The Magic Carpet Made of Steel

The next time your travel plans call for a long-distance trip, let me suggest that you take a page from the past, and go by train.  In my opinion, traveling by Amtrak is one of America’s best-kept secrets.  And most of the time, it absolutely beats flying as a way of getting from here to there.

I have had the pleasure of taking the train on several overnight trips, and it’s a wonderful experience.  Some trips I’ve had a private roomette; other times I’ve gone the cheap route and just gotten a seat in the coach car.

Riding in coach is a pleasant surprise for anyone used to flying.  The tickets cost about the same as taking the bus, but it’s a much more comfortable way to go.  The seats are roomier, and there’s a LOT more leg room.  There are also electrical outlets at every seat where you can plug in and recharge your laptop or cell phone.  You can easily get up and walk to stretch your legs, go to one of the several restrooms on each car, or go to the lounge car.

If you do go to the lounge car, you’ll find lots of very comfortable seats and ginormous picture windows for looking out on the passing scenery.  You’ll also find a snack bar selling heat-and-eat meals, soft drinks and adult beverages, as well as sundries like playing cards, post cards, toiletries, and other items for sale.

My friend Phil Stallings – a retired airline captain – likes to say, “It only costs a little more to go first class; you just can’t go quite as often.”  That’s true of Amtrak, and if you can at all afford getting a roomette or a bedroom, I would highly recommend it.

Roomettes are small compartments, just right for one or two people.  In the daytime, they come with two comfortable seats that face each other, a drop-down table between them, and a sliding, locking door with a heavy curtain over it for privacy.  The rooms have electrical outlets, and adjustable climate controls, and space to store a couple of suitcases.

In the evening, the porter will fold down the seats and make them into a comfortable twin-sized bed for you.  There’s also a drop-down “Murphy” bed above the window, if two people are sharing the room.

Your first class ticket also includes meals in the dining car.  Eating in the diner has always been one of the best parts of train travel, and while Amtrak cuisine can’t quite match up to the glory days of the Super Chief or the Twentieth Century Limited, it’s still pretty good.

When you get up in the morning, the porter will bring you complimentary coffee or juice.  You can also reserve a time to go downstairs and take a shower.

Try doing that on a 737…

The last time I traveled first class, I took Amtrak from Ft. Worth to Cincinnati, via Chicago.  We left Cowtown early afternoon on the “Texas Eagle,” stopped in Dallas for a few minutes, then continued on from there.  I had supper in the diner – a really good steak, as I recall – then hung out in the lounge car and read as the night fell over East Texas.  I went back to my compartment and went to bed, “rocking to the gentle beat.”

I woke up briefly as we went through Little Rock, and then it was dawn and we were in St. Louis.  My good friend Mike Kloog lives there, and he came to the station.  I went in and he and I had a nice visit as the train was being serviced.  I climbed back aboard, and had breakfast as we went by the St. Louis Arch and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois.  Later, I had lunch near Joliet, then we were in Chicago, where I caught Amtrak’s “Cardinal” to Cincinnati.  All in all, a wonderful trip.

Let’s consider some negatives:

  • Yes, the schedules are not always convenient, and you sometimes have to drive an hour or two to catch the train.  But then, I’ve often driven to Dallas or Lubbock to catch a flight, so that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
  • Yes, it takes longer to get there than flying.  Sometimes when you travel, speed is necessary.  But not always.  When you have the time, you should consider the train.
  • Yes, it can be a bit pricey if you get a private room.  But that balances out when you consider the cost of gasoline, meals and motel rooms for driving across country.  And you don’t arrive feeling beaten up and strung out from the road.
  • Yes, sometimes the trains run late.  But then, so does every other form of public transportation.  And outside of the Boston-New York-Washington, DC corridor, Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks, so it has to juggle schedules around the freight railroads whose tracks it leases.

All that said, I still think it’s well worth it to take the train.  No security hassles getting on, and no TSA agents copping a feel.  No extra charge to bring along a suitcase.  No cramped seats, or not being allowed to go use the restroom while the train circles the station.  Scenery that you can actually see, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of this great country of ours.  Food that you’d actually pay money to eat.  And wonderful people to meet, with whom you can visit and share the ride.

Whenever I talk to people about long distance train trips, I often hear, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”  Maybe it’s time to take a page from Nike’s book, and just do it.  I think you’ll be glad you did.  And you don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the ride.

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