"My name is Beth, and I am an Amtrak rider"

July 11, 2014 • Posted in Braille, travel, Uncategorized, visiting libraries, Whitney, writing by

I love the idea of traveling by train. I speak well of Amtrak in conversations with friends, I think Amtrak has a good heart, it has been good to me at times, it apologizes for its mistakes, and it suffers from a long history without a strong support system. But over and over, and over and over and over and over again, Amtrak lets me down. It’s time to get out of this abusive relationship.

The best part of my day was at the Princeton Library. (Photo: Paula Morrow)

The best part of my day was at the Princeton Library. (Photo: Paula Morrow)

My presentation at the library in Princeton, Illinois yesterday was terrific – the kids were curious about Whitney, and it was a pleasure to meet their parents and grandparents as they came to our table afterwards for signed (and Brailled) copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. Princeton really was a sweet little town, and Paula Morrow, the Youth Services Librarian, treated Whitney and me like royalty. Everything was swell, until the 1 pm train back to Chicago didn’t arrive.

No announcements were made at the Princeton station. Why should they bother? Everyone knows Amtrak trains almost always run late. We all just shrugged and sighed. The two-hour wait became a support group meeting, all of us sharing stories of previous train delays and missed connections. Whitney served as a therapy dog — I took her harness off so passengers could pet her and give her belly rubs. Our train was supposed to be back in Chicago by 3:15 p.m., and I thought Whitney and I might stop by my office at Easter Seals Headquarters at Willis Tower on my way back from Union Station. Maybe at 5 I’d meet Mike for happy hour at the piano bar at Sullivan’s. But we had another delay as we approached Naperville and didn’t arrive in Chicago until after six.

I still love Amtrak enough to have applied for their Amtrak Residency. The writing fellowship is new this year, designed “to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment.” Selected writers get round-trip train travel on a long-distance route, on-board meals, and a private sleeping roomette with a desk and a bed. The following letter was waiting in my in-box when I finally returned home yesterday:

Dear Amtrak Residency Applicant,On behalf of Amtrak, I’d like to thank you for submitting your application. The response from the literary community has been absolutely tremendous and we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to read so many heartfelt applications. We had over 16,100 applications and had the difficult challenge to select only 115 semi-finalists. The quality of applications was high, which made our decisions even tougher. We evaluated each applicant based on the quality and completeness of their application package, as well as the extensiveness of their social community and ability to reach online audiences with content.

After carefully reviewing all the applicant packages, I regret to inform you that your package was not selected to move forward in this year’s residency selection.

Any self-respecting person would leave a relationship after receiving a rejection letter like that from the same folks who made me (and a lot of other passengers) very late. Not me, though. I don’t feel safe in Chicago’s bus station, and I can’t drive. I love visiting libraries and schools all over the state –and the country — with my Seeing Eye dog, though, so I can’t break up my relationship with Amtrak. I’ll continue to support subsidies for Amtrak, I’ll hope for positive change, and I’ll keep reminding myself to feel grateful to have train travel as an option at all — otherwise how would Whitney and I have ever met all those wonderful people in Princeton yesterday?!

veronica dougherty On July 11, 2014 at 3:28 pm

I agree to having mixed feelings about Amtrak, mostly great but it is a wonderful way to travel – comfortable seats, wi-fi, quiet cars and the train usually leaves you right in town
we’ve taken our Seeing Eye puppies on Amtrak for the experience and they have always been very generous with accommodating the pups

bethfinke On July 11, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Oh, Veronica, thanks so much for commenting on my blog post, and more importantly, THANK YOU for volunteering to raise puppies to become guide dogs. I would have liked to say more about Amtrak — how so many people might like it and take it more often if they could count on it, how I really, really want train travel to succeed in the modern age in America, how many, many people on Amtrak staff have been so good to me and my Seeing Eye dogs over the years — but I try to keep my blog posts short. I am guessing that when you ride Amtrak with your puppies you don’t have a certain time you need to get to your destination –I think Amtrak is *great* if you’re retired or have time off work and can travel leisurely, I just wish it were more efficient so that working stiffs would be more likely to take the train rather than drive or fly to business meetings and the like. Please know that I will continue to ride Amtrak and am oh so grateful it exists!

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Lois Baron On July 11, 2014 at 4:26 pm

What can you do when there is no other choice? That’s why you are still there. Lois

mary kaye On July 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Dear Beth – If Amtrak didn’t want you (nor me), I question its deliberative process — a Writer — with a platform — and published books — and a following — and an angle — and a DOG! What could be more seductive? Their choices better include Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates or Toni Morrison or I am seriously worried about Amtrak.

bethfinke On July 11, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Ah, you are kind. I’ve gotta think that among the 16,000+ writers who applied there might have been one (or two) more talented than you and I are . But you’re right: I doubt any of them would be bringing a gorgeous dog along!

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Andrea On July 11, 2014 at 6:36 pm

I also travel on Amtrak. I decided that delays are just part of the experience. I’ll get there when I get there. I still feel excitement when I purchase a ticket.
As for the Amtrak Residency, I’m surprised and disappointed that you were not chosen. You’re tops to me!

bethfinke On July 11, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Aw, shucks. Thanks, Andrea!

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Sheila Kelly Welch On July 11, 2014 at 9:00 pm

I agree! You should have been chosen, Beth. I would have loved reading your train-writing.

When I was a girl, there was a train that ran from Reading, PA, to Philadelphia. My father took it to his ornamental plastering job in the city, and I rode it one whole summer to attend art classes. I’ve always liked train travel, and my husband does, too. But we also have had some not-so-great experiences. One of the major problems is that AMTRAK shares the rails with freight trains, which always seem to get to go before passenger trains. According to my train-enthusiast husband, you were lucky to be “only” three hours late. Our record, I think, is 12 hours behind schedule. But the trip during which the dining car was removed for safety reasons . . . now that was really pathetic. :- (

bethfinke On July 11, 2014 at 10:36 pm

TWELVE hours?! Whoa. If you are reading the threat of comments here , you know I was trying to keep this blog post short. I didn’t mention that Mike often comes to meet my Seeing Eye dog and me at Union Station in Chicago (a labyrinth to get around (I put that mildly) and try as he might, he can never find out from Amtrak where the train is or when it might be arriving. On Thursday he looked at the video screens in Union Station and it showed *no* record of the train I was on. As if it didn’t exist. Sigh. And shrug.

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Doug On July 12, 2014 at 8:51 am

You have Mom’s patience, understanding and forgiveness. Or maybe she had yours.

bethfinke On July 12, 2014 at 9:15 am

Now that is a *HUGE* compliment. Thank you, Doug — I did observe Flo a lot as a child, and she taught me a ton by the things she did and the way she acted around others. Being the youngest, I had more alone time with her than the rest of you, who had to vie for her attention –I was more like an only child, many of you were already out of the house when I was little! It is really sinking in on me now how very, very fortunate all of us were to grow up with such a fabulous role model. I’ll try to think of Flo the next time I’m sitting on an Amtrak train waiting for a freight train to pass by before we can proceed!

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Marilee On July 12, 2014 at 11:05 am

Flo always saw a positive. I am sure she would have said something about the visit you were able to have with the nice people in Princeton while waiting for the train. Or about the safe trip eventually provided:)

bethfinke On July 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm

You are so right, Marilee, she *definitely* would have commented about the safe trip home. “You took the train?” she’d marvel. All by yourself?” I sure miss her.

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Sheila A. Donovan On July 12, 2014 at 10:03 am

Amtrak rejected a writer perfected. What were they thinking of? They abuse you and use you and often confuse you. Still you have Amtrak love.

bethfinke On July 12, 2014 at 10:36 am

See? Trains are romantic –they inspire poetry!

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glivingston On July 28, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Catching up after vacation. I have had mostly great Amtrak service. I was a regular rider on the Chicago to Michigan route (Wolverine?), have done overnights to Washington state through Glacier and to and from DC. I also ride the route to Kansas City now and again. All mostly on time. But I recently took the train to MI out of Union Station and was delayed for hours with terrible communication–we were all standing in line for much of it because we were told repeatedly that the train was here. It doesn’t take much to spoil an otherwise pretty good record. Also, sometimes delays are caused by freight traffic (at least I have been told). So, like you, I will continue to support Amtrak.

bethfinke On July 29, 2014 at 8:04 am

Yeah, I don’t know what Amtrak can do about this problem when they don’t own the tracks they ride on and have to move over any time a freight train goes by. Too bad, because you’re right, overall the experience of taking a train is pretty pleasant — I especially like that you get off the train and you’re right there, in the city, no need to catch a subway or bus from an airport into town.

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