Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Five. Meet Amtrak 234.

Amtrak train number 234 was finally ready to leave the Rhinecliff station at 8:31 – forty minutes late which meant it was right on schedule. A hybrid of public and private enterprise, Amtrak had suffered years of government neglect in the management of its budget coupled with an asinine business model that forced highly-profitable routes to subsidize losers that snaked through the empty states and districts of powerful, partisan Congressmen. The train could have left the station a few minutes earlier but one of the conductors had engaged in an argument with a New York City-bound passenger attempting to board with a cat. The cat was ensconced discretely in a carrying bag, the kind with a meshed side, but the conductor would have none of it. No animals allowed on board (except of course the venerable seeing-eye dog). Lengthening the delay, a fellow rider came to the defense of the cat owner and his contraband, but relented when the conductor threatened to bar her as well. After September 11, relenting was the only sensible choice when dealing with an official representative of the National Transportation complex. The woman figured there was no sense having her name etched onto a permanent terrorist watch list – suffering pat-downs and potential cavity searches henceforth – over the defense of a cat’s right to travel by rail.

With two blasts of the horn, Amtrak 234 pulled out of the station leaving behind another irate customer, this one with his cat in the bag, and his bag by the river. After departing Rhinecliff, the daily Amtrak 234 run continues non-stop along the east bank of the mighty and scenic Hudson River (if fallen trees, freight trains and bureaucracy stay out of its way) to New York’s Penn Station, traveling 100 miles in 100 minutes. For all of Amtrak’s aggravations, the region’s frequent commuters preferred riding a train to driving a car into the City. In fact, it was not unusual in times of inclement weather for a driver en route to New York City to advance perhaps 20 miles in that same 100 minutes. Once Amtrak trains get to Poughkeepsie they share the track with the Metropolitan Transit Authority which has priority, forcing Amtrak onto sidetracks whenever there is contention for the rails – but until then, Amtrak 234 would highball for the next 15 miles. The track courses through narrow lanes blasted out of ancient granite outcrops, and across causeways over tidal basins. It runs next to the former estates of Industrial Age barons and early 20th Century titans – Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morses, Roosevelts. Passengers sitting on the starboard side have excellent views of West Point and the Palisades, and may see a decommissioned lighthouse or the ruins of an island castle. If they knew when to look, passengers could catch a glimpse of Sing Sing prison. After Amtrak relocated its New York City terminal from the elegant Grand Central to the architectural abomination of Pennsylvania Station, trains crossed into Manhattan over the Spuyten Duyvil, a waterway separating it from the Bronx. Some people believed the name “Spuyten Duyvil” derived from the Dutch for “Devil’s Whirlpool” which certainly seemed reasonable, especially when the estuarial tides ebbed and flowed. Others believed the name came from a story by Washington Irving about a Dutchman who, during the British attack on New Amsterdam promised to swim through the turbulence “en spijt den Duyvil” – in spite of the Devil.

Amtrak 234 was moving at top speed as it roared through a rock cut, the Mills Mansion to the west, Dinsmore Golf Course to the East. The engineer knew he would likely be directed to slow or even stop south of Poughkeepsie in deference to the MTA trains sharing the tracks. And the incident with the cat owner had added to the delay accumulated since leaving Albany. Prior to reaching Poughkeepsie would offer the last opportunity to make up some lost time, so the engineer amped up the throttle – “balling the jack” in railroad parlance.

This stretch of track runs through a largely-uninhabited swath of publicly owned land. Most of the access roads to destinations hugging the banks of the Hudson pass over or under the tracks, but there was one narrow lane that snaked toward the Mills Mansion, crossing the tracks at grade, a simple sign stating “RR” planted at the intersection. Which was not entirely unusual; at the time, there were approximately 150,000 public grade railroad crossings in the United States, of which only 35,500 had gates and 25,000 had flashing lights. As for the number of wig-wags in place, the National Transportation Safety Board could only guess.

Next. Part Six. Sage Shoots Mills Mansion.

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