There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Amtrak's annulment

Dude! Where's my train

"Explain that again," I asked the Amtrak agent behind the glass at the C.L. Dellums Amtrak Station at Jack London Square in Oakland. I had been outside standing next to the track waitng for my train home when the announcement came. The echo effect obscured all but the gist of the message: No train. Not your train has been delayed; no train at all.

"The 542 for Sacramento has been annulled," the Amtrak agent said. "No train. The next train will be the 544 at 6:55 p.m."

This is only my 11th trip from Oakland home. I've had trains arrive 15 minutes late into the station at Sacramento in the morning and on one morning the train was late arriving in Oakland because of technical problems with the track switching network. But for the most part, the trains have arrived and departed near enough to on time for my purposes. I remember reading recently that Amtrak reported a better than 90 percent on-time performance last month.

After I settled into a seat near a power outlet in the station and pulled out my laptop, I overheard an Amtrak employee explaining to one of the regulars what had become of the 542.

"The engine blew up," he said. He left the impression that "blew up" didn't involve death and destruction and pieces scattered far and wide.

A half-hour later when word arrived that the 544 would be 20 minutes late I wasn't really surprised. When things go bad everything rolls downhill.

Eventually the four-car 544 from San Jose to Sacramento rolled into the station hauling behind it the four cars of the disabled 542. It was one long, crowded train.

And, of course, the trip kept rolling downhill. About an hour out of Oakland, the conductor came on the public address system to apologize for our slow pace. Haulng the extra cars was slowing things, he said.

Merrily, merrily I rolled along. I had a seat at a table with a college student studying a textbook and a guy watching a movie on his laptop. I had my laptop out and plugged into a power outlet. I read reports that I will be summarizing for an upcoming newsletter. Riding Amtrak is paid work time for me. Once I'm on the train, I suppose I can't complain. Or at least I shouldn't.

I finally arrived in Sacramento two hours later than I would have arrived before Amtrak annulled my train.

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