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Amtrak

Updated: Oct 7, 2018


When I lived in London, I got used to the Brits complaining bitterly about their rail service. I was never able to jump on board the whining train (ha, ha..) though, because I come from America and I would give anything to have what the UK has. I mean, look at that! So many trains, and even though the picture can't tell you, the seats are comfortable, spacious, often have tray tables, etc etc. Really, I have no sympathy for my British friends in this regard (if you're curious, this picture it taken from the Parcel Yard pub in King's Cross Station, London).


In the United States, a country about the size of all of Europe, we have Amtrak. It's a semi-public rail system (run by a private company but gets some of its funds from the government), and is...uh...well, it's a great way to travel if you just want to ride the rails. It's not as good if you are using it solely as a means of transportation. But I am scared of flying. I do my best to avoid getting in a plane if the distance is under 1,000 miles (1,600 km), not that I'm always able to. So, I have taken Amtrak in the past for shorter distance travels.


July 2007: My first experience with Amtrak was with my best friend from high school Dan. He lived in New Jersey, and he and I had been planning an epic two-week camping extravaganza throughout New England as a graduation present to ourselves. Instead, the boy flipped his car (going 25 mph, how??) right before I flew out there. But we still wanted to get up to the Boston area at least, and couldn't afford a flight (pay attention to that), so we took Amtrak from Trenton up.

Now, Trenton, New Jersey is not exactly Mayberry, and often Amtrak stations are in grungier areas (disclaimer: this photo is from Chicago, not Trenton). 18 year old, relatively sheltered me was happy when Dan's dad, who had driven us to the station, decided to stay with us until the train came about half an hour later. Less sheltered Dan just laughed at me and shook his head.


The track between Trenton and Boston takes you right through the heart of New York City, into Penn Station, and then onwards north along the coast. I did not get any pictures, but it really was a pretty ride. At one point, the track ran right along the Atlantic Ocean. The train wasn't delayed, and we were in Boston a mere 6.5 hours after we left Trenton (compare to about an hour flight between Philadelphia and Boston).

May 2010: A couple of months earlier, I had taken a flight from Boston to Minneapolis that hit some hefty turbulence over Lake Michigan. I had two flights within a year of each other that hit such bad turbulence that the overhead bins popped open, and I think of them when asked what turned me from a nervous flier to a terrified flier. When we were finally back on the ground, I immediately emailed my supervisor. I was, at the time, on my undergrad university's lobbying arm and we were scheduled to go to Washington DC to meet with our Congressfolk. "Buy me an Amtrak ticket, I'm not getting a plane." After a bit of hemming and hawing with her, I found a ticket that cost the same as what the flight would have (pay attention to that) so she finally agreed.


To get from St. Paul to Washington, you take the (supposedly) eight hour Amtrak to Chicago, have a four hour layover, and then hop a 24-hour train to DC.

At the time, the Amtrak station in St. Paul was like the Trenton station aka not the nicest location. But the train came quickly enough, and I was off.


One of my best friends, Eric, was going to university in Chicago at the time, so I basically got an afternoon with one of my favorite people on the college's dime. Also, it's always fun wandering Chicago. I've always thought it was the prettiest American city, and even four hours there will tell you that.

Too soon, it was time to get back on the train and head east. I settled into a window seat, and was soon joined by Louisa, a New Zealander who instantly became one of my favorite people. We were kindred spirits, and spend the entire trip - save for sleeping - talking about everything under the sun. As we did, the midwestern fields gave way to Appalachian hills. We went to sit in the "sightseer lounge car", which is absolutely Amtrak's greatest feature. It is a long, glass encased car with swivel chairs and couches for passengers to enjoy the vast American expanses as they go.

Upon arrival in DC, the train disembarks (and embarks, for the return journey/any other Amtrak journey out of the city) at Union Station. Despite having lived in DC for a year, five months of which Union Station was my actual commute's metro stop, I somehow didn't snap a picture of the beautiful station. So enjoy this photo that Eric got of me there when we lived in DC together.


I bade Louisa farewell, and headed off to meet the rest of my colleagues at our hotel in Arlington. I had left Minnesota a day and a half earlier, they had left a mere three hours earlier.

As we were there to discuss student loan issues with our various Congressfolk, the majority of our time was spent either in meetings or prepping for them. Here we are meeting with then-Representative Jim Oberstar (RIP), who spoke French briefly with me.


On the way back to Minnesota, via the same route, I had to get myself from Arlington back to Union Station. As I stood in front of the metro ticket machine, I couldn't get it to work for me even though I'd been using it all week. Finally, I embarrassingly resolved to ask the next person who approached it for help. And the next person was....a British kid who had studied abroad at my university the previous semester. We both kind of blinked at each other for a shocked second before breaking into big grins and hugging. To this day, that is easily my favorite "small world" moment. Every other one, there is at least some small explanation. But that one, what on earth are the odds that we would both be at the same random metro station 1,000 miles away from where we had met? Also, to continue the happy story, it turns out I wasn't being dumb, he couldn't get the machine to work either.


24 hours later, I was back with Eric in Chicago, and another 12 hours after that I was home. It was the same price as a flight, but 36 hours rather than 3.


March 2011: Speaking of Eric, the next year - our last in college - our spring breaks overlapped. Obviously, that was a sign so it was back to Amtrak for me!


As this was late winter/early spring in Minnesota, there was a small blizzard the night before I was meant to go. So even though I arrived at the grungy Amtrak station in St. Paul at 6am, the train was delayed as crews worked on clearing the track somewhere up north. My mother dropped me off, and I sat there sleepily staring at the wall for hours. Around 10:30, I called her and asked if she was interested in lunch. She drove back up (about a 20 minute drive from her work place), and we went to an always-exciting Arby's nearby. Finally, around 1 (nearly when we had been scheduled to arrive in Chicago) the train arrived and we were on our way.

Amtrak has a reputation for terrible scheduling problems. In 2007, on-time arrivals were at a 68%. While that might sound low, just wait until you see 2017s numbers - going from Florida to Virginia? You have a 35% of getting to your destination on time. Chicago to Seattle? 30%. From the research I have done, it appears that the problem lies not so much in snow storms but in the fact that Amtrak does not own the rails it uses. When that snow storm closed the tracks for a couple of hours during my trip, my train was the last priority for the owner of the track.


July 2016: I moved to London in September 2016. That summer saw my mother and I make two trips to Chicago, both times to see concerts that were not coming to Minnesota until too late (the Dixie Chicks and Coldplay). The latter's concert was the last week of July, and we decided to make a vacation out of it. However, there was a bit of hemming and hawing on her end before we decided to take the train rather than just drive - remember the prices from earlier? Nowadays, Amtrak is more expensive than traveling the same route by sky. The introduction of Spirit into the American airline game has ensured that plane tickets are cheaper. Amtrak, meanwhile, has raised its prices over the years. So...you're paying more...for a longer trip...

In 2014, St. Paul's Amtrak station had moved from its former home to the much nicer Union Station in downtown. The train itself was on time, but it was a slow go down to Chicago so we still pulled in about an hour later than was scheduled. As we chugged along, we noticed that our fellow passengers were mostly Mennonites. While the prices and delays might keep a lot of people away from Amtrak, at least they'll always have a base with those who can't (or at least, rarely do) fly!


And then Chicago awaited. The city is Mom's favorite in the country (she's a gilded-age architecture nerd and this is the place to be for that), and I don't find it too bad myself.


What I will give Amtrak is that it's seats are large and comfortable, much larger than anything I've experienced in Europe. And I would love to do a cross-country Amtrak trip someday. The sightseer lounge car must be absolutely incredible in the Rocky Mountains, for example. But as a transportation tool, Amtrak has a long ways to go in order to compete with other developed countries. And considering the time it takes to get from Point A to Point B on it, I understand why people don't take it. It just isn't practical unless you have the time, and considering our skimpy vacation times off work, most people don't.

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