Amtrak customers may be a more ambivalent crowd, for good reason. Despite the presence of trains in the USA since my Scottish train conductor great great grandfather’s time, we haven’t got the whole process down pat yet. Nor may we ever, despite our desire for a bullet train. That will be bedlam at high or no speed.Timetables, passenger disturbances and what’s on the tracks today are the biggest problems faced by Amtrak personnel in respect to daily business.
I am not going to bring up grumpy conductors. Never mind, I just did. I can understand why conductors are grumpy. I would be grumpy too if I had to operate without a backup plan. Unlike airplane stewards and stewardesses, conductors are not allowed to breathe a word about why a train has stopped unless expressly given permission. If they tell the truth, they get the fingers of one hand cut off, and sometimes an ear.That is scary business, so they don’t break the rule.
These poor souls have to battle irritable customers who are sick of sitting on seats going nowhere.They have to battle rude Americans (and there sure are a lot) who won’t move and let families sit together. They have to figure out what to do with roaming lunatics who won’t pay for tickets and who do strange things in public. Worst of all, the poor conductors have to operate without a backup plan.
Here are the kind of problems faced by the Amtrak San Joaquin personnel (truly the loveliest people you could hope to meet except when they have been stressed for 8 to 10 hour stretches):
1. An unscheduled train is coming towards another train on the same track. There seems to be no procedure in the Amtrak bylaws to deal with this. Solution? Stop on the tracks until the danger is over or someone calls the engineer to tell him to go or there is a collision.
2. A bus has parked on the track. Solution? Stop on the tracks. Wait. Someone has to call the police, who begin a slow and laborious investigation. Meanwhile, conductors may not tell the passengers much. Sometimes they will indicate there is a stopped vehicle. If asked questions, conductors shrug and caress their ears and fingers. They don’t know. This has happened so many times in my family’s experience that I know for sure no procedure has yet been outlined. Everyone is at a loss.
3. A woman in line inside the Amtrak station details, in a concerned voice, that she absolutely has to get on a train to get to an interview. Since she doesn’t have any money, she repeatedly asks the clerk what they should do about this. Since there is no procedure, the line stops moving until the woman wanders away. (I have witnessed this scene.)
4. A vagrant wanders into a car and refuses to pay. Solution? The train stops. After an hour two policemen arrive and the man is handcuffed and led away. If the police are busy, tough luck to the people on the train. I saw this too.