The slow train to GA

CW and J on the train to GA

My husband hates to fly. Partially because of the ascent and descent–he’s never been a fan of heights–but mostly because of the indignities and inconveniences foisted upon one at the airport. From long waits to removal of clothes at security, from bag checks to delays and cancellations without apology, flying may be fast (most of the time) but it is crowded, cramped and stressful. Usually, at Christmas, we rent a car and make a vacation of it, driving over two days and stopping at hotels somewhere in Virginia. While this is more fun than flying, at least one person must still deal with traffic and finding a way to avoid the snarls of the DC-to-Richmond highway nightmare.

This year, with CW as a new member of our family, we decided to take the train. We’d had only one experience with Amtrak before this (not counting the Northeast commuter lines), when we took the train from NYC to Pittsburgh for a visit with aunts, uncles and grandparents. The ride over was easy (we got a first-class car by accident). The ride back was not. Heavy rains slowed the train to 25 miles per hour, for most of the trek through PA. The 2-3 hour delay wouldn’t have been so bad except the thermostat was set to freezing and the overhead flourescent lights never dimmed, remaining bright all the way into NYC at 2 am. Even with all of that, the train was easier on the baby. We could walk him around, stretch our legs, feed him, change him and play with him–all without stopping. So we reserved a roomette in the sleeper car for Christmas ’06.

When I was a kid, my sisters and I had a small playhouse in the backyard. I loved to imagine that every room and item I needed was somehow magically tucked away in its walls. ‘Pull down the table and you have an eat-in kitchen. Tuck that away and pull down the bed and you have a bedroom. Oh and the refrigerator spins around to become an entertainment system.’ Well, the sleeper car is a lot like the tiny house of my imagination: Two rooms packed into the space of a closet. Two chairs become a bed, with a second bunk pulling down. The table is also the trash can. The steps to the top bunk are also a seat, a toilet, and a sink that you pull out of the wall. The luggage? It goes in a cubby above the top bunk. Quite efficient. And the outer wall is a window that displays the Blue Ridge mountains or city skylines as you play games or try to get some sleep.

The trip was slower than flying, but much calmer and more relaxed. (There was no rush to get a coach seat, our space was reserved. Also, we did not have to leave our apartment until very close to our departure time. Instead of a three-hour head-start to account for traffic and long security lines, we left an hour ahead and took a cab. At the train station, you only need to arrive a half hour before departure unless you check bags. And we sat in the Acela lounge for our wait. With the cushy chairs and free soft drinks, I felt like a superstar.) The train trip was faster than driving, with the added bonus of no one actually having to drive. And the cost was comparable to the rental of car and hotel rooms in the past. My husband, who likes going places but doesn’t always enjoy getting there, sat back in his seat as we pulled out of Penn Station and said, ‘I love the train!’ We theorized, while eating our dining car fare (meals are included), that if Amtrak were to get some good food (maybe the local fare from major stops on the line) and market the train as a complement to slow food and a slower lifestyle, they’d have something. (Of course, we’d also recommend satellite radio in the sleeper cars.)

After our trip, I was eager to see where else I could travel via trains with sleeper cars. Only a few places, it turns out. Definitely not as many as I’d like. I think there should be trains everywhere, commuter trains connecting all cities in a state (GA, I’m talking to you!) and long-distance trains that go to all the big stops. (Why isn’t there a direct NYC to San Francisco or LA train?) Maybe our next vacation we can get the Florida rail pass. Slow trains, hot breezes and easy living–that’s the vacation for me.


2 Responses to “The slow train to GA”

  1. sz Says:

    amen, sister. I struggle with this every time we go to LA or down to Carmel – why isn’t there train service for these routes? (ok, there is technically train service to LA, but it takes over 12 hours to go 400 miles – that’s averaging just over 30mph – and then you end up in LA without a car. Or, you can shave a few hours off by using their “Thruway” service – ie. the bus – and transferring twice. This is a 6 hour drive, folks!). Good ol’ Arni supposedly is working on a high-speed train from LA to SF, but it’s many many years away.

  2. sz Says:

    oh, but I am a *huge* fan of the Oakland-Sacramento line. Every time I take it I’m reminded of why I love train travel – for all the reasons you write, and more.

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