MACOMB -- This college town has a train link to Chicago, the Illinois Zephyer. an Amtrak train that runs twice daily between Chicago and Quincy. In theory that's a terrific advantage.
In practice, Amtrak is one of the most dysfunctional organizations operating today.
Let me count the ways:
1. Getting tickets. There's a website, but if you need last minute tickets, the site insists on sending them to you for a $12 fee, and you have to sign for them at your residence. Not too helpful if you're traveling, and a terrific waste of money.
So -- call them on the 800 number, and you get voice mail hell, a voice web program that can't tell Macomb Illinois from Macomb Mississippi. So ask for an agent.
The agent says the delivery cost can't be waived and you can't just pick up the tickets at the station or on the train. There's no station agent in Macomb, she says. She advises a call three days before the trip, when you then can arrange to get tickets on the train. Presumably Amtrak is hoping to charge more at the last minute, if the train fills up. She can't say what the tickets will cost.
So -- she's right. The tickets are finally available, and happily at at the same price. This agent also says there's no station agent at Macomb. And Amtrax doesn't do e-tickets like the airlines. She can't explain why. She supplies a reservation number which is valid.
2. The trip from Macomb. The 7 a.m. train is on time, and the station agent in Macomb -- yes, there is one -- laughs when told the reservation system doesn't know he exists. He types up the tickets which say 'flight' on them. Oh well. The trip goes pretty well, though the restroom is dirty. It's an hour late getting into Chicago. Some passengers are worried, since they have to make international airline connections.
3. The return trip. Union Station in Chicago is crowded, but announcements keep everyone informed. The 5:55 p.m. train is almost an hour late leaving. Something about an engine that broke down, had to be replaced.
Finally everyone boards. The train keeps going until it hits Galesburg where the announcement is made that the engine is failing, losing water, and the rest of the trip is uncertain.
Now no one knows anything. It's 10 p.m., and outside it's 7 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The conductor says busses may have to be summoned to take passengers the rest of the way, and that the engine might quit at any time leaving the train without power.
Yikes -- now what? Passengers relate similar horror stories about this line, though one woman says she rides it regularly and this situation is rare. Several people get off the train, and head for the Amtrak station which thankfully is open and warm.
One man rents a car and drives away. Another is frantic because his elderly mother and sister are waiting for him in Macomb and he can't reach them. Several of us call spouses and friends in Macomb who can drive to Galesburg to pick us up.
A few minutes before they arrive, the announcement is made that the train will proceed. And it leaves the station. What happened after that is anyone's guess. Were the passengers stranded in the country? In Bushnell? As the poem says, "if anything were wrong we certainly would have heard." Wouldn't we?
WGEM-TV in Quincy on Jan. 25 reported that the passengers had to be bussed to the final destination, from Galesburg. That's odd. As we drove away from Galesburg, the train had vanished into the night.
Those of us who got off the train drove to Macomb, Rushville and beyond in private autos. The entire trip took almost twice as long as if we had driven the whole way from Chicago.
On the positive side: at least they let us off the train.
Conclusion: and some wonder why more people don't take mass transit.
-- Elaine Hopkins