Thursday, August 2, 2012

Riding The Rails

As I write this, Linda and I are on the Amtrak “Cardinal” somewhere in Indiana. The land is as flat as a skillet, and we are passing rows and rows of seemingly endless cornfields. The sky is milky blue above the scattered white farmhouses, barns, other outbuildings and silos.

I am quite accustomed to loud train whistles near my home, but from our seats aboard the coach, the horn sounds strangely distant as it blows at each crossing.

It’s our first train ride together and her first, ever – if you don’t count the Cass Senic Rail Road that climbs Bald Knob back in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

We are headed to Chicago, where tomorrow I will officiate at the wedding ceremony of a lifelong friend, and former co-worker.

The familiar swaying of the train brings back pleasant memories from my childhood days, but the rails are bumpier than I remembered – or had expected. The Conductor has just announced that from our next stop in Crawfordville through Lafayette, that the train will be full. I have been a bit surprised by the number of folks who are taking this means of transportation. The Cardinal even added two cars to the train at our early morning stop in Indianapolis.

It’s been a multi ethnic and multi cultural experience as well. In our car there are several folks speaking Spanish. The young Hispanic mother sitting across the aisle from us has two beautiful children, and a lady sitting two rows back, who appears to possibly be her sister also has three little ones. The kids are having a great time playing with each other as the miles roll by.

There are two couples and a family who (from the native dress of the ladies) appear to be from India. There are Caucasians and African Americans of all ages, and at least five Amish people have walked by us on their way to the dining car. The Conductors and other staff members are friendly and helpful, and it has made for a pleasant experience.

As someone who flies several times a year, I have been impressed with the wide comfortable seats on this train, and tremendous leg room between them. The seats are markedly larger than the coach seats of most planes, and they recline much further. The seats also have a small leg rest that can be extended, and there are foot rests and electrical outlets for each passenger’s use. The aisles are wide, and the two restrooms in each coach are a good bit larger and somewhat more comfortable than the tiny lavatories in the airliners.

The Amtrak fares are also very reasonable. Linda and I are both traveling round trip for roughly half of what one plane ticket would have cost for me, alone.

The drawbacks of rail travel, of course, do exist as well. For example, this particular route does not have daily service. The three times per week regimen makes travel scheduling more of a challenge. Obviously the trip by rail takes much longer than a flight to the same destination. There are several stops along the way, and (much the same as with the airlines) there can be unexpected delays. Our train was scheduled to leave Ashland, KY at 10:08 PM on Wednesday evening, but it did not arrive until much later. We actually got underway at 12:45 AM on Thursday morning!

When delays happen, being stuck in an airport situation can be much more comfortable than in many Amtrak venues. No one really likes spending long hours waiting in an airport terminal, but in contrast to the Amtrak “station” in Ashland, KY (which consists of two benches under a small shelter that look like a school bus stop) it makes an airport waiting area feel like a creature comfort center!

All in all, it has been a pleasant experience thus far. If your town has access to rail travel I would encourage you to try it some time. With the clattering of the wheels, the sound of the whistle, the swaying of the cars, and the passing scenery, there is just something traditionally “American” about the train experience.

I’ve been humming “train songs” to myself all morning!

“And the sons of pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.

Mothers with their babes asleep,

Are rockin' to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”

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