I wake up to the sound of my alarm clock. It’s 2 in the morning and I immediately check my text messages.
There’s a new message from my mom, whom I am slated to pick up at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles around 3am.
No idea when I will arrive. Someone estimated it would be approx 7 AM. Who knows? We have had several stops for engine trouble and more to come.
I look at the time stamp on the message, which had album-dropped on my phone around midnight.
It takes a moment for my lividity meter to power up in my sleep-deprived haze.
My mother is happily retired, it takes a lot to piss her off, and she’s been unbelievably calm for the past 14 hours, ever since I received this text from her:
Stuck for awhile just outside of Salinas due to electrical problems. Don’t know when I will arrive. Will keep u informed.
Days before, I had asked whether she was planning to take the train from San Jose, Calif., where she was visiting friends; or a plane that would get her to LA in under an hour.
She had decided to goeth by train and was excited to experience the Central California leg of Amtrak’s scenic Coast Starlight route.
That day, we had mused about how fortunate we were that, despite the advent of air travel and interstate highways, we could still travel by scenic rail here in America the Beautiful.
Because some of this country’s sweetest views are only accessible via train.
On the dark side of the coin, however, is the sad fact that rail travel in the U.S. is embarrassingly slow and outdated in comparison to much of the developed world.
Case in point, a 466 mile (750 km) trip from Paris to Marseilles in France takes a little over 3 hours via the TGV; while a similar distance, Boston to Washington, DC, via Amtrak Acela, the fastest train in the U.S., takes 7 hours.
Worse yet, another slightly shorter distacnce, Los Angeles to San Francisco, takes around 12 hours — 4 times as long as the TGV!
But surely there is something quaint and nostalgic about travelling at the same speed, inconsistency and unpredictability of rail travel in the 1800s, we like to tell ourselves as we settle into our seats and an imaginary Amtrak conductor hollers, All Aboard!
Yet, here I was, 2 o’clock in the morning, wondering where the hell my mom was and why she had been stuck on a train for 14 hours and counting, when the same journey would have taken 5 to 6 hours by car.
I could have driven to San Jose and back by now!
Stuck in the middle of nowhere south of Soledad [30 miles south of Salinas]. We are waiting on an engine replacement, but they do not know how long it will take for the engine to arrive nor when we will arrive in LA, most likely approx. 3 AM or maybe later. ”
Happy trails to me.” The adventures of traveling in the West! Yee Ha!!!
My mom had sent this little ditty of optimism to me at 4pm the day before. Little did we know that half a day later, she’d still be stuck on that train, still hours away from LA!
Amtrak has 300 trains traversing the cities and countrysides of this great nation, serving 87,000 passengers daily.
That’s a lot of trains, most of which run on tracks owned by other rail companies whose freight trains get the right-of-way, which causes all kinds of delays.
In fact, the Coast Starlight route my mother was on, which journeys from Seattle to Los Angeles, is delayed nearly 50 percent of the time in a given year!
Most other Amtrak lines don’t fare much better in the on-time arrival department, either.
By comparison, domestic air carriers in the U.S. had an average on-time arrival rate of 81% in 2016.
Now, a major travel tenet I’ve learned to live by are two simple words: Shit Happens.
Trains get delayed. Engines throw tantrums. Human errors occur.
For the most part, these forces majeure are out of your control.
The one thing you can control, however, is being mentally prepared, medically covered and financially protected on the rare occasion when something goes terribly wrong during your vacation.
So if you’re thinking of taking a scenic ride on Amtrak, before you book a seat, take a moment to check the on-time arrival record for your desired route to determine whether you would be better off flying or driving instead.
If you still elect to goeth by train, and if you’re travelling with non-refundable hotel reservations, event tickets and the like on your itinerary, I strongly suggest getting travel insurance.
That way, if something goes wrong, you will be able to recoup most or all of your losses.
Thankfully, my mom was just here visiting family and friends, with no non-refundable tickets or reservations to fret about.
And, thankfully, she arrived in LA safe and sound around 6:30am, having spent a long and uncomfortable night on a train that was seriously lacking in the TLC department.
In the midst of all those engine delays, my mom’s train literally ran out of food! So when traveling on Amtrak, be sure to bring enough food and entertainment to last twice the length of your trip… just in case. Oh, and a nice, comfy pillow as well.