The little engine that might. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The little engine that might. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I spent most of last night stuck on Amtrak's 8 p.m. Acela train from New York, finally stumbling home to bed as the clock dial crept toward 3 a.m. I was not alone in my sojourn; six trains were stalled in Philadelphia, and so, presumably, were more trains to the south, marooned by “mechanical problems involving the overhead electrical system” that occurred somewhere between Wilmington, Delaware, and Baltimore.

The most interesting thing about the experience, apart from watching the folks in front of me attempt to consume one of Amtrak’s galvanized chicken sandwiches, was how the Internet has changed the ordeal of being stranded on a train. Five years ago, if you were stranded on a train, well, you were stranded on a train -- that’s all. You waited there until someone told you something. You headed for the cafe car to hit the scotch before they ran out, and eventually, hopefully, they got you home.

Don’t get me wrong: 10 p.m. found me in the cafe car, as usual, explaining (truthfully) that the reason I needed another scotch and soda was that the cracked cup he gave me for the first one deposited the drink on my tray table rather than in my synapses. “I’m not here to judge,” he said, charging me for the replacement drink. Some things never do change.

But everything else was rather different. For one thing, I found out about the delay before they announced it because the business group in front of me had a colleague on the 5 p.m. train, which actually had to back up through Delaware because of the outage. That gave me a jump on researching hotel rooms when they stopped us in Philadelphia, as well as a diverting exercise in game theory: When Expedia reports that 712 other people are also searching for hotel rooms in Philadelphia at this moment, you have some strategic decisions to make.

I got more updates on the status from Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Twitter account than I did from our train operators. I even told at least one person on another train, where all passengers heard was an incomprehensible loudspeaker announcement, why we were stalled. And I had an amusing back-and-forth with a Smithsonian editor stuck on the Acela in front of me.

Because I decided not to get off the train and seek shelter in a local hotel, this didn’t much change the outcome for me; I still got in at 3 a.m., my hands so cold from walking to and from my car that I actually had to warm them with our space heater before I could lock up. But it did change how the experience felt. When you have very little information, you’re anxious and jumpy; every minute feels as if it’s passing in geologic time. My ability to monitor Amtrak’s Twitter feed -- and the supply of Philadelphia hotel rooms -- allowed me to relax and enjoy my scotch.

There’s no great lesson in this, really, but there is a thought: If you’d asked me to name the things that had changed in the last decade, this sort of thing would never have made my list. In fact, until I thought about it, remembering how recent Twitter and wireless Internet on Amtrak really are was hard. Technological progress is still improving our lives in ways we can’t really measure. But they are real improvements just the same.