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Amtrak- Riding the Rails

I know this is a bit of an esoteric area for discussion, but I traveled between New York and Washington yesterday for a series of meetings and took the high-speed Acela down and the Regional train back up. The experience has confirmed that I am, most definitely, a first class, or rather, business class- snob. But more importantly, why is this country and our government so loathe to support rail travel? Anybody heard of Europe? It’s a region of the world that is dependent on rail and it works wonderfully.

The distinction between travel on the Acela and the Regional is like the difference between savoring caviar and wolfing down a hot dog. And at least judging by my particular one-way fares, it was only a $26 difference. On the Acela you get air conditioning (perhaps too much of it). On the Regional, you get a packed train and it feels like something approaching body temperature. Suggestion to Amtrak: Add the temperature on the Acela to the temperature on the Regional, divide by two and disperse equally between the two services.

I will say this though (and I’ve been doing it for years); either experience beats the hell out of taking the air shuttles. On the rails, you line up and board. Initially, you’ll see a cute dog sniffing around the aisles on the leash of a heavily armed, uniformed individual. By air, you’re treated like a terrorist, have to take off your shoes, and get busted for carrying too much tooth paste or shampoo. On the trains, you get leg room, don’t even have to buckle up, can stand up and move around, hit the café car and get micro-waved cheeseburgers and a bottle of wine if you want. On the plane, you’re lucky to get a stale bag of pretzels served with a snarl. Ok, on the shuttle service you do get complimentary alcoholic beverages and coffee. But for a round-trip it’s also about $70 or so more expensive. That’s a lot to pay for a Sam Adams.

At least for travel between NY and DC, time is not a factor. Door-to-door it’s about the same. In regard to usage, A LOT of people use Amtrak. New York’s Penn station is, by far, the busiest counting 6.4 million arrivals and departures in 2008. Washington’s Union station handles 4 million.

Plus trains offer alternately dramatic or serene scenery along the way. It is very cool to be chugging (on the Regional) or gliding along (on the Acela) and see Philadelphia’s One Liberty Place, the Mellon Bank Center, and the Verizon Tower suddenly come in to view as you round the bend. Wilmington looks like a comfortable and pleasant little town. Baltimore is a little freaky, especially the burned out row houses as you approach the other Penn Station. And, of course, there’s Union station in Washington which is a superb and breathtaking piece of architecture. The other way, the New Jersey approach to Manhattan is like a scene right out of the Soprano’s. And there’s a moment when out of nowhere, you spot the Empire State building in the distance and realize, wow, man- that’s friggin’ New York!

I know flight attendants and the airline industry at large will hate me for saying this (but then again it feels like they’ve always hated me anyway) – but when traveling the mighty Northeast corridor, nothing beats Amtrak.

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