Stop the train, Melvin.
At 5:16 p.m., Amtrak's No. 29, more commonly known as the Capitol Limited, had just picked up a handful of passengers at Harper's Ferry, W.Va., and was slowly lumbering forward when the conductor called for the engineer to slam on the brakes. What emergency had brought the hulking, two-story train to a screeching halt? She'd spotted a mitten on the station platform and was worried one of her new overnight guests, Chicago-bound holiday travelers from suburban Baltimore, had accidentally dropped it.
All aboard the charming, entertaining, horribly inconvenient and maddeningly lethargic anachronism that is U.S. interstate passenger rail service in the yuletide season. You are destined for a memorable trip. In the course of 16 hours, a family must grapple with a roughly equal number of lowlights and highlights. You'd be hard pressed to find another cross-country carrier that stops for errant mittens - or subjects its passengers to such close quarters and tiny berths, chronic sleep deprivation and laughable on-time record.
It's all really Chris Van Allsburg's fault. He's the author of The Polar Express, the 1985 children's book about a youngster's fantastic Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole, which Hollywood turned into a movie a couple of years ago. Or maybe it's the fault of Cary Grant in North By Northwest, who made sharing a room with Eva Marie Saint look like a pretty cool way to travel. Or perhaps it's just the attraction of trains at Christmas - a toy locomotive chugging around a snow-swept streetscape is as much a part of the season as boughs of holly and sprigs of mistletoe.
(Lord help us the day we get equally nostalgic about airport security, broken luggage carousels and wide-bodied jets that squeeze six across).
Amtrak defines sleeper travel as first-class and, to be fair, there are perks to make passengers feel special - an attendant to wait on you, complimentary meals in the dining car, turndown service, free coffee and orange juice. But three decades of financial problems have taken their cost-cutting toll. The most recent casualty: No linens or china in the dining car or steaks cooked to order. But that's a small price to pay. The meals are still better than anything found on a domestic flight. Dinner choices include braised beef, lamb shanks and roast chicken; the silverware is real and the plastic capable of fooling the casual observer.
While you dine, your room is prepared for the night. Berths vary in dimensions but one feature is consistent - the mattresses are as thick as a Mickey Spillane novel (and just about as hard). Bathrooms are size-challenged (although much more spacious than the prison-issue variety that Amtrak's older cars offer). Remarkably, showers are one of the sleeper car's best features, with decent water pressure and room to change.
But alas, the greatest challenge to the Amtrak traveler soon approaches: Just try falling asleep as the train lurches and stops and bumps and grinds its way through the Alleghenies. Perhaps you will have better luck around Toledo, Ohio, or South Bend, Ind., where the tracks straighten and level to a smoother ride. The 7-year-old is sound asleep by Pittsburgh, the 10-year-old by Cleveland, the parents by, more or less, never.
Still, there's a hot breakfast in the morning. The crew is still as cheerful as ever (experience must help). By 9:20 a.m., the Capitol Limited pulls into Union Station, nearly an hour behind schedule. Crowded freight lines have made such delays in passenger service so common that anything less than 60 minutes barely deserves comment.
Will the family from suburban Baltimore do it again? Here's a clue: This month's trip marked their fifth such annual journey. It isn't cheap (but not unreasonable if one counts the train's overnight accommodations and two meals in the price) or particularly fast. And no movie star has dropped in on them yet. But there's something about a train at Christmas that makes the journey, and not just the destination, seem especially worthwhile.