lounge.

The food arrives and you eat. Maybe you sit a while longer and talk. As people leave, their tables are not reset and new customers seated. Nothing happens until the entire car is empty. Then the tables are reset and the younger waiter gets on the intercom like an auctioneer: "Number six, party of three. Number seven, party of one. Number nine, party of four."

So to serve a meal takes between three and a half and four hours. Small wonder that Milton looked perpetually exhausted. The system so pisses off passengers that there is an undercurrent of violence in the air, like the room is full of gasoline fumes waiting for a spark. At breakfast yesterday, the woman seated beside me could talk of nothing else but her anger and frustration. She said she wanted to physically attack the waiter in charge.

At noon yesterday, I couldn't bear to go through the demoralizing experience another time and bought a sandwich in the lounge car to eat in my room. The trip had been enjoyable despite the dining car torture, but I decided one more meal would tip me into depression. Plenty of other people placed carryout orders to eat in their rooms or the Sightseer car.

I hope Milton gets the praise he deserves for working so hard. I hope the younger waiter gets better supervision. I hope the waiter in charge is made to retire. Some things are best left unsaid, but I have done what I can to see that all of those things happen.

It became pretty obvious we would get to Chicago about four hours late, or just after the scheduled departure of the Capitol Limited for Washington. So to occupy some time I visited the archives of the Amtrak Status Maps web site and did some research. On days the Zephyr arrived after the Capitol was to depart, did the Capitol wait for the connecting passengers? The answer is yes, up to about an hour. And sure enough, waiting across the platform from Track 28 at Chicago Union Station stood my connecting train. The path from car 0631 to car 3001 was roughly 200 feet. And in case in wonder (of course you do!), it was a pleasure to see the hustle and bustle in the Capitol's dining car. It was, as all dining cars should be, a happy place.

Waiting for the Zephyr cost the Capitol 19 minutes. We shot out of Chicagoland like a cannonball. I don't know what happened after Elkhart, but when I raised the shade at 6:30 this morning we were passing Conway Yard east of Pittsburgh, making us two hours late. I expect we'll stay that way and, discounting the 30 minutes of rubber at the last stop, get to Washington 90 minutes late. I'm okay with that. There's a Larry McMurtry novel to finish, a Cormac McCarthy tale to reread, and a dreary day outside to not distract me. Just another day on a train.--Fred W. Frailey

* Cuff notes are an old newspaper tradition, or so it was once explained to me; supposedly reporters would scribble notes on the starched cuffs of their white shirts.

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