By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Earlier this year, I posted about the growing movement by European environmentalists to eschew airplanes and take the train (see Take the (Night) Train).
When I found myself in High Point, North Carolina recently and needed to get back to New York City, I decided to check out Amtrak’s services.
I found two trains ply that route daily: one direct and overnight, one via Raliegh-Durham, The cost, $150, for a same-day purchase was reasonable, and competitive with the one-way last- minute airfare of $149.
So I booked a ticket, and set my alarm to wake up in time to catch the 3:16 Crescent service: “Convenient Daily Trips from the Big Apple to the Big Easy.” My Mom – whom I was visiting – warned me this train was notorious for running late.
I was able to monitor the train’s progress on-line and at the time I should have left for the station, it was indeed running about 40 minutes late, so I pushed back my departure time from her home accordingly.
By the time I reached the station, via a fifteen minute car service journey, the train was delayed about an hour. Constructed in 1907, the High Point train station is pleasant: clean, with comfortable seating, but offers few amenities. No ATM, no wifi, vending machines but no place to get real food nor even a cup of coffee. (This in contrast to other rail stations I passed through earlier this summer, in Gdansk and Warsaw; and Carcassonne, Toulouse, and Barcelona. Less charming, but with more services; in these cities, train travel is clearly a mainstream rather than niche activity.)
Amtrak opens the station an hour before trains are due to depart. When I arrived, three other men, each travelling solo, were waiting for the train. One was wasted – not drunk – but belligerent and fixing for a fight. He tried to bully me; the station attendant, a 30-something woman shut that effort down. She was calm but firm, and knew exactly how to defuse rather than escalate the situation.
The bully’s jeans were sagging, giving us a full view of his shocking ultramarine underpants. He wasn’t bothered by this. He swayed and stumbled and tried to find another sparring partner with one of the two other men, who ignored him.
I struck up a conversation with the third man, whom I learned was North Carolina born and bred and headed back to Washington, D.C. When I mentioned I was travelling to New York, he seemed to shed some of his 78 years. He told me he’d spent the best years of his life there, training as a mortician and then working in the city morgue.
The attendant was keeping an eye on the progress of our train, now scheduled to arrive about an hour late. About ten minutes before it was expected, she led us through the station, towards the tracks. She unlocked the elevator and we then waited on a platform. The man in ultramarine underpants was behaving in an increasingly crazy pants manner, trying again to trigger a fight. His attempts to intimidate were undercut by his periodic need to hoist his jeans back into position.
The attendant once again defused the situation, while the ex-mortician and I continued our conversation. The train arrived.
Even with the delay, I’d spent less time waiting for the train than I would have wasted before a typical flight. And the wait was not nearly as exasperating, despite the antics of the man in the ultramarine underpants.
That it was so much less annoying was that there was no CNN blaring in the background, no obligation to participate in ludicrous security theater. And the manner of the Amtrak attendant: calm, helpful, welcoming, professional. Not flustered. Someone doing her job, who solved problems, and didn’t see them as enemies or targets to be berated.
How about the train? It was nearly full, this being the wee hours of the Thursday before Labor Day weekend. The conductor led me to a seat and offered to place my small bag in the overhead rack. Unlike the scrum upon boarding an airplane, there was no need to jostle with other passengers for overhead space.
I settled back into a wide, comfortable leather seat, which was easily fifty percent larger than a standard economy seat on a plane, if not twice as large. Better still, the seat reclined to a comfortable angle, and a small skirt allowed me to elevate my feet. The seat resembled the TV recliners I remember from my childhood: Amtrak’s version of the Barcolounger. I pulled out my neck pillow, swathed myself in a lightweight wrap I always port on my travels, and fell asleep.
To wake up about halfway through the journey, as we passed through Washington D.C. For some reason, the train wasn’t accepting new passengers from D.C. to NYC. That didn’t make sense to me, as I’d think there would be a large number of potential riders there. I know that other countries also run train services with limited stops; I know little about train scheduling, so there’s undoubtedly a reason. What was odd with the Amtrak situation is that one could get off, but not on, this train.
As we approached Wilmington, I became hungry. The train had two options: one car where one could purchase prepackaged items, and fast food, and a proper dining car. I opted for the latter.
The car had proper tables, napery, and metal cutlery. I sat down and the attendant shooed me into another place, to shar a table with a couple, even though there were plenty of empty seats. I really wanted something simple, but the hot dog was only a children’s option. Alas, I’d probably missed the best meal of the day: breakfast. Not really hungry for any of the ;lunch options – salad, black bean and corn veggie burger, natural Angus burger, baked chilaquiles – I chose steamed mussels, although I’ll concede that was probably the riskiest choice.
They arrived shortly thereafter, mussels with a splodgy white roll. Memo to Amtrak: if you’re going to serve mussels, how about moules frites? These weren’t particularly good, nor were they exactly bad, either. A bit rubbery. Not as good as the pierogi I’d eaten on a Gdansk-Warsaw train in July. I was hungry, and I gobbled them down.
The beverages, unfortunately, were served in plastic cups, but beer and wine were also offered, along with the standard soft drinks. I asked for water and some was poured from a jug – no need to swig from a plastic bottle. I then finished with the dessert of the day, a uniquely American gloppy concoction: a chocolate turtle cake. And a coffee, in a paper cup. Requested fresh milk for that; wish granted. A more than adequate lunch and certainly better than the airplane food one would get on an American carrier in cattle class.
Made my way back to my seat, and started to chat with a nearby passenger, Dennis, about my lunch. He was travelling with his wife; they were in the restaurant business. He reminisced about how good the food was on this same route, when it was part of the Penn Central network, as recently as the sixties.
A complaint: it was very noisy. The train blows its whistle, often. I wonder whether that’s really necessary.
We pulled into Penn Station – about an hour late. We’d embarked about an hour late, and never made up any time. But I knew the train was delayed before I left for the train station.
A conductor helped retrieve my bag and we disembarked, right in the middle of the city, and I caught the subway back to my Brooklyn home. Unlike an airplane journey, there was no need to brave car traffic to get back home.
Although the scheduled journey time was 10 1/2 hours – compared to the 1 1/2 hrs of a direct flight – by the time one factors in additional time to get to and from the airport, and to complete the security circuit, plus a margin of error for delays, especially with La Guardia currently being such a mess – the actual extra time spent travelling door to door was actually much less. Certainly no more than the time I spent sleeping.
I’ve often taken the train for short US journeys, to and from NY to Philly, Boston, DC. But although I’ve made plenty of long train journeys, both in Europe and Asia, this was my first in the United States (see Take the (Night) Train).
Would I do it again? Certainly. Especially for a pleasure trip, where arriving an hour or two late doesn’t matter very much.
It certainly ain’t the Shinkaisen – as I’ve written before, if I lived or spent more time in Japan, I doubt whether I’d ever take a domestic flight ever again.
Yet it’s a much less fraught experience than flying – and better for the climate as well.
One final thought.
Fall foliage season has already started in Alaska.
I’ve traversed, via road, several of the routes sketched in this Afar article, 14 Fall Foliage Train Rides to Book Right Now
Next time I’m tempted to go leaf peeping, I’ll take the train.