When I was a boy, not long after World War II, my father was sent, several times, from Chicago to New York City on business. The first time, he traveled on the Twentieth Century Limited, at that time still one of the very best passenger trains in America. On all subsequent journeys, he traveled via American Airlines, first on DC3s, later on DC7s.
As a budding young railway enthusiast, I was astonished. Why would anyone not choose to travel on one of the world's most renowned trains? His reply was that while the railway personnel were all old, surly, and officious, the airline people were all young, energetic and eager to please. I suspect that the glamorous, young and pretty stewardesses may have been a factor left unmentioned.
Things have changed in intervening years: railroad-provided passenger service declined, Amtrak took on the task of maintaining only a very small portion of past rail service and airlines swallowed up nearly all major, long distance public transportation within the United States.
My wife and I recently traveled to Memphis for a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi River to New Orleans (yes, travel can still be half the fun). In 1892, when our house was built in Denver, we could have walked half a block to the Denver City Cable Railway and taken a cable car to Union Station for our journey all the way to downtown Memphis. Someday in the future, we may be able to ride a lowly bus to the station, a Spartan light rail train to the airport, an airplane to somewhere near Memphis, and finally a taxi to the actual city, but not yet. Dave Barry once remarked that, "What Denver needs is a good international airport — that is not in Kansas." A taxi from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport cost almost as much one of our airplane seats.
Travel can still be half the fun.
If we could have afforded it then, we could have traveled from a grand station, in luxury unimaginable today, all the way to another grand station in the city of our destination. Instead, after the Hell of being herded through "security" screening, and a long wait, we rode in an appropriately named "Airbus" — the only honest advertising I observed. In a real bus, however, you can actually see out the windows.
I sat in my cramped, uncomfortable, claustrophobic, extra-priced seat staring at the bulkhead, several rows ahead, which read: "More Choices. More Perks. More Savings. Flyfrontier.com". This is apparently what passes for 21st century airline humor.
We had paid extra for the legroom, but I was stuck in the row behind these absurd premium seats and had to ask an old, surly, officious and rude "stewardess" (i.e., on-board sales agent) for a correction. She unapologetically deferred to the on-ground manager who only grudgingly authorized me to move forward to a dreaded center seat.
In front of me there was a tiny TV screen with a place to slide your credit card. Despite the fact that there were three crew members in the cockpit and four in the cabin (not counting two uniformed deadheads occupying premium priced seats — four inches of extra legroom), the only choices cost extra except for a small plastic cup of water offered only once. The only other perk was the fact that credit card sliders have yet to be installed on the toilet compartment.
After takeoff, I watched the on board sales agents leasurly standing at the front of the bus drinking airline coffee while surveying their marks, each sitting bolt upright, elbow to elbos and knees to back. When they were suficiently refreshed, they blocked the isle with their sales carts to hawk drinks. Then they attempted to sell airline credit cards which would afford the purchaser with extra Frontier miles. Extra miles indeed! I never want to have that experience ever again.
Travelers on the Pacific Parlor Car have adequite elbo and knee room.
By contrast, on my last Amtrak journey, on the Coast Starlight several years ago, the crew went out of their way to be friendly and helpful and the train actually arrived early (but don't count on an early arrival). Still it was only a shadow of the late pre-Amtrak train service I once experienced.
I wonder, what would my father say now?
Good advice atop Portland Union Station.