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July 9th, 2017

Notes On Train Travel

Last week I went to Walt Disney World on a wee vacation. I needed to renew my annual pass, and the July Fourth week seemed a good time to go. Florida is getting hot this time of year, but that just means the water parks will be inviting. But the road trip down I-95 and back isn’t fun anymore. There are more and bigger traffic knots these days. And where before I could just stop anywhere for the night and get a motel room wherever I happened to be just then, now it’s a race between me and all the other drivers to get the last remaining rooms. Last three trips down I’ve had to use the motel apps on my iPhone to make sure I could get a room at the town ahead of me. So between traffic stress and motel stress the road trip down wasn’t the fun and relaxing start and end to my vacation it used to be. Worse, last January coming home I hit a major snowstorm between North Carolina and Virginia that cost me an extra day travel and…almost…a car wreak.

So this time I took the train. And it was perfect, even allowing for the fact that we were nearly nine hours late getting back to Baltimore because of a derailment in Virginia. I haven’t traveled by train in decades. The last time was a trip down to Florida to visit a friend after he’d graduated from college and found a job in West Palm Beach. But before that, before Amtrak, mom and I traveled by rail down to Florida several times, to Lauderdale By The Sea. So when I stepped onto my train at Penn Station here in Baltimore it all came back to me. Well…most of it. And the fact is I haven’t enjoyed a Disney World vacation like this in too long of a time. So I’ve pretty much settled on this mode of transportation to and from Florida for the foreseeable future. Let me explain why.

  • Flying was pretty much out.  I have traveled by air many times on business, and where I used to enjoy the view from above very much, the airlines have made traveling such a miserable experience now I just don’t want to deal with it. I am not a very big guy and I feel cramped in those seats. I can’t imagine how big or tall folks manage it. And I keep hearing way too many airline horror stories. It seems as if not a week goes by but that some fresh new hell is being visited on passengers. The last time the Institute sent me somewhere (Boulder Colorado) I negotiated a road trip out of it instead of flying. Someday I would like to travel the world. I am seriously considering doing that by boat.
  • Time is not critical when it’s your vacation. Or at any rate it shouldn’t be. Your vacation ought to be a time when you can forget about the clock and just let time pass and the days be whatever they will be.  One of the most common complaints about passenger rail travel is here in the United States the trains are frequently late. More about that below, but for now just hold this thought: time isn’t always critical. For my vacations I just want to forget about the clock and let my day be whatever it is going to be. And by the way, this is why I maintain an annual pass for Walt Disney World. It gets me a whole year to be wherever I want to be in the parks, whenever I feel like being there. It takes the pressure off needing to get the most for your money out of your tickets. This trip, I booked a seat on the train and didn’t particularly care when it got me to Orlando, just so it was sometime during my check-in date. For the trip home I scheduled a train to get me back to Baltimore a day early, as I have always done on my road trips, because I like having that extra day to unpack and relax at home before heading back to work.
  • You can get a room of your own on a train. This was a big deal for me. It’s what makes train travel utterly unlike any other mode of overland transportation, unless you are very rich. Even doing the RV thing isn’t the same, because you’re driving that thing down the highway and you can’t just park it anywhere you want when you need to rest or sleep. Amtrak offers these little spaces called Roomettes, which are basically just barely big enough to two people. But you get privacy and the ability to take a snooze whenever you feel like it and you’re not in a cattle car full of other noisy people and the lights don’t go out until the conductor says they do. If you can afford it, there are full sized sleeper rooms with their own private bathrooms and showers. On the east coast routes the Viewliner roomettes also have their own sinks and toilets. On the long distance western routes the double decker Superliner roomettes don’t have sinks and toilets, but those cars have three bathrooms on the first level and one on the second. All the sleeper cars have showers the roomette passengers can use. 
  • Long distance trains have dining and lounge cars. If you get a room on the train, meals are included. You make your reservation for a seat in the dining car and when you’re seated you get asked your room number and they give you a ticket to sign and that’s it. But remember to leave a tip all the same! The food on my train to Florida and back was excellent. If you have a room you can ask your car attendant to bring you your meal (tip your car attendant at the end of your trip!). But a big advantage trains have over everything else but ocean liners is you can get up and walk around, stretch your legs and move about. And the roomettes are pretty tiny, so it’s nice to be able to get out and take a stroll from time to time.

    The Amtrak lounge cars these days are your basic snack bar and some seats for reading, fiddling with a laptop or smartphone, or just watching the scenery go by. I was hoping for a bar that served mixed drinks too…this was standard for lounges back in the golden age of passenger rail service, but not so much now. I judged from the menu that all they had were a few assorted miniatures and no cordials, so I skipped it. If you have a room you can pack your own liquor and snacks, which I did. But watching the scenery go by was so entrancing I never bothered opening my bottle of Grand Marnier. (That bottle’s been to Florida and back twice now and not been opened, poor thing…)

  • The train was not that much more expensive. Make your reservation early enough and the prices are very reasonable. I worked the numbers…a roomette only cost me a couple hundred more than driving it would have accounting for fuel, food, wear and tear on the car, and motels along the way. And now I’m being driven, I can just kick back and enjoy the scenery the whole way. And having the room of my own basically eliminated the worry about getting a room at the end of my day’s travels. My room was traveling along with me.

    If you think you can handle coach the tickets are very cheap and you still get most of the advantages of having that train you can stroll around on, and the dining and lounge cars. The dining car isn’t exclusive to the people with rooms, coach can use it too, but it’s pricy if you don’t have that room ticket. So alternatively you can get your basic snacks, hot dogs, chips and soft drinks in the lounge.

So that’s my rationale for taking the train to Florida now, and for the foreseeable future. I will probably still do the road trip thing for my western travels. Next month I’m driving to Kansas to visit a friend and see the solar eclipse. But for now…I’m loving the train.  Here’s some more notes on that…

  • It’s not for everybody. I was introduced to long distance train travel when I was a young boy, so a lot of memories all came back when I boarded that train and for me there were no unpleasant surprises. But I can see where it might not be so much for others. The big thing is the motion of the train would take some getting use to. Doubly so if you’re doing an overnight, whether in coach or in a sleeper. You would think gliding along over two shiny steel rails would be the smoothest ride on earth, but actually it isn’t. The rails have switches, intersecting sets of tracks, and various other joints and dings that make themselves felt as you ride. And sometimes the track beds aren’t in the best of shape. That’s because of a fact of life regarding rail travel I’ll go into more below. But my point now is riding by train can seem a lot like sea travel. The train rocks and rolls. It moves side to side, and when you’re walking from one car to another and the train hits a curve you need to be ready to steady yourself. You develope your train legs, much like a sailor gets their sea legs. And much like a set of sea legs, your train legs will persist for a while after you have deboarded.

    I’d forgotten that last as I arrived at Walt Disney World. I had a rental car waiting for me at the station, and I drove it to my hotel which was just across the street from Disney Springs. After I settled into my room I took a walk over to Disney Springs to get my annual pass renewed, when I suddenly began to get wobbly feet. It felt for an instant as if the sidewalk was moving, or I was loosing my balance. Then I remembered. Oh…yes…the train is still moving… 

    It all came back to me as a pleasant, lovely even, re-experiencing of a childhood joy. But I can see it surprising and maybe even disturbing others. And especially so if you’re doing an overnight. If the sensation of being in motion would keep you from getting a night’s sleep, then maybe long distance train travel isn’t for you. The train rocked me to sleep and I loved every minute of being on my trains there and back. Your mileage may vary, but let me say this: if you can manage it, there is nothing else quite like long distance train travel and you owe it to yourself to experience it at least once. You might come back for more.

  • There’s a reason why our country has substandard passenger train service compared to other developed nations, and even some third world countries. The rail companies came first, before the automobile, before the airplane, back in a time when travel was by foot or by car or by boat if there was an available waterway. The railroads were the miracle of the industrial age and they bridged the continent, made it possible to move people and goods from one coast to the other in mere weeks that once took wagon trains months, if they made it at all, and ships having to round Cape Horn but only if the weather and the sea looked kindly on your ship. The rail companies were the wonder technology of the age. And they were, and have always been, privately owned for profit corporations whose rails were private property. During the western expansion the rail companies (like a lot of companies back then) were predatory as all hell, and much of what came to be government intervention in the economy came about as a reaction to that predatory capitalism of the times. But the rail companies goosed the economy with their ability to move people and goods at fantastic speed and the nation grew and its economic infrastructure grew along with it, but in that same capitalistic mode where everything in the economic infrastructure was privately owned.

    Then came the Great Depression and the second world war and for the rail companies two significant things changed. First, there was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who before he became president, before he became leader of the allied forces, was a soldier on a convoy traveling along US Route 30, or as it was called, The Lincoln Highway.

    From a military perspective that convoy was a disaster. Bridges could not accommodate the equipment, long sections of the road were unpaved and equipment kept getting stuck, the convoy traveled at a snail’s pace. Good thing they weren’t rushing to reinforce a battle line somewhere. Years later Eisenhower, a soldier in that convoy, now the supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe, led his armies into Germany to defeat the fascists. And there he beheld the Autobahn. It must have seemed to him like he was seeing a new world. And he knew right away why Hitler had it built and it wasn’t to give German drivers a faster more scenic way to get from here to there.

    Years later as president, he pushed for something like it to be built here in the U.S.A. and so the Interstate Highway System came to be. And also why the island of Hawaii has an interstate highway. Yes, it’s a state surrounded by the Pacific ocean. You can’t throw a bridge across it to the mainland. But no, the Interstate is not pork barrel. Look at H-1 on the map. It’s on the island of O’ahu, and it connects the military bases, airports and naval port. It is a fundamental part of the specification of the Interstate highway system, that its roads, bridges, and tunnels can support and accommodate tanks and other military equipment.

    But why goodness gracious that also means it can support passenger cars. And…heavy trucks. And now the rail companies have competition over freight traffic from the trucking industry and passenger traffic has an alternative to long distance coast to coast rail travel. Motels began to spring up along the Interstates. And restaurants and truck stops. And it was built with taxpayer money, for public use, to be owned by the people of the United States. And since the great depression, that public ownership for a public good wasn’t considered unusual or immoral anymore. Except by a certain subsection of the American pews that never got over or forgave FDR and his communist New Deal. But there was another blow to come and it came from the sky, once again by way of the Germans.

    The jet airplane. And once again the military beheld a new world, and once again they made it happen, and once again new businesses followed. And the airports and the air traffic infrastructure that serviced the new jet set were built with public money, to serve a public good because now the public good wasn’t a dirty thought anymore. Except among the usual suspects. And now the rail companies, which once counted their passenger lines as status symbols, allowing travelers to cross the country in mere days in comfort and luxury, began losing money to an industry that could fly passengers coast to coast in just a few hours. It took another decade, but it was the end of the grand passenger trains. Bulk freight was the one area they were still profitable because no other mode could compete there but the freighter ships and they had to take a detour through the Panama Canal to go from coast to coast. So the rail companies, instead of competing with the new modes of passenger transportation, bailed. And you could have seen it coming because their business model from the beginning was about preventing competition, not meeting it head-on and winning customers. Where the Super Chief ran, no other railroad could because the railroad owned that property. Same for the California Zephyr. Yes they both ran from Chicago to California, but by different routes servicing different points along the way. Competition such as it was during the western expansion was for territory because if you had territory you controlled the traffic there. Rail companies gobbled up huge tracts of land, largely to keep other rail companies out so they could charge the local farmers and ranchers whatever they damned well pleased that the market would bear. So when actual competition hit them they walked away from the market altogether.

    I think they could have done it. They had enticements the others simply could not match if they wanted to exploit them. But actual competition was not in the cultural DNA. 

    Which is why we have Amtrak now. Otherwise there would be no long distance passenger rail service at all. But it’s also why Amtrak is at a disadvantage compared to passenger rail service in other nations, and why the airlines and the auto industry and all the ancillary service industries for the road traveler are doing a good business, while passenger rail is hanging on by a thread. Elsewhere, that public money for public good thing isn’t considered immoral. Here it’s a deeply held religious belief that government should not interfere with business. Well…for the public benefit. For private profits it’s just nature’s way because what else are congressmen For? It’s no random happenchance that the man remembered most for saying “The public be damned” was a railroad tycoon (he was complaining about having to run a city passenger line for less than costs because his competition wanted those passengers too). For decades since Amtrak was established the republicans have been trying to kill it like they’ve been trying to erase everything about FDR’s New Deal because socialism. Sure air and highway travel are way more massively subsidized than Amtrak ever was. But the trucking industry, the auto industry, the airline and aircraft industries, the hospitality industry, all have money they can throw at congress. And so can the rail companies which hate Amtrak because it’s using their rails and that’s not only socialism it’s big government stealing from private property owners. Amtrak only has its passengers to speak for it. But so far that’s been enough to keep it running. 

    But not enough to build it into a world class passenger rail service. What we have now is good…much Much better than it was when it was first established and all it had was the cast off equipment the rail companies didn’t want anymore. The new engines and cars are wonderful. But it all runs on a set of privately owned rails and the rail companies don’t give a shit about passenger traffic.

    The rest of us need to. In all the talk about fixing, repairing and maintaining the national infrastructure, we need to pay more attention to the rail infrastructure too. But that’s a problem because of the nature of how it all came to be. The rails were and always have been private property. The rest of the transportation infrastructure is publicly financed and publicly owned. Difficult as it is in this era of Donald Trump republicanism, it’s still lots easier to have a discussion about what to do about the highways than it is about the railroads because the railroads were never a public resource and they still have that public be damned thing in their DNA.

    Milton Friedman, the darling of Randians everywhere, famously said that the only responsibility a corporation has is to increase shareholder profits and that everything else is socialism. We as a nation need to get over that mindset. Big business in this country is subsidized by the public in nearly everything it does and if that isn’t socialism too then nothing is and socialism is just a scarecrow they wave around when they want the public benefit without the public obligation. It’s time private industry acknowledged that no corporation is an island, and gave some equal concern to nurturing the democracy and the social infrastructure that made their business and their profits possible. There is after all, no free lunch.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Notes On Train Travel

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