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A Journey by Rail

Taking the train

Click on the Amtrak logo, on either side, to visit their web site.

    Traveling by train is a mixed bag; but mostly it is a delight. Of course, to enjoy train travel, you need to consider the trip to be half of the fun, and you need to have a certain mindset. The train allows you to see the countryside, meet people, and gives you the feel of traveling rather than that of being transported. I have had numerous wonderful conversations and many good meals on trains. I have seen huge chunks of countryside, and the skylines of many major American cities. None of this happens on an airliner; all of it happens as a matter of course, on a train.
    As for the disadvantages of train travel, they are easily solved. The main one is the matter of travel time. This is no longer as big a disadvantage as it once was, since air travel now burdens the passenger with an average two hour wait at the airport. For travel up to a distance of about 500 miles, there is no real difference in travel time between a train and an airliner, taking into consideration travel time to the airport, check in time, and security measures. As of this writing, Amtrak has 34 routes, which together, span more than 22,000 route-miles serving more than 500 stations in 46 states.
    Trains are slower than aircraft, though they could do much better if they were not hamstrung by regulations. The most odious restriction is that on train speed. Modern locomotives are designed to pull trains at 110 mph, and could easily be designed to go 125-150 mph, as the next generation of Amtrak locomotives likely will. They are restricted to speeds of between 50-79 mph, depending upon the area. All that would be required to make trains as much as twice as fast, would be a change in the law. Trains in the thirties and forties were allowed to travel faster than trains today. If trains were allowed to travel at their design speeds, a train passenger could travel 200-225 miles in the time it takes an air passenger to check in and get through airport security.
    I am a very big fan of rail travel, and am appalled by the way we are letting this wonderful resource erode away. For a fraction of the cost of the new TSA initiatives at airports, we could have made Amtrak into a rail service to be envied. Instead, the service is whittled away each year. Services are cut back, stations are closed, or left unstaffed, and routes are discontinued. Every year, the government tries to kill Amtrak, the unwanted step child it adopted, and every year it is saved at the last minute. Anywhere else in the world, this train system would be treasured and used. Here it is ignored and always in danger of being starved. Properly handled, Amtrak could become even more of an asset to the nation, and could probably turn a profit, as it does on some routes today.

The keys to the kingdom. Train travel is less expensive than travel by air, and is easier. Identification is now required; but there is no hassle at the gate, and the foolishness of the TSA does not hold you up for a couple of hours. As a matter of fact, it is possible to arrive, purchase tickets, and board the train in a matter of ten or fifteen minutes. It is amazingly reminiscent of being a trusted citizen of a free country. This is a feeling that air travelers no longer have.

Boarding the train in Pittsburgh. This is one of the newer stations; but is reasonably nice, and very clean. The trains are at the upper level, while the street entrance is below.

A look down to the level below, and the entrance to the street, and to downtown Pittsburgh. Straight ahead is the entrance to one of Pittsburgh's grand hotels, which is connected to the railroad station.

Train stations vary. There are the magnificent monuments to train travel, such as the palatial stations in New York, and Chicago, and then there are the little places which look more like bus shelters than train stations. Most, like this station in Pittsburgh, stand somewhere in between.

The heart and soul of any train is the engine. The fleet of train engines created for Amtrak are known as the Genesis series. Their design was a collaboration between Amtrak and G.E. Amtrak has approximately 200 engines in it's fleet. They generally remain in revenue service with Amtrak, for 12-15 years, with an overhaul every 4-6 years. This particular example, engine 80, was photographed in Chicago.

This is engine 63. Like engine 80 above, it is a G.E. P42. These engines cost 2.8 million dollars each, and have single 16 cylinder 7FDL diesel engines, which produce 4200 hp. These trains use electric traction motors for locomotion. The diesels are used to run the turbines which provide the electric power for the engines. Thus, all trains are electric trains. This engine was photographed in Milwaukee, and pulled the Hiawatha, between Milwaukee, and Chicago. During the disaster in New Orleans, one of these engines was used as an emergency power plant.

This is engine 178, photographed on a siding on the way into Chicago. This is one of the last batch of Engines ordered. The P42 was produced from 1993 until 2002. It was designed to cruise at 110 mph, while pulling a fully loaded train. Unfortunately, legal restrictions now limit train speeds to 50-79 mph, depending upon the area.

Here is engine 80 again, showing a bit of the long train it is hitched to. On the track to the right can be seen a train waiting to be boarded. Though these machines are massive, their
fuel economy is more than 100 times greater per passenger mile than that of the best airliner. They are also considerably cheaper to run and maintain. On top of everything else, they are also the safest. One major air accident kills more people than have been killed in the entire history of Amtrak.

A line of single level trains waits at the station in Pittsburgh. Most of the long distance trains use the double level cars, known as the Superliners. Single level cars are used for short distance trains, and in certain areas where tunnel and bridge clearances will not permit use of the taller cars.

Boarding the coach car at night. Though the lights are still on, they will soon be turned off. A few overhead lights will remain lit, for the safety of passengers moving through the cars at night; but  these cars are very dark after about 10:00. Walking through a coach car after midnight, finds most passengers sprawled out, and asleep. It is sort of a cross between a dormitory and a camp ground, with pillows, blankets, and cushions in abundance.

The lower level of the lounge car holds the snack bar. This is generally open from 6:00 AM, until midnight. Soft drinks, sandwiches, and snacks are available. The car is comfortable, with booths, counters, and rest rooms. The food is reasonably good, being about like convenience store food.

The upper level of the lounge car holds the observation lounge. There is a television, and VCR at either end of the car, and some electrical outlets at the counter. The windows reach from nearly the floor, to half way across the ceiling. It is a nice place to visit, watch the countryside, and perhaps meet and talk to other passengers. This is also where you go late at night, if you wish to read, talk, listen to music, or eat, without disturbing the sleeping passengers in the night darkened coach cars. This photo was taken at about 10:00 in the evening.

Very late at night in the observation lounge, finds some people asleep even here. This photo was taken at around 2:30 in the morning. All of the coach cars are dark, their lights having been turned out at about 10:00, so that passengers can try and catch some sleep. The lights stay on all night in the lounge, though this does not seem to interfere with sleep for some.

Daylight brings a whole different feel to the coach cars. This nearly empty car is bright and cheerful. Most of the passengers are either eating, or watching the countryside pass, from the lounge car.

A look up the aisle in the same coach car, this time from the back of the car. There are curtains in all the windows, and headliners on all of the seats. At night, pillows are passed out, which have already been collected.

We are nearing the end of the line, Chicago in this case, and most of the passengers are back in their seats. This was a full train, when I boarded. As the train made it's stops, passengers would depart, while new ones would board.

A comfortable seat, which reclines, curtains in the window, and a fold down tray keep the passenger fairly comfortable. Some passengers nap, others read, and a few listen to music, watch videos, or use their laptop computers. Most look out the window.

Though no longer as opulent as that on the Orient Express, or even as that on the Lakeshore Limited, in the movie  North by Northwest, the dining car still offers a great train experience, and the feel that one is traveling in style. Meals are served three times a day, and there are generally at least two seatings for each meal. Though not exactly cheap, the prices are not as high as they could be. This photo was taken just after breakfast.

Our table awaits. The car is set up for dinner, and we are about to be seated.

Service is friendly, and reasonably fast. Space is at a premium on a train, and diners are seated next to each other in random order of arrival. All seats are filled. In our own case, we were seated opposite  a couple from Australia, with a group of New Zealanders seated across from us. These seating arrangements, in addition to making more efficient use of the dining car, promote the kinds of exchanges, conversations, and acquaintance making which are the true heart of the enjoyment of traveling.

The full kitchen is on the lower level of the dining car, so that everything has to come up a dumbwaiter.  The wait staff has a pretty interesting time of it, with the train moving and bouncing as they move around the car with plates of food. Miraculously, there are no accidents.

A look back into the coach car from the lounge car. Even during the day, the observation lounge is far brighter than the coach seating.

As with the coach cars, daylight brings a whole new feel to the observation car. The light streams into those big windows, along with the views of the passing countryside.

A group of Amish sit to the left of the photo. I saw many Amish families traveling together. They seem to like the train, and are very pleasant people.

Admit it, you wanted to know. The rest room facilities are sufficient, but hardly glamorous. At least this is the case for coach passengers. Those riding in compartments have a bit more comfort, and also have access to a shower.

Coming into Chicago, after about nine hours on the train. The picture is taken looking forward over the engine. Chicago is THE train city, and has been for most of the history of American rail travel.

A passenger train is being assembled here, in one of the switchyards to the south of the station. Most of the cars in use today are double deckers. The car in the middle of the photo is a sleeper car, full of private staterooms. The city of Chicago rises up in the background.

The car in the middle of this photo is a lounge car, like the one shown in the interior shots above.

Disembarking at Union Station. The huge size of the locomotive is pretty evident in this photo.

This is part of the south platform at Union station in Chicago. There is also a north platform. This is the busiest train station in the country, and there can be as many as 20 trains here at any given time, though there are usually less. Once outside of the down town area, the sections to the south and north of the station are full of switch yards, sidings, and maintenance areas. This is the train capitol of the country.

This is the outside of Chicago's Union Station, one of the few of the classic great train stations left. This huge structure sits in the middle of the busy downtown area, and resembles a great courthouse, or perhaps a temple to travel. The enormous waiting room is one of the great architectural interior spaces. The trains go under the street and are boarded from departure areas in the basement.
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