Riding West on Shining Rails
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What is it like to travel by rail in 21st century America?
Two months ago I traveled by train from Vermont to Portland Oregon via Washington DC and Chicago. The most important discovery was that the quality of our civilization has been declining for 50 years
Passenger rail travel is not so much a journey of miles as a trip back in time to another age. The best part is the absence of the all pervading security bureaucracy which has become the dominant feature of any visit to an American airport.
Here, nothing is digital, no bar code scanners, little in the way of automation. It is human beings, the conductors and porters who make the system work. And, on the whole, it works quite well.
The physical surroundings are very 20th century as well. Everything is made of sturdy, traditional materials: good quality stainless steel, woven cloth and hard black bakelite. If one could travel by Zippo, this is what it would be like: rugged, simple and designed to do one thing well.
The greatest luxury of train travel is space. The seats are wide enough for the largest person with plenty of leg room for the tall. Even better, you can take a walk to the club car or, at meal times, to the dining cars. Sadly, my train did not have a dome car. One of the fond memories of my youth was riding at night through the Rocky Mountains in the dome car. I wonder if there is a market for train cruises? A dedicated train that wasn't any more of a means of getting from A to B than a cruise ship is. The train would deposit one in the middle of town, travelers could spend the day sampling the local offerings then back on the train and the next morning wake up in a new place. I think it would be worth a try.
I went coach class from Vermont to Washington DC, an eight hour trip. This is Amtrak at its best. Free wifi and according to my iphone app, we did a little better than 100mph for a short stretch between New York and Washington. If one will be traveling for more than a day, I highly recommend getting a sleeper. Sleeper accommodations come in two styles, roomettes and bedrooms and the difference is that bedrooms come with a private shower and toilet while roomettes must use public facilities. I took a roomette for my trip from Washington to Portland. I found the public facilities perfectly adequate. If you have a choice, get a room on the lower level because the rocking motion on bad stretches of track will be much less. In any case be prepared for considerable rocking and jostling, one is on a moving train after all. I was told by an experienced traveler that one gets used to it and I did find my second night's sleep to be considerably more peaceful.
Meals in the dining car are included in the fare for all classes of sleepers. Passengers in coach are charged by the meal. The dining cars practice communal seating so each meal will be shared with some fellow travelers which in my case lead to some interesting conversations. The meals themselves were good but not fantastic and the menu was limited to about five entries so by the end of my trip I had sampled every one. On a longer trip this might become a problem but I don't know if the menu changes regularly.
Rail travel is a good substitute for air travel with some limitations. It will never be as fast. It is more expensive but even the cheapest seats on a train are more spacious, more comfortable and more civilized than business class on a plane. The biggest limitation is that it is much less flexible regarding schedules and destinations than air travel. There are many places where you simply cannot go by train. Las Vegas for one notable example.
Travel by rail is for those who are willing to exchange time and money for dignity and comfort. A mode of travel reserved for the elite.