Monday, October 22, 2012

Update 5: Riding the Rails

If you want to travel long distance within the US, you really have four main options: drive a car, fly, take a bus, or take the train.  (There are, of course, other ways, such as taking a ship, biking long stretches, or even walking across the country--which I've heard tales about.)  There are a bunch of airlines if you decide to fly, but if you decide to take the train or bus (which both have a much smaller carbon footprint than flying or driving--alone anyway), there is really only one option each.  If you're traveling by bus, your only real option is Greyhound; it acquired Continental Trailways, its main long-distance rival, in 1987.  If you want to take a train any long distance, you need to take Amtrak.

When the small rail systems began losing passengers and money in the late '60s, the US Congress (prodded by the National Association of Railroad Passengers) began looking into the possibility of a national rail system.  In 1970, they passed the Rail Passenger Service Act to create that system.  As the Amtrak brochure, Amtrak America, 2011-2012, states: "Officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971 as the country's first centrally managed, nationwide rail network."

When I realized how much I'd be traveling this fall, I was debating between taking Greyhound or Amtrak.  Greyhound looked cheaper, but friends pursuaded me to do most of my travel on Amtrak--pointing out (because they knew me) Greyhound's difficult union history as well as it being a private corporation and Amtrak being a publically owned enterprise.  I have and will do some of my travel on Greyhound but I'm doing most of it, including my long trip to California (see my last post on Eco-Oakland, Riveting Richmond, and Groovy SF, for details about what I did when I was out there) on Amtrak.

The trip to California was a long one.  I left South Station in Boston, Friday, September 28th, on a bus that replaced the train west, because they were working on the tracks.  Luckily the bus went directly to Albany, New York, saving lots of time.  Unluckily, that meant being stuck longer in the station in Rensselaer, NY (the train, or in this case bus, doesn't actually go to Albany), which was not near anything.  (From a roadway near the station I could see the capital building in Albany in the distance.)  Eventually the train came for Chicago and by the next morning we pulled into the 'Windy City', where the most exciting thing I did was dash across town so I could see Lake Michigan in the distance for a minute.

At 2pm on Saturday I left Chicago on the California Zephyr.  For the next three days I saw cornfields and mountains (the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada), towering cliffs, looming mesas, and miles and miles of desert.  I saw the Mississippi River as we crossed it and I saw bits of Denver, Reno, and Sacramento (not to mention Grand Junction, Colorado, where the train stopped for forty-five minutes and I got to run around outside for a bit).  At about five-thirty on Monday, October 1st, the train pulled into Emeryville, California, its last stop.

My train ride back last week was equally long--four days--in the other direction.  The biggest differences were that I was longer in Chicago this time around (and got to stand on the shore of Lake Michigan for a while) and when the train reached the 'Albany-Rensselaer' station, it actually split in two, with one half (that I was in) going on to Boston and the other half heading off to NYC.  Pretty clever.

And I'm getting to be a regular on the Northeast Corridor route.  I'll be taking Amtrak down to Charlottesville, VA, in a few weeks to go to Twin Oaks, and later (because I'm also planning to visit a community in Pennsylvania on this trip) taking it back from Harrisburg to Boston (via Philadelphia).

The most important thing I can say about taking the train, or the bus, (other than notice the smaller carbon footprint) is that, unlike flying, you get a real sense of what lies in between your destinations.  I feel like I've experienced how big the US is and a lot of what lies in the 'heartlands', and with every trip to Virginia, I see more and more of the east coast.  Which is why I'm 'riding the rails'.

Quote of the Week: "There was a time when taking a trip in America meant taking the train.  But by the end of the 1960s, the national highway system and a growing aviation industry had changed travel habits.  Private railroads clamored to eliminate their unprofitable passenger operations.  But the government knew that the country needed passenger rail and stepped in to create Amtrak." - Amtrak America


Austan said...

I took the Zephyr in 1975, and as soon as you said cornfields, I was right back there.
Up here in VT, the best way to get to NYC and points beyond is by rail. While my family was alive in the city, it was almost a monthly trip. I love the rails. When you're on a train at night, you can almost hear Woody Guthrie, almost feel the souls of those who've ridden before you. There's nothing like it. Thanks for bringing back those memories.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for your railroad memories. There is something special about riding by train. I really like the way you put it, that you can "almost feel the souls of those who've ridden before you." What a wonderful image.