Subject: Train stories

Date: Thursday, October 30, 2003 2:58 PM


My friend George's father was a Conductor on the Penn Central Railroad.  He was also chief of the 'fire police' (a sort of civilian fire department auxiliary).  Sometimes this could get confusing.  One night George was cruising around town in his dad's big Jeep with the fire department lights and stuff all over it (but no signs on the doors or anything).  He was probably a bit under the influence of one or another legal or illegal drug at the time.  So a policeman noticed this kid driving around in some sort of emergency vehicle, got curious, and pulled him over for a closer look.  "Tell me son, is your father a Fireman."  "No, he's a Conductor."  About the time the cop was working up to getting annoyed at George wising off to him, George realized what he had been asked and blurted out, "Oh, yeah he IS a Fireman ... AND a Conductor."


One of the fringe benefits of employment with the railroad was that they would give the employees these little cards for themselves and all of their family members so they could ride the trains for free.  No picture or anything on them, just the employee's name and time clock number and a Penn Central logo.  This was back in the days before Amtrak and the country was covered by a network of different passenger railroads (all of which were doing really poorly financially but which had to continue offering service or the government would not let them run the freight trains that were their main source of profit).  I don't know what the official rules were, but the actual practice was that one railroad would honor the pass of another in hopes that reciprocation would apply when that railroad's employees wanted to travel off their home system.  You would just show the pass to the Conductor when he came around to take tickets and that's all there was to it.  I don't know how many of those passes George 'lost', but enough of his friends and acquaintances had them that we had to be careful when traveling during vacation times and such that too many 'George M---s' weren't all riding on the same train.  I rode all over the country on that sucker, as far west as Denver and Boise Idaho, south into Georgia, and as far north as Montreal and Quebec.  But my most usual destination was New York City.  For the price of a bus ticket from Ithaca to Syracuse, I could ride in streamlined comfort all the way into the city.  The passenger train didn't stop in Ithaca.  George had a way of going to the freight dispatcher's office there in Ithaca and they would put him in the caboose on a freight train for the ride to Syracuse, but I figured he was already well known there and I never had the nerve to try that.


George's father was a conductor on freight trains, so it was highly unlikely that one of us counterfeit Georges would bump into him in the course of his regular duties.  Until one day when I was coming back from the city and handed my pass to the conductor and he told me, "Hey guess what George, your dad's a couple of cars up forward, headed back home."   He was 'dead heading' -- taking a passenger train back home after running a one way trip to somewhere close to where I had just departed from.  So I said, "Hey, great, I'll just wander up there a little later and say Hi !". 


I don't know whether the passenger conductor was suspicious or not. After all there had by that time a wide variety of shapes and sizes of Georges traveling over that particular section of the road.  I can just imagine some of those conductors sitting around the coffee pot talking.  "Man, that George M---- sure has got a lot of kids, and some of them don't even look like him at all.  Poor guy, his wife must be getting a little something on the side.  Funny thing too -- they named all of them George.  Must be hell telling them apart, sitting around the dinner table ..." 


Anyway nothing would do but that I come on up front right then and say hi to dad.  So off we went up the train while I tried frantically to think of some way to extricate myself from this situation, short of making a break for it and jumping off a train rushing 60 miles an hour through the cold New York night.  But if he really was suspicious and planning to catch me out,  the passenger conductor made a major mistake in being too full of himself and not considering all of the possible scenarios.  As we were walking down the aisle toward this group of four railroaders sitting together, the conductor spoke out in a loud voice, "Hey George, look who I found in the back it's your son  !"  So this one guy stood up and turned to look back in our direction.  The confusion was plain on his face for a moment.  Probably about as long as it took him to remember that every time he came back from school on vacation his son had lost another damn train pass.  Then he kind of smiled a little smile and said, "Hey son, I thought you were at school.  Is it vacation? "  Heartbeat returning to normal.  Breathing again.  Just as quickly I answered back, "Oh I was caught up with my classes and I though I would head on down to the city and bum around for a couple of days.  Got to be back for class early tomorrow morning."  "Oh, too bad, I wish you could stop in at home for a while, your mom would like to see you.  Why don't you give her a call when you get back ?"  "Yeah, I'll do that.  Um, ah, ... I guess I better go on back and keep an eye on my stuff back in the other car, tell mom I'll give her a call tonight if it's not too late when I get back."  Passing the conductor as I was leaving on my way to my car with a big smile, strutting along like I owned the railroad...


George did call his mother that night (I made certain of it).  And as far as I know there were no further repercussions,  though I don't think I used the train pass on the Syracuse to NYC run any more after that.  But I did ride it for another nine months or so before Amtrak started.  The Penn Central was one of the first passenger railroads to close down or be merged into Amtrak and by that time they had a computer.  Amtrak employees and their families could still ride for free for a limited number of trips per year, but on a regular ticket.  They had to go to the ticket window and show their company ID, which was checked against their allotment of free rides and even to make sure that they were scheduled to be off work on the travel days.  Then they were given a free ticket. 


Yep, those Amtrak guys sure knew how to put an end to the free pass abuse.  But they were not too smart in some other ways.  A few years later, when I was living in Denver I would ride the train back and forth to the east coast because it was cheaper than taking the plane.  That as still early in the life of Amtrak when they still entertained the notion that, if only they could improve service enough people would ride that they could show a profit.  And one of the main things that people would complain about was not keeping to the schedules and missed connections.  To get to Denver from Washington DC, you go through Grand Central Station in Chicago and change trains from the Century Limited to the Queen of the Plains.  (All of these named trains, Like the 'City of New Orleans' made famous by Arlo Guthrie in the folk song have, sadly,  faded into history -- now they have numbers and no real identity, just like airline flights or Greyhound routes)  These days, if you miss a connection on Amtrak they MAY apologize, but that's all you get, not even so much as a room for the night.  They just point at the fine print on the back of the ticket that says something like, "delays in the schedule can sometimes occur and are not under the control of the railroad, no warranties regarding scheduled arrivals and departures are expressed or implied".  If they wanted to save some more money they should have wasted less ink and just said, "Train's late ? Tough luck."  But back in the 70's they were still trying to please the higher class of customers that they were trying to attract away from the airlines (fat chance).


In those days and no doubt still today (unless they have discovered a way to repeal the laws of physics and make a railroad train go 600 miles an hour over roadbeds that were laid out in the early 1800's) it took almost two full days to get from DC to Denver on the train.  There was exactly one hour layover for a train change in Chicago, and one train per day on each route.  When things went well, you pulled into Grand Central and stepped off the Century, walked to the other side of the platform and onto the Queen and pulled out for the second 18 hours the journey.  But most often what would happen was that you would step off the Century, which had accumulated 62 minutes of delay in it's 16 hour trip one third of the  way across the country, only to see the taillights of the Queen fading off into the distance. I never will understand why they didn't just hold the departing train or change the schedule to leave more time for delays.   Invariably there would be a few of us left standing around and they would send down a very apologetic ticket agent to hand out chits for a free room for the night in one of the better downtown hotels. (Not a bad deal, really, a chance to explore downtown Chicago for almost 24 hours, eat a free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and rest up from the first part of the journey, all at the railroad's expense.  But then one day I learned the magic formula as I was watching an irate Suit abuse this agent up one side and down the other, "I've got an important  business appointment in Denver tomorrow afternoon !!  What am I supposed to do about that ?!?"   They issued this guy a voucher to go to the airport and finish his trip on a plane !!   Hey, I gotta try this.  So I went up to the agent and said in my most polite and subservient voice (remember, I was a 'long haired hippy freak' at this time), "Sir, I couldn't  help but notice that you sent that gentleman on on the plane.  I'm supposed to be in Denver tomorrow afternoon to start a new job (Yeah, right.) and I sure would hate to be late for my first day of work. Is there any way I could get one of those vouchers."  Sure thing, no problem son.  Four hours later I'm sitting in my living room In Denver thinking about how if I'd caught the train on schedule I'd be just about getting into Kansas right now. 


I played that loophole at least half a dozen times over the next couple of years.  It seems all you had to do was let on that you would be greatly inconvenienced by the delay and they would cheerfully cough up a ticket and airport limo fare to the airport.  It got so I would be hoping the train was late.  Coming across Pennsylvania, checking my watch, "Ah, running almost 15 minutes late already, should be home by dark if we keep up this pace."  One time I let these two girls that I had been talking to on the train in on the secret somewhere around the middle of the trip when we were dropping nicely behind schedule, "Ok, look, we're gonna probably miss our connection in Chicago and they are going to offer to put you up in a hotel for the night so you can get on tomorrow's train. Here's what you do ..."  They were very impressed, thought I was psychic or something.  It got so I knew which airline and flight number to call and reserve a seat before leaving the station.   The train station is right downtown and O'Hare is a good distance away out in what was the suburbs back then. Sometimes it could be a long cab ride if the traffic was bad, and if you missed that connection or just left it to chance to try to book a seat when you got to the airport you might have to sit around the airport for a couple of hours.  


One time I made my reservation, but when I went outside there were no limos.  Waited around a while kind of getting nervous about making my flight.  There was this group of Suits there too, shuffling their feets and looking at their watches every fifteen seconds or so.  "Hey, you guys waiting for the limo to O'Hare ?  How about we split a cab ?"  They allowed as how that would be ok.  So we whistled up a cab and as I was getting in the front so the Suits could all bunch up in the back, I told the driver, "Hey, look, I got a reservation on a flight leaving O'Hare in 41 minutes. If you can get me there in time to check in and get on that flight I would really appreciate it."   He said, "Man, it's rush hour right now, you don't know what you're asking."  "Yeah, I know, but do the best you can, ok ?"  Once we settled in, I think he must have taken it as a challenge to his driving skills, or maybe he was just enjoying the reaction of the Suits.  I think we broke every traffic law on the books on that trip.  We sped when we could.  We drove in the median, we jumped off the expressway and zoomed up alleys at 60 throwing up trash in our wake. At one point we even drove on the inclined concrete border of the expressway with the cab leaning at a 45 degree angle, tires screaming to hold on and keep going straight.  The Suits were stunned speechless, grabbing the seat back in white knuckled fear, eyes big as saucers, holding on for dear life.  When we skidded to a stop in front of the Delta terminal exactly 30 minutes later, I handed the driver $4 for my $3.75 share of the fifteen dollar fare and two twenties for a tip and told him, "Thanks man, great ride !".  I turned to the Suits and said, "You guys can relax now, we're there.  Great ridin' witcha !"  And ran off into the terminal.  Bet those Suits didn't share a taxi with a hippie for a long time after that, if ever.  There was none of this eyewash security in those days.  I ran to the end of the ticket counter, waving my voucher, "1137 to Denver !"  They punched out a ticket and I was off to the gate, squeezing through just as they were closing the door.


Yep, those were the days.  It got so I would walk in home almost a day early, my wife would just look up and say,   "Oh, the train was late again ...?"