Saturday, December 21, 2013

Riding the Rails with Santa

I've been a regular Amtrak customer my entire career as a process consultant—26 years. When you digest that I'm on the road about half the time, that means I've taken a lot of train trips. 

My history with Amtrak goes back far enough that it was permissible to smoke cigars in the observation car (which only a little less antiquarian than admitting that I've typed mimeo stencils). Now you can get kicked off the train for sneaking a cigaret in the bathroom. There was a time when Amtrak offered sturdy souvenir coffee cups that came with a lifetime offer of free refills for $8 (boy, did I ever make out on that deal).

Anyway, I'm asking you to trust that I've encountered all manner of unscheduled travel experiences.

For example, I've been late plenty of times—sometimes spectacularly. Once I was taking a train from Danville VA to DC, a distance of only 250 miles. I had a meeting to attend at 7 pm that evening in a DC suburb and figured I'd have no problem, given that my train (the northbound Crescent) was scheduled to depart Danville around 5 am and arrive in DC around 10 am. Well, there had been heavy rain through the night and the train was on slow orders because of the danger of water having softened the track ballast. It was more than two hours late arriving in Danville, and then crept across Virginia at 10 mph. I didn't get to DC until 8:30 pm. Oops. 

Over the years I've learned to not take the train if I have to do something the day I arrive. There are just too many things that can go wrong. Once I was on the westbound California Zephyr and we were stopped by a freight train derailment in the Rockies just east of Glenwood Springs. As the accident stopped all train traffic through the canyons, we had to wye the train outside Granby and head back down to Denver. Then we got bussed to Grand Junction, where the eastbound Zephyr was blocked going the other way. After passengers were swapped in both directions, the Denver train headed back to Chicago and the Grand Junction choo choo returned to Emeryville.

Once I was returning home on the Illinois Zephyr and someone committed suicide by driving their pickup onto a grade crossing right in front of the oncoming train—the engineer never had a chance to avoid the collision. Fortunately for us train passengers, there was no derailment and we were only held up about three hours while the police, coroner, and towing service attended to business. The conductor on that train was nearing retirement and told me it was the third suicide he'd witnessed in a 40-year career.

Seven winters ago I witnessed a pickup slide into the side of the train as we were pulling out of Mt Pleasant IA. The roads were snow-packed and the driver simply couldn't stop. Luckily it was a slow-speed accident and no one was hurt. Nonetheless it was heart-stopping to witness the accident happening from my seat.

All of which is to say that I've seen some things on the train, and it takes a lot to surprise me—but that threshold was crossed last Tuesday on the last leg of Ma'ikwe's and my trip home, a five-hour jaunt on the westbound Southwest Chief from Chicago to La Plata. We were mildly amused while enjoying an evening repast in the dining car when Santa and Mrs. Claus came traipsing through the car in full regalia, belting out the lyrics to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," glad-handing all the Amtrak patrons as they passed through.

Properly chastened to be good (we ate all our vegetables and left a generous tip), we finished our meal and returned to our accommodations in preparation for detraining at sleepy little La Plata (pop 1361 and declining).  

La Plata, MO Station Photo
Because of the short platform at the remodeled Art Deco station, the train made two stops: the first to offload sleeping car passengers (of which Ma'ikwe and I were the only two), and the second for coach passengers.

Imagine our surprise when the train pulled into the station a bit after 9 pm (an hour late—but that wasn't the surprising part) and we encountered about 150 eager faces (half of them children on a school night!) staring at us on the crowded platform, with cameras rolling and cell phones raised to snap pictures. Huh? It was the weirdest damn thing I'd ever experience at a train station. Especially in La Plata.

They were waiting for Santa! 

While the crowd had no trouble distinguishing Ma'ikwe and me from the North Pole's First Couple (despite my white beard and my wayward, wiry eyebrows, which Ma'ikwe affectionately refers to as my "Santa brows"), Amtrak station personnel had to part the sea of eager celebrants to get us safely off the platform. Then the train pulled up a few cars and Santa made his triumphant arrival, descending from a coach car, while Ma'ikwe and I eagerly searched the parking lot for our ride, to escape the crush of Black Friday Revisited.

And to think that I was foolish enough to believe that I'd seen everything. Hah!

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