America was conquered by iron horses, those steam-powered stallions belching smoke and brawny promise across a raucous frontier. But today, the once-mighty passenger trains have devolved into a single, anemic and typically tardy line named Amtrak.
Adding insult to injury, the sad stepchild of a grand legacy seems manned mostly by sullen stewards and badge-toting goons, an insidious combo apparently intent upon driving away its few remaining customers.
Consider this indictment too harsh? Consider the story of Dr. Panayiotis Ellinas, his wife and their little boy.
On May 15, returning from California, they were summarily humiliated, yanked from an eastbound Amtrak in Tucson and forced to take a cab back to their home in Douglas. Which raises the question: Is this any way to run a railroad?
The Ellinas family's story begins, tragically, with the recent death of their unborn baby, and Dr. Ellinas' pending deployment to Iraq with the Army Medical Corps. To take a break from their loss and prepare for his departure, Ellinas--medical director of the Cochise County Health Department--decided to take his family on an Amtrak journey to Disneyland. His 2 1/2-year-old son simply loved trains.
They had re-boarded for the return trip, which was five hours behind schedule. At that point, the couple requested food for their boy, who was exhausted and feeling lousy. When they were ignored by the attendant, they twice went to the dining car, where they were turned away and told that food had to be delivered to their cabin. They again tried to get something from the attendant, who Ellinas identifies as Guy Hancock.
At this point, Hancock "ran away irate, calling for the conductor," Ellinas says, "screaming that this guy--meaning me--was being pushy."
The conductor, whom Ellinas identifies as "Mr. Lu," came to the cabin and apologized for the incident. At that point, Hancock ran back to the cabin and tried to take food order. When Dr. Ellinas squeezed past Hancock in the narrow corridor, "the attendant ran away again screaming as loud as he could," Ellinas says.
And again, says Ellinas, the conductor returned, asking the couple not to make a complaint against Hancock since it could damage the attendant's career. "I got the feeling that this situation had occurred before," Ellinas says. "But Mr. Lu made sure my little boy finally got something to eat."
In hindsight, this all could be considered an unfortunate, rather comical farce--if it had ended there. But it did not.
When the train reached Tucson later that afternoon, a pair of railroad officers climbed onboard, ordered the doctor out of his cabin and frisked him. One of the officers, whom Ellinas identifies as a Mr. Arrendondo, reportedly yelled in the doctor's face that he "should keep his hands off of his crew." In addition, the train cop threatened to contact the Benson station where the family had begun their journey, "and alert them to keep an eye on (Ellinas) during his future travels with Amtrak" since he was now a noted troublemaker.
"The guy was a Rambo," Ellinas says, "who didn't remove his Ray-Ban sunglasses the whole time."
At that point, the conductor returned yet again, smoothed the ruffled feathers, and left. At which point, Ellinas recalls, Arrendondo "screamed back, 'Mr. Lu is not available! I'm the boss here, I decide!'" Apparently, the train cop had decided to let the family remain on the train.
The cops left and crisis seemed over--until Ellinas stepped outside with his crying boy for some fresh air. At that point, he says, Arrendondo approached him again, saying he'd "changed his mind" and that the family should immediately leave the train.
So in the steamy afternoon, the Douglas doctor and his family dragged their luggage to the nearest ATM and withdrew enough cash for a 120-mile taxi ride home.
If any skepticism lingered about the characterizations of Dr. Ellinas, those concerns were dispelled when a Tucson Weekly reporter contacted the Amtrak public affairs office in Oakland. In a brief, hyperventilated conversation with a screaming spokeswoman named Vernae Graham, there was no information gained. Instead, Graham was combative and completely elusive, refusing to cite Amtrak policy regarding the removal of passengers.
Several days later, a calm and polite Amtrak spokeswoman named Sarah Swain tracked down details on the Ellinas incident. "With regards to why the family was pulled off the train," said Swain, "the staff was not happy with their treatment by the passenger, and they report that there was physical contact."
According to Swain, passengers don't remain on the train "if they make employees feel uncomfortable or threatened." In particular, Swain says the conductor was "not happy with what was going on."
Attempts to contact Mr. Lu or Guy Hancock were unsuccessful.
Swain added that the Ellinas family was removed by Union Pacific Railroad cops, who assist Amtrak upon request.
However, a call to Union Pacific revealed yet another contradictory story. "Amtrak contacted us that they wanted a passenger taken off the train," says UP spokesman John Bromley from his Omaha office. "That's a decision made by the train crew. In this case, the train came into Tucson, and our special agents stood by while the Amtrak conductor escorted the man off the train.
"Our special agent did not engage in any discussion or argument with the passenger," Bromley says. "That was the conductor from Amtrak."
That's bull, says Ellinas. "Everything was handy dandy with the conductor. And that's when we were removed by Mr. Rambo. The conductor wasn't even present when we were taken off."
Regardless of who yanked who, why was this family removed from the train?
Fear could be a possibility. Ellinas and his wife are dark-skinned natives of Cyprus, and he speaks with a pronounced accent. But if security was a concern, it certainly wasn't evident when a shady looking Tucson Weekly reporter visited the downtown Tucson Amtrak station. The reporter overheard griping passengers awaiting a train already three hours late. Then he loitered along the empty tracks, trying to raise eyebrows. When the train finally arrived, the reporter intently sat his suspicious shoulder bag next to a passenger car. And there it sat unattended for 20 minutes, completely unnoticed by Amtrak officials busily catching a quick smoke.
"I've come to learn that Amtrak is notorious for bad service," says a still-bitter Dr. Ellinas. "They've basically been bankrupt for as long as I can remember, and now I understand why."