Ah, For That Lone Whistle in the Night

Amtrak's Montrealer appears destined to join lots of other passenger trains as mere memories, but rail travel deserves much better

WHEN the Montrealer pulls into the Amherst, Mass., station a little after 2 a.m. on Friday, March 30, it will be its last time. It will still fill up all the space on Main and Railroad. It will still make a grand two longs and two shorts on its whistle. It will still bend the curve as though it and the curve were one. When the conductor in the wink of an eye dismounts the train and calls ''all aboard,'' he will mean me. I have a ticket on the last train. I will be a part of the ''all'' and the ''aboard,'' at least one more time.

But Saturday night the station will be silent. When I get off my last Montrealer the morning of April 1, I'll still be praying that my lost train is just an April Fools' Day joke.

One year in Philadelphia long ago I played a trick on my housemate for April Fools'. I played the trick two years in a row. The first year I just took her car keys and moved her VW bug around the corner and let her think that her car was stolen. The second year I didn't bother moving her car and just kidded her over breakfast. ''Your car is stolen again, ha, ha.'' When she couldn't find it, she came in to get me to undo the trick and find her car so she could go to work. It was really stolen! I hadn't done a thing with it.

Maybe Congress is up to the same foolishness with Amtrak. They've got to be kidding.

The last time I took the train, I sat down next to an older woman, who got off at Montpelier, Vt., later that morning for her mother's funeral. She had a hand-crocheted blanket on her lap. When I sat down, she moved her vinyl purse to the other side of her seat, nodded at me, and returned to sleep. We didn't talk till the breakfast that we shared. She had brought two rolls with her. I got the coffee.

The beauty of the train is that it is not the plane. It is blue-, not white-collar transportation. When the mayors of the less-than-great Northeast met to defend the Montrealer against the congressional ax, they were defending the blue collars. The vinyl purses. The woman with three children who somehow manages to let them all sleep on her all night.

The mayors were not defending my romancing of rail. They don't care how many nights I enjoyed the piano car. The mayors were defending the people whose children sleep in the seat on them, the people who don't take planes to their mothers' funerals.

I am sure it took a while for the mayors to get around to the working poor. Surely they have plenty to do. When you have to defend Mister Rogers and the national parks in the same week as you have to defend the poor, you hardly have any time for the train. At least the mayors said something about keeping the train on life support in case the country came to its senses later and gave what it should to this form of transportation.

The trains could be run privately just as well as they are run publicly. Surely some intelligent entrepreneur will see that. The Montrealer interrupts my nightly sleep at a different time each night; punctuality is not its virtue.

When it did away with its own piano bar in the late '70s, everyone knew that the train was being run by bureaucratic stupidity rather than entrepreneurial imagination. The food service on the trains is clearly run by committee.

Privatizing Amtrak is not something that I fear. In the middle of my mourning for the old train, I realize I am taking a front-row seat at the funeral of an uncle about whom I complained incessantly.

Anthony Trollope tells of a train trip to London to deliver a novel. The publisher hated it and insulted Trollope's work to his face. On the way home by train, Trollope turned over the novel and began a new one on the back pages of the old.

Maybe we need the rewrite. Maybe we are about to get new train service, not just an April Fools' joke become real. Whatever happens, I just want to be sure that I can find a friend for breakfast on my way north every now and then.

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