Talkin’ Transit: Trains!

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘ep_jhu’

Today’s Talkin’ Transit is an homage to Amtrak. Well, really, an homage to all things train. Amtrak just happens to be our primary ride, here in the Nation’s Capital.

What is it about train travel? There’s an old world feel to taking the train. It seems more civilized, certainly, than air travel. It’s less stressful, too. And, while driving might be faster and more convenient, it’s also more stressful (and depending on route, not cheaper, either).

Obviously, a lot of you like the train, too. Amtrak says it has 65% share of the DC to NY air/rail market — which, even with the various bus services left out, still seems like a staggering number to me. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though: every time I head to a business trip in NY, the Acela seems more and more full. A little over three hours from the heart of DC to the heart of NY, and no one has asked you to strip naked.

Photo courtesy of
‘Watching the Model Trains’
courtesy of ‘Kevin H.’

I’ve been fascinated with trains since I was little. I suspect most kids are. Cars are normal, everywhere. Trains are probably the first large machine we see, and it’s not a normal part of our daily routine. Most of us, anyway.

There are people who do commute by train. Some using MARC and VRE, others on Amtrak. Seems a bit insane to spend an hour or more on a train each way, but the people I know who do it manage to get work done or, better still, get some more sleep. Drivers don’t have that option, and an hour by car could be as close as Falls Church or Bethesda.

But riding the rails shouldn’t be just about getting to and from business appointments. Certainly, that’s what’s driving Amtrak’s current boom — people are tiring of the annoyances of flying, and choosing to take their business to the train. But rail travel is an enjoyable experience and makes “getting there” part of the fun, rather than something you want to get over.

In addition to the DC-Baltimore-NY-Boston corridor, I’ve taken trains to and from Vermont, and from San Francisco to Vancouver. The latter trip exemplifies why train travel is great. I hopped on just outside of San Francisco late in the evening. My berth: a wide, comfortable chair on the upstairs deck of a double decker train. As soon as the train was out of sight of the city, the darkness and clack-clack-clack took over. I was sound asleep.

When I woke up seven hours later, it was morning, and we were in a forest. Lovely scenery going by at a breakneck pace. From there, I stopped off in Eugene, OR, and then to Portland after a couple of days. A few days lazing around that amazing town, and then Seattle, and finally Vancouver. It was a painless and fun journey, and it cost under $100. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t drive it for that little in gas!

Photo courtesy of
‘Amtrak Conductor’s Cap’
courtesy of ‘Kevin H.’

And how does Amtrak and other regional services compare to train systems in other countries? Pretty well, I think. The biggest deficiency is the lack of high speed rail — but at this point that’s less Amtrak’s fault and more a national failure/embarrassment.

I’ve taken a 24 hour train trip from Hong Kong to Beijing, trained across Germany from Frankfurt to Berlin, and then from Berlin to Brussels. I’ve taken commuter trains in Belgium, from Brussels to Bruges, Ghent, and Liege (they run hourly during non-rush). I’ve gone from London to Edinburgh by train.

The closest comparison, though, has to be the Eurostar from Brussels to London, as compared with the Acela from DC to NY. The Acela is more modern, feels more comfortable. Amtrak now has free WiFi (slow, at times, but very impressive, all things considered), where the Eurostar does not. And the most shocking thing to me was the shabbiness of the Eurostar — it looks and feels like the trains were not updated from their 1980s roots.

One of the items on my travel list is to take the train across the country (maybe coupled with a drive back). DC to NY to Chicago, where I’d board the Empire Builder and head for Portland, before hopping the Coast Starlight to points south.

“All aboard!”

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

3 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Trains!

  1. A major difference between the Eurostar and Amtrak, which comes out in the Eurostar’s favor, is the stations you disembark in. If you want to get into national embarassments, Penn Station is a good place to start, and while South Station in Boston and Union Station in DC have their impressive moments, DC’s 70s-style seating area isn’t much better than Eurostar’s seat fabric. The revamped St. Pancras and Brussels Gare Europe give the sense that the Eurostar is a modern marvel, perhaps leading to your disappointment that it is in fact a chill and blah interior.

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  3. If Amtrak had something resembling customer service, I’d be a fan. I cannot – despite numerous calls, emails, letters, tweets – get anyone to respond to my almost 12 hour journey (5 without heat) from NYC to DC last December. IT makes me sad; I love the train, but their prices and service do not mesh.