My Side of the Fence

The danger isn't going too far. It's that we don't go far enough.


Went on my first Amtrak ride today (I'm actually on the train as I write this).  I've been on the Metro plenty, both here and in other cities and I've even been on Street cars before in NoLa and San Francisco but never a train.  It's an interesting experience.  We're traveling on business and decided to get "Business Class" seats.  They were like $20 more so it seemed reasonable.

First, the good stuff.  It's amazing to me that I can go to the little train depot up the street and take a train all the way up the East coast.  I packed my stuff into a carry-on bag, drove my car up to my office and dragged my carry-on the two blocks to the train station.  Two blocks is a shorter drag than doing the airport thing, that's for sure.  I showed up about 20 minutes early and away I went.  Contrast that to a flight out of Dulles where I'd need to lave my house some 3.5 hours in advance just to make sure I'd catch the flight.  Cost-wise I haven't doped it all out but it appears our tickets were cheaper than flying.  I'm not sure if that has more to do with the days we traveled or what.  Not sure I care all that much as there is likely adjustable pricing on both sides based on days/times, etc, etc.  I'm sure you can find a conspiracy site on the internet to explain it all if you look hard enough.

The other thing that is just all that and a ball of wax is the amount of space available.  Sarah and I bagged our "Biz class" seats and stayed in the Cafe car the whole time.  It's essentially the same as sitting at a booth in a fast-food restaurant.  Just a world different than flying on an airplane where standing up to stretch your legs necessarily involves having your butt in someone's face.  We brought a little lunch bag with a couple of sandwiches and some snacks.  It just wasn't a big deal at all.  Also, for our train there was no checked baggage but there was plenty of space above the seats.  You just stuck your bags up there and away you went.  No drama.

One last good thing: there is Dogfish Head beer on those trains and the food ain't bad.  A beautiful thing.

On to strange things: the train will, from time to time just slow to a crawl.  I suppose the tracks must be screwed up but really?  That kind of stuff has just got to get fixed and it's a long-term problem but if we want transit options….

Now, the lousy things.  These may not, at first blush, seem like much but little things add up to difference-makers:  When you go to get on the train, nobody really helps very much.  As I indicated, we bought "Business Class" tickets and upon boarding the train showed our tickets to the conductor.  We asked "where should we sit"?  He indicated, "turn right and sit anywhere".  Now technically he was correct.  However, the "Business Class" seats were 4 cars up.  That's a long way in train distance and we gave up on those seats when we found the Cafe car.  As I indicated, I was over the moon with the cafe car but others might not be.  If you're going to sell a product that is differentiated by price, your employees have got to be able to support it.  After all, when it comes to transportation, the experience that people are benchmarking you on are the airlines.  Do you think for a second that if you approached a gate with a first-class ticket and showed it to a Flight Attendant that they would glance at it and say "turn right and sit anywhere"?  No, of course not.  It's not a big deal for me but to some it will be.  I will add, however, that overall the Amtrak staff are very friendly and helpful.

As we sat in the cafe car, it became clear that this car is the defacto office for the conductors.  That's fine, everyone needs a place to hang their hat but the conductors sit in the car with the radio's blaring about half the time.  That's a bit more of a big deal to me.  It isn't as though anyone is sleeping in the cafe car but it is very distracting.  It is also loud enough that you can hear it through headphones.  I know that those earphones that plug into the radio don't cost much.

One final bad thing.  Much of the infrastructure you see from the train is a wreck.  The platforms in Union Station look like they've just absorbed a proper shelling and been patched with asphalt.  The columns for the platforms are probably original wrought iron with 20 layers of paint and electrical cable zip-tied to them.  Baltimore is the same way.  Much of the masonry and platforms look to be original.  And by original I mean steel with those big rivets in it and old-school stone masonry or massive brick structures.  If you think the highways are in bad shape, take a look at the rails.  To be fair to my friends in the Railroads, the infrastructure between the cities seems ok so I'm guessing maintaining that stuff in an urban environ is a real bear.  Also, let's face it, they don't normally build million dollar houses right next to the railroad so it isn't a real attractive place to look at. 

Now, you might be asking yourself if I've done any other research to base all of this on.  The answer is this: you've got to be kidding me.  I've been sitting on this train for 3 hours, walked up and down the aisle a few times, got off to look around at Union Station and that's the extent of my "research".  It's really more like "observation" than actual research.  I'm not claiming this is peer-reviewed inquiry but I'm a customer and that's good enough!

At the end of the day the most important question, I suppose, is would I ride the train again?  The answer, for a regional train, is hell yes….as long as I can sit in the cafe car.  I'm not so sure about a 2-3 day train ride.  I think I'd hop a flight for NoLa or points west well before I'd sit on a train for a couple of days.  I've only been on this thing a couple of hours and the sameness of the railroad right of way in between the cities is pretty dull.  Maybe a train through the Rockies…. 

On our return leg, we waited in Penn station for an hour or so.  People often ask "what's happened to all of the regular people?"  I found them in the train station.  It isn't anything like an airport.  Overall, I dig it.


  1. I love living in an active rail community, from Quantico to Gainesville, with Manassas at the heart of it.  That's why we named our network of more than 150+ local writers, Write by the Rails. Two of our members, Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine, who live in Bristow, have said they love getting on the train in Manassas and riding hassle free to New York to meet with publishers. For a writer, anytime you can use travel time to produce, rather than bide time in traffic, is valuable. If you've never had conversations with rail advocates Dick and Dan Peacock, you should. Enjoying your travel posts, Andy.

  2. Great post!  Have ridden Amtrak many times, and the five years we lived at Fort Monmouth, NJ the NJ Transit was the easy way to get into New York City.  And I agree with Cindy about the benefit of the trains in Manassas…the National Amputee Coalition relocated their national headquarters from Nashville to "D.C." and picked our little City to be in for not only the lower rent, but the advantage of having both VRE and Amtrak right here for those times they have to go into D.C.

  3. Done the train a few times myself, and I've noticed much of the same. I like to take the train to destinations north, such as NYC and Boston. Talk about convenience. I can catch the train in Manassas, and get off the train 3 miles from my sister's house in MA. But…for destinations south, the train isn't my preferred mode of transport. If the periodic slow-crawl bugs you, try stopping in every podunk town between here and Orlando. I mean you are stopping all the time, and sitting there, while nobody gets on or off. One of the reasons for the periodic slow crawl is Amtrack doesn't own any track. They lease access from the freight lines. So, the tracks haven't been optimized for passenger service. Sometimes they have to slow for safety reasons. Sometimes they just have to because of single tracking. Because it takes a bunch more energy to get a train going from a standing start, they'd rather slow down and crawl until the single track is clear. It might be miles ahead, and what equates to "air traffic control" tells the engineer to slow his train to x mph for y amount of time, rather than clip along at full speed, then come to a complete stop, only to have to get her going again.

  4. andy

    April 13, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Yeah, if you're handicapped the trains would be far easier to navigate.  Amtrak has guys called "Red Caps" who around to carry luggage and help people out.  I saw a Red Cap help an older lady to the escalator: he took her bag and offered her his arm to hold on to.  It was, in the sea of chaos that is Penn station, on of the more touching things I've ever seen.  He was very gentle and took it very slow.  You won't find that in any airport I've been in.


  5. "Amtrak ridership increased in the first six months of fiscal 2013
     with ridership in March setting an all-time record."
    (WaPo – Business Section G-2 – 4-14-2013)
    "The Town of Manassas-Allurements and Advantages
    …. Twenty-one passenger trains daily – on main line of the
    Southern railroad and junction of the valley branch line."
    Manassas Democrat (4-20-1911)
     Back to the Future?

  6. Steve Randolph

    April 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm
    A classic railroad station still in regular use after almost 100 years! 

  7. andy

    April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I'll be taking the train again soon!  Hope to get back to NYC before the dead of summer but doubt that will happen.  I agree with Steve's remark that travelling north on the train works better.  We go to Richmond to see Sarah's mother from time to time and I'd dearly love to be able to take the train to the Main St. station in Richmond but it's 5 HOURS or something!!!  You have to go to Union Station first.  12 hours to Atlanta. 

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