Reflections on Traveling by Train

B & O Whistle No. 1I read a piece in Orion Magazine last night about traveling on trains as opposed to traveling via air. Train travel is compelling on many levels. It is a reconnection with our past — trains built America in many ways. It feels much more civilized than air travel. There are no full body scans, no metal detectors, no long lines. While a train is similar to a plane in that it is a long tube with seats on either side of an aisle, we don’t all board through a single entrance.

There is little hierarchy to train travel. While trains may have First Class cars, a ticket for the First Class coach is not a seat reservation, at least this is not the case on most rail routes in the United States. And the First Class coach boards at the same time as the rest of the train.

Where I can afford to sit (in a coach class seat) everyone is equal. Everyone must find a seat on their own, present their ticket upon request, and be responsible for their own trash. Of course, there are folks who are incapable of producing their tickets or keeping up with their trash.

Years ago, I lived with a woman who frequently had to travel to New York City from the Washington suburbs. She insisted on taking the plane for reasons that are still unclear to me. There’s a lot about her that remains unclear come to think of it. Her argument was that it was faster.

The train from Union Station in DC to Penn Station in NYC takes about four and a half hours. A flight takes about one and a half hours. On the surface this appears to be faster. But it never works out that way. First, there is no airport in Manhattan — one must land at either JFK or LaGuardia. In either case one needs to tack on 45 minutes to an hour to get into Manhattan. Second, one needs to arrive at the airport early enough to clear security (which in DC means about an hour and a half), where as with the train one can literally arrive and board. Finally, the flights in and out of JFK and LaGuardia are perpetually delayed. So, an air trip ends up taking as long or longer than a rail trip.

Leaving the time out of the equation, the rail trip to NYC from DC is much more interesting. The Amtrak line runs up the east coast, through Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark and finally New York. There is a lot to see on the way including the seedy sides of Baltimore, the countryside north of Baltimore, a trip over the Susquehanna river, and a very unique view of New York as you approach from the south. Who would have known that there are grasslands and marshes right outside of NYC?

For me, the train is the only way to go from DC to New York.

Train travel in the US has suffered declines ever since the automobile was introduced and subsidized by the federal government. Yes, subsidized — the interstates were a federal project designed to move troops around the country quickly in the case of a national emergency. There’s irony for you — interstates and speed. True in some places interstates are fast, but around major metropolitan areas they, well, crawl.

A few years ago I was in the UK and was struck by how convenient rail travel is in that country. In fact, I’ve never traveled extensively in the UK without using rail. I’ve never even attempted to drive in the UK — why would I? I can get from just about anywhere in the country to any other place in the country without getting behind the wheel. And the trains in the UK are magnificent. Well, some are anyway.

Sure it takes you all day to get from Edinburgh to London but the trip is really beautiful. One morning, we left Edinburgh around 7:30 AM in February. It was damn cold and I was miserable on the platform. All that changed though once the Virgin train pulled in and I was soon warm and cozy.

The seating on the train was arranged such that every four seats had a table between them. You could eat without eating out of you lap. You could write or read without struggling to keep your notepad or book stable as you rolled down the track. It was going to be a full day’s trip, so I was glad to have the luxury of a table.

As we pulled out of Edinburgh, the landscape quickly changed to countryside. Because it had been so cold, there was a very heavy frost (hoarfrost) on the ground. As we rounded a bend, the sun reflected off the ice covering a field of tall grass. It shone golden in the sun. I will never forget the beauty of that field. If I’d been in an airplane, or a car, I’d have never seen that.

Train travel in the US is nowhere near what it is in the UK, but I’d sure like to see it make a resurgence.

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