Running late, Amtrak coffee proves to be right on time

May 08, 2002|By ROB KASPER

RECENTLY, I had a decent cup of coffee on an Amtrak train, and it restored my faith in American society.

I say this as an occasional train rider, who would describe most of the railroad coffee I have tasted over the past 20 years as dreck, a liquid that seemed more likely to come from the engine room than from a restaurant.

I say this as a traveler who has noted that while our trains and planes have picked up speed, the onboard fuel that keeps us moving -- coffee in the morning -- has largely remained weak and watery. (Rumor has it, however, that a flavorful brew, Timothy's from Ontario, Canada, can be found aboard Continental flights.) And I say this as someone who, when forced to leave the comfort of my home and my required morning mixture of Yirgacheffe and Golden Sumatra beans, makes it a point to buy coffee in the train station, but not on the train.

But the other day in New York, I was operating outside the boundaries of my normal train-station routine. I did not have time to stop and smell the bagels and to grab some coffee in one of the shops in New York's Penn Station.

Instead, I was trying to switch trains on short notice and the more I hurried, the more behind I got. A series of missteps led to my happy encounter with an Amtrak brew.

First, there was the out-of-towner dance with the New York subway system. When I found myself down on Sixth Avenue near Washington Square Park with only 20 minutes to get to Penn Station and catch the 10 o'clock train to Baltimore, I felt confident. That can-do attitude of New York is contagious. Besides, I already had a subway token in my pocket.

However, the gates of this particular subway station sprang open only for those armed with a subway fare card, not a token. Time ticked away and subway trains roared out of the station as I studied the fare care machine. There was a learning curve here, but eventually I figured out that if I fed the machine two crisp $1 bills, it would spit out a fare card and 50 cents change.

Once clear of the gates, I ran to the subway platform, only to discover I was on the wrong side of the tracks. The trains on this side were bound for Brooklyn, not Penn Station.

I hurried down one level, scooted under the tracks, then emerged on the correct platform.

Soon my "A" train came in and I was uptown-bound, with 12 minutes left to make my Baltimore connection.

The signs in the 34th Street station told me Penn Station was nearby. But getting there through the labyrinth of low-ceiling corridors leading from the subway was not easy.

Somehow I emerged on the street behind the train station (Eighth Avenue?), scampered inside the station and headed for the gate where the 10 o'clock train was departing in four minutes.

The sharp-eyed Amtrak attendant manning the gate quickly spotted that I had the wrong ticket. The ticket in my hand was for a train leaving at 1 p.m. To get on the 10 o'clock train I had to exchange the ticket at a counter on the other side of Penn Station. I ran to the ticket counter. There, a woman with a deliberate manner and multicolored fingernails hit about 10,0000 keystrokes on her computer terminal. At two minutes to 10, my reconfigured ticket emerged from her computer.

It was too late to make a detour to the bagel stand to buy coffee. Instead, I trotted straight to the gate and down the steps to the waiting train. As soon as I hopped on the train, the doors shut and it rolled out of Penn Station.

Breathless and craving caffeine, I headed to the cafe car. There, after a short wait, I handed over $1.50 and got a very hot, very dark and flavorful cup of coffee.

I began to mellow. Slowly, I eyed my digs. I had not jumped on a mere Metroliner; I was now aboard one of the newly outfitted, top-of-the-line Amtrak trains. It was called an Acela Express. The name meant nothing to me because Amtrak -- just like boxer George Foreman, who has named all his sons George -- seems to have named all its trains "Acela" something.

The surroundings were first-class, and so was the coffee I was sipping. I later learned the coffee's name, the Harvard Blend, and its lineage: It once was served at the Harvard Club in New York, and its parent company was the Green Mountain Coffee Co. in Burlington, Vt.

I also learned its nickname, Amtrak 5.0 pillow pack, a reference to the fact it is shipped in sealed 5-ounce containers, with filters included.

Since the Amtrak 5.0 pillow pack is stocked on any Amtrak train in the Northeast corridor that provides food service, it seems it is now theoretically possible to get a good cup of coffee on virtually any Amtrak train that rambles through Baltimore. That is what Amtrak and Green Mountain Coffee officials told me.

I say "theoretically possible" because there are many other factors that contribute to a good cup of coffee.

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