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Victor Lewis-Smith Column: Trains are truly bog standard.

Byline: Victor Lewis-Smith

I LOOK forward to summer. Many people sunbathe naked in the parks face-down, and I'm always looking for somewhere handy to park my bike.

Me on a bike? Don't mock. It helps me avoid contact with taxi drivers and crowded trains. Though probably not with hospitals, and I only hope that when I'm finally hit, it will be by a Daily Mirror newspaper delivery van. At least it would look good in the obits.

I couldn't avoid the train this week because all flights out of Boston were cancelled owing to the blizzards. Which is why I'm currently sitting on board the Amtrak Acela Express 2159, heading for New York. And as I wait for the whistle to blow, my train of thought leads me to compare the experience with the last journey I had in Britain, just a few days ago.

I was heading for Heathrow, standing in a crowded carriage with no air conditioning and the heating full on, in temperatures reminiscent of downtown Nagasaki a nanosecond before it became no-town Nagasaki.

Crammed helplessly among dozens of sweaty strap-hanging commuters, I couldn't help noticing that many were experiencing "summer problems" in the winter and that they all looked like reluctant holders of one-way tickets on the Belsen Express.

The train stopped between stations for 20 minutes, a cue for a baby being held just behind my left ear to start screaming.

The lights went out and, under cover of darkness, someone who had obviously cooked himself a garlic Dolmio spaghetti five days ago made his trousers cough and giggled anonymously. A woman murmured: "Holy Mother of Christ" as she began to choke, and the baby started to liquefy.

Travelling by Amtrak is a world away from such grotesquery. The carriages are well-lit, spacious, clean, and air-conditioned, with adjustable seats that haven't been invented by Torquemada. Finding a heated carriage isn't a lottery and the seat reservation system works flawlessly.

Best of all, the porters (or "red caps") know that their job description derives from the French "porter" (to carry) and not from the old word for ale, so they obligingly helped us on with our suitcases instead of p***ing off to the nearest beer shop, hiding from passengers and sucking on a face-tube in the traditional British manner.

The karzies are immaculate, too, unlike British ones, which are usually filthy and fully deserving of the name "bogs."

And what a contrast between the Amtrak restaurant, which serves inexpensive and well-prepared food, and the likes of Virgin, where the drinks trolley ("provided for your convenience") inconveniences you by blocking the aisle and charges Ritz prices for a gin and tonic, then tells you there's no ice.

Restaurant cars on UK trains may not be able to cook food, but one look at the prices on the menu shows that they can certainly cook the books. All aboard the gravy train, chew chew.

FOR many business travellers, a train compartment is a mobile office, and here again Amtrak wins hands down.

Not only is it a third cheaper (mile for mile) than in Britain, but a mobile phone signal is obtainable everywhere on the line, so I'll be able to email this piece from my PC to the Mirror before I reach New York, even if I'm in a tunnel.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no wide-eyed Brit who's fallen in love with the larger-than-life US, but they certainly know how to run a national rail company here. I had intended to end my paean of praise to Amtrak at this point. But shortly after we left Providence, the locking system on the karzy doors suddenly broke (so unsuspecting grannies were being surprised in mid-stool) and the heaters were switched off, even though there's deep snow outside.

Someone went berserk ("F*** the President in the a**") and was hauled off by the police, then the lavatories were put out of service altogether and 100 people boarded the train, complaining that the previous two had been cancelled (perhaps they have the wrong kind of snow on the line here, too).

We're currently running two hours late, the cafe has closed down (no reason given) and the whole organisation has now become a disorganisation.

Perhaps Amtrak are recreating the Virgin Experience for my benefit, but they've clearly gone loco, and my train of thought has now been thoroughly derailed.
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 22, 2003
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