Amtrak—Time for the Freedom Car!

Meeting southbound Northeast Regional Train, between Wilmington and Philadelphia, July 24, 2013

Normally, as the days get shorter and colder here in New England, we think less of driving to visit our daughter and her family in Virginia, and look to Amtrak’s Northeast Regional (NER) trains as an attractive alternative. Where at our ages we take two days to drive the 700 or so miles, stopping overnight, Boston to Richmond on the NER is just 11 hours, plus an hour or so on each end to and from the stations. The train limits the amount we can tote, but also reduces the stress of long road trips on busy highways. It’s also grist for my railfan photo mill (see above).

But the seemingly never-ending Covidiocy* that began last Spring has made train travel much less appealing. Here is Amtrak’s rule about ‘Face Coverings’:

Amtrak requires all customers and employees wear a face mask or covering that fully covers the entire mouth and nose, fits snugly against the side of the face, and secures under the chin at all times while onboard and in stations unless actively eating or drinking.

Now it’s understandable that Amtrak authorities, running a quasi-governmental entity, would feel obligated to follow the official dictums, rational or not. Masks are perhaps only a minor inconvenience for someone getting on a city bus or subway for a short ride, or even a station or two on the train. But who wants to sit for 11 hours in an AmFleet car wearing a cloth or paper mask? Not I; I can’t stand the things. My nose runs; it itches; rubbing it on the outside doesn’t help. I want to tear it off and go running down the corridor screaming like a lunatic. And so, being a model of decorum, or perhaps just chicken, I won’t take the train. We’ll spend the time in the car, and stop at a cold campground (if we can find one open) to spend the night. As long as it’s not freezing outside, we have the Casita, a small travel trailer (see HERE). Unfortunately, it’s not built for winter.

If you’re going far enough, Amtrak still has some of its long-distance trains running, most with sleeper compartments or bedrooms. They are pricey, but once you’re inside, they’re private: you can take off your masks. But alas there are no sleepers on the Northeast Corridor (years ago, a friend told me, you could have dinner and a show in New York City, repair to the train and bed down for the nighttime trip back to Boston; but those days are long gone). Naturally this year you’ll still have to wear the kow-tow cloth if you venture out of your sleeper compartment to enjoy the pleasures of long-distance train travel: dining cars, window cars, lounge cars, or if you’re like me, just walking up and down the train (try that in an airplane!). Just the sight of conductors and passengers all masked up on the station platforms is enough to deter me.

In point of fact, there really is no evidence that cloth or paper face masks prevent the transmission of respiratory viruses. Even the professional ones medical people wear are only marginally effective, unless carefully sealed and discarded or sterilized after use. Canadian pathologist, Dr. Roger Hodkinson, who is also the CEO of a company that makes Covid19 tests, says

Masks are utterly useless. There is no evidence base for their effectiveness whatsoever. . . Paper masks and fabric masks are simply virtue signalling. They’re not even worn effectively most of the time. It’s utterly ridiculous. . .

And a recent study in Denmark, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, reported “that surgical masks did not protect the wearers against infection with the coronavirus in a large randomized clinical trial” (from The New York Times, quoted here).

Of course media hysterics over ‘cases’ (actually just rampant positive tests, not sick people) and goverment hectoring have got the public in a tizzy of fear and wariness, so telling people not to wear the masks would be pointless today. But train passengers should have the freedom to wear them or not, as they please. Maybe then freedom-lovers would come back to the trains, which are suffering badly for want of ticket sales. Sure, there’s still the fear of the unmasked to deal with—but perhaps there’s a solution, akin to the one Amtrak faced with cell phones.

The problem with cell phones is that they encourage users to speak loudly. Why, I don’t know. Most train passengers keep conversations with seatmates down to a modest level, but put them on a cell phone and they move into a different world, as if they were talking to someone across the country (as they might well be). I don’t mind it too much, as I enjoy speculating on what line of business or family affairs they’re involved with. A sales manager arranging a demonstration; an IT guy solving intractable confusion at a client’s offices; a sister negotiating a temporary truce with a sibling. . . But it can get annoying, especially if you want to read or doze, and Amtrak some years ago dealt with complaints by inventing something called. . .

The Quiet Car. Here’s the sign you’ll see in one:

My wife and I never travel in the Quiet Car: it’s too much like a library, too much danger of busybodies (I call them Pardiggles, after that one in Bleak House) shushing us. But it’s definitely nice to have a choice. One trip an off-duty conductor behind us at the back of the car insisted on regaling a couple of his comrades with loud commentary on his life, especially his favorite football teams. Finally my wife, who was trying to read, got up and left—not for the Quiet Car, but for the Café Car, which at the time was peaceful enough. But the option was there.

So why not designate a car for those of us who eschew masks? We can call it the Freedom Car. And it will indeed be free: you can wear your decorative mask if you want. The one thing you can not do is harrass your unmasked fellow passengers. Here’s the sign I want to see:

Freedom Car
No Mask or Distancing Required
Please respect your neighbor’s choice.

Imagine that sign in this car:

Now you will point out that the rest of the train will be full of Pardiggles. That’s a potential problem, especially in the Café Car. But it’s not a huge jump to imagine Amtrak shops converting older coaches to second Café Cars, especially since there are new AmFleet coaches on order as we speak. Add a Freedom Car and Freedom Café to the everyday consist, and I’ll bet ridership, now running at less than a third of previous years’, will double instantly.

Moreover, the Freedom Cars will be an important bridge toward normality. In case you haven’t heard, because your news comes only from the Corporate Media, the pandemic is pretty much over, settling down to bothering us at about the level of influenza in a bad year. That’s not trivial, but it’s not the Plague, either. We don’t sequester in fear or wear face cloths for the flu and other respiratory diseases, and once the media stops trumpeting the ridiculous idea that every positive Covid test is a ‘case’, we’ll get back to normal. People will stop being afraid of sitting next to strangers on a train, and we’ll be able to see their smiles once again.

In the meantime, those of us who want to ride trains without masks will cheer the Freedom Cars! /LEJ

* Hat tip: Sarah A. Hoyt

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