Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

Night 17: Right Turn at Albuquerque

As we rolled into Albuquerque station, I fished for a public wireless internet signal. There may have been one from the Alvarado Transportation Center (New Mexico Rail Runner commuter trains and buses) adjacent to the Amtrak/Greyhound station, but it wasn't strong enough to hold up, and I wasn't going to go hauling my computer around during our 45-minutes servicing and inspection stop.

During the long scheduled stop at Albuquerque passengers have an opportunity to peruse the wares of the vendors who line the platform selling Native American crafts. We bought a couple of things – Kuma Bear now has a big tote bag of his own – and walked down the platform to the adjacent Rail Runner station, where Lisa took pictures of the local commuter trains. Having around 30 minutes before we had to be in the train again, we went for a quick walk trying to see if there were any convenience stores in the immediate area. Finding none, we returned to the station. I went to use the restroom and when I came out, I couldn't find Lisa. I bought us a couple of Cokes from the overpriced vending machine in the lobby and went back out to the platform. Thinking she might be monitoring our regular amateur radio frequency, I tuned my radio – which has been set to the railroad bands most of this trip – back down our regular 2m ham frequency (147.540 MHz) on which the radio can actually transmit. (It's smart enough to know not to transmit if it's tuned out-of-band.) She didn't answer. I tuned the radio back to the frequency in use at this station, 160.410 MHz

I ran up to our compartment, stowed our sodas, and went back down toward the platform and waiting room. Lisa was coming the other way. She'd been in line at the little fast-food restaurant in the lobby of the station, but had balked at $3 for a smaller portion of Coke than I'd bought from the vending machine. She, like I, had been monitoring 160.410 in case the train crew started calling making call-em-back-early noises, which was why she couldn't hear me.

On the way back to the train, I had a very frustrating experience. A grouchy, drunken-looking man challenged me and questioned why I had a radio. I tried – under the time constraints of needing to be back on the train in minutes – to explain quickly about my radio. "Do you work for the railroad?" he growled at me.

"No. I'm an engineer for a supply-chain management company – basically, I'm a computer programmer," I said.

"So you're just a foamer, then," he said.

I replied, "I would prefer 'enthusiast,' actually. I like trains and transportation and like to know how things work."

"Do you get paid for this?" he demanded.

"No. It's what's known as a 'hobby.'" I said, starting to get really annoyed.

As he continued to grill me about my radio, I tried to demonstrate to him that it won't actually transmit on the railroad bands, but he would have none of it. He insisted that the Federal Railroad Administration bans the use of radios in these areas (it's not their jurisdiction) and wouldn't listen to a word I said about my Federal Communications Commission license. (Trust me, I have no desire to violate my ham license – if this box could transmit on the railroad band, I wouldn't feel safe using it!) He declared that he worked for the Association of American Railroads, which is an agency of the FRA (it isn't; it's the trade association of the railroad industry – although it is the AAR band plan that the railroads use for their operations), and that he'd have me thrown off the train as a potential terrorist, and he knew what he was talking about because he taught classes on preventing terrorism. At least that's what I thought he was saying; he was pretty sloshed.

(My later thought, not stated to him, was, "If you're the kind of person on whom we have to depend for our safety against terrorists, I feel much more endangered than I did a few minutes ago.")

Trying to contain my mounting anger, I apologized for annoying him and went back to my train. Lisa had already had her fill of Mr. Drunk and was already in our compartment. On the radio, we heard the train crew talking about a bunch of people still trying to get food inside the station. The conductor said, "We're leaving at 4:45 with or without them, but watch out for 'runners.'" We did indeed pull out at 4:45.

South of Albuquerque, we were stopped yet again by an automated detector, this time a high-wind detector. But, as our train's engineer noted, there was no wind at all. He called the dispatcher and got clearance to proceed "at maximum authorized speed, depending on conditions." Although there was no wind around our train, on both sides of our train you could see huge thunderheads, some throwing off lightning. I suggested tornadoes, but Lisa, who is from around these parts, says that while they get flash-flood-inducing thunderstorms, the conditions aren't right for tornadoes here. She took some pictures and video of the storms surrounding us. To one side, it was beautiful, bright, and sunny, while to other directions were dark clouds with streamers of rain trailing from them. Looking at the flood-carved arroyos over which our train passed, I wouldn't want to be downstream from one of those storms.

About that right turn? South of Albuquerque is where the original Santa Fe line on which we were traveling meets the "Belen Cutoff" and our train swings to the right to continue westward. Off to our right, we passed through some fantastic mesa land, with lovely red-and-grey striping in the rocks. That's the side of the train opposite from our compartment, so Lisa and I went out and perched in the hallway (giving way periodically as people passed through) along with one other passenger from Redwood City on her way home from a long train trip of her own seeing the sights. I reckon the Sightseer Lounge was pretty crowded, although we didn't go look for ourselves.

I am a railroad enthusiast. I know a fair bit about the railroad and how it works. But I don't like being described as a "foamer," a derisive term thrown around primarily by railroad industry people. In my opinion, the railroad employees who look down their noses at rail enthusiasts and feel the need to name-call us shouldn't even be working for the railroad if they hate their own jobs so much. "Railfan" isn't such an annoying term to me – certainly not as irritating as "foamer" – someone who foams at the mouth about railroads.

But I'm prepared to use the term myself, at least privately, for a breed of railroad fan who thinks he knows a lot about trains but doesn't. These people are like someone who has season tickets for the San Francisco Giants and by September is still waiting for a hat trick and wondering why the referee didn't give that player a 15-yard penalty for arguing a call. We met someone a little bit like that today. He was wearing a shirt from a particular tourist railroad, and claimed to have ridden lots of trains, but seemed to have very little understanding of basic railroading procedures. Well, that's okay; nothing says you have to be an expert about railroading to enjoy riding trains; however, claiming to know lots about trains when you keep making silly mistakes and don't understand relatively simple terms like "electric locomotive" -- he appeared to not even comprehend that you could run trains other than on diesel or steam -- sort of grates after a while. We kept smiling and explaining things as best we could, though.

I am not a universal expert on railroading, but I clearly know more than the average person. The problem is that I make the mistake of letting anyone know about it. Apparently within the railroad industry, you're supposed to hate your job and resent anyone who enjoys trains. I know that if I didn't like my job, I wouldn't keep working at it. Railroading is such difficult, stressful, and sometimes dangerous work that I would think you'd only want people working in it who loved their jobs.

Lisa reminds me that our experience with the Grouchy Drunk should not be taken as universal. On this trip, we have met lots of enthusiastic, helpful, and friendly railroad workers. In particular, the conductor on the northbound Adirondack about who we wrote earlier, and the conductor on the first leg of our westward trip on the Chief out of Chicago, who helpfully gave us the railroad radio channels at every opportunity when she passed us, and made clear, informative announcements about our progress – or sometimes lack of same – throughout the first portion of our journey. Lisa stopped and thanked her personally during the crew change at Kansas City. She said, "It's not often we have such a cheerful and friendly conductor; besides, you're pretty, too!" (The departing conductor smiled as she thanked Lisa for the kind words.)

After dinner, Lisa sent me down to the Lounge Car while she cleaned up in preparation for bedtime. While sitting there, I grew increasingly annoyed with three young unsupervised children who had discovered that one of the two-person couches in the Sightseer Lounge would freely pivot and who were spinning round and round in it, getting progressively louder and kicking the people passing in the aisle and in the adjacent chairs. Finally, one man sitting two seats down from them said, "Calm down or I'll get the conductor!" They ignored him, and he got up and said, "That's it. I'm getting the conductor and you and your parents will be thrown off this train," and he stalked off in search of the train crew. The kids jumped out of the seat in which they had been swinging, one ran off, and the other two sat down looking abashed in the non-moving chair next to me.

As they started complaining, I got involved, and read them the Riot Act. "This isn't a playground!" I said, "It's a lounge car where people can watch the scenery, and that seat swivels so you can get the best view, not use it as a merry-go-round."

One of the kids protested that [name of the kid who had run off] was the one who started it. "That doesn't matter," I continued sternly. "You were being very rude and very inconsiderate to the other people on this train, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. You'll be lucky if the conductor doesn't stop this train right here and put you off it right now. And it's a long walk back to Albuquerque."

The kids slunk away. The man who had went looking for a conductor came back, not having found one. I sat there wondering if I had done the right thing; they weren't my children, after all, but their parents were remiss in not supervising them. I later went up and told the man what I'd done, and he agreed that I had.

Returning to our room around 9 PM, Lisa and I took stock of the schedule for the next day. With breakfast seating running from only 5 to 5:30 due to the anticipated early arrival at Los Angeles, we decided to skip breakfast and sleep an extra hour. Nevertheless, it was important to get to bed early, so we did so as best we could.
Tags: amtrak, jobsworths, lisa, trains, travel

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