If you are like most Americans, myself included, you don’t even consider trains for long-distance travel. You fly or you drive. The USA has a lot of great things going for it, but public transportation (namely our rail network) is notoriously inadequate in comparison to most developed countries.
For the first leg of my round the world trip, I decided to give American trains a try. This was for two reasons:
1. It was ridiculously cheap. $73 dollars from Raleigh, NC to Miami, FL. A plane ticket would have cost double or triple that plus excess baggage fees (I am traveling with a wakeboard bag)
2. I wanted to see what it’s like to take a train in my own country. It seemed like such a foreign concept.
Amtrak is a publicly funded train network. They service most of the major metropolitan areas in the US, with the bulk of their routes concentrated in the Northeast. My train, the “Silver Star” starts in New York and ends in Miami—A 30+ hour journey from end to end. I arrived at the station in Raleigh about an hour early. There wasn’t a line, so I checked my wakeboard bag in about 5 or 10 minutes. They charged me a small 10$ fee, which is nothing compared to most airlines (You can carry on most baggage, but this is a unique item).
After checking my bag, I was ready to go. There was zero security—not even a metal detector. I had already printed my ticket at home so there really wasn’t a check in either. Very easy. When the train arrived, we all lined up, had our ticket checked, and went out to the platform. They checked our ticket again and assigned us each a seat upon entering. I was surprised to see that most seats were taken…no sprawling across an entire row. The seats themselves were very similar to coach airline seats, but a few inches wider and a more leg room (with foot rests). Unfortunately, they didn’t recline any more than a coach airline seat.
One unique aspect of train travel is that there are many stops and therefore people coming on and off all the time-very different from an airplane. Unfortunately, that also meant that at every stop the doors would be open for about five minutes, letting the 22 degree outside air flow in. It seemed like every time I got close to falling asleep, I would wake up to an icy wind at my feet. I sat next to a grandmother for about three hours, then a female twenty-something, and finally a male twenty-something. I had a couple breaks in between where I had two seats to myself for an hour or so, but that was rare.
Another unique aspect of train travel is that you can talk on your cell phone. Personally, I’m not a fan of this practice. Listening to other people’s loud conversations for hours is not fun. Hopefully the airline industry never follows suit…
The people on the train were different than the passengers you might see on a similar flight. The riders were predominantly working class people who chose the train as a cheaper alternative to flying. One of my companions was a commercial truck driver traveling to his next route. Another person a few seats away was taking the train to court and was telling everyone about how their uncle was in jail for 5-7 years, what their bail was, etc. There were also some elderly riders who were retired or in no hurry that likely chose the train as a more scenic and spacious alternative to flying.
As for the food, I am fortunate to have brought plenty with me on the trip. The “dining car” was no more than a narrow alley with a few overpriced options of pre-packaged foods and microwave meals. I didn’t eat any of it, but it looked worse than airline food. No meals were included with the ticket price; all food and drinks (except water) were a la carte. I would definitely recommend packing food and drinks.
If you thought airplane bathrooms were disgusting by the end of an international flight…try train bathrooms after a 30+ hour journey. The bathrooms were nearly identical to airplanes (see picture) and were pretty gross at times (overflowing/clogged sinks, paper towels strewn around the trashcan, etc.)
I was hoping to get a different perspective of the landscape of the trip. This is one of the biggest benefits of a train over a plane—you can see everything up close. Unfortunately, if you have ever driven on I-95, you’ve seen better scenery than you will on the train (which isn’t saying much…it’s a relatively uninteresting drive as well). Most of the views were industrial areas, backs of apartments/warehouses, or marshland.
The trip took an unfortunate turn when the conductor announced that there was a “signal problem” and that we were forced to travel at no more than 15mph until resolved. Apparently, this meant that we had to stop at every intersection to flag down cars and ensure there were no collisions. For 3 hours we crawled along, stopping for extended periods of time. Many passengers became frustrated and were not afraid to voice their displeasure. Luckily, the issue was eventually resolved and we got back to full speed, which for this train was 80mph. We arrived in Miami just before 11:00 pm…about 4 hours late. Would I do it again? In certain circumstances, yes. After all, it is vastly cheaper than driving or flying. But, this time I would definitely not be looking forward to the journey.