Civilized travel and the return of the rail

By Jen Pennington
When my colleague Chris Arlen posted his recent article about having to pay for water on a US Airways flight, (see Is US Airways shooting itself in the head?) it made me think about how much I want the rail system in this country to be a real alternative to flying.

I will do anything to avoid flying if possible. It feels like a cannery to me. Waiting in multiple lines, no room to move, rude customer service and people contain themselves in their own invisible bubbles of non-communication. It is a means to get from one place to another, and the joy is lost on many of us. The number of times I been stuck in an airport or on a Tarmac is ridiculous.

My preferred method of travel is the train. I have always lived in place where I can hear or see trains. It comforts me. I’ve taken them to Canada, and traveled parts of Europe by rail. I commuted for years back and forth between New York City and Long Island. I now commute on Fridays to Whidbey Island from Seattle aboard the Sounder to the Mukilteo Ferry when I can.

In the last two and half years I traveled across the country three times on Amtrak. The first time, I took the California Zephyr from New York to Grand Junction, Colorado where I met up with my husband. I booked a roomette and on board I had time to think, work on my computer, stretch my legs, read my books in peace, walk around the train, admire the Rockies, and get out for some fresh air at a few stops. Can’t do that on a plane.

“What does it say about us as Americans that we willingly pay more to get to our destinations sooner with less and less comforts? That’s not travel. That’s a business transaction.”

For breakfast, lunch and dinner, you are expected to eat in the dining car and the host seats you with perfect strangers. You may not share the person’s beliefs, or political points of view, but on a train there is so much to see out the window that there’s never a lull in the conversation.

One breakfast I met a woman who runs a historical cemetery etching organization. Cool! I had a wonderful book club-like discussion with a couple in Idaho and played in the snow with a Mennonite family while stopped in North Dakota. I can’t help but think, if you really want to meet your fellow Americans this is the best way to do it, and the most civilized.

Many people dismiss Amtrak as a means of travel. They don’t like it or it takes too long. Well yes, it does take longer than a plane, and there’s no denying you have to be okay with how much time it takes. If you’re impatient, this isn’t a method of travel for you. As for customer service, the attendants we had were great.

The second time we traveled, my husband and I were going back to NY from Seattle with a stop in Chicago at a hotel for the night. We had already checked out the next day but all our bags were still at the hotel until we were ready to leave. It was the day after Christmas. About four hours before our train was to depart, Amtrak called us and said they had a problem with the sleeper cars on our train. They offered to put us in coach and refund the difference on our fare. I asked them if they could book us in a roomette the next night and they said they could. It turned out they upgraded us to a handicapped bedroom for the price of our roomette. We then went back to the hotel and rebooked a room for that night. When was the last time your airline called you to tell you your plane was going to be late, and then upgraded you?

On our return home we started in Detroit and left for Chicago, where we would switch trains for the Empire Builder. I was starting to get sick with the flu. While in Chicago, we realized we would have to switch rooms at 1:00 a.m. in Spokane, Washington on our way to Seattle. We didn’t think much about it. The conductor in Chicago noticed I was not feeling well, looked at our tickets, and told us she would find us a new compartment so I could rest and not have to wake up to switch cars. It took her a little time, but she found one and I couldn’t believe our luck. I was so thankful, because my flu had gotten ugly and I was able to lay down the whole time. Our attendant brought me my dinner and by the last day of the ride I was feeling much better.

I have become a staunch supporter of the rail system in this country because of these experiences.
What does it say about us as Americans that we willingly pay more to get to our destinations sooner with less and less comforts? That’s not travel. That’s a business transaction. For me it’s not about paying more or less to travel by train, it’s about the richness of the experience.