RIDING THE METEOR

DATELINE: Jacksonville, aboard the Silver Meteor

It sounds strange if you don’t stop to think about it, but the safest mode of mass transportation in the Age of COVID may well be Amtrak.

I’m writing this from a table in the deserted dining car. On occasion, conductors and attendants pass through about their mysterious business, but in general I’m left alone. Which is not to say the train is empty; far from it, in fact. The two Coach cars are running at capacity and most of the staterooms are occupied. Folks are eating in their seats these days, which makes sense.

Writers don’t get paid much as a rule, and my own wages rather bring down the average. As such, it should come as no surprise to my readers when I say that Coach is my preferred grade. The tickets are cheap and the space is ample, and any time I feel like a change of scenery there’s always the view from the Club Car.

This trip, though, we’re splurging on a Roomette because of COVID, and even though it’s a bit pricey by comparison, I’ve gotta say the upgrade is worth the money. While the folks up front are required to wear their masks at all times, here in the rather more comfortable rear of the train we have doors on our rooms and dedicated, filtered ventilation which connects directly with the outdoors. What airlines accomplish at vast expense using cutting-edge air conditioning and filtration technology, Amtrak manages to improve on by using what is, essentially, a hole in the side of the train.

The masks, of course, are a matter of Federal law, and folks don’t give much trouble about them. (If they do, they know they’ll just be put off the train. It’s a far simpler matter than on airplanes; all else aside, it’s easier to remove someone at a local station than it is at 30,000 feet.) While there’s no vaccination requirement, every passenger has to submit an electronic form before boarding that certifies they’re symptom-free. Even so, with Coach no longer adding extra space between passengers, what would be a low-to-moderate risk of contagion in the forward cars is almost negligible here in the back.

As always, the extra money pays for added amenities, not least of which is a bed to oneself — a positive delight on an overnight trip. I’m not a small person, and the climb to the top bunk is doubtless better suited to one less rich in years (and avoirdupuis), but once ensconced in my snug little cubby, I find the rails rock me right to sleep in no time. (The free whiskey I got with my free dinner didn’t hurt at all, mind you. Maker’s Mark.)

After trying the Roomette on the trip south, we tried to use the new Bid Up system to upgrade to a full stateroom — much larger in terms of floor space, and equipped with private toilet and (tiny verging on microscopic) shower — but were disappointed. Our conductor explained that the rooms are all spoken for on this trip, but it would have been far better had the automatic system sent the promised email to that effect.

One additional difficulty is that our attendant was quite evidently overstretched. By dint of persistent questioning, I eventually learned that the Silver Line trains regularly run understaffed. Even though there’s a powerful union, wages just aren’t competitive, and there are fewer new hires every year.

Having said that, we had no problems whatsoever with the quality of service. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with helpfulness and professionalism, and our needs were met swiftly and efficiently — including more soda refills than one might think reasonable.

I’ve always loved traveling by rail, so maybe I’m biased. Still, I think the facts bear me out: In the Age of COVID, this is definitely an ideal option for those who simply must travel. I highly recommend it.

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Amtrak isn’t paying me a dime to write this. I got no upgrades or extra amenities, and I don’t expect any. I’m here to write the truth as I see it, and the truth is, Amtrak is a great way to travel.

You, on the other hand, are the reader, and since you’re already here I don’t mind at all if you donate a buck or two. Here at The Not Fake News, we’re pleased to offer two options: You can send cash to PayPal in order to help support us, or you can buy us a coffee. We can use the morale boost — and the caffeine, particularly now that post-COVID fatigue has set in.

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