Travel on Amtrak
With each move by the airlines to claw back a bit of the profit that has vanished into the twin maws of competition and higher fuel prices, and with each move by the government to increase "security," air travel has become a little more dreadful. I'm glad we have a rail alternative.
The town where I live has Amtrak service. (This is not purely a matter of luck. Although my wife and I each moved here for ordinary reasons--job opportunities and personal connections--Amtrak service is a non-trivial part of the reason that we've stayed here.)
Since, for a lot of trips, rail travel is more appropriate than air travel anyway, I'm pleased to report that Amtrak service is pretty good--especially when compared to air travel.
All the things that have become most dreadful about air travel are better on the train:
- Security is minimally intrusive--they checked our photo IDs when we picked up the tickets the day before the trip, and we didn't need to dig out our drivers licenses again after that. There were no x-ray machines and no hand searches. We kept our shoes on the whole time.
- The seats are wider, recline further, and have more leg room. The luggage racks offer space for five or six times as much luggage as the overhead compartments on a plane. The aisle is wide enough to squeeze past a person coming the other way.
- I wasn't trapped in my seat by the "please fasten seatbelts" sign--there was no such sign. (There weren't any seatbelts, either.) I was not only free to "move about the cabin," I was free to walk a few cars ahead and buy a snack in the lounge car.
- I didn't need to get to the station an hour or two before my train departed. We like to get there a bit early, but 20 minutes was plenty of time.
- Multiple entrances made getting on and off the train quicker and easier.
- Tickets were cheap. (With two people traveling, it probably would have been slightly cheaper to travel by car. Flying, if one were insane enough to fly such a short distance, would have been four or five times as expensive, athough admittedly a bit quicker.)
- We weren't delayed by the weather, even though there was considerable thunderstorm activity.
- At both ends of the trip, we ended up right downtown at the train station, rather than way out at the airport--very handy for the people taking us to the station and picking us up. (As a bonus, the Kalamazoo station and Union Station in Chicago are beautiful old buildings, and the Champaign station is a beautiful new building.)
Everybody has their own preferences. Traveling by car may be cheaper, especially if there are several people traveling together. Traveling by plane may be faster, especially if you're going more than a few hundred miles. Personally, I find the trade-offs favor rail travel, if Amtrak goes where you're going.
Of course, this last is a key point. From Champaign I have good service to Chicago to the north (and several towns in between), and good service to New Orleans to the south (and several cities and towns in between). But if I want to go east or west, then the train is a pretty poor choice, unless it makes sense to change trains in Chicago. (There is good bus service.)
I'm sure readers from Europe would laugh--train service in the US is a pale shadow of what it should be--but it does exist, and where it provides service, the service is great. if you haven't tried it, you really should.
[Written on the Illini, enroute from Chicago to Champaign, June 8th, 2008.]