Saturday, June 6, 2020

All aboard!

Welcome to my home away from home for the next seven hours or so. I am aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief, traveling home from Santa Fe (where I've spent the past week - yes, in a pandemic, and let's all hope I don't end up regretting this little jaunt in a couple of weeks).

The point of the trip was to find an apartment in Santa Fe, which is where I'll be relocating shortly as part of our #escapevelocity program. More on that pretty soon.

A lot has been happening in the U.S. this week, what with COVID-19 and George Floyd's murder and the subsequent protests across the nation. It's been a little surreal to watch momentous events happening two blocks from my office from two-thirds of the way across the country. I'll have more to say on all of it, probably next week. But right now I'm parked on a train in La Junta, Colorado, waiting for crews to clear a brush fire ahead of so we can be on our way.

A brush fire wouldn't stop a plane, you say? True enough. But travel by train has so many other things going for it that I've decided to create a listicle of the pros - and the cons - to long-distance train journeys. (Also, this is the first time I've written a blog post on my phone, so I wanted to keep things simple.)

The Pros:
  • It's way more comfortable. The airlines have made it their business to maximize their profits by making coach seats ever smaller and legroom ever shorter. They even have the audacity to charge you extra for a seat with a few inches of extra legroom, although the seat itself is no wider than others in steerage. On Amtrak, you get wide, well-padded seats that have footrests built in. You can even recline your seat without worrying about squishing the passenger behind you. In coach!
  • Passengers aren't treated like cattle. One of the most annoying things about air travel is having to undress and unpack in order to get through security. On a get on the train. You find your seat, and by and by, the conductor comes by and scans your ticket. That's it. 
  • If you need to get up and stretch, you have choices. You can go to the cafe car for a snack, or the dining car for a sit-down meal. On cross-country train, the top floor of the cafe car is an observation deck with even more spacious seating and a great view of the landscape. And if nature calls, you have multiple bathrooms from which to choose - and no crew member will scold you for standing outside an occupied restroom.
  • First class is affordable. On a long-haul route, "first class" includes sleeping accommodations. The ticket is more expensive than coach, but when you realize you're wrapping your hotel and meals into the price, it's not so daunting. That's right -- room and board.
I sprang for a roomette on this trip. The roomette accommodates one or two people. It's not a very big compartment, but the seats (two of them, facing each other) are even wider than in coach, and there's a pull-up and fold-out table in between. At night, the table folds away and the seats drop down to make a bunk, while a second bunk folds down from the ceiling. (Some roomettes come with a toilet in them, but this route doesn't have that feature.) Because of the virus, you can have the attendant bring your meals to you. Posh, huh?

There are, however, some drawbacks to train travel in the United States. The Cons:
  • The train takes longer. You can fly across the country a lot quicker than you can get there by train. DC to Chicago is a two-hour flight; Amtrak leaves in the afternoon and arrives the next morning -- about 16 hours. (Driving time is comparable to the train, assuming you have someone to switch with you when you get tired.) 
  • Amtrak doesn't go everywhere in America, nor do its cross-country trains leave more than once a day. That's due to decisions made by Congress in the '50s and early '60s to prioritize auto travel by building out the interstate system. Then in the '70s, the government consolidated all passenger travel under rhe Amtrak banner - but didn't buy or build its own tracks (except for the high-speed Acela service in tbe Northeast corridor). A big part of the reason it takes 16 hours to get from DC to Chicago by train is that your train is guaranteed to spend time just sitting and waiting for freight trains to go by. Why? Because the freight trains own the tracks.
  • Food selection isn't super, especially for those with dietary restrictions. A sleeper car isn't as much of a deal when you have to bring your own food along.
  • Many of the long-haul trains don't have wi-fi. And I've hit a surprising number of dead spots for cell phone service on this trip, too. So don't count on electronic entertainment -- bring a book or something.
Still, if I have the time, I'd rather take the train than fly. It's a much more comfortable, and more humane, experience.

Ah, the brush fire must be out. We're moving again. I'd better wrap this up before we hit another dead spot in cell service...

These moments of clickety-clack blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Amtrak requires masks in their stations and on their trains - don't forget yours!

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