Archive for January 18th, 2012

Walking into Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago’s Union Station reminded me of walking into a nursing home. This isn’t the hip new pre-departure lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 or Finnair’s Blue Wings Lounge at JFK. The people here, rather, looked as if they’d collapsed into the furniture that had been placed along the walls. Mostly everyone had grey hair. Baggy corduroys and sweaters seemed predominant. Unlike a chic airline club where one might catch up on the business or political news of the day the television in the Metropolitan Lounge was tuned to the Maury Povich Show. Is this really what wealthy retirees watch?

It’s not unreasonable to determine that based upon the time requirements of cross-country train travel few people other of retirees have the luxury of spending three days on a train just to get to the west coast. Add to that the additional cost of sleeping accommodations, and well, that’s the generation that has all the money.

Not unlike the challenge once faced by Cadillac, Amtrak is going to have to find a way to attract a new demographic for their premium services because within ten years, this group will be dead. Like Cadillac, Amtrak will have to add speed and new technological advances to accomplish this.

Soon, however, boarding was called and those of us scheduled for the California Zephyr were escorted to Track 12. Our attendants greeted us at the door and gave us directions to our rooms. You may have heard that Amtrak just placed a multi-million dollar order for new rail cars, some of which will be Sleepers. My car is evidence of this need. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my car or my room, its age is noticeable. The carpet is tattered. The washroom on this floor has layers of sealant around the basin and commode. Fixes made to bide time.

For some reason the electricity goes out each time the train stops, which is both at stations as well as when we’re waiting for freight trains. While Amtrak has the right to travel on private rails (which were initially built on land granted from the government to private industry), freight trains get priority.

In the aisles and in my room the overhead lighting is dim and the plastic globes appear dingy. The “adjustable” reading lights adjacent to each of the two seats in my room don’t adjust much. If you happen to be acquainted with the flight attendant jump seats on an L-1011, you’ll get the picture. A call button and the adjustments for the heating controls are within the same unit.

The train departed on time and shortly thereafter the conductor came by for tickets followed by my car’s attendant who introduced herself and told me about the trip and the amenities available. A coffee station at the top of the stairs is always on and a cooler of water and juice sits nearby. A few minutes later an attendant from the dining car came by to inquire about dinner reservations. I reserved a spot for 5:30p.

The dinner selections offered something for everyone. Steak. Chicken. I chose crab cakes with rice pilaf. Hot bread and a small salad were brought by first and there was nothing second class about either. Crisp lettuce with cucumber and tomato with an assortment of dressings. The crab cakes were delicious. My dining partner had the sirloin with a baked potato which she found to be equally delicious. Sugar-free cheese cake with raspberry sauce and a black coffee for desert, though I could have opted for carrot cake, a variety of ice creams or some chocolate temptation.

My attendant said she’d be by at 8:30p to make up the bed. That’s hours before I’m used to being in bed, though with the gentle rocking and utter darkness of the Iowa plains outside my window I’m sure I’ll fall asleep easily. My room is warm, comfortable and quiet. It is the perfect place to relax.

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