Wednesday, November 21, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Some Thoughts On Travel (continued)

Very recently, I wrote in this space a little travel piece about making
the most of a short time in Chicago’s downtown Loop area near
Union Station. I travel frequently to this area while en route by train
to points east and south, and rather than be stranded in the rail
station, albeit a large one, I have made the layover an experience
filled with some charm and delight. I don’t presume that everything
I enjoy would be shared by all my readers, but I had hoped it would
be interesting and useful to them to read about some alternatives
ways to travel.

The response has been unexpectedly positive and encouraging, so I
would like to set down some further thoughts on making travel and
holidays, near and far, more rewarding and pleasurable. One of my
readers, in response to the Chicago piece, said he thought that many
Americans don’t know how to travel, and thus miss much. Perhaps
this is true, but I have always felt that the traveling itself can be as
important at the destination.

Today, most long-distance (more than 1000 miles) holiday, vacation
and business travel is by air.  Unfortunately, some of the most exciting
aspects of air travel, those which I enjoyed when I did fly, are no more.
Security measures, weight limitations, crowded seating, long distances
from airports to city centers, lack of not only good food, but often of
any food, have taken the fun and pleasure out of air travel.

I travel now mostly by train and ship. That is made easier by the fact
that I am rarely in a hurry, or constrained to s short trip. Business
travel, and holiday travel today often requires short actual travel time,
and thus air travel, I recognize, is the only practical choice.

Since it is my belief and experience that the travel time is of equal or
near-equal value as destination time, I offer some thoughts to those of
my readers who might make use of them.

Until September 11, 2001, my preoccupation with rail travel was
regarded skeptically by my friends,a and even some amusement at my
apparent transportation atavism. When passenger train travel was
nationalized in the U.S. in 1970 under the rubric of “Amtrak.,” the
quality of going by train fell precipitously, much as has also happened
now in going by airplane. In spite of “featherbedding” (requiring more
train employees than were necessary) which was part of the deal between
the government and the passenger train unions, onboard service went down.
Train food, once a culinary glory, became inedible. Train speed and on-time
efficiency were replaced with long delays and late arrivals. First class train
travel, including sleeping accommodations, rose in price precipitously and
declined in quality. Passenger cars were allowed to become too old; Amtrak
was slow to modernize and replace its cars and facilities. Most of all, the
Amtrak system, with the exception of the northeast corridor, used tracks it
did not own, and in spite of assurances given at the outset, freight trains
were given priority by the freight rail companies which owned the tracks,
thus precipitating constant and annoying delays.

Train travel, in short, became a disaster, after so may decades of its golden
age (before air travel), and was now a joke. Many folks still traveled by train,
of course, including train employees and their families (for free), train buffs,
and a not inconsiderable number of those who feared traveling in airplanes.
But it was a painful era. Finally, Amtrak began, with pubic subsidies, to
replace its passenger cars with new ones, including double-deckers, the
featherbedding disappeared over time, food service was partially restored,
stations were refurbished, first class lounges opened, and the increased-speed
Acela trains were inaugurated on the northeast corridor.

The large subsidies to Amtrak, the inconsistent arrival times, and the
antiquated routes still made U.S. passenger service an object of criticism
and derision until 9/11 when for a few days there was no air passenger service
in the nation. Following 9/11, necessary but increasingly intrusive
air security measures followed. As airlines took extended losses, they cut back
on onboard services, especially food services. Long waits and long distances
to city centers persisted.

Train travel has several advantages. The greatest of these includes the ability
to see the ground level beauty and splendor of the American transcontinental
landscape, and the ability for social interaction onboard trains. Not only are
meals shared on a train, club cars and lounges provide a unique venue for
meeting  and speaking with others. A train trip can be a very special adventure
not only for adults, but particularly for children as well. (In fact, my love of
trains was born in several pre-teen train trips with my parents.)

Not all Amtrak trains are equal. Some, such as the Coast Starlight (Seattle to
Los Angeles), rise to almost luxury level, not only in services, but in sights to
see as well. Others, such as The Cardinal (Chicago to Washington, DC), are to
be avoided if at all possible. Some have unique facilities and menus, such as the
Coast Starlight and the City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans),
and some are often below an acceptable grade, such as the Lake Shore Limited
(New York/Boston to Chicago).

Just as with air travel, train travel costs are much lower if reservation are
made early. As trains fill up, the cost of a coach seat or sleeping accommodation
goes up dramatically. First class train tickets include all meals. The price for
a first class room is the same for one or two persons (a huge savings for
couples traveling together). Some routes, such as the Empire Builder, provide
daytime lecturers and guides. Others, such as the Coast Starlight and the
Empire Builder, offer wine and cheese tastings, and first-run movies.

There are also multiple choices of routes. Chicago to Washington, DC is a much
better experience on The Capitol Limited than on The Cardinal. There are
four transcontinental routes, the Sunset Limited, the Southwest Limited,
the San Francisco Zephyr and the Empire Builder, Each has a route through
a distinctly different western American landscape.

Some trains are chronically late, such as the Empire Builder east bound. Recently,
with built-in padding of the schedules, many other train routes are providing on
time arrival.

If you have a reservation that includes a connection, unlike airlines, Amtrak
must provide you with alternative transportation or free overnight accommodations
with meals if the connection is missed. Delays on Amtrak do happen, but the
horror stories of passengers being stuck for long hours or days at air terminals
do not happen at rail stations because Amtrak is required to provide
accommodations and food when long delays occur.

Baggage weight limits on Amtrak are much more generous than on airlines. There
are occasional security checks and baggage inspections, but none of the intrusive
routine required for air travel. Long-term parking at air terminals can be very
expensive. Long-term parking is free at many (but not all) rail stations.

Although first class rail travel costs more, if reservations are made early, the
cost is quite reasonable. In addition to private sleeping accommodations, all
meals included, complimentary beverages and snacks in sleeping cars, porters
in each car, showers, special boarding privileges, first class passengers have free
access to the metropolitan lounges in major city stations. These lounges provide
free food and snacks, daily newspapers and magazines, business/computer
centers, comfortable seating and free baggage checking during your layover.
(This latter is very useful during layovers. Baggage storage for coach passengers
has almost disappeared in Amtrak stations, and when lockers are provided, they
are inordinately expensive.)

Food on trains, to be candid, is a mixed culinary bag. Dining cars now
feature full menus for breakfast, lunch or dinner. For the first class passenger,
each of whose meals are included, the selections, especially at dinner, can be very
satisfying, including excellent steaks, and specialty items such as lamb shanks and
barbecued ribs, and include delicious desserts. I always order a baked potato, but
other potato and vegetable items can be less than satisfactory. Unlimited choices
of non-alcoholic beverages are available, and a small garden salad is served with
all entrees. Breakfast includes large omelets and crab cake Benedicts, served with
hash browns or grits, pastries and unlimited beverages. If you are a serious tea
drinker, bring your own tea bags. Lunch is my least favorite meal on Amtrak, with
a limited selection of sandwiches and hamburgers, one kind of salad and a daily
special. For coach passengers, the meals can be expensive, although lounge car
fare is available at a lower price. Savvy coach travelers often bring their own food
on board. Special gourmet menus, particularly on the Coast Starlight and on the
City of New Oreans (with Cajun specialties) can provide memorable train meals.

The dining car, however, can be one of the best social experiences on a
train. I’ve had some great conversations and met some fascinating persons at
dinner.

Amtrak has a Guest Rewards program in which travelers obtains points, similar to
those offered by many airlines, that can be used for free travel anywhere on the
Amtrak map. An Amtrak-affiliated credit card can hasten the accumulation of
points considerably, as can special offers to Guest Reward members. There is
no cost to join.

Finally, there is the unique magic of train travel itself. For some, especially those
who become easily carsick, or who otherwise are physically uncomfortable when
riding in trains, the “magic” is trumped by distress. For others, like myself, who
find the usually gentle motions of a train to be soothing and an inducement to
easy sleep, train travel is restorative. For most, however, riding in a train can be a
true adventure with an almost 200-year fabled history in most parts of the
civilized world. Do it!

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In a future piece, I will discuss the extraordinary pleasures and advantages of
ship travel, a form of transportation and holiday travel unknown to many Americans.

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Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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