22.9.09

WHEN INCIVILITY RIDES THE RAILS. Chicago Tribune travel reporter Josh Noel seeks refuge on a train.
I'm in my seat in a dim Amtrak car, beside an aromatic guy and in front of a woman who speaks so loudly into her cell phone that she must assume everyone is interested in her conversation. Likewise, a row ahead, a man using one of those walkie-talkie phones shares both ends of his conversation about when he will arrive in St. Louis.
He's trapped with those products of non-judgementalism on the Texas Eagle, which offers refuge not necessarily available on all trains.

I rise and push through the cabins, looking for I'm not sure what, passing travelers sprawled in sleep or surly in their sardined experience. Four cars later my eyes go wide. I have found my oasis. Its name is the Super Liner Sightseer Lounge Car.

Every Amtrak train has some sort of lounge car, but this one is different. It is wide, it is bright, it is serene. The air is better. The light is better. Everything is better. Eight blue booths sit at one end, and at the other, about 30 seats -- some individual, some love seats.

And here is the best part: the windows. They go from floor to ceiling -- past the ceiling, actually. They curve into the ceiling, which opens the car brilliantly. At the peak of day, when the regular seats are dim and crowded, light pours in here. By late afternoon, when everything turns golden outside, it turns golden in here too, the warm rays and long shadows flitting in and out while America flies by: green fields, brown farms, weathered silos, crooked trees, creaky farms, rusting pickups and brick homes with aboveground pools out back.

Only a few Amtrak trains offer the Sightseer Lounges, and more than a few trains (the Hiawathas, the Harrisburg trains, and some Albany trains) make do with at best a trolley service of beverages and snacks, and the cafe cars on some of the other trains get commandeered by self-important types who turn tables into cubicles, or by the train crew.

Any policy discussion of Amtrak ought treat the amenities as an essential element. In the Northeast, the Acela Expresses, which offer only business and first class at premium fares, effectively segregate the well-heeled and those put off by transgressive Easterners (but I repeat myself) from the less-well-heeled and the transgressive, who make do with the regional trains, or the commuter expresses. On the transcontinental trains, I have encountered people who speak of making great financial sacrifices to ride sleeper rather than share the coaches with passengers who lack decorum. Congresses have on occasion reduced Amtrak's budget to encourage the carrier to downgrade the food service or to scale back the sleeping car offerings. That's an error: people who understand what first class is are potential Amtrak passengers and supporters. Ideally, some of the people setting up cubicles in the dinette might be enticed to buy a first class seat, or a day roomette.

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