Travelling cross-country by train
May 13, 2007 9:52 AM   Subscribe

“Why the hell the train?” and other questions answered “The real terror is the Three+ Sheltered Old Men, because they don’t sleep and they don’t have normal conversations. They’re completely sporadic: An observation is made, perhaps it is agreed on, then anywhere from two to 45 minutes pass before the next one. That’s the random non-rhythm your brain will feed on... and you’re never going to relax or get any sleep.” As for “train love”? “Ask yourself, do you really want this? Your potential train buddy is travelling by train. What the hell is wrong with this person? After two days on the train... [y]ou’re not at your Personal Best™”
posted by joeclark (20 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Train: At least it's not Greyhound

I'm not surprised though. Train fares are not much cheaper than airfare, and in some cases, more expensive. It doesn't have the speed of airlines, nor the bottom dollar factor of Greyhound.

If it weren't for the oil crisis, I'd expect passenger train service to gutter out in the next 10-15 years.
posted by yeloson at 10:15 AM on May 13, 2007

Y'know, I've never really attempted to take Amtrak anywhere else, but through the Northeast Corridor it's really quite pleasant--four hours from NY to DC, no slower than driving yourself, without any of the aggravation of beltways and turnpikes, and none of that two hour security check stuff associated with planes.

Granted, the lines between DC and C-Ville need some serious work, because it then takes another 3 hours to get home. But hey, it's time for reading.
posted by thecaddy at 10:37 AM on May 13, 2007

shit, man. but there's something about the train. maybe it's because i grew up in a big, loud family, but i have no trouble sleeping on a train and always find them pretty soothing. Greyhounds are pretty awful, and flying is not nearly as soothing as a day long train ride. A couple of days would probably make me insane, though.
posted by es_de_bah at 10:41 AM on May 13, 2007

Thanks, that was an interesting read.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 10:45 AM on May 13, 2007

Fun read. I almost missed the photos the author links to, which add a special something. This one is my favorite because of the commentary.
posted by Tehanu at 11:33 AM on May 13, 2007

I love the train. You can get up and walk around from car to car or stand in the aisle, there are two roomy toilets per car, windows open, there's scenery and you have time to look at it, there's a dining car to hang out in, and there's internet access for those who'd rather browse than read a book or listen to music. People who drive similar distances, stuck in one seat and occupied by traffic the whole way, are missing out.
posted by pracowity at 11:39 AM on May 13, 2007

Meh. So this guy doesn't like travelling by train. So travel by something else.

The sleeper car on an extended train trip is a real treat. You get privacy, you can drink, you get to watch the world go by as you leisurely get to your destination... no driving, no metal detectors, no hurry.

You're in a hurry, then take the damn plane.
posted by MythMaker at 11:41 AM on May 13, 2007

I've never traveled more than an hour or so by train, so this may be a stupid question, but:

I just looked on Amtrak's website for how long and how much it would take to go cross-country by train.

New York to Los Angeles, $193, and 62 hours, with an additional 10 hours waiting for transfers (at Pittsburgh and Chicago).

However, that seems to assume that you just get a seat, the whole way.

NY to Pittsburgh, 9:15, in a seat - okay, I guess.

Then Pittsburgh to Chicago, another 9:45, but overnight (starting at about midnight). Sleep all night in a seat? Errr, OK, maybe for one night.

Then comes the long haul - Chicago to LA, 43 hours. In a seat? After having slept in a seat? And that after having sat in a seat for 9 hours?

Uh, no thanks. So maybe get a room for the Chi-LA leg.

The cheapest one is an additional $593. Which is itself three times the original (seat-based) cost.

Such a huge price increase seems like it would be prohibitive to most riders.

So most people are sitting in a seat for 62 hours?
posted by Flunkie at 12:02 PM on May 13, 2007

Back in 2004 I did a round trip journey on Amtrak from Houston to Orlando.

* Yay: No security checks; lots of cool scenery ranging from the industrial goatse orifices of most cities to pure untamed wilderness (good for geography geeks like me); fairly decent food in the restaurant car; a cool mix of people.

* Sux: The train got delayed by an hour for each 4 hours we travelled, so we got to our destination 8 hours late both ways; A/C and power often gets shut off during siding delays regardless of outside temperature; fares are overpriced.

Interestingly on our way back, 50 miles short of Houston the train stopped on a siding in the middle of nowhere. There was no explanation. About an hour and a half later, a taxi showed up along an adjacent U.S. highway. I saw three crewmembers leave the locomotive and get into the taxi. Three new crewmembers left the taxi and got into the locomotive. In a few minutes, we were moving again. I asked a conductor about this and he said the crew had reached the end of their duty day.

And water bottles, a GPS, and cell phone are like manna when on the train.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:39 PM on May 13, 2007

Took an Amtrak train from San Jose up to Seattle to visit my relatives for Thanksgiving. The thing about the train is that you can actually get up and walk about for extended periods of time. It's not as cramped as an airplane.

Sleeping... I was not used to the sound. The seats are wider and they lean back more than on an airplane, but still not entirely comfortable especially since I neglected to bring a blanket or pillows. However, I preferred eight hours of restless sleep to four hours of claustrophobic airtime.

Buy tickets early.

It was fun! Might've been funner if I had someone to talk to. Well, there was that dude from India in the snack car. He was visiting family in Califas and Canada. He was a pretty cool fellow; he even offered me a beer!

Now Mexican trains on the other hand... I took the last passenger train to leave from Laredo to Queretaro. That, my friends, was an experience.
posted by Mister Cheese at 1:15 PM on May 13, 2007

Whatever. I've travelled cross-country on Amtrak twice and New York to Florida three times. I would go everywhere by train if I had time and flying wasn't cheaper.
posted by the jam at 1:15 PM on May 13, 2007

I love trains. I'd love Amtrak more if: the windows opened, and someone wheeled a cart through the car offering tea, like they do on Polish trains*. Oh, and if it was cheaper.

* Of course, on Polish trains there's no guarantee you won't be standing in the aisle the entire way. At those times, tea is cold comfort.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:25 PM on May 13, 2007

Spend the money, getcher self a room or roomette. I'll tell you, I'm a solitary old oyster, and hate talking to strangers. So, to my mind, spending several days in your own room, eating your own food, drinking your own drink, reading books, listening to music, and watching the world go by your window is about as close to heaven as you can get. I've travelled tens of thousands of miles on Amtrak this way, and recommend it. If you must ride coach, it's a crap shoot. The difference between an enjoyable trip and ride from hell is whether or not the seat next to you gets filled. I don't care who it is (although many years ago, I was riding coach from New York to Boston, and this nice looking gal sits down next to me. We're chatting, and I've got this big "Picture History of New York City" open on my lap, and she slips her hand under the book... )
The service can suck, the food is hideous. Sleeping is impossible without pharmaceutical assistance. But I never get tired of riding trains.
Who was who said: "I never saw a train but I didn't wish I was on it..."
posted by Faze at 6:09 PM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

"I love travelling by train. Especially the passenger cars." - (/Marilynne Robinson )
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 12:48 AM on May 14, 2007

Nice post.

I used to travel from NYC to Norfolk, Va. pretty regularly and during the times I did not have my own car I would sometimes ride the train sometimes fly (Trump Air! to National(now Reagan) in DC), and on occaision rent a car.

Insanely, how ever I got from one place to the other, door-to-door it almost always took the same amount of time.

The train was my favorite for all the reasons stated above.

The first time I met my wife's family we took trains all over Germany. By the time we were getting on the plane back to NYC we had spent more on train fare than on airfare. The next time, we rented a car.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:18 AM on May 14, 2007 they do on Polish trains

Those are the trains I was thinking of. And you can get guaranteed seats for a little extra money, though you might have to get the conductor to kick a drunken sailor out of your seat (that's what you do with a drunken sailor early in the morning).

I don't like to be on a train longer than a day, though. I did it once across Canada. All else being equal, it's better to fly for six hours than take a train for three days unless there are big stopovers during which you can explore things. A cross-country train trip that let you out in a different state every day at lunchtime to explore and relax and get a hotel room for the night, and then left in the morning for the next day's stop, would be very nice indeed.
posted by pracowity at 5:15 AM on May 14, 2007

My ladyfriend and I took the Silver Star from Orlando to Philly recently, and had a great experience. Typical delays aside, the roomette was comfortable for two people. Nice scenery, and a bar (expensive, but cold beer) makes it for me. We enjoyed ourselves more than the first class flight we took down to Orlando. The food on the train was better than anything we ate in the Orlando area.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:09 AM on May 14, 2007

I did a four-day LA to Chicago run, and back, once just to say I'd done it. Didn't have a sleeper or anything; when I was able to sleep (it got quite cold at night through the mountains, and the seat was uncomfortable as all get-out) I did so in the lounge car on top of my plugged-in laptop so nobody would steal it.

On the plus side, I got a lot of writing done, and by virtue of staying on the train the entire time (even at extended stops) got a small taste of something my father experienced in the Army (travelling overseas by troop ship) -- the otherworldly feeling you get when you step out of a vehicle you've been in without respite for days or weeks on end.

But I'll never do it again; it was a much more viable way to travel back when it was (a) the only game in town financially for most people, and (b) significantly faster. Four days LA to Chicago is terrible.
posted by davejay at 9:11 AM on May 14, 2007

I did a major train trip a few years back - NYC to Toronto to Dallas (by way of Chicago) and then back to NYC from Dallas (through Chicago again). I was going to Toronto, and to Dallas, and I thought, well what the hell.

If I do it again (and I'm thinking about it this year going to Atlanta for Labor Day weekend), I'm going to get a sleeping car room, just because it'll be easier. But it was great, relaxing and watching the world go by, or turning on my laptop and watching a movie on it, or getting some writing done, or just listening to music and not having to worry about anything at all.

Since that trip, they've gone totally nonsmoking on all trains, which is a blessing - the glass-top viewing car I was on for a previou trip was also the smoking car, and you could barely see a thing due to all the smoke.

I do want to do another long train trip - longer than my last big one, which was NYC to Pittsburgh, 7 hours - because in a lot of ways, it was more comfortable than flying. Sure, it took longer in pure time, but there was not having to worry about getting through the security gate, the waits, the cramped conditions, all of which made it better. I have, for amusement, taken both the train and the plane to see friends in DC, and the train was actually faster and cheaper for it (again, speed taking into account the security, even pre-9/11).

But yeah, I do like the train, taking it up to Boston to see friends, or down to DC, and I do want to take another cross-country trip on it, just to watch the country go by.
posted by mephron at 12:00 PM on May 14, 2007

I've done New Haven - Reno, - Orlando, and - Chicago round trips. Don't know what the linked article's author's problem is; I've never had any trouble with air quality or anything like that, although one time I was traveling between cars and there were snowdrifts in the connector; I felt like I was in John Carpenter's The Thing.

A solo sleeper car trip may be my favorite way to travel; there's electricity, shower access, and great scenery. I recommend bringing warm beer and one of those soft-sided coolers as there is something about long-distance rail travel that invites drinking. Remember going through Utah in the middle of the night, alone in the observation car with the only illumination being the lightning above... awesome.
posted by jtron at 1:38 PM on May 14, 2007

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