Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Back to the Future Without an E-Ticket

39 years ago, in the summer of 1977, I had the privilege of traveling around Europe with a good friend of mine. 

My father believed that my brother deserved a larger allowance and a new car given he would be dating and he would need the resources. While I was on a reduced allowance and drove a used AMC Gremlin because, after all in his mind - I would be dating and therefore, someone else would be paying for my dining and entertainment. Ah, but the days of southern chivalry were long gone before the 70's. However trying to explain that to my father was hopeless. Ironically he did not think twice about funding a trip to Europe. That, he saw (thankfully) as an experience everyone could learn from. But, I digress.

We set off from Lyon (after a Maymester class in France) armed with our Eurail Pass. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with a Eurail Pass, in those days this was the equivalent to a Disney E-ticket. (Showing my age, the original "E-ticket" was the ultimate ride ticket at Disney world on a scale that started with "A" - being the Mad Hatter Tea Cups to "E" that got you on Space  Mountain.) This magical pass allowed one to travel first class on any train, anywhere in Europe. And, at that time, the price for the pass was very reasonable. Better yet, unlike the US, most of Europe is accessible by train.

The trains were mostly new, well run, comfortable, reliable, fast, and always on time. Our pass not only gave us First Class seats but if we were on a night train, we had access to sleeper accommodations (that afforded us breakfast service of tea, jam, and croissants served in our "room"). This came in handy when we were unable to find a place to stay (due to lack of suitable or affordable hotels). If all else failed, we could take an overnight train to Amsterdam, usually the furthermost destination from wherever we found ourselves. Then the next morning we would take a short train ride to another destination we had yet to visit.

All this reminiscence comes forward to America's train service, or lack there of today. Amtrak has struggled for years to break even and serve the country. My experience a week ago was an example. Where as in Europe, there is a train system from small towns to the major cities that crisscrosses the continent, in the States a few lines go up the Eastern Seaboard, across the country east to west, and up and down the west coast. Only the northeast has a decent train system, but even that is lacking.

Notification that our train was delayed was made in red pen on a small white board propped up at the ticket window. Unfortunately that notification was updated often given the delay ended up being almost 90 minutes. I will admit that Amtrak has a text messaging system that notifies passengers who had registered their cell phone numbers of the delays - however it lags behind the white board.

Instead of having a ticket with a seat number and designation as you board the train, your paper or phone is swiped electronically - new age! Then your seat is assigned (is some mysterious system) by an Amtrak employee crossing your name off a piece of paper  as you step on the train. After you are seated (in your assigned seat) another employee comes and sticks a torn piece of paper with your destination handwritten on the luggage rack above your row. (Something akin to "Paddington" pinned to the Bear).

No doubt as one makes their way up the north east corridor and boards the Acela (the high speed upscale train that runs from Boston to DC) they will find themselves on board a modern train, that travels at high speeds offering amenities and comforts professional travelers expect. Customers can enjoy the Acela Cafe with fresh salads and craft beers. So I can say in this case after 39 years we have gone back to the future. 

Comparing my experience riding the train last week, as pleasant as it was, to the many train rides I enjoyed across Europe in 1977, I may as well have been  running through a pillar at King's Cross Station in London to find Platform 9¾ and catch the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station. It was hard to fathom that this was a mode of transportation, a quasi-government funded entity, of one of the most powerful nations in the world. 

Yes, we can send a man to the moon, develop nano technology (that only Michael Crichton can explain in his novel "Prey"),  design phones that are smarter than their users, yet we cannot make our trains run on time. Where is that DeLorean when we need it?

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