I got home yesterday lunchtime after an epic West Coast rail journey from San Diego to Vancouver. I’ve been to La Jolla once every six months or so since July 2009 to meet with collaborators, and every time I’ve gone I’ve thought “next time, I should take the train back” – but I just never quite got around to it. The collaboration probably ends in March, and so I realised just before Christmas that last week’s meeting would probably be my last chance and I’d better get my arse in gear. So I flew down with my colleagues first thing on Wednesday morning (we took off in a blizzard with our plane completely covered in green de-icing gunk that looked for all the world like ectoplasm, and bounced rather than flew our way through the turbulence for three hours – fun!), but waved goodbye to them when they headed back to the airport on Thursday evening and took myself off to a nice hotel instead. At 8 am on Friday morning I was on the Pacific Surfliner train headed for LA; by 12:15 pm I was on the LA-Seattle Coast Starlight service, due to arrive in Seattle at 10:45 pm on Saturday, with a 7:40 am Seattle-Vancouver Cascades ticket booked for Sunday morning.
The trip was mostly AWESOME. Just so, so much fun. I enjoyed it so much that I intend to write a happy and enthusiastic “look at all my awesome photos!!!” post very soon – and I don’t want to mar that joyful process by including the one bad part of the experience. So here’s that part in a stand-alone post of its very own!
I’d expected snow, not rocks.
Wednesday’s blizzard at the Vancouver airport wasn’t just a local event; there’d been record-breaking snow storms and cold temperatures from Alaska all the way down to Oregon, with Portland and Seattle particularly badly hit and news bulletins full of reports of closed roads and airports. However, I boarded the train in LA hopeful that the forecasted rain would help me out, and no-one at the station, on the train, or on the Amtrak website had told me anything different. Unfortunately, though, while enjoying a lovely lamb shank dinner and a Sierra Nevada pale ale a couple of hours south of San Francisco, I began to hear a rumour that the train wouldn’t get any further than Portland. The train conductor told me that night that he hadn’t heard anything like that, but then the guy running the snack bar told me the next morning that we’d only just got the all-clear to proceed all the way to Seattle and that we’d be the first train in three days to make it that far. (This guy was an excellent source of information throughout the trip – it pays to tip well from the start, folks!) So apparently there had been a danger of me getting stranded in Portland, but by the time I knew it was a real threat it had already dissipated.
Three hours later, we hit a large boulder as we emerged from a tunnel.
None of us in the rear few carriages felt anything, but apparently the people near the front did feel a jolt. No-one was hurt though, fortunately – it could have been so much worse. But the rock did tear open the reserve air tank for the air brakes, and so the crew used the emergency brakes to bring us to a stop in a field just north of the California-Oregon border.
Where we stayed for the next four or five hours while Amtrak scrambled to send us engineers and an extra locomotive.
This was our view at the time. Unfortunately we were on one of the vanishingly rare visually uninteresting part of the route.
Now, really, this wasn’t a huge deal. (We did make the local news though – apparently not very much happens around Klamath Falls). I was disappointed to be wasting good daylight hours when I’d never really seen Oregon before (“from a Greyhound” doesn’t really count, in my book – all I saw that time was the highway), and slightly concerned about the impact on my connection through to Vancouver. But we had heat, electricity to keep our phones charged, cell phone reception, and free snacks (although we had to pay for our own beer!).
However, from the way some people reacted you’d have thought the world had ended. It was ridiculous the way people were carrying on, and the reaction of a substantial and very vocal minority of the passengers bothered me much, much more than the delay. Most people – many of whom I’d already had great conversations with – were great: I had two offers of a place to stay in Portland if I needed it, and multiple offers to use people’s phones for calls to Amtrak and the hotel I’d booked in Seattle, plus internet searches for alternative options, when I mentioned that I’d get hit by massive roaming charges if I used my own. But other people were freaking OUT, literally yelling (even during the crew’s announcements, even when other people were asking them to shush).
The smokers were particularly bad; there were a surprising number of them (I had no idea so many people still smoked!) and we were 10 minutes away from the next station and a scheduled smoke break (after a gap of 3 hours) when we stopped in the field. They started to demand that they be let outside for a smoke, and got really up in the poor crew’s faces when they said that this would violate federal law and would be extremely dangerous given that we were on the top of a very steeply-sloped, snow-covered embankment that was maybe three feet wider than the actual tracks. People apparently started smoking in the toilets despite a direct instruction not to do this, and so the crew had to deal with smoke alarms going off and trying to remove the stink on top of everything else. There were also threats to break a window or force a door, which necessitated a very stern warning over the tannoy about federal laws, massive fines, and worse.
The yelling continued, with one increasingly drunk woman in my carriage (who had, incidentally, woken me and several other people up when she’d got on at 4:30 that morning in Sacramento, talking loudly about how the train was running two hours late and Amtrak were idiots) leading the charge. Apparently this was RIDICULOUS / RETARDED / BULLSHIT, Amtrak were LIARS / IDIOTS, and she was NEVER TAKING THE TRAIN AGAIN (good!) and GONNA SUE / WRITE TO HER SENATOR BECAUSE THIS IS BULLSHIT. Other people chose to call Amtrak and take their anger out on the poor call centre staff instead, for extra fun and games.
Also heard, from this woman and several other people: “HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO FIX A FUCKING TRAIN??!!”, “HOW DIFFICULT CAN IT BE TO CONSTANTLY MONITOR THE TRACKS FOR OBSTACLES??!!”, (yeah, there’s only 21,200 miles of it – WTF, Amtrak?!) and “HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO BRING US SOME ENGINEERS AND ANOTHER LOCOMOTIVE??!! WE’RE ONLY 20 MILES FROM THE NEAREST STATION!!!!” I pointed out in response to the latter complaint that the nearest station was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and that Amtrak likely don’t keep a spare locomotive and a technical crew at every single station – the crew and train were probably coming down from Eugene or possibly even further. Apparently this made Amtrak “FUCKING IDIOTS WHO DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK THEY’RE DOING”.
I think my favourite complaint, though, was “THIS TRAIN IS CURSED!” / “EVERYTHING THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAVE HAPPENED TO THIS TRAIN, HAS HAPPENED TO THIS TRAIN!!!”
For the record:
Things that had happened to this train: running two hours late due to snow in the mountains; ran out of steaks in the dining car; a 20 minute stop to fix a broken windshield wiper; hit a rock.
Things that had not happened to this train: blown up, derailed, fallen off bridge and/or into river, set on fire, zombies/vampires/virulent new virus strain on board, alien attack. These people clearly have no imagination and need to watch more movies.
At this point the more sensible people in my carriage decided to get the hell out of there and escaped to the bar car, where we could no longer hear this woman’s insane rantings but did have to contend with a few other moaning minnies, some drunken 20-something guys harrassing the conductor, and “the grumpy-looking guy from the next carriage who hasn’t talked to a single person since LA” (everyone had such names ascribed to them by their fellow passengers – I was “that Canadian woman who’s trying to get to Vancouver”) sitting silently working his jaw and shredding a paper napkin into a million tiny pieces. Ah well – we had beer and an epic Scrabble game going (I won!). Plus the guy making announcements was absolutely hilarious – “the good news is, you now have free snacks. The bad news is, they have to last you three days” was my particular favourite. I wish I’d written the rest of them down because there were some real gems but, well, I’d had three beers by then.
We got moving again – with a hearty cheer from all passengers – after about four or five hours. The loudest and most obnoxious passenger got off soon thereafter, thank the FSM, and everyone else calmed the fuck down and stopped yelling, although I did hear a few more complaints over the rest of the journey.
The ultimate impact on me was that I got into Seattle at 4:30 am on Sunday instead of 10:45 pm on Saturday, but I found out early enough to cancel my hotel. The station in Seattle doesn’t open until 6 am, so I just hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to the nearest 24 hour dining establishment; I ended up at the very friendly Hurricane Cafe eating eggs and hash browns, drinking tea, reading my book, and chatting to the lovely sympathetic waitress. I went back to the station around 7 am and completed my journey with no further drama. A 3 hour nap on the sofa when I got home followed by a 9 pm bedtime last night seem to have abrogated the sleep deprivation that was the only direct harm I took from the whole incident.
However, there is one other lasting effect: I still get mad when I think about how badly so many of my fellow passengers behaved in reaction to something that was no-one’s fault. Sometimes shit just happens – you can’t control that, but you can control how you react, and some of those people should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Would they have pulled together and stopped bitching if someone had actually got hurt (or worse), or would they just have complained more? What are they going to do if something really bad ever happens to them?! And why can’t most people devote the same level of energy and passion to causes that actually matter?!
In conclusion: Amtrak ROCK (pun intended); some people SUCK; if life hands you lemons, make lemonade (then put vodka in it); if the world slips you a Jeffrey, stroke the furry wall; if there’s nothing you can do about the situation then STFU and chill OUT already!
That is all. Happy enthusiastic train-geek post up next.