June 2006 Archives

Amtrak Ergonomics

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I take Amtrak between Albany and New York City about six times a year to visit Petunia (and now Petunia and husband). I’ve learned not to expect much. The train rarely arrives on time, half the time it’s either too cold or too hot, and 80% of the time I'm subjected to 2 1/2 hours of Melissa’s divorce, Sol’s business deal, or Mandy’s shopping experience at the usual 100 decibel cell phone voice. I'm resigned to it. But just when I think that my expectations can’t go any lower, Amtrak rises to the occassion.

I sat down this week on the 2:45 out of Pennsylvania Station. The train boarded on time. It wasn’t crowded. I put my book and my Snapple on the empty seat next to me, my camera bag underneath, and began to settle in for the trip.

I picked up my book, dropped the tray table down, and leaned forward on my elbows to read. Little did I know that the tray table was, for some unknown reason, offset 5 inches to the left. My left elbow made contact. My right elbow had nothing to make contact with until it hit my right knee, six inches below the tray. That caused my whole body to tilt about 25 degrees to starboard, bringing my head in solid contact with the window. Maybe it was just the echo in my head, but the noise sounded like a projectile hitting the train window. It turns out I wasn't the only one.

The guy across the aisle flinched. The woman ahead of me got up and turned around to look. I gave them my best, sheepish, “don’t mind me, I’m a moron” grimace and busied myself by listing 25 degrees to port, successfully making contact with both elbows this time. Now I was ready to settle in for the trip.

I placed my paperback and the bottle of Snapple on the tray, picked up the book, and thumbed to my bookmark just in time to see the Snapple disappear over the far edge of the tray – not a surprising event when you consider that the tray tilted about 15 degrees down in the front (or up in the back if you prefer to look at things that way). Of course, it was surprising that I was able to see this because when you lean forward to do anything at the tray table your head blocks off all of the light from the overhead lamp.

After crawling under the seat in front to retrieve the (thankfully sealed) bottle, I decided to stow the Snapple in the seat back pocket in front of me. I reached over the handily tilted tray and tried to slide the bottle into the mesh pocket. It went in about 3 inches and struck something solid. Not having evolved much from my simian ancestors, it took 4 or 5 clunks before I realized that something was blocking the bottle’s egress. Finding out what it was required moving my book and elbows off the tray and folding it back up again. Much to my surprise, I found a folding footrest was the culprit.

I have long legs. Any trip on a plane or train thus involves regular maneuvering of my lower extremities at even more regular intervals to assure the minimal blood flow required to avoid gangrene. Short of a bulkhead seat, this rarely works, but I keep my legs going in the vain hope that I’ll be able to walk once the trip is over (or at least not throw a blood clot). Could this foot rest be a solution? There was only one way to find out. Down it came.

I put my feet in the foot rest, dropped down the tray table, got my book and began to settle in once again. It took all of 30 seconds to realize this wouldn’t work.

I don’t know for whom the foot rest was designed but it sure wasn’t for anyone over 4 feet tall. My knees were up against the underside of the tray, splayed outward – sort of in the same position they’d be in were I to get on a kid’s tricycle. My upper body was twisted 25 degrees to port and tilted 15 degrees forward. I looked like Stephen Hawking on a bad day. That’s when the conductor arrived and asked for my ticket. The ticket was in the camera bag under the seat. In order to reach it without taking 5 minutes to unfold my self-inflicted human origami, I had to lay my face on the tray table and reach under with all the finesse of a Frankenstein monster scratching his ass.

That broke this camel’s back. The conductor walked off, rolling his eyes. I folded up the tray table. I folded up the footrest. I swung diagonally on the seat, stretched my legs out to the seat front next to me, took up my book and settled in for the rest of the trip.

That’s when we made our first stop. The first person to board the train made beeline for the empty seat next to me. My. Empty. Seat. She had a suitcase, a handbag, a backpack, a shopping bag, and weighed no less than 300 pounds. She gave me a withering look.

I curled back up into my side of the seat and settled in for the rest of the trip.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

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