Some folks stopped by the other day and said they were on a computerized vacation. Before they left their home on the Pacific Coast a travel bureau had set up everything. Each time they stopped a room was waiting, and they had reservations at restaurants, resorts, concerts, and here in Maine at some of our better tourist traps. I didn't have time to tell them about our old State of Maine Express, but it came to mind as a fine example of uncomputerized travel back in the days of railroading. It was an overnight sleeper train from Portland to New York City and perhaps a shining explanation of why the railroads quit.
This train, mostly sleeping cars, was made up more or less simultaneously at Union Station in Portland and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, passing in the night somewhere between 9 of the evening and 7 in the morning. The pitch was that the Maine businessman could arrive at Grand Central refreshed after a night's sleep, have the day for his business in the city, and return home that evening - no hotel expenses. There were some flaws in the theory. The big one came between Worcester, Mass., and Providence, R.I., where refreshing sleep was severely nullified.
The Boston & Maine Railroad owned a jerk line between those cities as a consequence of early mistakes, and since the State of Maine Express originated as a Boston & Maine train, it stayed on Boston & Maine tracks as long as possible. This saved the Boston & Maine fees known as ''trackage,'' the price paid to another railroad as toll. This was the only reason the State of Maine Express appeared improbably in Worcester and was delivered to the New York, New Haven & Hartford line at Providence. Or vice versa. Except for some commuter service on both ends, the Worcester-Providence line served little more than this one-a-day through train.
So the Maine businessman seeking a refreshing night's sleep would be bumped awake at Worcester when a mad engineer unshackled the locomotive and attached the galloping yard shifter that would convey him all a-hump to Providence. The meaning of the term gandy dancer had long since been forgotten in that area, and , as passengers were tossed about, the Boston & Maine saved trackage. You could get a better night's sleep on the one-horse buckboard that carried the mail over the mountain ledges to Kennebago Lake.
But the making of reservations on the State of Maine Express proves that computers are not all bad. The sleeping compartments were never full, and trip after trip half-empty cars made the route. There was reason. The space would be divided amongst all the stations in Maine. Although the train made up in Portland, people using it could come down to Portland by day coach after buying their sleeper tickets at Presque Isle, Bangor, Waterville, Augusta, Brunswick, Lewiston. So a block of berths would be assigned each trip to each of these stations. Brunswick, say, would get four berths, and after the agent at Brunswick had sold four tickets he would tell the fifth customer that the train was sold out. Never, in the years I occasionally used that train, did one agent ever pass customers along to another, and time and again the train would pull out of Portland ''sold out'' and empty berths a-plenty. I learned never to bother with a reservation, and I could always buy a berth from the conductor after the train started up.
We had a strange and therefore wonderful gentleman in those days who almost lived on the State of Maine Express. Charles Mallory, of the hat and steamship family, was in finance on Wall Street but lived in the town of Strong, fairly well upstate in Maine's Franklin County. Charles ''farmed,'' so to speak. He would go down to New York on the State of Maine Express on Tuesday evening, handle his brokerage matters Wednesday and Thursday, and return to Maine on Thursday evening. In those days, without that train, he couldn't do that. ''There's always space on that train,'' he told me; ''I never make a reservation.'' He said he wondered how the railroad made any money. Later, we knew. It didn't.