For the Love of Train Travel: Thank Goodness Some Things Remain the Same

Monday, September 15, 2014

I've read lots of articles and blog posts in recent years lamenting how awful it is to travel on a commercial airliner these days compared to the golden age of the '60s and '70s. That's because it is, indeed, pretty terrible to fly on an airplane today, and passengers are so fed up they're taking matters into their own hands. Did you hear about the airplane passenger who recently used plastic clamps on the seat in front of him so that the woman sitting in it wouldn't be able to recline back and infringe on his personal space? Yeah, it caused a huge ruckus but can you blame that guy? Forget flying the friendly skies--they just simply do not exist anymore. 

But for all of the comparisons I see writers making about airline travel then and now, it's surprising that no one has mentioned how comfortable and relatively unchanged train travel is compared to flying. I absolutely love riding a train. Granted, taking a train for a long distance isn't that convenient for most can take days to reach a destination compared to hours by flying. But, if you can do it, I think the pros greatly outweigh that one glaring downside. Dare I say it, train travel is nearly just as romantic as it used to be back in its heyday, especially compared to today's typical airport experience.

I was going to rehash my experience during my last trip, but why bother? You all already know what they're like...the long lines to check luggage with unfriendly clerks...another long line for security...the fact that you can't bring food or beverages of your own onto the plane...extra fees for everything from headphones to additional checked bags. Plus a claustrophobic plane ride where five inches of precious space separates your kneecaps from the seat in front of you. 

Instead, I'll recount what my train trips from Boston to New York were like. I park directly at the train station (which has plenty of spaces.) I go into the station which is a quick walk and out to the platform with my bag, with no security line to get through. I can take whatever kind of food, beverages and liquid toiletries I like with me. Inside the train, I can sit wherever I want. The seats are pretty comfortable and I have plenty of overhead space for my bag, as well as room for my legs. I can get up and walk about during any part of the ride. There's a dining car that serves pretty decent food and snacks for reasonable prices. Both passengers and train employees seem fairly relaxed. If the car I'm riding in gets noisy for whatever reason, chances are the train has a "quiet" car where mobile phone usage and crying kids are not allowed. Plus you really can't beat the scenery, depending on where your train is going. The Boston to NYC route takes you through Rhode Island and Connecticut, and it's pretty nice. 

If you need to sleep, it's actually doable on a train; much better than being on a red-eye flight with a screaming baby a couple of rows back (which was my experience once coming back to Boston from San Francisco.)

I don't know why, but riding on a train always make me think of the WWII and post-war eras...maybe it's the Glenn Miller songs "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." 

During my last train ride, which was returning to Boston from NYC, a man in the dining car struck up a conversation with me and we ended up chatting for hours. Although nothing came of it (he was married) it does seem like train passengers are easier to talk to and more willing to get into conversations. It must be because they're less stressed.    

Ad via Amtrak: History of America's Railroad
And yet the passenger train system in the U.S. could be in danger. Passenger train travel is unpopular compared to other methods of travel. It just isn't fast and convenient enough for many people. It's not surprising that the Europeans love train travel to visit nearby countries, or other areas of their own country, considering they work less hours than Americans and from what I hear, aren't glued to their mobile devices quite as much. Even on those high speed trains, riding the rails is a savory, patient experience. It sure would be a shame if we lost it here. 


  1. I would be absolutely elated if trains became the norm. When I was in Europe, the trains were great; how is it that the US isn't totally on board with this?

    When you're in a city, like Washington, D.C., where the metro is so accessible and traffic is's heaven.

    I'm with you, Pam.

  2. Hi Cherdo - thanks for your comments. Well, some subway systems are better and cleaner than others...I was writing more about train travel like taking a train from one city to another. But I was impressed with the metro when I visited D.C. for the first time a few years ago and thought it was way cleaner than the MBTA in Boston! But yes, I think more people need to consider keeping the passenger train system in business.

  3. The biggest problem is there has been almost no maintenance on the rail infrastructure in decades. Rails are speed rated to their quality for public transport. A large portion are rated to a top speed of 35MPH. We had an Amtrack Louisville to Chicago run for a couple of years a bit ago. But it wasn't used, no one wanted to take 12 hrs going each way. I we had repaired the rails like the freeway system, they could take a much faster line.

  4. memoryman - Shame because a plan to repair/improve the infrastructure would create so many new jobs, even if they're just temporary ones.

  5. I just took the freeway from Atlanta to NW Illinois and back for my niece's wedding. A nice easy trip - and one reason I can't take a train there, alas.
    I'm looking for ways to get to Vermont for a vacation...the train would be ideal, I'd shell out the bucks for a sleeper...but I'd miss the connection in NYC by some two hours.
    If all else fails I'll plan a trip around the train schedule. I'd ridden the rails some as a kid and it gave me some of my best travel memories.

  6. Love your posts (as always) Pam, and once again you're right on mark. A few years ago I took the Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Washington DC to visit my brother, and couldn't have been more pleased with the trip. Just as you said, there was no baggage checks or security to go through, it was a quiet, scenic 4-5 hour trip (though I had to laugh when I visited the restroom & one of the conductors was leaning against a metal sink calmly smoking a cigarette, haha!) Anyway, I'm anxious to do it again--it was a reminder of another time, almost.

    PS. I still have my Metro Pass from my visit in my wallet--DC had the clearnest subway cars I've ever seen!

  7. PS. Oops I made a boo-boo; while I took the train to DC, I took a Greyhound bus back to Pittsburgh.

    The bus ride home was a 5 hour trip, the train ride was actually a lot longer, like 7-8 hours (but I didnt mind one bit).


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