A little later than normal (resulting in a stressful day on the Exec Corridor of my former employer, I gather) but actually earlier than I’d planned, here are my observations about the journey on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle service from Austin, TX to St. Louis, MO. The good news is everything worked as it should this time, and what little bits I have to groan and grouse about aren’t (generally) of Amtrak’s making. Not that I’ll let that stop me having a chunter though.
Here we go…
Making sure I had a really good breakfast inside me, I set off, trundling my bags behind me, on the little-under-a-mile walk to the Amtrak station. All went reasonably well, despite a couple of quirky pavements where the frontages are raised with steps up, and so aren’t particularly bag-trundling friendly. I got a few odd looks, inevitably, from the commuters walking the other way. When I got where I thought I needed to be, I discovered the vehicle access to the station was another quarter-mile plus walk via an underpass and along a driveway. There was pedestrian access to the station from the city side, though whether it was official or unofficial, I have no clue, but it was well used. Either way, it necessitated me lugging the bags over the track. A move which certainly wouldn’t be tolerated in the UK.
I got there with plenty of time to spare, but the station was already busy, and the single booking office clerk was working furiously. That’s probably why he let my bag through, despite weighing 49.5lbs whilst very obviously being partially propped (actually wedged) in the hatch within which the scales are placed. Amtrak’s limit is 50lbs. His only reaction was a sharp intake of breath and some dramatic wresting to get it through into the baggage area and out of sight.
With bags dropped and an hour until the train was due, I retraced my steps to Starbucks at 5th & Lamar for a much-needed caffeine boost (and rehydration). After ten minutes of blissful aircon, I returned to the station and found shade as best I could – no air conditioning here – and a growing crowd. By the time the train arrived, ten minutes before its booked departure time, I counted around 60 passengers waiting to board.
This was the first time I’d joined one of Amtrak’s major cross-country services en-route. My previous experience has been seating allocated prior to boarding, a luxury afforded by being at the station of origin. Here, we were instructed to form a line outside the main station building and await the train’s Conductor. This important looking chap with imposing hat (think Tom Hanks’ animated character in The Polar Express) scanned each passenger’s ticket then sent them forward to one of the several Car Attendants who directed each one of us off to a particular coach – I assume based on final destination, but who knows.
The car I was directed toward was already pretty full. I saw two empty seats but was immediately asked by a mother if she could have them to travel with her son – how could I refuse. So I picked a single aisle seat alongside the smallest person I could see and plonked myself down. Turned out my seat companion was another of those who feel the need to vocalise their every thought or observation – often in no more than a mumble and with no (apparent) expectation of a reply. Nevertheless, as it turned out he was going through to Chicago, so I’d be seated with him for the duration, I entered into the social convention of small talk… some of the time! I learned various things about him, although all I’ll share for posterity here is that he was on his way to Toronto from San Antonio to take part in a barbershop choir competition. Across the aisle were a young couple, also from San Antonio (I guessed by the fact he was wearing a San Antonio Thugs shirt – and Google tells me they’re a local band). Further small talk ensued and he thought my trip (I only ventured details of the US element of it) was “cool”.
My seat companion apparently once lived & worked in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so as we passed through this area (Fort Worth, then Arlington, then Dallas) he was pointing out various landmarks, which was very helpful and appreciated. For example, I saw the Taxas Rangers ballpark (though might have spotted that myself, despite it being in the distance) just after passing the huge Dallas Cowboys stadium.
Approaching Dallas — and I really wasn’t expecting that we’d have such a good view of this — he pointed out the infamous Texas School Book Depository and Dealy Plaza, now site of the JFK Memorial.
At both Fort Worth and Dallas we picked up still more passengers, so the train was completely full. In fairness, I can’t say this really affected me, other than in queues on the couple of occasions I ventured to the cafe car for coffee. I’d got my seat and even with people in front and behind, there was enough room to recline. My travelling companion excused himself a few times, but as he evidently wasn’t too fleet of foot, he always waited until the train was slowing for a station before doing battle with the stairs down to the restrooms.
The Texas countryside we were passing through was not the most captivating, punctuated by many small towns – all notable for the amount of empty or abandoned property (especially shops, bars & garages). Consequently I’d been napping every so often anyway. By the time darkness fell and I decided to settle down for real, I managed to get a few periods of fitful sleep. To be fair, I was well rested from my time in Austin (well, the entire trip, really…) so what little sleep I got worked.
We’d been about 10 minutes late leaving Austin, what with all the passengers to load, and by the time we left Dallas we were half an hour late. When I woke around 06:30 it was light and my iPhone showed me we were in the outskirts of St. Louis, where we were due to arrive 07:09. We slowly picked our way through the approaches to the city and were in the platform pretty much on time.
Then Amtrak’s knack of appearing totally disorganised kicked-in. I’m confident that there was a very good reason for everything that was done, but left unexplained it was just infuriating…. Having stopped, we moved forwards. Then we moved back. Then we moved back some more. Then we moved forward. All without any announcement as this was still, nominally, within the ‘curfew’ during which they don’t make announcements. Nor were any staff around in the vestibule I was waiting in to exit the train (along with a crush of other passengers, most of whom were going on to Chicago but were desperate for their first nicotine fix in six hours or so). The final straw was the ‘service dog’ of a blind guy who had been seated a couple of rows back, and whose life story I’d heard as various other passengers around the coach had engaged him in conversation. The dog was desperate too, and to be fair to it, did its best to hold on, but the continued non-opening of the doors was the final straw. D’oh. The lady whose foot got wet took it in surprisingly good part.
Oh, and it is bucketing down here in St. Louis.
When I eventually got off the train and, through the scrum which was St. Louis Amtrak terminal, got my bags, I set off for the hotel. It’s a shade over a mile. I did think of capitulating and getting a taxi, but didn’t actually see any (it’s raining, so of course not). So off I trundled, with more strange looks (and – friendly, if quizzical – greetings) from commuters. Yet again, I presented myself at the reception of a hotel looking like a bedraggled mess. Though this time, not quite as sweaty. In terms of getting a room early, it seems to work! The really friendly welcome from the reception staff of the Courtyard was appreciated.
I went up to my room, cranked up the heating and showered, leaving my layers and bags to dry out. I’ve come down to the lobby (where they serve Starbucks coffee!) to type this and generally hang out a bit to . It is still throwing it down and the tv has just shown the radar – lots of vivid colours circulating round the city. In other words, it looks like heavy (and I mean heavy) rain all day.
As for what happens next, tune in later… (but at the moment I don’t anticipate it being a lot).