Rail Travel Never Gets Too Old.
By: Gerry and Pamela Barker
Call us crazy, but when we travel to New York, we take the train. We admit it’s not for everybody. Like if you have an important business meeting you don’t want to miss. Or have to get from Point A to Point B by the fastest means possible. In either case, it’s probably not for you. But if you have the time to spare, want to relax while someone else does the driving, like to see this great country up close and personal, want to meet interesting people along the way — Amtrak may just be the ticket. Our first trip on Amtrak was an 11-day odyssey that took us from Texas to Chicago to LA to Seattle and back to Texas — 8,500 miles altogether. It was amazing, and we were hooked.
Every day, Amtrak’s Silver Meteor 98 makes the run from Miami to New York, starting at 8:10 am in Miami. At 9:47 am, it stops at the West Palm Beach station. That’s our embarkation point. Almost 1,400 miles and a little over 24 hours later — 11 am the next day — it rolls into Penn Station in New York. Why do we love train travel? A lot of reasons. But mostly for the same reason the trains are getting more crowded these days: People detest flying. We heard it over and over from people we met: “Air travel is a horror.” (This from a man who spent over 30 years in aviation) “Airplanes have become unbearable.” “The security, the lines, the cramped seats — it’s a nightmare.” Of course, train travel isn’t perfect, either. Scheduled times frequently go awry. The AC can act up. The infrequent delay due to mechanical or track issues. But be honest — what form of travel is perfect? Like anything else, you weigh the pros and cons. For us, the benefits outweigh the negatives. We just completed our latest trip (we usually make the run to New York at least once a year) and here are some observations:
For overnight trips, we get a sleeper, either the roomette (two beds and a toilet in a private compartment) or a room (two beds, a separate shower/toilet and more space to stretch out). Either one includes all your meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and each sleeping car has its own attendant to see to your needs (coffee and water are available). For roomette passengers, the sleeper car has a shower you can use.
— You can select the time you want to dine for lunch or dinner. Breakfast is open seating. You can also choose to eat in your compartment.
— The beds on the train are adequate, but don’t expect a Serta Perfect Sleeper.
— The train is smoke-free. You can smoke at stations where the train makes a stop.
— You can bring two bags aboard, each with a 50-pound limit without incurring extra charges. If you have a roomette, try your best to limit yourself to one carry-on and check the rest. Space is at a premium.
— The food served in the dining car is mostly good. While the menu is limited, there is something for most tastes: Burgers (both beef and veggie); a lunch special (this time it was braised pork and smashed potatoes); dinner fare includes a full-on steak, herb roasted chicken, a pasta dish and low-calorie choices. Each meal also includes dessert.
— Be prepared to dine with another couple or someone else. With seating limited, they place four to a booth. This actually can be a bonus, as we have met a number of fascinating people this way, including some we stay in touch with long after the trip is over.
— If you travel coach, or the dining room is closed, you can get food and drink in the club car.
— Take advantage of the longer stops to get off the train and stretch your legs. Jacksonville is one, and Washington DC is another (in Washington they change out engines, so you get a nice, long break).
— While they claim to offer WiFi in the form of AmtrakConnect, I wouldn’t count on it. Our devices never made a successful connection, going up or back. We also heard a fair amount of grumbling about it from other passengers. Come on, Amtrak. Fix it.
— Prepare for the weather. This time out, New York and the Northeast in general was a lot colder than predicted.
— You will feel the motion, sometimes a lot more than others. Pack plenty of Dramamine.
— Be alert for landmarks. We got a great view of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial at twilight. But look fast — they disappear from view quickly.
— If you get a sleeper, take advantage of the private lounge at Penn Station on the return trip. Those with sleeper accommodations are invited to relax, watch TV and sip a refreshment. When your train is ready to board, an attendant will escort you to your car. Penn Station also has a wide choice of places to eat, drink and shop.
When it’s time to go home, we take the Silver Meteor 97, which leaves New York at 3:15 pm, returning to West Palm Beach at 4:47 pm the next day (if it runs on time — we were about an hour behind). Despite the aggravations you’ll get from any kind of travel, there is a certain romance to travel by rail, not the least of which is the distinctive whistle that permeates the air. As one of the Amtrak slogans from yesteryear intones, “Next time take the train.”