The train in Pakistan is faster than Amtrak

Did you hear that, Amtrak?

Okay, it’s not always faster, but just lookie here:

The train in Pakistan goes from Rahim Yar Khan to Karachi in 10 hours. That is 386 miles, or 621 kilometers.

rahim yar khan to karachi

Meanwhile, I have been on the “Carolinian” between Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington D.C. about 50 times. The route, which does an annoying dip down to Selma-Smithfield, is 475 miles (764 km). Ostensibly, this trip is supposed to take 10 hours, too.

amtrak carolinian route

So far, it’s barely better than the Pakistani train. The problem is that the Carolinian is always breaking down, and in my fifty times of traveling on it, it must have come an average of 1.5 hours late. Seriously! Lots of times it’s 2 hours late or more. Last time I checked, there was a cute little statistic on the Amtrak site claiming that the Carolinian was on average 20 minutes late or something. Hahahahahaha … NO!

Pakistan’s train is traveling at roughly 38.6 miles/hour. Last time I rode the Carolinian, it was four hours late. I’m sorry, that’s just unacceptable! And when it is four hours late, it is traveling slower than 34 miles/hour, so yes, it’s slower than the Pakistani train. And even when it’s two hours late, which is very normal for the Carolinian, then the train is traveling at 39.6 miles/hour. Barely better. Come on, Green New Deal, we need you!

Is Pakistan safe for tourists?

Security for travelers in Pakistan is intense.

There are rifle-wielding guards everywhere.

When you approach the airport in Karachi, you have to pass through a couple of check-points before you ever get to the airport. At the checkpoint, there will be a guard with a rifle pointed straight at you a little ways away. Then beyond him is another guard with a pointed rifle. Past him is a third, and past him is a fourth. That way if the first misses, there’s back-up.

The university where Jassim was at hires lots of security escorts, and they tag along, whether you’re going around town or visiting a historic site.

If you’re a man, at least, they are willing to take a selfie with you, dressed in their camouflage and beards.

One time, Jassim and a party of people from the university wanted to visit some ruin. The university security escorts approved the trip, so everyone set out. Halfway there, however, they came upon a security checkpoint. That checkpoint declared that after all, the party could not pass because there was a person with an American passport (Jassim) and another person with a Swedish passport in the group. It’s not that they don’t want Americans and Swedes to visit this place, but apparently there’s psychos in the region, and if someone lets it slip that foreigners are coming, they try to blow everyone up. They don’t just try to blow up the person with the foreign passport, but all the Pakistanis who are also on the trip with them. Apparently, a bus was blown up in that way a few years ago, and ever since, they’ve been taking extra precautions. The fear is that an evil person working at the hotel where the foreigners are staying will tip off his psycho buddies on the road, who will wait for the coming caravan and welcome it with explosions. Or maybe, it’s a person in the security forces themselves who tip off the psycho buddies down the road.

After a one hour discussion between the security checkpoint people and the security escort, Jassim and the man with the Swedish passport decided they would come back to their hotel alone, so at least the rest of the party could be allowed to continue.

Stuck in Pakistan

I wasn’t stuck in Pakistan; but someone I knew was. Let’s call him Jassim.

Jassim went to Pakistan for two weeks to attend conferences at two different universities. Just so you are aware, purchasing a regular tourist visa to Pakistan, at least for Americans, costs almost $200, but because Jassim was going for conferences, it was considered a “business” trip and that bumped the price up to $350ish. He applied for the visa two weeks before his (already-purchased) ticket was set to depart. The visa arrived from the Pakistani embassy one day before he left, and I think that was only because he spent about four hours on the phone trying to get someone at the embassy to expedite things. He wasn’t talking to anyone; he was waiting hours while the “ding-ding-ding” on-hold music played until someone would pick up. Then as soon as someone picked up, the lined dropped; so he had to call again and listen to the “ding-ding-ding” music another hour until someone answered.

Right around as Jassim was arriving in Pakistan, a big explosion occurred that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India bombed Pakistan in retaliation; and then Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and took the pilot prisoner. We texted Jassim during all the commotion to ask, “are things tense?” and he goes, “no, not at all!” But next thing we know, all the internal flights were grounded in Pakistan. Jassim had just finished up the last items on his business agenda in a city called Rahim Yar Khan, and he was supposed to be in Karachi the next day to catch his plane out of the country. It is almost 400 miles (about 620 km) …

rahim yar khan to karachi

and he no longer had a flight to get there! Luckily, there’s a train. Google Maps says there is no train, but there is. It takes 10 hours, and it’s an overnighter. Jassim found out at 4:00 pm that the planes were canceled; and this overnight train was leaving at 4:30! He rushed to his hotel; he still had to pack up all his things. He grabbed everything, helter-skelter, ran down to the lobby, and made to get on his way. At least he wasn’t alone. All his university professor hosts, plus an entourage of about 10 students, were trying to make sure Jassim made the train. In the lobby, there was a hold-up. The rifle-carrying guards who apparently man all of Pakistan informed Jassim that his journey to the train station, seeing as it had been decided upon just minutes before, wasn’t registered and therefore they couldn’t give him permission to go. A big discussion ensued. The university professors were saying, “just get out of the way and let us go!” After a conference of about 5 minutes, the security police relented, and everyone rushed to the station. Three minutes after they got there, the train came chugging through: choo choo. The entourage of students grabbed all of Jassim’s bags and hurried him and his stuff onto the train. The train departed.

So he just barely made it, but unfortunately all the rush was for nothing, because by the next day, all the international flights were grounded, too, and Jassim’s flight out of Karachi, at whose insistence all the fuss with the train had occurred, was canceled.

Jassim’s train pulled into Karachi on February 28, in the morning. He called the American embassy, but they weren’t ready yet to haul in the military and evacuate all American citizens. They told him: call your airlines and keep updated.

On March 1, the airline Etihad announced that all flights had returned to normal operations. Jassim spent hours on the phone to get a spot, but you know that there were two or three days’ worth of missed flights full of passengers trying to do the same, and the earliest anyone would put him on a flight out was March 6. But he kept calling, and by some miracle, eventually a guy got him a seat on the flight leaving in less than 6 hours. Ta-da!

There were so many checkpoints and security lines around the airport that after all that hassle, he still nearly missed his flight. But he made it in the end. Now he was un-stuck from Pakistan.

Amtrak’s clever plan for getting from Houston to Chicago

Let us first examine the map, so we know what we’re talking about:

amtrak houston chicago

See that, Houston to Chicago, a straight shot north across the United States.

Here’s Amtrak’s proposal:

Step 1: take the Sunset Limited train from Houston to Los Angeles.

Step 2: take the Coastal Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon.

Step 3: take the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.

amtrak houston chicago long way

In all, it takes you 117 hours (5 days) and you take a real scenic route through two thirds of the US. So what are you waiting for?!

Note: In Amtrak’s defense, that was their second suggestion.


Nothing to eat by the station

I was supposed to have a simple 4-hour trip by public transportation from Chapel Hill to Concord: Step 1, bus from Chapel Hill to Durham. Step 2, train from Durham to Kannapolis. Step 3, bus from Kannapolis to Concord.

First, I showed up to the bus stop in front of Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill at 9.16 in the morning, four minutes before the bus. The bus was on time, and I was at the Durham Amtrak station before 10 am. So far, so good.

I bought my train ticket, and since I had 30 minutes before the train showed up, I decided: wouldn’t it be nice and cozy to get something to eat (I hadn’t had any breakfast.) If you leave the train station from the main door, and walk across the crazy parking lot with the grass growing through cracks in the pavement and remnants of the old rail road tracks coursing through it, you come to a street, and you just walk on it for a block and you’ll be in a business district. There used to be a simple little cafe here where you could get quick sandwiches, but alas, it was nowhere to be seen. Instead, most everything was closed on this Sunday morning and the only thing open was a New Orleans (?) themed restaurant that doesn’t know what it’s doing. I only had 20 minutes left by this point, so I asked them: can you just make me an egg-and-cheese-biscuit, because I don’t have time for your fancy brunch.

Yes, we can, they said, except we don’t have biscuits, we only have English muffins.

Well, no problem, I say, but do you think it will be done in time so I can catch my train at 10:30?

Let me go check, I’m told. So someone disappears into the kitchen, and when she comes back, she doesn’t have a time estimate, she just tells me that they don’t have English muffins after all, it’ll have to be on toast.

And how much does this cost? Again, not sure, but another lady sets up the accounting ledger: it’s $1.50 for cheese, and $2.00 for bread, and such-and-such for the eggs.

All this has already eaten up another five minutes, and now they tell me, sure, it’ll be done in time, in like 15 or 20 minutes. So I give it all up as a bad job, run the five minutes back to the train station, and wait. At 10.32, I realize that we’re still sitting in the station, they haven’t made the boarding call to go stand outside on the platform which should happen 10 minutes before the train comes. So I go up to get information: oh, the train is delayed until 10:50. Well, if I’d known that, I could have taken my time at the New Orleans place, clueless though they were.

Right around 10.50, the train station makes a new announcement: actually, the train won’t come till 11.15. I run out of the train station again, in the opposite direction, but there’s no quick and easy and convenient food on this end either. I just find a cafe with overpriced scones, but it’s the best option compared to being grumpy the whole train ride from lack of food. I get a tomato, spinach, and cheese scone and run back to the train station, where the train now is not expected till 11.30 or something. And finally they tell us that there’s a complete system failure and no trains are moving anywhere – in the entire state of North Carolina? I don’t even know.

Of course, a little bit after that announcement, a loud freight train came whistling through the station. So they had to come back on the announcements and change the story.

The train finally showed up at 12.20, two hours after it was supposed to get to Durham – indeed, it showed up in Durham about the time it was supposed to deliver me to Kannapolis. But I kept my good humor through all this. What really made me mad was when I showed up in Kannapolis at 2:30, ten minutes after my bus to Concord had left – and the next bus wouldn’t show up for over 1 more hour. So not only did the train come 2 hours late, it managed to time things so I got to Kannapolis at exactly the worst possible time.

It was mid-afternoon and I’d had only had a scone to eat all day, and I was still two hours from getting home. I now commenced a weary trek of about 4 miles’ radius around the Kannapolis train station, to see if there was maybe just a crust of bread somewhere to be had. No, nothing! The whole of Cannon Village, which is right across the street and used to have a slim and revolving selection of restaurants, had now dwindled to nothing at all and the whole thing is torn up by construction and fences covered in big blue tarp, and I didn’t realize it so I followed one of the fences, thinking a surprise sandwich shop would pop up somewhere surely, and instead all I got was a dead brick end and more blue tarp. I don’t know what the people who work in the research buildings over there (unless they’ve also shut down) eat.

I was super mad at this point, and had also been completely abandoned by everyone who could have given me a ride. I went back to the train station (lugging my roller bag the whole time, of course) and struck out in the opposite direction. Again, nothing. I came across a white plank coffee-shop that promised pastries inside, and flag waving at its curb said it was ‘open’. But I knew that was all a trick and sure enough it said ‘closed’ at the front door. I literally walked a mile till I came to a gas station and finally was able to add pop tarts, peanut m’n’ms and a bag of chips to the sum of the day’s sustenance.

Then I had to walk all the way back to the train station and wait for the bus (still 15 minutes away). I took first the Brown bus to the bus transit center; had to wait 15 minutes; and finally the Orange bus left for downtown Concord. I got off at the bus stop at 4.25 pm. So it had been over 7 hours since I boarded the bus in Chapel Hill, there had been practically nothing to eat anywhere along the way, and I’d traveled a distance of 100 miles. It’s like being back in the horse and buggy days, though even those probably can do 100 miles faster. You know, the buses are clunky but they at least did what they were scheduled to do. It was the stupid Amtrak that threw everything off.


The bus in Concord

They have something called the “Rider” bus system here. I think it’s six different routes, all color-coded. I needed to get to the train station last week, and I hate driving, and didn’t want to leave my car at the train station anyways, so I decided to take the bus.

My train left at 10:55. The bus was supposed to get to the train station at 10:48. I thought: yes, I know the bus will probably arrive late, but surely the 7 minutes cushion will smooth things over.

So I had my bag packed with presents for friends and a few changes of clothes, and I had an extra coat hanging on my hand for cooler evening weather, and I locked the door, walked out of the gravel driveway, a bit up the sidewalk, through a shady back lane, and there I was at the bus stop! I got to the bus stop at 10:00, and the Orange bus was supposed to get there at 10:07. So far, so good!

Because I was stress-free and didn’t have any big PhD dissertation hanging over my head, I got to instead look up at the blue summits of the sky and marvel at the perfect fall beauty of it, at least until 10:12 rolled around and there was still no bus. Five minutes late, huh? Surely the bus will be around soon. But then it became 10:15 and now the bus had exceeded my 7 minute cushion. It finally showed up, and bumbled its way down Church Street, around the mall, me egging it on in my head to go faster. Somehow, we made it to the transfer station at 10.26. I raced over to the Blue bus. The counter was re-set; my 7-minute cushion for the train was still intact.

At 10.31, the buses started bustling out of the transfer station driveway. Great job, I thought — you’re only 1 minute off schedule. But then, my Blue bus suddenly paused! All the buses were rolling out, except one which was sidelined, and for some reason, our Blue bus decided to wait politely for the sidelined bus to make its move. That’s very nice, but I had a train to catch. Now it was 10.32. We finally reached the street just as the light turned red. We waited at the light literally for 3 minutes. So it wasn’t until 10.35 that the bus actually started on its route. At a blow, my 7-minute cushion was cut to two.

We were supposed to get to the DSS at 10.38; instead, it was 10:48. Ten minutes late! By now, I was investigating whether any Lyft drivers could help out, but the earliest Lyft estimate arrived at the train station at 10.59. That wouldn’t help me either. At this point of accepting I was going to miss the train, the driver suddenly stepped on the gas. We exited onto a empty, lonely ramp surrounded by forest, passed the Kannapolis city limits, whirled by A.L. Brown High School – all within 2 minutes – and somehow at 10.52 we made it to the train station. According to the schedule, it’s supposed to take 10 minutes to get from DSS to Amtrak, but we did it in four. I made it with 3 minutes to spare. And the train itself was actually like 2 minutes late, so everything was fine, and soon I was whizzing through fields of yellow wildflowers, and little brown creeks flowing out of forests, and horses in pastures caught in a quick glimpse through trees, and small towns of central, rural North Carolina, with just the tiniest touch of pale yellow or dark red wreathing the landscape in tufts and drifts here and there.