Accent on Living

A FRIEND who has just returned from San Francisco brings astounding news of rail travel in the West. Such findings as “excellent meals” and “plenty of pleasant service” are hardly imaginable to a New Englander, yet the traveler, as if from the other side of the moon, went on to tell of Vista domes, dining car seats at an hour of his own selection and without standing in line, and lounge cars in the plural. Most impressive of all, he reported, was the conductor, a watch-in-hand type who was deeply interested in whether the train was on time. The carrier in this case, a round trip between San Francisco and Denver, was the Denver and Rio Grande and Western Pacific; its only dereliction was its insistence on calling its comely stewardess a “Zephyrette.” “I’m sorry about that,” said my friend. “She was really very attractive.”

No such fine points need be made about rail travel in New England, where passengers and train crew alike are long accustomed to roughing it, with the prospect of worse to come. The Bostonian bound for New York is grateful if his train even departs on time, let alone gets anywhere; meeting one of these trains at either end is a gamble against long odds, and it’s bad form to ask for an arrival hour since the attendant won’t know the answer anyhow. A conductor looking at his watch, in this neighborhood, would be checking the interval before his next dyspepsia tablet.

The cafeteria car of one of the Boston-New York trains is memorable for the odor of the much-used and fiercely overheated grease in its galley (the air-conditioning system has broken down — temporarily, of course) and the robust prices on its menu, prices sufficient to deceive the stranger into expecting a correspondingly substantial meal. The entire staff are new not only to their tasks but to each other: they are usually preoccupied in getting acquainted by conversation among themselves. Here, as in the terminals and wherever railroad employees are conversing, one gets the impression of pessimistic conjecture. Will the service shut down tomorrow? Maybe tonight? Is the cook capable of putting together an egg sandwich? How come we’re on time?

The best meal we had anywhere in Italy last summer was a luncheon in the dining car of the rapido from Rome to Florence. A vast offering, yet moderately priced, it seemed a cut above what one found at hotels and restaurants, and three of the courses — the pasta, the sliced beef tenderloin, and a huge, flavorsome fresh peach at the instant of perfect ripeness — were the finest in my experience. The diner was a large car, handsomely appointed, and although every place was occupied, the whole meal was served in great style by only two waiters.

It would be hard to overstate the speed and dexterity with which the two waiters went about their work. They seemed determined to show that they were the most excellent of all dining car waiters in the world, and it is reasonable to believe that they were in fact just that.

British trains are notable for the antiquity of their battered rolling stock and the impeccable manners of all personnel. The conductor making his rounds in a third-class carriage of a suburban train from London exemplified both characteristics. He was elderly, and his livery or uniform, of a faded maroon as I recall it, was distinctly shabby, but he entered the compartment with a great air of mission, assurance, and professionalism.

“Good afternoon,” he said.

There were polite murmurs from the half-dozen passengers.

“Please,” said the conductor, “may I see your tickets?”

He examined the tickets, and as he returned the last to its owner, he said, with a bow that included all of us, “Thank you so much.”

The conductor turned and opened the compartment door to the corridor, then faced us once again. “Good afternoon,” he said.