Our departure from Penn Station was absolutely without fanfare, as the usual retirees hunkered down into the sleeping car and us regular folk dutifully claimed our seats in Coach Class. The first indication of positive change for Amtrak came when our train, 49, left right on time and immediately gained speed to chug up along the Hudson River at dusk. Never before have we departed a station on time and been so quick to reach a hearty gallop outside the city.
Next we headed down through the white-tablecloth Dining Car and into the Lounge Car, where the pre-dinner snacks were swiftly selling and fellow riders were actually chatting with each other. Every train has its characters: There's the young and talkative Christian girl from two hours south of somewhere, the man transporting the ashes of a relative and the couple fresh from their first visit to a big city. But this being the recession and all, we met a great deal of passengers who had recently decamped from air travel due to rising prices and declining service, like a hip musician heading all the way to Chicago for a slew of gigs and who opted to take his chances on a twenty-hour train ride.
Hope for a popular, punctual and profitable Amtrak has been in such short supply that the country had relegated train travel to only those either in dire straits or who are simply too scared to fly. For Amtrak to hold onto these precious customers, they better be willing to update conditions on trains from the borderline Greyhound experience it has been.
The good news is that we witnessed some very real improvements on this trip, including clean toilets with plenty toilet paper, friendly conductors, a working power outlet at every seat, free pillows (take that, airlines!), and the prospect of in-train WiFi. We say "prospect" of free WiFi because while our computer hooked onto an "iTrain" signal during the ride, we were still unable to surf the web.
Before the sun set on our first four hours, ending lush views of fall foliage interspersed with tours of blue collar backyards, we wondered what lay in store for us in the late night in the middle of nowhere. After all, everyone was happy, fed, warm and most importantly, on schedule. But would the peace and efficiency of the evening hold out for the next ten hours? We clung to our hopes.
Continued in Part II of our Amtrak Recession Confession.