New York-Atlanta Amtrak ride: inching towards the future

Having returned from an inspection tour of some new travel hardware between New York and Houston -- trains, rapid transit systems, airports mainly -- I can say with Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future -- and though it doesn't always work, at least it runs on time.

The somewhat random trip took me from New York to Washington on the improved Metroliner, in and out of the Washington Metro, down to Atlanta on the overhauled Southern Crescent, on and off the shining new Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), through Atlanta's $500 million space-age airport, and by plane to Houston, a city of the future if there ever was one.

At 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon I caught the Metroliner at Penn Station, glad to learn that the onetime crack NY-DC special and in fact all trains between Boston and Washington are inching closer to the 1983 date when the Northeast Corridor improvements will at last be completed. While concrete ties and welded rails are put down and bridges and tunnels rebuilt, the Metroliner will continue to clock the 224 miles in 3 hours, 30 minutes, a half- hour slower than its debut time, in 1969. In two years the run will be down to 2:40; Boston- New York, now laboring at 5:14, will be cut to 3:40.

Amtrak has rebuilt all its Metroliner coaches, and the look is decidedly Airplane Modern. My clubcar seat was of crushed burgundy corduroy with black leatherette trim. There was a call button under the wide window for summoning the attendant who dispenses drinks, meals, and snacks. Before me was a pull-down table and, in the seat pocket, the new Amtrak magazine, Express. A regular Metroliner ticket is $37, a clubcar seat an additional $22.50 ("Lotta money," the conductor admitted), while the slightly slower but no less comfortable Amfleet trains charge $32. To fly it costs $59.

The ride seemed smoother than in the past, and I was able to write a letter without the old scrawl-producing lurch. "We've been doing 110 mph through here, " said Trainman Lou Nerf in the rear vestibule, "and the reason is all those new ribbon rails and concrete ties you see there. We were 10 minutes early into Wilmington." We were also 10 minutes early into Washington's Union Station, a personal first for this lifelong rail rider.

Before going out on the 7:15 Crescent the next evening, I took a spin on the Washington Metro. The descent at Du Pont Circle is remindful of the steep escalator journeys to the London Underground. I have a quarrel with the Metro fare system. You must buy your tickets from a machine, at 60 cents a shot, and when I had deposited a $5 bill expecting $4.40 in change, all that came out was a single ticket -- good for $5 worth of rides. The attendant, scolding me for not reading the directions, gave me a refund request to fill out.

Amtrak recently converted the Crescent longtime pride of the Southern Railway , from its wheezing old steam-heated self to the more efficient and comfortable head-end electric power. Pity that the Washington-Atlanta run goes out so late in the day, though in mid-summer you can take in the historic Virginia countryside (stops are at Alexandria, Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville) before dark. I went directly to the lounge car where the talk was less of changing presidents and released hostages than of Super Bowls. And trains.

The solo traveler cannot help meeting people in an Amtrak diner because the attendant always seats you at a partly occupied table. Over "Roast Turkey Breast, All the Fixins ($4.95 and a bit papery)," I met Juanita and Maria Galan, charming sisters from Bogota who provided me with a list of sights, shops, and restaurants for an upcoming trip to Colombia. They would be reclining all night in a coach, while I had a roomette (for $41.50 extra), but when they said "Buenos dias" in the diner the next morning, they seemed more rested than I. When we pulled into Peachtree Station (three minutes early), the sleeping car attendant told me: "He was runnin' it last night. He was flying. That's why we're a little early and that's why it was bumpy."

Atlanta has finished 12 miles of the 53-mile MARTA system which so far runs east-west from downtown and eventually will stretch to the airport. On MARTA, a ticketing snag is nigh impossible. You deposit either two quarters, a transfer from a bus or a pass ($4 a week, $17 a month) and step into a spotless station with red flagstone floors and beige brick walls. Safety is the key. "We have closed-circuit TVs monitoring every corner of the stations," a MARTA official told me, "and we have a roving security force. On the train you can push a button and tell the conductor over a microphone if there's any trouble."

At Atlanta International, before catching an Eastern flight to Houston, I prowled the world's largest airport (in number of gates and square feet) and the second largest in numbers of passengers. It's the travel hub of the southeast; 70 percent of its business are passengers merely changing planes. I found it sleekly lined and full of art objects but otherwise utilitarian and uncommonly spacious.

There are four concourses connected by a tram that runs every few minutes and by a moving sidewalk. Most of the gates belong to Delta and Eastern, old southeast rivals. If you remember the cramped little hallways at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, you will be impressed with the 90-foot-wide concourses. Concourse C, which is Eastern country, looked as empty as Main street in Waco on an August afternoon. Anyway, the flight left on time. An d that's the future I've been waiting to see.

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