By J.L. Soto
A mode of transportation that seems to be the odd man out in people’s minds is the interstate passenger train. Of course, flying to a destination is much quicker, while a bus is the cheapest way to go and a car offers the ultimate freedom in traveling, but there is something about a train that the others don’t have. It seems to offer the best parts of the other modes of travel and it’s a shame they aren’t as widely available as during their heyday.
The one company that comes to everyone’s mind when talking about interstate travel is Amtrak. They offer services to most parts of the U.S. and Canada. Although the lines are not continuous they’re great for someone who wants to get a traveling sample of various regions.
A line I’ve used a few times is the Regional which starts in Boston and ends in Newport News, VA (with a bus connection to Virginia Beach). I haven’t taken it from end to end (which takes about twelve hours) but in sections and one plus about the route is the fact that this route goes through so many states in the Northeast corridor. Some of the major stops include New York’s Penn Station, Philadelphia, Baltimore’s BWIA (which connects to the airport via a free bus transfer), Washington, D.C.’s historic Union Station and Richmond’s Staples Mill Road Station. A much longer route which runs from New York all the way down to Miami is the Silver Service/ Palmetto (takes about 28 hours). Another interesting north to south traveling option is the Auto Train. Here passengers can board the train at Lorton, VA (near D.C.) along with their car, SUV, motorcycle and even small boat and ride nonstop to Sanford, FL. Anyone wanting faster service along the corridor can take the expensive Acela Express trains. They run up to 150 mph, making limited stops from Boston to Washington, D.C. and the trip is supposed to take seven hours. But I’ve heard reports that the trains like any other get snarled up in track delays and the ones who usually wind up taking the Acela Express are business travelers.
The best part of taking the regular train for me is that it gave me the chance to relax and view the countryside outside the huge windows in comfortable seats. This isn’t something that’s normally experienced on a commercial airplane or on a cramped bus. In fact, the seats on the Amtrak train are so comfortable that I didn’t have any problem taking a nap. They are larger than a plane’s, are very cushy and have electrical outlets for laptops and other electronic devices.
There is a cafe car where you can buy snacks (though they’re not cheap) and even relax for a bit. Some planes are now offering this option by the way. Being that there is ample storage space on the trains, it’s very convenient to bring a sizable meal if you’d rather not use the cafe car. Also unlike planes, cell phone use is allowed but those wanting a silent ride can use a car where conversations are kept to a minimum and cell phone use is prohibited.
While quietly reflecting during the ride, it is fascinating to see how the environment outside the train changes. Starting from Penn Station and going into New Jersey, all that is seen are industrial zones, large office buildings and faraway views of small and large cities. These city views come and go and are visually arresting as you anticipate and are rewarded with the sight of well-known structures like the U.S. Capital.
As the train travels further south it becomes clear that you are going through actual country with dense forests that are laced here and there with small towns. An observant person will pick up on the minute changes in people and places. Billboards sell the familiar and the unknown. Not only is it beautiful but it is rather calming.
There are several stops on the route and usually the train only stays for a few minutes but in Union Station there can be a holdover for about an hour. This gave me the chance to disembark the train and explore the station, while getting a bite to eat and picking up a souvenir. Although you have to be careful, keep your ticket with you and be aware of the train’s schedule. Check with the conductor about leaving the train during a holdover as rules may change.
The only snag is when the train is delayed in the middle of the track. This is very inconvenient especially if you consider that the ride takes several hours and any delay eats up more and more time. But with traveling the way it is, traffic headaches seem to be unavoidable at times no matter how you travel.
With over thirty routes to choose from, Amtrak’s other long interstate routes are the California Zephyr (San Francisco, Denver and Chicago), Southwest Chief (Los Angeles, Albuquerque and Chicago), the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle and Portland, OR). From Chicago lines called the Cardinal and the Hoosier State connect to the Northeast, while others connect as far south as New Orleans and out west to the Pacific coast. Riding any of these routes help you realize how huge the nation is, whereas with a plane this feeling is lost. So if you have some time to spend, consider a train ride that will give you a chance to relax and enjoy a memorable intimate ride with an excellent view of the outside.