The Best of Andy Rooney

The train ride from New York to Albany took three hours 50 years ago. Yesterday, with the miracles of computerized signal systems, a combination diesel-electric locomotive and millions of dollars worth of track improvements, it took me three hours and 28 minutes on an Amtrak train. The train doesn't actually go to Albany anymore. The capital of New York State doesn't have a railroad station now; it stops across the Hudson River.

Americans spend weeks of their year in cars, and many fly regularly. But most of us haven't gone anywhere on a train in years. I hadn't, and now I know why.

Nothing has resisted progress like our railroads. They have not merely failed to improve, they have deteriorated. I got to thinking railroad executives may have conspired with the airline and trucking industries to eliminate railroads.

Too bad. My grandfather told me the best way to move anything was by rail -- "steel wheels on steel rails," he liked to say.

All day long, year after year, some people do things well, while others do them badly. It's the same with companies. You can tell a lot by your first experience with a person or a company. Amtrak, the public service entity created by Congress in 1971, is consistently doing things poorly.

I went to Penn Station in New York, and as I walked past the information booth 25 minutes before train time, I asked what track my train would be on. "They haven't announced it yet," the man said, as if he was pleased not to know.

There were only three people ahead of me for the two open ticket windows, so I was relaxed. Seven minutes later, the line hadn't moved. If it took this long to ticket each of the three people ahead of me, I could miss the train.

Finally, the man who'd taken so long got his ticket, and as the line moved forward, the second ticket-seller flipped down his CLOSED sign and walked off.

I finally got a ticket, found a seat and then heard an announcement by the veteran conductor: "We regret to inform you there will be a delay. We're waiting for a crew from train No. 63 coming in." In the airline tradition, he thanked us for our patience -- which we had not displayed.

Two experienced Amtrak riders behind me weren't surprised.

"I was an hour and 10 minutes late yesterday," one said.

"Yeah," said the other. "They always say 'track work,' even if they aren't doing any."

The conductor's voice came on again.

"There's been some mix-up," he said. "The job wasn't posted on the employees' bulletin board, and we don't have an LSA."

I thought an "LSA" must be an engineer but was told it stood for "Leading Service Attendant." We were waiting for a bartender.

We left New York 14 minutes late. I picked up the newspaper and started to read.

Forty minutes out, the train came to a halt.

"We're stopped here," the folksy conductor said, which we knew. "We got train No. 6 coming south. It'll just be a few minutes."

"Train No. 6" was his idea of how to give us confidence in his expertise.

I had my laptop with me and decided to make some notes. After folding down the airline style table attached to the back of the seat in front of me, I struck a few keys and realized I was not on an airplane. The train ride was too rough for typing.

It was warm out, but the car soon got very cold. The conductor agreed it was too cold and turned off the air conditioning -- at which point the car got hot. There was no in between.

There were three stops on the 140-mile trip. There is no system for where passengers get off in relation to the stations. Some stations have raised platforms, while others do not. Passengers frequently must cross the tracks to reach the station, and there are only scattered wooden walkways for that.

On the return trip the next day, we were 23 minutes late. As we came into Penn Station, we heard the conductor one last time.

"All passengers will have to get off between the first car and the bar car. There's a big curve here in Penn Station on track No. 5 and the gap between the train and the platform is too wide by the rear cars."

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Humor & Funny Stories - Slow Train to Albany | Andy Rooney

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