Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Outside the Trains Don't Run on Time

It's no secret that air travel has gotten increasingly vile over the years, especially since 9/11/2001. It's expensive, usually late, cramped, harassed, and uncool. Cattle car travel.

Which is why I wanted to try Amtrak as an alternative recently. If you're not in a big hurry or traveling on a tight schedule, Amtrak (and any other rail alternative) is more civilized and a lot more fun. Why? For starters, you can walk around, talk with anyone who is game (or not, if you don't want to), hang out in the club or dining car, and overall feel a lot less claustrophobic. You can read, write, and not worry about feeling trapped and helpless as on an airplane, nor worry about driving and spending tons of money on gas for an auto, either.

Not that Amtrak in its current state couldn't use some relatively easy improvements. Starting with internet access like Canadian Via Rail and some trains in the "elite" Northeast Corridor (both of which are comparable to the highly civilized European network). Sprucing up the stations would be good, too. The Detroit station, for instance, has a guard, a ticket counter, a single TV, and rest rooms and that's about it. Snack machines, perhaps? Internet? Basic fixes. Also, realigning the train schedules to more accurately reflect arrival and departure times would be very helpful (apparently, an increase in freight train usage has thrown the current schedules off -- and significantly so, as in a seventeen hour trip becomes a twenty hour trip). Still, though I did hear some complaining among some passengers -- much like people who loudly complain about the Post Office and Public Library while jawing obnoxiously on a cellphone -- it's pretty cool stuff. (More on people watching -- and engaging in a shared social space -- on trains at some point.)

My suggestion: try a short train trip and see what you think. It's not for everyone, but a lot of people would enjoy the experience and see the possibilities for expansion. Note: you can usually get cellphone reception, and people seem a lot more gracious about it then on planes, probably because there are more nooks and crannies to make calls from on a train.

p.s. "Outside the Trains Don't Run on Time" is a cool song by Gang of Four, first released in 1980.

Today's Rune: Fertility.


the walking man said...

No club car...that's the problem with hopping freight trains.

Charles Gramlich said...

What I like about trains is that you get to see a different side of the world than when you pass through in a car.

Lana Gramlich said...

I used to enjoy the train ride into "the City" from Long Island (when I lived in NY,) but that was more of a "we're going to 'the city'" thing than a train thing. If anything, the closer you got to the city, the dingier & more built up & graffiti-ed everything got. It was actually kind of depressing looking, in retrospect.
I appreciate you suggesting short trips on the train, as long trips are phenomenally expensive & can be so dull I want to blow my brains out.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly become my preferred mode of travel between the mid-Atlantic and New England. Beats the hell out of driving. My only real complaint is that the restrooms can get pretty nasty, especially after 10 or 12 hours. I'll never understand why so many people apparently think it's OK to pee on the toilet seat...