Riding the rails

There has been a significant amount of noise lately that the government should cut funding to Amtrak, but the argument here is that Highways are funded too, and Amtrak must compete against them, with a significantly smaller piece of the transportation money pie. The truth of the matter is that I have found something that consumes government money that actually works reasonably well!

Prior to President Eisenhower’s Interstate highway system that came about in 1958, the primary mode of transportation for both passenger and freight was rail.  The nation’s rail system was largely privately owned, and profitable.  While freight transportation is still in the hands of private business, passenger rail travel could not compete with the interstate highway system.  Amtrak was created by the US government to maintain rail travel because it could not compete with the interstate highway system, and the demographic shift to automotive forms of transportation.

So, how is it like riding the train?  Well, it’s pretty nice actually!  While travel by air is probably faster and more efficient for large cross-country trips, traveling by train is an excellent way to go for medium sized trips between 50-500 miles or so.   I took a trip from Richmond VA to Washington DC, which is about a 120 mile trip.  Anyone that takes the trip between Richmond and DC by automobile is probably all too familiar with the grueling traffic problems once one gets north of Fredricksburg.  On the train however, you can pass it all by.

To get around Washington DC, one can ride another federally funded train,  the MetroRail.  There are two Amtrak train stations that meet up with MetroRail stations, Alexanderia, and Union Station in downtown DC. I suggest transferring to Metrorail in Alexanderia.  It’s a smaller, less busy station, and it shaves 15-20 minutes off the trip.  Once on the MetroRail, you can then hit all the tourist spots right off the blue line train, or make it to your business appointments.

I hopped the train at the Staples Mill station only a few miles my home.   My train had a scheduled departure at 8:00am.  I left my house at 7:30, got to the station at 7:40.  I then used their automated ticket kiosk, got my ticket, and 10 minutes later, the train arrived.  I was on the train shortly thereafter, and it left promptly at 8:00am.  There were no long lines at a security checkpoint, no huge parking lots, no concourses that were miles long, no delays on the tarmac, and no baggage problems.  Despite the short period of time that I arrived at the station, the departure was still very relaxed and comfortable… I don’t know of any other transit medium that one can arrive at the station 20 minutes before departure and leave in total relaxation and ease!

Once on the train, the enjoyment continues.  You can check your baggage, but for a short trip like mine, I took my backpack, and a large flight back (that I had used for airline trips)  The rail car had an area in the back one can leave baggage in, and I carried my backpack with me to my seat.  If I needed to, I could get up at any time during the ride and get items out of my other bag if I needed to actually.  Once in my seat, I immediately noticed the amount of room available.  It was significantly more than one gets in a coach class seat on an airplane, more than in a Greyhound bus, and yes, even more than in the front seat of my own car!

The train was very well maintained and clean.  Much cleaner than any of the airplanes I had been on lately had been!  There’s also a 120 volt power outlet available on the wall beside the seat to plug in anything you want.  This leads me to the next amenity.  You can use electronic devices on a train 🙂  Feel free to take your cell phone with you and chat it up, watch movies on your computer, or even surf the internet via your cell phone connection.   Unfortunately, there’ s no WiFi, but being able to phone or compute on the internet while traveling is a definite advantage.  You can’t do that while flying or while driving (yet some people try!)  Amtrak does have a “quiet car” available too.  In that car, you cannot have cell phone conversations (phones must be on vibrate), or carry on conversations period above a whisper.  There’s no loud children on that car too.  The airlines need to look into this idea for sure!!! Even in the regular passenger cars however, the noise level was significantly lower than in an airplane, or even in any of my own automobiles.  Another advantage one probably does not think about much either is the lavatories.  On a train, they are significantly larger than the ones on airplanes.  And you can get up at any time and use them.  You can even go from car to car on the train while it is under way, and get a snack at the snack bar.  Best of all, NO SEAT BELTS!

Out of curiosity, I cranked up my GPS and clocked the speed of the train during the trip.  It sustained 70mph for most of the trip.  While that is the speed limit of interstate 95 south Fredricksburg now, that sort of speed is rarely achieved once you are north of Woodbridge VA.  The beauty of it is that the ride is smooth and quiet, so you don’t really notice you are going that fast.  I sat back and took a nap for the first hour or so of the trip, and found another advantage of the seat in that they actually recline far enough to take a comfortable nap in!  Now there’s something you obviously cannot do if you drive yourself!

The train made stops in a few towns along the way:  Ashland, Fredricksburg, Quantico, and Alexanderia.  The stops are short and quick, with the train staying stopped for only about 5 minutes or so before it’s back up to 70mph again.  This leads to another nice thing about train travel…the scenery.  When one travels by highway, much of what one sees is not particuarly scenic.  Since highways were built in the sixties, what is around them is very young.  Most people too, don’t want the noise of the highway, so privacy walls have gone up around most highways.  Train tracks however have been around a long time, and so have the parts of towns they go through.  In the stops along the way, one can see the downtown “main street” areas.  Out in the countryside, the train traveled through farmland, swamps, over rivers, and parallel to the Potomac river for a duration, so there was much to see, even on a gray, foggy morning like I was traveling on.

Okay, so now you are probably wondering what the staff was like.  Well, the conductors were very personable and friendly,  and were even dressed in uniforms just like old times.  Just like in old times, your ticket is taken just after the train is under way from the station. The only issue I see with Amtrak is that it is not bigger and better.  There is plenty of talk about high-speed rail services in the country, and I say let’s go for it.  High speed rail is common in many other developed countries, but seriously lacking in the USA. If we spend as much government money on rail travel as we did on our highways, it would be a very good method of travel. Instead, we must deal with traffic jams on our over-burdened highways, and arriving at our destinations stressed and frazzled, instead of relaxed.

Amtrak trains simply don’t go everywhere we need to go as Americans, nor do the do it fast enough.  The northeast corridor north of Washington DC is one of the only areas where Amtrak operates efficiently because the track is electrified, and Amtrak owns it.   One can ride the Acela express that travels 150mph between Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston.  Despite the fact that railroads opened up travel westward over a century ago, traveling east to west is significantly slower.  Amtrak trains are riding on privately owned freight railway track, and those much slower freight trains have right of way.  Based on my experience traveling by rail, it is a transportation medium worth spending money on and is great need of expansion!

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One Response to Riding the rails

  1. LTH says:

    When I worked at Cato, I’d take the train on the weekend down to Richmond and then back up to DC. About 3/4 of the time it was like you describe. The other 25% of the time it would take 4-6hrs and be pretty horrible, but at least I had my laptop back then to entertain me.

    Given enough time I’m pretty sure the govt will screw it up as well.

    BTW I’m glad I found your blog.

    Merry Christmas.

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