A friend in New Jersey called me on Thursday, asking if we would be home this weekend and we picked him up at our Amtrak station Friday evening. Jim is a train lover and has traveled by train both here in the United States as well as overseas. He loves telling a story about eating lunch in Seattle. He traveled out and back by train for the sole purpose of taking the train trip, eating that lunch during the 3 hour layover. I know other train enthusiasts who would not think his trip was odd at all.
Amtrak is the passenger rail service here in the United States that was started in the 1970s, long after the heyday of passenger rail service. The Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and Boston is the most heavily used route in the system, but much of the country has at least one line. Amtrak owns only 3% of the track it uses; it pays for use of freight lines and at times, passenger trains are held so freight service can be expedited. Jim’s train was about an hour and a half late arriving on Friday night and the train from Chicago he was catching Sunday morning was also delayed. He doesn’t care particularly. His joy is in the travel and he makes friends with the conductors. He typically finds out anything he asks. He also reminded me that air service is often delayed as well.
When I lived in Connecticut and my two older kids were little, it was a lot easier hopping on a train in Hartford to head to New York City to visit my sister than to drive 2 hours each way. The kids could get up and move around and I was able to play games with them or read to them, obviously something I couldn’t do if I was driving and fighting the traffic.
My son Sam is planning to go visit a friend in Chicago when school gets out for the summer. He’s not particularly interested in driving (thank goodness) and when we compared the cost of flying to taking the train, he is excited about his first domestic train trip. (We traveled from Gatwick airport to London via train a couple of years ago.)
The Auto Train, which travels between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida is the longest Amtrak passenger train with two engines and 40-plus rail cars. It provides snowbirds an alternative way for getting their car to Florida for the winter and then back north to home for the summer. My parents used it a few years to help my grandfather make his annual commute between our home and where he lived each winter.
Amtrak’s longest route, the Sunset Limited between Orlando and Los Angeles, still has no service between Orlando and New Orleans along the Gulf Coast because of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The Amtrak website is user friendly with trip planning. There are a number of special rates offered. In fact, there is one for a 50% discount on a companion ticket with a parent and high school student travelling to visit colleges. There are package tours, multi-use ticket options for some well traveled corridors, as well as multi-stop ticket options.
Trains have sleeping compartments and dining cars. There are places to store bicycles, cars with internet access, and cars that designated “quiet”. Train travel is an option that definitely should be considered if you have the time; it’s another way to see the country.