Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Train across America

posted by Rod Dreher

Sorry for the ultralight posting, folks. I’ve been traveling since early this morning, having been in Philadelphia this week to start my new job, and am completely wiped out. More substantive and frequent posting tomorrow, promise.

I did want to put a question to the room about cross-country train travel in America. I’ve taken long(ish) train journeys in western Europe, which I find very pleasant. I’ve only taken the train in the US between Washington and New York, which I find … not so pleasant. The Acela, okay, fine. But very costly, and still slow. Oh, once in the summer of 2000, Julie, toddler Matthew and I took Amtrak from Grand Central Station all the way to northern Vermont, to escape the heat. It’s no fun traveling with little children on the train, at least not for the nine hours it took us to get to Vermont (we could have driven in the same amount of time). But had it been just the two of us, I would have enjoyed the scenery, being able to read while in transit, and being able to walk around and stretch my legs.

Now, the reason I’m thinking about this tonight is I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth it to convince my parents to come see us in Philadelphia on Amtrak. I looked into it, and they can catch the Crescent in either New Orleans or Hammond, La., and ride it straight through to Philadelphia. It takes a bit more than 28 hours, which is quite a haul. But the coach seats look very comfy, and you can rent a two-person sleeper for $168 extra. The fare is comparable to an airplane far, though the trip takes about six times longer (though you do spare yourself having to change planes in Atlanta).

My dad’s doctor won’t let him fly anymore because of his health (heart condition). A train trip would be ideal, because it would allow him to get up and walk around in transit. But a 28 hour train ride is pretty brutal, no matter how comfortable. I think I might enjoy it — again, traveling without kids — but I’m not sure how two older folks like my parents would take it, especially given that my dad has a bad back. 

It’s a pity that America doesn’t have better train service, and a more robust culture of train travel. Problem is, once you get to your destination, it may be difficult to get far without a car anyway. In Texas, people keep talking about how nice it would be to have high-speed train service between cities in the Houston-Dallas-Austin triangle. True — but once you got off the train in any one of those cities, you’d be stranded unless you had a car. Might as well just drive.

Tell me about your train journeys across America, both good and bad. Or good/bad train journeys anywhere.



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A mom

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:12 am


Took Amtrak cross-country last year, from Milwaukee to Glacier Park. It was about a 24 hour trip one-way, comparable to what your parents would have. We had the two-person sleepers (roomettes, I think they call them); they are TINY, and I can’t imagine your parents using the top bunk. There are family sleeping rooms that are more expensive but would probably suit your parents much better, however. I would never recommend that they just go coach; it’s virtually impossible to sleep in a coach car due to constant foot traffic, noise, lights, and discomfort.
On the way out, we had a fantastic young steward – a college kid, doing his last runs before graduating – who knew that the service should be so good that the train trip would be like a land cruise. However, on the way back, we had a typical government-issue steward who didn’t give a rat’s patoot about us or our needs or comfort.
Bathrooms were tiny but usually clean. (The larger sleeping rooms include their own bathroom, otherwise there are shared facilities down the steps on the lower level of the car.) The shower facilities also were in pretty good shape. (Again, this is on the Empire Builder which was completely renovated a few years back; other lines might not be so nice.)
If you travel first class (which is your status if you have a sleeper), meals are free and reasonably good (at least on the Empire Builder, that is, but I understand that train is the last one to have an actual chef on board with fresh cooked meals; the rest have switched to “airline” food, sadly.)
Anyway, our train experience was a mixed bag and none of us (there were three couples) plan to do it again, I’m afraid. In my opinion, it’s not a pity that we don’t have more trains; it’s a pity that so many people want to pour more of our tax money down the money-pit of train travel and light rail.



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Japhy Ryder

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:36 am


No major experience with train travel. Just once, I took a train from Jackson, MI to Chicago to spend the weekend with my brother. Trip out was fine, trip back we hit 2 cars (no one injured, luckily) and it took something like 8 or 9 hours.
However, if that’s your parents only mode of transportation, short of someone driving them in a camper (or renting one themselves and making the drive over a couple days) and they are “up” for it, I would think the family sleeper the first poster talked about would be great.



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SteveM

posted January 7, 2010 at 5:33 am


Rod,
North-South trains in the East run on CSX tracks. So are often pushed off to sidings to allow freight train to pass. Sometimes for hours.
So arrival times can be very late. But as long as your parents know what to expect, “Serenity now…”



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Nick the Greek

posted January 7, 2010 at 6:13 am


I never got the opportunity to travel by train when I lived in the States, but always thought that a high speed rail network would be preferable to the hell of flying, even short-haul flights.



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Jon

posted January 7, 2010 at 6:33 am


Re: It’s no fun traveling with little children on the train, at least not for the nine hours it took us to get to Vermont
I have friends in Chicago with two young daughters and they prefer to take the train when they travel back to Detroit to visit family, since the children can move about more, there are restrooms readily at hand, etc.



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Pedro

posted January 7, 2010 at 8:22 am


When my mother-in-law moved up to the DC area from Alabama last year (both her daughters now live here), she took the overnight train from Birmingham to Alexandria, VA. She is in her early sixties and has a knee replacement, but enjoyed the trip up and said she would do it again and greatly preferred it to making the trip by car. She even seemed to think it preferable to flying Southwest from Birmingham to BWI due to the comparable ease of dealing with the train station versus airport security and the fact that the train station was only 5 minutes from our house, whereas BWI is at least an hour away.



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Ostrea

posted January 7, 2010 at 8:40 am


My train travel in the U.S. has been limited to short trips in the Northeast but I can tell you of two friends who took long trips – Dallas to Chicago and Dallas to Los Angeles – and said they never would do it again. The friend who took a train to LA did so with his wife and 3 kids for a family vacation. His wife refuses to fly. He and his family were so miserable that they got off somewhere short of LA (Palm Springs if I remeber correctly), rented a car and drove the rest of the way to LA and drove back to Dallas. I have travelled all over Western Europe by train and would recommend train travel there but I will stick to flying and driving in this country on long trips.



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naturalmom

posted January 7, 2010 at 8:40 am


My family and I have traveled by train from East Lansing, MI to Chicago with kids. They were almost 5 and almost 7 at the time. It was much preferable to driving, especially for our son who doesn’t travel well by car since he can’t take being immobile for that long! They also loved the over-priced, junky food. (What I think they really loved was that they could walk 3 cars back all by themselves to go get it!)
I have traveled coach overnight a few times between Michigan and Boston — about 18 to 20 hours total — but that was when I was in college. Most times the train was empty enough in the middle of the night that I could find a set of empty seats and lie more or less horizontal to sleep. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the people on the train, the scenery, and the time to read and just chill.
As for older travelers, I have a friend in her 70’s who takes the train from Michigan to California (SF area) every year for a month-long visit with friends and relatives. The trip takes several days each way, and she views it as part of the vacation. I think it’s not a breeze (what kind of travel is at that age?) but she mostly enjoys it and tolerates it well enough to do it every year. She is in good internal health, but has some limitations of strength and movement. I think the ability to move about freely on the train is helpful for her.



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naturalmom

posted January 7, 2010 at 8:43 am


Seeing all the mixed reviews, I wonder if the line you are traveling makes a difference? Perhaps some offer better service/meals/amenities than others?



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Joe Magarac

posted January 7, 2010 at 8:44 am


I’ve taken Amtrak on long trips twice, once in 1992 and again in 2001.
The 1992 trip was from Pittsburgh (home) to Glacier Park, Montana (summer job) and it was great: the seats were comfortable, there was plenty of room to walk, and the dining car had real food served with real plates and silverware. I was seated with different people at each meal, and the conversations were always interesting. All in all, a great trip.
The 2001 trip was from Pittsburgh (home) to Portland, Oregon (honeymoon), and it was absolutely miserable. Amtrak’s budget was repeatedly cut from 1992-2001, and boy did it show. My wife and I stayed in a sleeper car that didn’t seem to have been cleaned since the 1970s; she refused to even try the shower out of fear that it would make her dirtier and not cleaner. Our cabin steward was a very odd male – not a transvestite exactly, but he wore more makeup than I’ve ever seen on a member of either gender before or since. The dining car served pre-packaged food on paper plates.
I recognize that both of these trips were a while back. But it appears that Amtrak’s budget has been cut even more since my 2001 trip, and given that fact I would not recommend having your parents take a long train trip to Philadelphia.



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Zak

posted January 7, 2010 at 9:37 am


I took the train from Chicago to DC overnight 8 years ago, and had a coach seat. My back and neck were sore for a week from sleeping in awkward positions. I had taken it from DC to Chicago two weeks before, and that was better, but mostly because I stayed up all night and read in the observation car. It’s nice to be able to walk around and get a snack. I’ve met a number of friendly people on all the Amtrak rides I’ve taken in recent years.



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Frog Leg

posted January 7, 2010 at 9:53 am


I took Amtrak for a long trip in 1993 (Dallas–> multi-day layover in Chicago –> Los Angeles) and have taken several shorter trips (mainly Chicago East Lansing) since. It can be frustrating. The problems mentioned earlier with freight travel happen all over Amtrak’s lines. The food is so-so. I didn’t spend the money for the sleeper car (I was 22 then after all). However, I found it overall very comfortable and enjoyable.
I also spent a semester in Rome when I was at UD, with a 2 month Eurailpass for the long weekends, which I used for some very long trips, such as when I spent 44 hours going from Lisbon back to Rome. I don’t think the European trains were any better. They certainly weren’t cleaner, more comfortable, or had any better food. They certainly had their delays too. But they tolerate it better there. I think that it is certain uniquely American personality characteristics that renders most Americans incapable of putting up with train travel.



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Joshua

posted January 7, 2010 at 9:59 am


My wife and I have twice taken the Vermonter, once down to Delaware and back to our home in Vermont, and once back from Washington, DC when plane travel was not cooperating. Our stop in Vermont (Essex Junction) is the penultimate on the line, so for all intents and purposes we have ridden the train for its entire route.
While it was certainly a much longer trip than a flight would have been, the fare was cheaper and there was NO STRESS. At an airport there’s always the rigmarole with getting to the airport hours ahead of time, making sure all the bags are the right weight, and then hoping there are no delays and problems with connecting flights. To say nothing of the pseudo-claustrophobic experience of flying!
In contrast, we got on the train and then got off at our stop. While on the train, we had every opportunity to walk around to stretch our legs, and the seats were spacious enough to recline if we needed. There were also wall sockets for those who thought to bring their laptop (we brought books). We also brought our own food and liquids without enduring the kind of hassle we would have with airport security.
I’d also like to respond to the critics who think that spending money on train travel is a waste. I think that many of these people are viewing our current sorry state of train travel in the US and assuming this state is inherent to trains. On that view, more money *would* be a waste! But a lot of the problems with train travel stem precisely from a lack of funding. For example, on our Vermonter route we often have to stop at a station for a lengthy spell in order to let a priority freight train pass through. Yet if the sidings were upgraded even the tiniest bit, this problem would disappear, increasing average speeds all around! By way of analogy with highway travel: imagine if every highway were only one lane, and tractor-trailer trucks could compel passenger cars to wait at the nearest town until they came through. Would we say that highways were a money-pit, or would we realize that our way of creating and utilizing highway infrastructure was flawed? The fact is, train travel – if the infrastructure properly funded – is an amazingly efficient and cost-effective way of moving travelers and cargo.
Sorry I got on my soapbox there, Rod! As you can tell, I have a dog in the rail v. road fight.
Anyway, my recommendation is that your family should certainly take the train if time is not an issue and they can find a car suitable for their needs. Bring lots of books!



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Jeff Sullivan

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:08 am


My wife and I and our four children took a short train trip in August 2009 in Quebec. We travelled north from a tiny place called Rivière-à-Pierre to Lac Bouchette, about three-and-a-half hours away. The scenery was beautiful and the train was quaint, stopping just about anywhere travellers asked to disembark, as the train is (in some spots) the only way to access wilderness camps and cabins. The rail line was built in 1888, so needless to say it winds a lot and the train never goes very fast.
But it was a lovely time, with very nice people on the train and great service from Via Rail. The only drawback was not having our car with us when we got to Lac Bouchette, which meant having to walk a fair distance to get to the place where we stayed the weekend, and having to rely on restaurants instead of being able to drive to the local grocery store to load up on food to cook ourselves.
Many years ago, when living in Toronto, I took the train a couple of times to Montreal, and it’s just as quick as driving, and much more comfortable. But that’s a high-speed rail corridor and the experience is much different.
For your parents, Rod, I’d recommend the train if they get a large room (unless your mom likes the idea of climbing to an upper bunk) and if they don’t mind a 28-hour trip.



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NOLA Gian

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:09 am


You can catch the “Crescent” in N.O., but not in Hammond. It’s the “City of New Orleans” to Chicago which stops in Hammond.
Personally, I love traveling by train. I’ve ridden the “Crescent” 3 times: once to D.C. & back, & twice to Greensboro, NC, & back. I’ve ridden the “City of New Orleans” numerous times on the way to Kalamazoo for the “International Congress on Medieval Studies.” It’s a wonderful way to see the American countryside.
If they decide to visit you by train, I would recommend that your parents get sleeping car accomodations b/c they would have a sleeping car attendant to turn to for assistance. Also, it’s been the policy in the past that those in the sleeping car aren’t charged for meals in the dining car. Last time I rode was 2008, so I don’t know if that’s still the policy.
I’ve met a number of retired people who travel across the country by train, so if your parents are gregarious, they’ll have an opportunity to meet interesting people in the dining or club cars. (Sleeping car accomodations are isolating, b/c they’re self contained. You have to go to the club car or dining car to meet people.) Some trains show movies in the club car.
Besides the longer stops in major cities, the train also makes smoking stops for 20 minutes or so in other cities, so you can get out & walk around on the platform.
I hope this information helps.



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AMH

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:14 am


I had friends and relatives who took the Crescent from Philly to Atlanta when we lived there – generally comfortable but it was a long trip for everyone. ALso, one of the delays is when they switch from electric to diesel (I think in Washington.)
I also agree with Frog Leg regarding rail travel in the EU. And it really depends where you are going in Europe when you travel by train – Paris to Brussels, perfect. But most people are not taking the train from Paris to Moscow, which would be similar to NOLA to Philly.



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Bill

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:24 am


I’m a train nut. As a child in the early sixties, my parents took me on all of the long distance train routes in the US (Empire Builder, Colorado Zephyr, California Zephyr, Super Chief, Hiawatha, etc). They were out of this world in terms of comfort and just plain fun. Unfortunately, those days are gone. If you ride Amtrak now, you have to be ready for anything. With luck, everything will go smoothly. Otherwise, you’ll get socked with delays and glitches. But if you have time on your hands, the train is still a fine way to go (and a hell of a lot more comfortable then either driving or flying).
As you know, train travel in Europe is still top rate. My daughter used to live in Switzerland, and we’ve spent many, many hours on Swiss trains. Pure joy. Always on time, always clean, superbly comfortable, reasonably priced. And with a wide cross-section of the community riding.
With peak oil coming at us and air travel getting less and less enjoyable, perhaps the US will reinvest in passenger rail and bring back some semblance of the Golden Era of American rail travel.



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Badger

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:33 am


This would seem to be an argument against moving a 1000 miles away from your parents. Perhaps this is just going to be a trip you are going to have to make rather than your parents.



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Anne

posted January 7, 2010 at 11:32 am


I love the train, and have traveled extensively on both short and long distance ones. I’ve gone across country twice (Lakeshore Limited from Boston to Chicago, then the Empire Builder from Chi to Seattle), twice to Chicago from Boston, again from Boston to Dallas and back; City of New Orleans to Chicago then to DC on the Capitol Ltd, and have done the DC to Boston stretch more times than I care to count while my husband and I were dating, and continuing after we moved in and married in DC to visit family in the Boston area. This was both pre- and post Acela.
Overnight rooms on western trains are far superior than the ones on Eastern trains. Empire Builder (Chi to West coast) and the Chi to Texas train (Texas Eagle?) both have two-level trains, they are newer, more comfortable, more spacious, and you can get various room sizes that an attendent will convert for you at bedtime. I have done both coach and sleeper compartments on the western trains, and even coach was comfortable. There’s both a club car and a formal dining car which is much like a restaurant. I’m not sure if they still have them, but on the overnight western trains there was a downstairs smoking car as recently as 2005 I think? There are zero smoking areas on the eastern trains, but many stops are 5/10/20 mins where you can get out on the platform to smoke if it’s outdoors.
On the older, eastern trains, as said, the sleeper compartments are smaller, but still more pleasant compared to flying, IMO. Again, attendents will assist with converting the table/chairs to beds in the evening. I do think there’s a dining car on the long distance eastern trains, too, in addition to a club car, and also the attendent will bring your food if you are in a sleeper.
The short distance northeast trains aren’t bad, unless you are travelling on an unreserved train (general coach admission type of thing) on a busy train, or on a busy weekend (any long weekend and you’ll get loads of college kids going home or elsewhere). They do over-sell, and you could possibly end up sitting on the floor, which has happened to me quite a bit – luckily it was mostly back when I was in my 20s, met great people who bought me drinks, and had great times while roughing it like that! On the non-Acela trains, when they’re busy, or even when they’re not, be prepared for unexpected inconveniences. I once took the late night train from DC to Boston in a snowstorm, and I kid you not but the train doors froze OPEN somewhere around Baltimore, and stayed that way at least until Providence. Cold doesn’t begin to describe it. Still, it’s funny in retrospect. :)
In all, though, I much prefer the train to flying. People are more pleasant, even when things go wrong (and that includes the staff – I’ve heard people complain about Amtrak staff, but I have never had a bad experience with them, other than being hit on by a conductor, and even that was more amusing than annoying. Can’t say the same for airline staff, who have almost uniformly been rude, in my experience), it’s more comfortable, and much more interesting and memorable. You really do get a sense of place when you’re travelling by train that you don’t get when you just go from one big airport terminal to another, and get to meet and talk to some great folks.
I’d say that from LA to PA, Rod, your parents would do well to get a sleeper, and with the assistance they’d get from staff, they’d probably enjoy it very much. They can either take the Crescent or the City of NO to Chi and then the Capitol Ltd to PA, which might give them a layover in Chi. But if I remember correctly, the station in Chi isn’t far from the Art Museum (at least, I remember having a few hours layover there once, and being able to walk from the station to see some of the museum, and then have lunch), so it might give them something to enjoy on the way out to see you.
Would love to see more Americans support rail travel, and see some faster rail service (Acela doesn’t even come close to what most countries with good rail service have)! Good luck Rod, with your move, and your parents’ travels!



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Marian

posted January 7, 2010 at 11:44 am


Haven’t ridden Amtrak in some years, but back in the ’70s (when I was also in law school), I used to do a lot of business travel between Chicago and Philly or DC. My colleague was a train freak (spent the rest of his life working for Amtrak) who planned my itinerary carefully and knew not only the official schedules but the REAL schedules, and the quality of meal service and other amenities on each line. I really liked it because (back then) the phone didn’t ring and I could concentrate and work when I needed to and then relax and enjoy the scenery. I studied for three sets of finals and the bar exam on the Broadway Limited and passed them all, kept thinking I owed Amtrak a testimonial. There was a lovely dogwood-covered river bank in western VA (I think) where we almost always sat for half an hour or so letting a slow freight go by. Dunno what it’s like now. I did take the train from Chicago to Springfield ten years ago or so for a job interview, but remember nothing about the trip. You need to talk to somebody like my former colleague, who really knows the train system.



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Geoff B.

posted January 7, 2010 at 11:56 am


I’d advocate for more local train service before the long distance runs. There is talk about re-installing streetcar service here in downtown Colorado Springs, but I’m skeptical that it will go anywhere. I loved living a block from the Chicago “El” for 8 years.
I’ve been on many great train rides all over Japan and got all over France by train, though an overnite train from Toulouse to Geneva was a bit much with hundreds of drunk Germans singing loudly through the nite.
I’ve done the overnite Amtrak from Chicago to DC and back, arriving completely exhaused each time. Not worse than if I drove during the same hours, but if I drove I would not drive all night.
Once gas prices go back up over $4/gallon train travel will look more appealing.



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s

posted January 7, 2010 at 11:56 am


I take Amtrak a couple of times a year and love it. Train travel is much less stressful than air travel. The roomettes are tiny and I would not recommend for two people, especially if one has any mobility issues. There are two additional types of rooms available: “family bedrooms” and “bedrooms”. I think the “bedroom” would be perfect for your parents. I’ve noticed prices can change and sometimes the bedrooms are cheaper than the roomette.
I’ve always met lots of interesting people on the train. I’m very much an introvert, but there is something about the train that brings out the extrovert in me.



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Kevin Cassidy

posted January 7, 2010 at 12:08 pm


The train culture could blossom if something like Zipcar (http://www.zipcar.com/) became more prevalent.



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David J. White

posted January 7, 2010 at 12:21 pm


but once you got off the train in any one of those cities, you’d be stranded unless you had a car
But Rod, isn’t that already the case when you fly anywhere? When you arrive at the airport in a city, you’re stranded there — unless someone picks you up, or you rent a car. If passenger train travel ever becomes relatively more common in this country again, look for rental car companies to open offices in or near the train station. As it is, someone taking a train now could try to arrange for a rental car in advance, and then take a cab from the train station to the rental car office. I’m just saying, there are ways to do this without being completely stranded. And in Philadelphia, both the Amtrak trains and the commuter rail lines come into 30th Street Station. I don’t know where you’re living, but it should be possible to figure out a connection for your parents to take, unless they rent a car or you pick them up.
BTW, I love 30th Street Station in Philadelphia! It’s one the grand, monumental old train stations. (BTW, in the Harrison Ford movie Witness, the murder takes place in the men’s room in 30th Street Station, ;-) )
The only moderately long train trip I’ve ever taking in this country was riding Amtrak between Chicago and my home town of Akron, Ohio (where, I think, the train now no longer stops). That was in 1990 — my goodness, that’s now *20* years ago! I was riding with a friend, and I remember that I had a really good NY strip steak dinner in the dining car, for $13.00.
The only time I’ve ever ridden in a sleeper car was in Europe, between Paris and Basel.
I have taken a bus trip across country — from Akron to New Orleans, then back. Even a bad train ride would have been preferable to spending that amount of time on a bus.



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Kevin F.

posted January 7, 2010 at 12:56 pm


As SteveM pointed out, the main reason for slowness on trains in the US is that Amtrak rents the tracks from freight companies, which give priority to their own trains. When they had their own trains pre-Amtrak they were faster.
That said, trains in Europe can be a pain too. I took the night train from Brussels to Berlin. Unfortunately, it started in Paris, and when I got to my 2nd class sleeper car, all but one of the top berths were filled with sleeping bodies. They are configured 3 high, and I had to climb up with my luggage in the dark, stepping on unknown body parts and receiving curses in several languages. When I asked for help from a conductor I got a “not my problem” Gallic shrug…



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Andy

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:08 pm


I’ve taken a number of long train trips: SF to Boston, SF to Austin, Southern Georgia to Boston, among others. I’d echo the others that the Western lines are better. Trains in the East are old and a bit shabby, crew not particularly friendly, the whole experience more utilitarian. In the West the experience is more like a “land cruise”, with the crew jollying you along and passengers in a holiday mood. Sometimes you’ll even get a tour guide narrating points of interest in the sightseeing car. One of my fondest memories is of taking the Zephyr to Chicago, rounding that last bend in the Rockies just at sunset, while sharing a meal with strangers in the dining car, and seeing the great plains stretching out below me to infinity.
Even though the N’Awlins/Philly trek promises to be less spectacular, I’d still recommend it to your parents. Train travel may not be the fastest or most efficient way to get from place to place, but it’s still the most comfortable. You arrive at your destination less frazzled, and you have a chance to meet people and see some sights along the way.



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Peter

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm


BTW, I love 30th Street Station in Philadelphia! It’s one the grand, monumental old train stations. (BTW, in the Harrison Ford movie Witness, the murder takes place in the men’s room in 30th Street Station, ;-) )
Absolutely. And your ambivalence about Northeast Corridor trains–the slow ones–may wain now that you live between DC and NYC. There’s no better way to get to either city than the train.



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absurdbeats

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm


I’ve only ridden short-haul routes (Seattle-Vancouver; Montreal-Toronto), but I much prefer train to air travel.
Given the many perceptive comments, above, it seems that among the questions your folks should ask of themselves is whether they see the travel portion as PART OF the trip or vacation, or as a means to get TO the vacation.
If they’re willing to see travel as an integral part of the trip, they might be up for the train. You can get up and walk around, engage other travelers, or just stare out the window watching the country flow by. It’s much less stressful than gripping the steering wheel and having to keep your eyes pasted to the road.
Yeah, there will be delays and likely some problems, but, as the Car Talk brothers note, it’s often those event which make the trip memorable. If your parents can take these things in stride, they might just enjoy the ride.



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Christopher Parker

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:36 pm


The sleeping car really does make a difference, although the coach seats are indeed as big as airline first class. But being horizontal is worth a lot. Keep in mind that the sleeping car fare also includes food (good food, like that steak) in the dinning car for no extra charge (except tip).
A lot depends on attitude. We’re conditioned from driving and flying to think of travel as only a way to get from one place to the other. But trains (and boats) are nice environments. The key is to bring a book, get some work done, enjoy the scenery, and otherwise use the time well instead of just waiting to get there.
A lot depends on the children as well. Some kids *really* love trains. A child of the right age can be really free on the train, run around on their own and make friends with all the grandmothers and so forth. Perhaps it depends on their capacity for self-entertainment?



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JB

posted January 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm


Amtrak coach is very comfortable for daytime and minor snoozing, not comfortable at all for us older folks who need our 8 hours in a prone position. But the real alternative here is Greyhound (or its equivalents) which is even more uncomfortable to sleep on.



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David J. White

posted January 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm


Absolutely. And your ambivalence about Northeast Corridor trains–the slow ones–may wain now that you live between DC and NYC. There’s no better way to get to either city than the train.
Rod, here’s a tip from when I lived in Philadelphia: If you want to take the train to New York, and you’re not in a hurry, it’s a lot cheaper to take the commuter trains than it is to take Amtrak. Take SEPTA (the Philadelphia area transit system) to Trenton, and in Trenton change to the New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station. It might take about an hour longer than Amtrak, and the train makes most of the local stops; but it is relaxing, and quite a bit cheaper. In the early 90s it cost a total of $22 round-trip between 30st St. Station in Philadelphia and Penn Station in New York. I’m sure it’s gone up since then, but so has Amtrak. It works well for day trip — again, if you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind getting home late in the evening.
***
I remember around 1990 or so there was a period of airline fare wars, and Southwest was offering a $19 (yes, you read that right, nineteen dollars) one-way fare between BWI airport (Baltimore-Washington International) and Cleveland. I didn’t really need to go back to Ohio right then, but I figured I might as well visit my parents for the weekend, and anyway I wanted to be able to say that I’d flown on a plane for *$19*, which even in 1990 was unbelievably cheap. I remember I took Amtrak from Philadelphia to the BWI airport (there is an Amtrak terminal near the airport). My Amtrak fare from Philadelphia to BWI was more than my airfare from BWI to Cleveland. ;-)



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Shelley

posted January 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm


In December of 1989 the colcano near anchorage blew open, grounding all flights to Anchorage. Jerry and I were scheduled to fly home from Fairbanks to Anchorage for Christmas. I was 8 months pregnant. We took the train from Fairbanks to Anchorage instead. This was before the Alaska Railroad had formal passenger service. They had only one passenger car that ran once a week. The rest of the cars were freight. Jerry and I and about 6 other peopel were the only passengers and the ride took 11 hours!!! Driving would have taken 8.
BUT! It was LOVELY! We saw Mt Mckinley better than I’ve ever seen it and every Alaskan animal except bear! We stopped at various cabins in the middle of NOWHERE to unload basic living supplies to these homesteaders. It was RELAXED! We could get up and walk around (a big deal when you are 8 month’s pregnant) and we visited with the train conductor a number of times. On the return trip were were able to bring back a huge rug and all sorts of other things that the airlines won’t let you transport. I feel LUCKY to have had this experience because it was a piece of history, the original Alaska Railroad, the way it has operated for nearly 100 years in Alaska.
I don’t know if it would be like that in the lower 48 for your parents, but I know the views would be fun and the pace is much more restful.



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Rosebud1

posted January 7, 2010 at 4:46 pm


If they are going to do it, spring for a room! I went from Chicago to California via coach a couple years back and found it to be very unpleasant. Maybe I am just one of those Americans obsessed with hygiene, but spending four days or more in a small compartment with people who don’t even bother to change their clothes each day or wash (there is no shower, even for long trips if you are in coach) was pretty gross. Couple that with people bringing very stinky food on the train and eating in their seats (prices in the dining room were sky high). Though this won’t be a problem for your folks, who will presumably sit together, I was traveling as a single female and was very uncomfortable constantly being seated next to a single man by the car attendant (who controls seating with an iron fist) because it meant we essentially slept right next to each other in a darkened compartment. When I spoke to an employee about this, they would just look at me blankly. Customer service in coach was pretty much nonexistent. As others have mentioned, the delays are significant. Sometimes we just sat in a field for four hours straight and no one knew why.
Personally I found the trip ardous and uncomfortable.



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Your Name

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:35 pm


Rod, you lived in Dallas 100 years too late. :) Around 1910 Dallas had a great regional train called the Interurban. Traveling at 60 mph, it ran from Waco to Dallas/FW and up to Sherman-Denison. Would take 2 hours from Waco to Dallas or Denison to Dallas. It was also privately funded by investors.



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BAM in RI

posted January 7, 2010 at 11:09 pm


Rod, I come from a railroad family (father, several aunts were employees of the long-gone New Haven RR).
Many train trips back in the fifties, sixties, the heyday of passenger trains in this country and many wonderful memories! Trips from Boston to Chicago to Yellowstone Park, to Florida, many trips in college Boston-South Bend and return.
Still, I think the truncated system we have today is not bad at all. I grabbed an Amtrak system timetable in South Station this evening before getting on my commuter train to RI, just to bring myself up to speed re The Crescent. I’m a train nut so I knew what the consist of The Crescent would be: coaches, diner, lounge car and two or three Viewliner sleepers.
Leaves NO about 7 am arriving in Philly a little after noon the next day.
I would spend the extra money for a room. Trying to sleep overnight in coach is not very pleasant but I have never had a problem sleeping in a sleeper. As others have pointed out sleeping car passengers get their meals included with the price of the room. I would think that on The Crescent that would include breakfast, lunch, dinner and at least breakfast the next day. That’s a not-inconsiderable perk!!
The Viewliner sleeper cars are fairly new. The roomettes are not large but I think they would be adequate for your parents.
Go to the Amtrak website. It will give you lots of info and also on-time performance of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. The Crescent, for example, has an on-time rating of, I think, about 84% for the last year.
Sure, flying has its advantages and if you are going to Europe there is really no alternative. The most unpleasant air trip for me was back in September when I flew from Boston to Zurich tourist class in an AirBus A340-300: squashed in a seat such that it was impossible to find a comfortable position to sleep!



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BAM in RI

posted January 7, 2010 at 11:43 pm


Oh, and one more thing:
Amtrak has a shortage of sleeping cars, so make reservations well in advance of travel. I would say three months.



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AnotherBeliever

posted January 8, 2010 at 2:10 am


I’ve taken 12 or 14 hour train rides, and it’s not bad at all IF you get a sleeper car. You still might not sleep much (if your stop is early in the morning you will find yourself waking at every stop, afraid you missed yours. But the train attendants WILL wake you up in time. Have faith!)
I really wish we had a high speed rail system here. It’s technically feasible to have a train line that would get you from Dallas to Chicago in nine or ten hours. Currently it takes 22 hours! We are falling behind the rest of the world. China and Russia both have more miles of high speed rail than we do.
If we were at all serious about weaning ourselves off oil, we’d just do it. But if we were at all serious about that, we’d also change our entire agriculture system. And our entire urban planning system. Fact is, we aren’t serious.



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Brian Kaller

posted January 8, 2010 at 6:15 am


I took a train across the Midwest when I visited the USA last summer, and wrote about it here:
http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2009/09/09/opinion-open-letter-amtrak



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Your Name

posted January 8, 2010 at 10:36 am


A lot depends on your route. Trains going west from Chicago seem to have the greatest customer satisfaction. (Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief) Those south out of Chicago, not so much. Train traffic and delays, largely determined by the owner of the track, make significant differences. But it is a transportation mechanism that has a future. You get the rails to handle 125 MPH+, limit the stops and preclude joint freight traffic lines, it can more than compete with airlines in travel (time and money) in the 250-400 miles range. The senior US Senator from Texas, is an advocate of this venture. And keep in mind, if you fly, you also have to rent a car at your destination.



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Your Name

posted January 10, 2010 at 1:08 am


Rod:
By all means have your parents take the train. Have them get a sleeper room, relax, and enjoy the ride.
As to travel by train by the younger set, I think it depends on expectations and experience. I take my family of 7 on the Auto-Train every year to Florida (thanks to free Amtrak miles on the credit card). We have a great time. The kids love it, the food is good, the scenery in Virginia along the Potmoac is wonderful. Much better than flying. Auto-Train lets you take your car along with you, solving the great conundrum’s of travel by public conveyance: how to get where you are goign once you are almost there, and not having to cut back on what things of your stuff you take. We generally do fine in coach, but the kids and us are all young. Older people deserve the comfort of the sleeper.
I’ve taken dozens of Amtrak train trips since I was a kid to Florida (7 times), North Carolina (4 times), Chicago (7 times), Boston (3 times), Pittsburgh (10 times), New York and Washington (too many times to count) on the train from Philly. Never had a bad trip yet. We’ve always been within an hour of on-time, the food’s been good, the service fine. I think a lot of people who go looking for service problems on Amtrak find them because of their own rude behavior, and major disruptions such as you read about on the news occasionally are very rare. I had one, and it was because someone comitted suicide by jumping in front of the train going back from NYC.



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David

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:05 pm


Rod,
I have taken the Crescent twice–once from Birmingham to DC and back, and another time from Birmingham to Philadelphia and back. I loved it, and would love to do it again. However, I know it isn’t for everybody so I always give people stern warnings when they discuss this option. You have to be willing to be patient, you have to be tolerant of constant motion, and you have to expect frequent sleep interruptions in a seat or mattress that is not even close to what you are used to in your bedroom at home. If your dad is OK with that, I would say go–it is a great way to travel and to see parts of the country that no one else gets to see.



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