My arrival in Chicago went exactly as planned, and I rolled in on the Amtrak right at 9 AM on Friday morning, just as I was supposed to. Except it wasn't 9 AM, it was actually 9 PM. And I wasn't riding in on the Amtrak, but some charter bus service called Lakefront. Or maybe it was Lakeshore? Lakeside…. Lake…. Well, there was definitely a Lake prefix, that much I'm certain of. I'm also well aware that my starting this odd little journey was on a real train. Much as I would love to write off everything that happened as a nightmare, I have the train tickets in my suitcase to prove everything happened.
It would have been really cool to run around telling everyone how my Amtrak train pulled a sudden, Transformers-style morph into a charter bus in an effort to chase down Megatron. That fact that that's not what happened, however, probably doesn't make this story any less horrifyingly compelling.
My original train was scheduled to depart from the Buffalo/Depew station at 11:59 PM on Thursday night. In other words, it was scheduled to leave on Friday morning. And what would you figure, I can honestly say that Friday morning was exactly when it left! I like to imagine the thinking of the people in charge of the trains running on time looked at the departure times and said Whatever, Friday morning is Friday morning, right? No one will ever notice the difference! The difference in question ran about nine hours, so midnight was seen and acted upon as a 9 AM departure. You may remember that 9 AM time from the first paragraph up there. So, basically, I was just pulling away from the Buffalo station at the very same time I was supposed to be pulling into Union Station in Chicago. There's barely a difference, right?
Fortunately, I had the sense to call ahead and check my train's running time, so I got to sleep in my own bed before departure. The next slated departure time was supposed to be at 8 AM on Friday morning. Up and ready I was, ever the morning person, eager to get to the station where the inevitable next delay would occur and last for an hour. It was 9 AM, as mentioned, when the train showed itself.
If there was a bright spot in this so far, it was that a million people abandoned their tickets, so the tickets I waited to buy cost about $70 less. They should have been free. Anyway, I took my usual window spot on the Amtrak, wide-eyed and optimistic in eagerness to once again view the rising skyline of Chicago in person. My giddiness lasted until I got up to make my first pit stop. Upon making my way to the back of the train, I pulled on the handle of one of the doors. It was locked. I turned to the other one and pulled it, and it was locked too. When this happens, the first thought that pops into the train goer's head is to just move to the next car and use the bathroom there, but hell, those were locked too! Now, at this point, there still nothing wrong in my own little world. It's unusual for all these bathrooms to be locked at the same time, but there are more people on the train than bathrooms, so hey, it's possible, right? I tried a few more cars before returning to my seat. Odd, yes, but I didn't think anything was off until the second time I got up and three more doors were locked before I finally got into one that was open. It was definitely weird. Were there potheads on the train and they all decided to get high at once?
Further use of the bathrooms resulted in me learning there were only three bathrooms open on this train, and two of them weren't flushing. Amtrak definitely receives a credit for the sheer chutzpah of taking a hundred passengers out somewhere on a double-digit-hour trip, providing ample supplies of coffee, pop, and booze the whole way while subtly telling everyone they had to hold it in. Yeah, it should be pretty easy to guess how the whole episode ended. Two improperly working bathrooms meant two backed-up toilets which apparently no one on the train was qualified to do anything about.
The Lake Shore Limited, however, made steady progress through New York and Pennsylvania. In Cleveland, the usual half-hour stretch break was even waved because there were folks who had to get where they were going. After Cleveland, things slowed down a little bit. After Elyria, they slowed down a lot. Great, so now the passengers were forced to deal with a slow-going train without their bathroom breaks, and the people kept being up to the challenge despite the increasing frequency of train stoppages. I guess the boys at Amtrak were getting a little close to the Union Pacific running time, because the train began making constant stops to let the freight trains flow across our windows. This significantly cut back our progress to Sandusky, and by the time of the Sandusky stop, the train was creeping along like Solid Snake in a ventilation shaft.
It was between Sandusky and Toledo that we received the news: Amtrak had decided to give us up due to frozen track problems. Now, this isn't the first time I've been forced to deal with frozen tracks on the Amtrak, but I do have to wonder: Aren't there engineers available to take care of stuff like this in a timely fashion? The frozen vortex isn't an excuse. This is the Third Coast. It gets cold up here. Freezing weather is a fact of life, and yet, every time it happens, Amtrak does the Sun Belt-drivers-in-snow routine and clams up. You would think no one ever had to deal with cold weather before. We were going to be thrown off the Amtrak and placed on charter buses which would go on straight to Chicago.
As the train got closer and closer to Toledo, we were given constant reassurances – and also complimentary beef stew – by the crew that Toledo was only ten minutes away, and that we would soon be off the train and on our way. After this experience, I now officially believe Amtrak's ten-minutes away line is less a real measure of time than a way of keeping the passengers from rebelling and taking control of the train. We all knew the train could have been moving a lot faster than it was, and it really should have been. Yet, it insisted on rattlesnake shaking its way into Toledo, and those ten minutes must have been symbolic of something. Ten minutes until the next ten minute announcement, perhaps? I made conversation with the passenger in the seat next to me, who used a tablet to look up the precise location of Toledo. We were still 20 miles off when he did that. An Amtrak moving at even a halfway decent clip could have covered that in about 15 minutes.
During the snail ride into Toledo, I started to have my most vivid romanticized fantasies ever about bus travel. I had taken the Megabus from Chicago to St. Louis, after all, and it hadn't been so bad. Perhaps I was a wee bit rash? Surely a bus, no matter how delayed, could be better than this. Well, when we finally pulled into Toledo, it was past 4 PM, and I immediately made my way to the bus. I got on, took a seat, and slammed my shin against the plastic foot stand. While that might have been a recoverable injury, I sat down by my window, and all those vivid bus fantasies I had got shot to hell. It was cramped. I mean, it was really cramped. When another passenger got on and sat down next to me, it was even worse.
The worst part of this, though, was the fact that the bus driver kept climbing on and off the bus. There was no way this could have served any possible purpose. At one point, he climbed off in order to open up more luggage compartments for checked luggage. And who the hell knows just what he was doing the other times? The bus got delayed for at least a half hour waiting around for this guy to find the damned accelerator. At this point, I was now physically holding myself down to keep from going completely mad, probably scaring the daylights out of the poor passenger next to me. So I tried keeping myself calm in the most effective way I could think of: Whisky. It was a good thing I had thought to store my flask in my jacket pocket before hopping aboard the train.
After god only knows how much longer, the bus finally left Toledo, and the rest of the trip, while uncomfortable, proved to be efficient. Mostly, anyway; there was some snailing along just before the bus climbed onto the freeway. It took us another four hours to reach Chicago, but Union Station was finally sighted around 9 PM…. And we couldn't get to it because there was an ambulance parked in our zone. Although we were finally in Chicago, that held us up for another five minutes. It was only five minutes, and it was for a very good reason, but even so, five minutes after being crammed on a bus felt like an eternity. I had Cracked podcasts and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to entertain me, but they didn't make me forget how much my muscles hurt.
Getting off the bus felt like an injury recovery, but you can bet that this is a story Amtrak is going to hear about. Especially once I found out from another tablet-wielding passenger that the following Lake Shore Limited train the next day left on time.
I travel almost strictly by train, so I went into this knowing full well what the experience was like. But Amtrak lost a lot of respect from me after this, and I don't know if I'll ever give it back.