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Diary of an Escort – Part V in a series January 14, 2010

Posted by Fritz in Travel.
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2010 Rose Bowl Champs

I was sitting in the Lounge car enjoying the mountainous scenery as we climbed up through the pass that would take us to the other side of the Continental Divide. I had just finished remarking that I thought we literally crossed over the top when the power went out again. I lightheartedly said it was a good thing we had made the summit before the one engine died and several of my Lounge-mates jokingly agreed we could coast the rest of the way.

Unfortunately my first thought was back to the heads. No power, no flush. They were already pretty ripe and this would only make things much worse. In addition, I was planning on taking dinner tonight in the Dining car and without power, my epicurean adventure would be dashed.

Lounge car view

We continued to roll on under one engine and after about 20 minutes we almost forgot we had no power—even in the late afternoon there was still enough sunlight that we didn’t need lights and the car was plenty warm. As in any crisis, people tend to congregate so to deal with the crisis collectively. Human nature I guess. It must be the strength in numbers axiom proving itself. As such, the Lounge car had filled to capacity. The car has large windows and arching skylights so there’s plenty of light. Even as the light began its fade to dusk, the extra large window area made the Lounge feel less claustrophobic than the Coach cars.

Several times over the last hour the Conductor had come over the PA system to inform us that the engineer was working on the problem and hoped to have it solved soon. The announcements elicited snide comments from the riders each time and we all shared a laugh at the expense of Amtrak.

Lounge car

Ever the optimist, our Dining car steward also came over the PA announcing he would be making his way through the train taking dinner reservations for tonight. A welcome bit of news.

Almost as if the train Gods had decided we passengers had endured long enough, the return of power was announced by the whir of the air handling system cranking back up. A brief cheer erupted and the exodus to the heads ensued.

The return of power coincided nicely with the setting sun and all seemed right again.

When the steward passed through the Lounge, I asked for and received a 7:30 seating. I was eager to experience dinner on the train. An earlier conversation with another passenger had informed me of the fare I could expect. He was returning home to L.A. after spending Christmas in New York and raved about the steak he had ordered each night on the first leg of his trip. It was so good he said that he couldn’t wait to order it again during this, his return trip. Unfortunately he reported the steak he had eaten last night was in no way in the same league as the previous ones. He cautioned me to order at my own risk. I thanked him thinking I probably wouldn’t order the steak anyway because there were some other interesting items offered as well.

My 7:30 reservation was looking more like 7:45 and I chalked it up to the power outage. I surmised the hour and a half malfunction had put a serious crimp in the Galley’s prep for dinner. When our seating was finally called I queued up outside the Dining car excited to finally get my experience. My exposure to dining on the rails had been limited to watching the classic movies when America traveled by rail and white glove service was standard. This would be something a bit less formal.

The Dining car seated approximately 60 at a time. The tables were all 4-top booths. The room was separated by a prep/serving station and the stairwell that accessed the galley downstairs. I announced myself as a single and was seated with a group of three strangers who I had not seen before. It would become evident why, in short order.

After brief introductions I settled in to examining the menu and eagerly planning my meal. Before I had a chance to decide, the steward passed by announcing to all the tables that the kitchen was out of the Chef special, the fish entrée and the chicken dish. The available entrees now included a vegetarian medley, a shrimp dish and the steak.

My dinner companions were obviously miffed at the abbreviated menu and really started in on Amtrak. I quickly surmised that these three were seasoned rail travelers and I assumed they were traveling together due to their familiarity with each other. What a surprise it was to discover that they were in fact not traveling together but instead reuniting, two for the third time, by happen-chance on the Southwest Chief. The two women and one guy (I’ll call him ‘New York’) were regular riders who eschewed air travel. What I found interesting was none of them were older than me with the guy probably in his late 20’s. He admitted to one horrifying turbulence experience that swore him off airplanes for good. He said he took the train each year to visit his family back in Long Island.  This was his seventh or eighth L.A. to New York run. The gals didn’t share any other reason than they preferred not to fly and enjoyed the train.

Our waitress arrived to take our orders. She was young, looking like any college age waitress working at The Olive Garden. The guy ordered a glass of Merlot and was visibly upset when told the only wine by the glass was a Shiraz. He protested saying he saw several bottles of Merlot lined up at the prep station. She explained that they could only sell the Merlot by the bottle. The gal seated next to him offered that she’d prefer the Merlot too. They ended up buying the bottle.

I was feeling a bit uneasy at the way my dining companions were acting, their attitude was a bit superior and they had treated the sweet waitress with too much disdain. Then it dawned on me. During our initial introductions I learned the three were all in first class sleepers—thus the reason I had not seen them before. Included with their accommodations are meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all included in the hefty price they paid for private rooms. I now understood why they were miffed by the missing menu items.

When it looked like I had the chance to enjoy a sleeper for a part of this trip I checked out the price. The roomette price, which is half of the full sleeping car price, was $700 in addition to the coach seat fare of $256.

Our waitress returned with the wine and we guys ordered the steak while the gals tried the veggie plate and shrimp dish. I ordered my steak medium rare while New York ordered his medium well. We were served right after we had finished our salads. My sides were baked potato and a small vegetable medley. The meal was acceptably hot. The potato was of the steamed variety; I prefer a crusty skin and the vegetables were angelic—they had had the hell cooked out of them. My steak was actually cooked to order, warm red center and seasoned nicely. New York immediately started bitching about his and at one point actually accused the waitress of giving him my order. I quickly sliced off a nice red hunk and held it up for inspection stating I think I got the right one. The steak was ok, certainly nothing to rave about and at $21, I do much better at Longhorn.

By the third glass of Merlot, New York had settled down a bit and we finished the meal without further drama. I have to say the Key Lime cake, yes cake, was by far the best thing I ate that night. I’m sure it wasn’t baked on board but it was excellent nonetheless.

Running behind schedule and with one more seating left, the Steward and wait staff wasted no time in clearing our table as soon as the last forkfuls of dessert disappeared down our gullets. I said my adieus as we departed in opposite directions and I couldn’t help chuckle at that metaphor.

I was feeling very satiated and glad I experienced the Dining car. The jury was still out on whether I would pay the serious premium to travel in a sleeper and enjoy the free meals that came with that ticket. However, I did still have another night of sleeping in coach, wedged in my ¾ seat that also served as a phone booth to help me decide.

To Be Continued…

NEXT: Union Station LAX

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