The Duncan Banner

August 6, 2013

Train(ing) experience off track

Ed Darling
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — The alarm on my cell phone went off at 4:30 a.m., signaling the beginning of the end of our delightful four-day stay in the quaint, historic city of Boston.

Enthusiastically, we had selected Amtrak’s Northeast train as the transportation mode of our second vacation phase to Alexandria, Va., seven hours away. We arrived at the cavernous South Station, found the huge electronic schedule board, got our bearings, grabbed a fast food breakfast and awaited our rail journey, a rarity for me and a first for Julie and Grant.

It was all we hoped it would be.

We settled into our fancy, oversized seats, embraced the novelty of our decision, thought about lunch in the Café Car, read newspapers, napped and enjoyed the beauty of New England’s picturesque backyard countryside as we passed through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York en route to our scheduled Manhattan train change at busy Penn Station and continuation of our trip through Pennsylvania, Delaware, D.C. and into Virginia.

Station activity, though not frantic, was hectic. Everyone seemed in a hurry. Trains were late, schedules jumbled and information scarce. A train official shouted track instructions before they could be posted on a small screen. We followed his advice, took an elevator down a level and boarded easily our train.

No sooner had we left the station, we knew there was a problem. Stops being outlined by Leon, the friendly conductor, were too familiar. We were on the wrong train, heading back to Boston.

His words to us were simple and haunting. “It’s going to be a long day,” he said.

Feverishly, as we sped north, he worked the phones, seeking a solution. Remarkably, he found one.

The train would stop in Stamford, Conn. There, we had five minutes to connect with the 11:57 a.m. speedy Acela Express, which would take us to Washington. No charge. Amtrak’s fault. Sorry for the inconvenience.

We readied ourselves for a quick departure, got off with minutes to spare and smiled at our good fortune. Acela Express trains are Amtrak’s best and at speeds to 150 miles an hour, its fastest. Our lemon had been turned into lemonade.

 Wary of our own confidence, however, we asked a girl on the dock where she was going. Manhattan, she said. Things were indeed looking up.

 At 11:57 a.m., right on time, we boarded. Minutes later, we felt faint again. Wrong train, again. It wasn’t even Amtrak, supporting our sense it didn’t look like one of its best. Instead, it was a regional commuter heading to Manhattan, but we had no tickets.

 Julie, whose southern accent and charm was often helpful in Boston, told the conductor, “I think I’m going to cry.”

 He said “please don’t” and sprang into action, though his options were as limited as our embarrassment and frustration were large. He got the train to make an unscheduled stop in New Rochelle, N.Y., once home to the Terrytown (Mighty Mouse etc.) animation studio and fictitious home to the Petrie family of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

None of us cried.

It took an hour to rent a car.

We headed to Interstate 95 and almost immediately learned the 250 miles or so on our GPS Interstate 95 path from New York to Washington, is akin to a long, linear parking lot. We limped through the Bronx (for the third time) where we stopped at Yankee Stadium. It was, not surprisingly, closed because of a Jay-Z concert that night. Then we went slowly through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and D.C.

We arrived at the Alexandria home of Scott, McKaye, Aniston and Bennett Darling at 10:30 p.m., seven hours late and 18, sometimes harrowing, hours after our day began.

Looking back, we should have recognized an early omen of things to come when I inadvertently tipped a rude Boston cabdriver $100 instead of $10. But that’s another story.

Boston, though swelteringly hot, was a wonderful vacation spot. A compact city that encourages walking, it is a cradle of America’s history and is home to dozens of American “firsts,” magnificent parks, architecture, universities, harbors, churches, hospitals, food and athletic facilities.

Alexandria, likewise, is a grand place, home to two of the cutest grandkids in the world.

And yes, we look forward to our next train ride as well. After all, we’re now a family of battle-tested, experienced travelers. Once we get our directions in order, we’ll go on the road again. 580-255-5354, Ext. 130