Around the U.S. By Train – Part 6

Instead of continuing on up to New York on the Crescent, I’ve scheduled a four-hour layover in Washington for two reasons. I want time for a lunch with two old friends and, since I’ve never had the chance to ride it before today, I want to complete the first half of my journey on Amtrak’s high-speed train, the Acela.

Because this is my first time on an Acela – what the hell – I’m in the first class car. By the time we’ve been underway for 20 minutes, I realize it would have been a better idea to opt for the “quiet car” directly behind this one where talking on cell phones is not permitted. This car is definitely “non-quiet” with several cell phone conversations taking place in the seats around me. That’s a negative in the case of a severely overweight character sitting two seats in front of me who is loudly badgering some underling about a project with an impending deadline.

On the other hand, it’s a plus in the case of the man seated across the aisle from me. It’s newsman Dan Rather and he’s briefing his New York office about an interview he conducted earlier in the day with someone he identifies only as an ambassador. Whoever it is, Rather tells his New York colleague that “the man could sweet talk a dog off a meat wagon.”

The Acela is sleek and the interior is comfortable. We’re running at something in excess of 100 miles per hour but, as has often been noted, the Acelas are not able to operate anywhere near their top speed because of track conditions and other train traffic. No matter. The ride is comfortable and we’ll cover the 225 miles between Washington and New York in under three hours.

Why is there so much trash and junk in the eastern part of the country? It’s impossible not to notice it on this run from Washington to Boston. Admittedly, much of the route is through industrial areas, but so what? And the sheer quantity is still shocking. Why can’t government – state or federal, who cares which? – hire the unemployed to clean up this junk, recycling what we can, safely disposing of the rest. (Oh, wait, I forget … that would just be another “government program” and we can’t have that, can we!)

As we approach New York City, several passengers in the car get up to organize their gear and use that excuse to say hello to Dan Rather. He is unfailingly polite and respectful, shaking hands and asking each individual’s name, then repeating the name at the end of each brief conversation … as in, “I appreciate your comments. Thanks for saying hello, Alan.”

Two thirds of the passengers leave the train when we reach New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. During the 15 minute stop, I move to a seat on the right side of the train. The Connecticut shoreline will be on that side during the run on up to Boston. Very picturesque.

Leaving Penn Station, the train angles downward for the run under the East River, then up again to emerge in the Borough of Queens. Just behind us to the left, we’re treated to a classic view of the Manhattan skyline, dominated by the familiar profile of the Empire State Building and the art deco spire atop the Chrysler Building. The heart swells … until you remember that the World Trade Center isn’t there any more.