Somewhere between Cleburne and McGregor, Texas, not far from President Bush's ranch, I lurch through the observation car--the train runs at top speed through these flat treeless prairies--and find an empty table in the dining room.
But as I'm ordering the T-bone--which is, by the way, always outstanding on the Texas Eagle--a moon-faced guy in glasses plops down opposite me.
"Want some company?" he says with a surreal grin.
I smile and give a slight nod, and he launches into disjointed small talk about the evening--it's dusk and the stars are just coming out--and after a while he says, "So where are you from?"
I tell him.
"Oh really? I thought you were from a foreign country."
I study his face. He has a forced pleasantness, an artificial eager-to-please tone. Where have I seen this before?
Ljubljana comes to mind. The capital of Slovenia. When it was part of Communist Yugoslavia, round-faced men would approach you in hotels there, pretending to be American tourists, but their thick Slavic accents made their performance ludicrous. They wanted to know who you were, what you were doing in Yugoslavia. They would find out if you were trading money on the black market and then suddenly disappear.
And that's just what happens with this guy. After two or three painful minutes, he abruptly jumps up from the table and walks back through the galley to the other end of the dining car. He joins another table and studiously avoids my gaze.
I suppose I've passed the Terrorist-on-the-Texas-Eagle test.
Terrorists ordering T-bones on Amtrak is actually not quite so far-fetched as it sounds, since two suspected terrorists actually did take the Texas Eagle on September 11th. Their Newark-to-San Antonio flight had been diverted to St. Louis and grounded. So that same evening they bought tickets on the Texas Eagle, which pulls into St. Louis around 11 p.m. and arrives in San Antonio 24 hours later.
But they never made it as far as the treeless prairie between Cleburne and McGregor. Responding to reports of "suspicious behavior," the FBI pulled the two Arab men off the train the next afternoon in Fort Worth and spirited them back to New Jersey, where they've been detained ever since. So I suppose there's some precedent for undercover terrorism inquiries on the Eagle.
They couldn't have chosen a worse means of transportation, though, because only a foreigner would think he could be inconspicuous on Amtrak. The American long-distance railroad-- suddenly popular again in these times of flight fears--has to be one of the most social forms of travel since the stagecoach. It's impossible to spend that much time on a train and not eventually come into contact with virtually all the other passengers, even if it's only to brush past their seats on your way to the smoking lounge or the bar.
I've met a Mexican congressman on the train, a Canadian elk- hunting guide, and two students from the Sorbonne, but as I think back over my thousands of railroad hours logged, that's about it for the "international traveller" category. Amtrak is so all- American that regulars on the Crescent--the express between New York and New Orleans--get upset if the chef runs out of grits. On the Coast Starlight, which runs along the Pacific between Los Angeles and Seattle, they've been known to put folk singers in the parlor car, and we all know that no international traveller would sit still for that. Not to mention that drawling cowboy who climbs aboard the Sunset Limited in Del Rio, Texas, and describes every stand of sagebrush and ocotillo all the way to Alpine.
The last two months have been great for Amtrak in terms of first-time train travellers, but most of them don't quite have the hang of it yet. They haven't mastered the Aisle Duckwalk that keeps them upright and out of a stranger's lap as they travel from one car to the next. They order the White Castle hamburgers in the lounge car, which are notorious for being soggy, tasteless and hard on the tummy. They say, "Why are we sitting here while these freight trains go ahead of us?" (Freight trains always go ahead of Amtrak.) They expect the 8 o'clock movie to be decent, when we all know it's going to be "Legally Blonde"--again. One particularly amusing fellow on the Metroliner between New York and Washington kept marvelling that there were no seat belts. And first-timers almost always run afoul of the "no sock feet" policy and have to be sternly admonished by the porter to put their shoes back on when they're in the aisles.
The Amtrak crews, on the other hand, regard this time as a chance to show what they can do. They've always had a love-hate relationship with their jobs. They love the railroad, but they're not too fond of the Washington bosses who seem to keep it forever in thralldom. More than one Amtrak employee noted that, while thousands of Americans were switching to rail travel and Congressmen were taking the train, not planes, to visit Ground Zero, the airlines were handed billions while Amtrak's much more modest request for $500 million continued to languish in committee.
Amtrak is the only national railroad in the world that is expected to make money, and yet this strict bottom-line oversight has resulted in the skimpiest long-distance network of any civilized nation. Long-distance trains, especially in a country that has really long distances, can't turn a profit after 40 years of constant route cutbacks that make reasonable connections impossible. There are simply too many places that you can't get to from here.
The California Zephyr, for example, is one of the most popular long routes and definitely the most beautiful, running from Chicago to San Francisco and crossing the Rockies in the daytime in both directions. But most days it includes only three or four sleeper cars and an equal number of coaches--even though it's almost always sold out. To become economically sensible, it would need two or three times the rolling stock--but how can Amtrak invest in new cars that wouldn't be expected to pay for themselves for five or ten more years? And how can you get more people to ride it when all of its feeder connections--like the famous Desert Wind, from Salt Lake to Los Angeles via Vegas--have been eliminated?
I'm not going to rehash all the complicated arguments for providing more subsidies to Amtrak, not less, so that we can rebuild the passenger railroad system that was once the greatest in the world and is now, at best, the 20th. But here are a few points that aren't made often enough:
1. Everyone on an airplane is in a bad mood. Everyone on the train is in a good mood. There is no such thing as "rail rage."
2. Leg room. Everywhere. All the time.
3. Remarkably decent food, cooked on board, eaten with silver, on white linen tablecloths.
4. An airplane that's an hour late is a tragedy. A train that's an hour late is a pleasant surprise. Rail trips have a way of slowing you down, even on those rare occasions when they are on time, and you discover you didn't really have to be there as quickly as you thought you did.
5. Amtrak's deluxe bedrooms, with the berths set up across the whole width of the car so that you don't get that side-to- side motion while you're sleeping, are better than anything offered in Europe.
6. Ventilated smoking lounges that don't bother the non- smokers. Amtrak doesn't want you to suffer.
7. Nobody cares about the size of your carry-on luggage.
8. 3 a.m. poker games.
9. An Amtrak train makes for a terrible weapon of terrorism. You can't drive it into a building. There's no way to get from the first passenger car to the locomotive. Even the worst derailment of the longest Amtrak train will kill fewer people than one short-hop domestic flight. But you can't derail it anyway, because it's never on time.
10. Goofballs roam up and down the aisles, profiling terrorists for no charge.