Jeanne Munn Bracken

Jeanne Munn Bracken

It's Not All About Sex

Sometimes it's about travel

Two weeks of travel, no X-rays, no pat-downs!

Posted May 31, 2011

On our recent vacation my husband and I traveled from the Boston suburbs to the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Denver and home. We were not x-rayed, patted down, forced to remove our shoes and display the liquids in our carryon bags. We checked two suitcases weighing about 40 pounds and it didn't cost a penny over our fare. We sat in comfort with plenty of leg room, good views of the passing countryside, walked around as we pleased, reclined our seats without infringing on any nearby passengers, and had tray tables that were actually usable.

We didn't spent hundreds of miles staring at the rear end of 18-wheelers or idling in rush hour traffic or stalled in construction zones.

We took the train.

Saturday May 7 was National Train Day. So says Amtrak, and they should know. For several decades now Amtrak has been the face and body of long-distance passenger rail in the United States. And frankly, the image isn't all that compelling. Last year I read a book called WAITING ON A TRAIN: THE EMBATTLED FUTURE OF PASSENGER RAIL SERVICE by James McCommons (Chelsea Green, 2009). For those of us who love train travel, the book is disheartening.

With good reason. George F. Will recently wrote a column praising the bureaucrats in several states who turned down federal funds to build intercity trains. Snarkily called "High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals Love Trains" (Newsweek, February 27, 2011), the columnist opines that spending money on railroads in an economic downturn is stupid, because automobiles do everything better and cheaper. Or something like that.

Well, he's wrong. I didn't choose the shortest route for our recent trip but one that would show us a goodly portion of America from ground level. We saw a lot of the country, met some interesting people, and luxuriated in the spacious seats in the coach section.

  • Other things we missed out on compared to flying:
  • Sharing our laps with the people seated in front of us
  • Being belted into our seats for hours at a time
  • Waiting for the beverage cart to clear the aisle before going to the restroom
  • Being constantly bumped by passengers moving in the aisles
  • Having to be at the station two hours before departure

I won't even go into the benefits of long-distance trains over auto travel. We do like long car trips (although our daughters will cheerfully recount horror tales of endless days driving across prairies in tiny cars without air conditioning in August), but driving is tiring even if hapless tourists don't get caught in rush hour traffic in Miami or road construction on the New York Thruway. 

Was the trip perfect? Nope. Passenger trains are at the mercy of freight haulers, who own the tracks and have the right of way. Forget on-time arrivals, and do not plan for quick connections at stations along the way. We weren't crazy about the food, either in the dining car or the snack service, and we were disconcerted to discover that on the trains with double-decker cars, we had to negotiate a narrow stairway to get downstairs to the rest rooms. The tracks in general need a lot of repair, so the ride involves a lot of swaying and bumping around and lurching. And while I could easily sleep sitting up in a coach seat 40 years ago, at my current age, not so much. With a do-over, I'd get a sleeper just for the access to a shower. 

Unless we want to suffer more at the hands of the airlines, or spend hours stuck in traffic on ever-expanding highways, we would do well to invest now in high-speed passenger rail, especially on intercity routes. It won't be cheap, but with escalating gas prices alone, automobile travel will break almost anyone's vacation or work travel budget.

The rest of the developed world has good train service. So my advice is: go take a train ride. For most Americans, it's a whole new ball game--a home run.

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