I recently had to take a trip to Washington D.C from Madison, WI in order to look for a new apartment. My wife and I decided to try out the Amtrak route that runs from Chicago to Washington D.C; neither of us had been on a modern train the the US, so we thought it might be interesting. It was certainly a worth-wild experience.
Unfortunately, Madison lacks any passenger train service, only a crappy bus that runs from here t o Chicago. There is, however, a commuter train from Milwaukee (about a 1.5 hour drive from Madison) to Chicago so we decided to start our train journey there. Doing that (including the reduced parking fees for train users) made the price of the trip about the same as flying out of Milwaukee and a little less than flying out of Madison. But, the train trip was definitely not an economical choice.
A few things surprised me. For one, I expected very few people to be taking the train from Chicago all the way to DC. “Who would do this?” thought I . After all, it seems like most normal people would not choose the 17hour train ride over a flight of a couple hours. But the train was completely full on both our trip there and when we returned. Luckily we got our tickets ahead of time, so this was not a real problem. This also relates to the fact that the main train stations we stopped at (In Chicago and DC, both named ‘Union Station’) were extremely busy places. They had the feel of airports without all the crazy security; but they were a bit anxiety provoking regardless. And Chicago sucks; nothing is open on Sunday near Union Station and countless people will ask you for money.
Some other things left me yearning for Germany. American rails are pretty crappy. I sort of knew this before the trip, but actually traveling on them reminded me. European commuter railroads (at least the German ones I have experience with ) are quit smooth; this makes for a rather enjoyable traveling experience. However, for the most part, American passenger trains travel on standard freight rail lines that are not maintained at the sort of level required for fast speeds and smooth travel. Expect to be shaken around quite a bit; at some points the train felt as if it was experiencing a sort of minor turbulence. I was told that for a period between Cleavland and Pittsburgh the track was smooth as silk (I was asleep….perhaps because of this); it sure would have been nice if the entire trip had been like that. So, I know that rail travel is capable of being far smoother. The entire operation was also somewhat less organized than I would have liked. We were not given seats (even though we had ‘reserved’ seats) until entering the train; this made us wonder whether we would be able to sit together if we didn’t hurry to the train once the gate doors were opened. I’m not sure if our worries were justified, but it would have been nice to get actual seat numbers on the tickets (though you do actually get tickets mailed to you before the trip, so there is no need to check in and there is no risk of being ‘bumped’).
Otherwise, the trip was ok. And there is one bonus. If you ride the train, you get to see the rusting remnants of the rust belt (I got to see Cleavland…that was pretty exciting). You will pass by vast factory yards that have been long since deserted but for perhaps a few buildings. The highway doesn’t go near these sorts of places, so you usually forget that they exist, that our nation once produced things in such filthy environments; an Amtrak trip will remind you of these industrial wastelands. Sort of fun places to pass in the middle of the night.
Some might worry about the 17 hours it takes to complete the trip, but it isn’t actually all that bad. You get extremely large seats that are ok to sleep in and there are a number of cars between which you can divide your time (dining car, observation car, cafe car). And if you can get to sleep, the trip doesn’t actually feel that long (but don’t miss Pittsburgh!). Also, you ‘feel’ the distance far more than when you travel via airplane; I always feel a bit odd at the end of air-travel, like I haven’t traveled as far as I have. Though, maybe that is just me.
So, to conclude my observations. I would ride Amtrak again, but it certainly is substandard in comparison to European rail. I also wonder why it is not cheaper than travel by air. It might be that the greater staff hours required by Amtrak is the culprit, but I also wonder whether cheap petroleum makes air travel more affordable than it should be. But I don’t have those answers.