Zen and the art of locomotive maintenance

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”.


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?!Β  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.


About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in bad people, current affairs, drunkenness, first world problems, food glorious food, idiocy, personal, photos, rants, snow, technology, travel, whining. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Zen and the art of locomotive maintenance

  1. chall says:

    ..slips you a Jeffrey, stroke the furry wall….. ?? I’m drawing so many pictures but somehow I think all of them are wrong. So, let a little Swede in on the secret here huh πŸ˜‰

    I’m totally envious of your train ride. AWESOME! I’m happy you liked it and agree that it would be better if people didn’t behave too rudely when weather happens… as long as you get there almost on time, right?

  2. Heather says:

    I followed you more or less real time on Facebook… Just consider that if some cataclysm takes place, either you and the other reasonable and adaptable people will survive, or the nutters (and alas they are pullulating). My bet is on you. If it’s the others, I wouldn’t want to stick around anyhow.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      I had to Google “pullulating”! The nutters were also, on average, quite a bit fatter than the more reasonable people, and so in a survival / cannibalism situation I’m sure you’d win that bet πŸ™‚

  3. Bob O'H says:

    if the world slips you a Jeffrey, stroke the furry wall;

    I have no idea what a Jeffrey is, other than that’s my brother’s name. I don’t recall any furry wallpaper when I was a kid.

  4. Eva says:

    This story reminds me of two of my previous trips: a train from Paris to Amsterdam, and a Greyhound from Las Vegas to LA.

    The train from Paris was double-booked, because the train before us was cancelled/broken/non-existent. We were also delayed a bit, but obviously not by as many hours as half of the passengers who should have been on the previous train. There were *almost* enough seats for everyone, but obviously many people had the same seat numbers because they merged two trains, and people COULD NOT COMPREHEND how this was possible. “This is MY seat!” “No, this is MY seat!” *sigh*. There was a lot of shuffling, and a LOT of complaining. I found my sister a seat, and I ended up sitting in the restaurant for the whole trip, with some other seatless people. It was fun in the restaurant! But every time I walked back to check on my sister, the people in the carriage were STILL complaining. Aaaaargh. What were they going to do – build another train?

    The bus from Vegas to LA broke down in the middle of the desert for a few hours, and we had to wait for a new bus. It was warm and annoying, but people weren’t as complain-y about it. One guy next to me was on his way to Lollapalooza to scalp tickets (heh), and he said he took that bus trip about once a month, and in summer the bus ALWAYS breaks down there. It was a completely different crowd. People on trains expect everything to be perfect, and people on Greyhounds are expecting crap. It’s what you pay for! I have photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/easternblot/2764277760/

    • Great stuff. Cath. Good to hear you survived..!

      I’ve got a couple of stories in vaguely similar vein, including once being stuck for something like six or seven hours in the same place in a bus (sic) en route from Manchester to Oxford. The bus was the ‘relief’ for the train I’d caught which had been stranded by flooding – unfortunately they forgot to tell us all the roads were flooded too. We eventually got to Oxford at around 1 am, having been scheduled to get there (after a 4 hr trip) at 5.30 pm.

      Anyway, as in your adventure most people were pretty cool, talking, lending mobile phones (rare as this was in ’98), sharing the few snacks they had – but there are always one or two people who break the mood. I remember that after three or four hours the smokers finally cracked, found a roof light they could open, and had a cigarette there, blowing the smoke out – at which point the sole American passenger got very irate:

      “Someone is SMOKING. THIS is a NO-SMOKING BUS”

      – she declaimed, in a very loud voice.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Yeah, I’ve been on many and various broken down / delayed / two or more trains merged into one trains in my time. In Britain though most people just roll their eyes a bit and get on with it… this was my first such experience in North America (I was never on a Greyhound that had a problem, and my train from Toronto to Vancouver in 1997 arrived exactly on time after a 3 day journey). Mind you I just can’t imagine a train full of Canadians getting all that irate if something had happened πŸ˜‰

        I think in Europe taking the train is just so common that everyone’s experienced some kind of delay and accepts it as normal; in North America (at least out west) it’s much less common to take the train and so maybe people’s expectations are higher, as Eva said. For example, at one point we started smelling that hardworking train brakes smell, and people freaked out – until I said that I’ve smelled the same thing on trains in Europe dozens of times. Many of the people I talked to were taking the train for the very first time.

    • chall says:

      ahh.. the Greyhound from LA to Vegas and back. Did that, survived and have a bunch of intersting stories…. like you, it was in the middle of summer. No AC on the bus. Stop in the middle of desert and I remember thinking, “if they leave me here, I’ll be a burned crisp in like 15 mins” (temps about 120+F will do that to superwhite swede who don’t tan.at.all)

      As a side note, I learned that LA Hollywood and LA downtown Greyhound busstaion are not (no surprise really, apart for me) the same in terms of @safe@ πŸ˜‰ It was a good story afterwards ^^

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Yeah, I’ve been to the downtown LA Greyhound station too… I came in on the overnight bus from San Francisco and had about an hour to kill before my connection to the airport, thought I’d go outside to feel that lovely warm California sunshine for the last time, looked around, saw people lying passed out on the sidewalk, needles everywhere… and turned around, went straight back inside, and sat by the security booth until it was time to board!

        • chall says:

          haha πŸ™‚ similar to my story of walking outside “it can’t be that bad surely” … walking back inside and having a book. Then the “infamous HD crew men” sat next to me and offered me some fresh fruit so I didn’t feel alone” πŸ˜‰ True! And fun! (in hind sight anyway.)

  5. Alyssa says:

    Wow…some people need to learn how to handle life with a bit more grace! I can see how you would still be worked up when you think about those people. Glad you found some more realistic people to spend your time with…and what an awesome story you have to tell for years and years! I mean, your train hit a ROCK! Epic.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Yes, I will get good mileage out of the story for sure! And I’m already much less worked up – this ranty venty sweary blog post served its purpose!

  6. Stephen Moss says:

    Here in the UK it takes no more than ‘leaves on the line’ to bring the entire rail network to a halt. I imagine the train companies would love the credibility that would come with something more rock-like. In the meantime, next time I get stuck on public transport I will demand that the driver/crew direct me to the nearest furry wall.

    • Bob O'H says:

      I was once stood on York station, and an announcement was announced that the train to London was delayed because of thunderstorms near Doncaster. I had visions of a nervous wreck of a train huddled in a siding refusing to come out until those loud bangs and bright flashes over the horizon had all stopped.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Ha! That’s a great mental image. Maybe the Reverend Wilbert Awdry even used it at some point πŸ™‚

        Hitting a rock is definitely a better reason for a delay than leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow!

        • When I was a teenager in Oxford I used vaguely to know one of the Rev Awdry’s grandchildren, who was the girlfriend of one of my schoolfriends. Always wondered what she thought about people pointing her out and saying. “Oh yes, Awdry, she’s related to the Train Book Awdry, you know’.

          The Thomas books, of course, are a true perennial of childhood. My and my brother’s old ones have passed on via his daughters to my two children, aged 7 and 3. Though they seem to prefer the DVD versions. Hey ho. Modern kids.

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Hmm, I thought more people would know the Jeffrey / furry wall reference – but apparently I’m the only one here who enjoys horribly offensive yet hilarious movies! Warning: this YouTube link is very very very NSFW!

    • chall says:

      Haha! πŸ™‚ I’m happy I waited until I came home to click on the link. “who can be afraid of a Jeffrey?” – I know one… alas… I wonder if they, considering the British accent, would’ve spelled it “Geoffrey”?? One can only wonder….

      • John the Plumber says:

        I must be getting old – mind working overtime on Jeffrey – till – Oh I see. – Now I’m stck on NSFW. – Do you think I should get a life?
        Any way I think you’ve made it up. – Not the the train trip – the bit about winning at Scrabble. – On the other hand you were clearly surrounded by rmorons so who knows.
        Thanks for sharing your adventure Cath – it makes good reading.

  8. Mermaid says:

    Love your attitude: “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.”

    Obviously the loudest folk have very boring lives. Likely the story of the horrid train ride will be their favourite dinner party story for the next few years.

    Despite the delay (or maybe because of the humour you found while enduring it), it still sounds like an awesome trip!

  9. Laurence Cox says:

    You should be thankful they don’t show in-train movies. Just imagine what your fellow passengers might have been like if they had been watching, say, “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder.

  10. Nina says:

    This reminds me of how people in Germany immediately reach for their cellphones as soon as it is announced that the train is going to be 5 minutes late, and then whine about OMG how this train is always late and it ruins their life.
    or how at the moment people in Chch complain about the government not working fast enough to rebuild their houses. No one can rebuild a whole city within a few months or years … Hoe easily it is forgotten that you should just be glad to be alive at all.

  11. Bob O'H says:

    Can I just nominate this whole comment thread for this week’s Bragging Rights Central. Well, the whole thread except this comment.

  12. Liesa says:

    I was doing a search for the train wreck I was in (June 24, 2011 in Nevada) when I found your page. I enjoyed what you posted about the impatient travelers on your journey. In my case, common, everyday tourists became heroes to their fellow, injured passengers. We were all too busy trying to survive to have the time to complain. Please, ‘like’ our page and view our stories.

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