Americans who have spent time in Europe often lament the lack of convenient, high-speed and far-reaching rail service in their own country. Eurail passes in hand, they've sprinted from London to Paris to Rome quickly and cheaply and wonder why they can't do the same from New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles. The United States' used to be a world leader in railroads (see the 1800s), but today's network of trains in the New World is nowhere near as developed as it is across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, options for train travel do exist, and I often wonder if we Americans think we don't have access to trains simply because we're not trying hard enough. We've all heard of Amtrak, for example, but how many of us have actually used it?
Until today, I was one of those Americans who had heard of Amtrak but never used it. In fact, I had never even seriously considered using it before New York City-based colleagues told me to head up to my temporary summer assignment by heading to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station to buy a train ticket. So, here I am, writing this blog from the comfort of Amtrak's Acela Express with service to Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and a few other stops in between. First impressions are important, and Amtrak has certainly passed the test. Purchasing my ticket was a breeze (I used an automated machine at the station), the train staff is friendly and helpful (lots of "good mornings" and other pleasantries), and the train itself is comfortable and practical (loads of leg room and free wifi).
This train won't travel at the same speeds of, say, France's TGV - a technological marvel that can zip you from city to city at up to 320 kilometers per hour (199 miles per hour) - but, depending on your route and desired time frame, it's a decent alternative to flying. I left Washington at 9:00 a.m. and can expect to arrive at Penn Station by 11:46 a.m. It's a longer trip than by plane, but if you factor in the time it takes to check in at the airport, go through security, taxi around runways, wait for your bags, and travel from an airport to the city center, you're looking at an overall comparable time table. Not to mention the superior comfort of a train, which can offer leg room, urban and countryside views, and the ability to travel with liquids that are larger than 3 ounces and not shoved into a tiny Ziploc bag.
Longer distances in the U.S. are still more manageable by plane. Taking Amtrak from Washington, D.C. to Chicago will only run you $163 (my trip to NYC is $180, prices can vary), but the journey will take nearly 24 hours. That's great if you have the time to enjoy a leisurely cross-country adventure, but the two-hour plane ride is more practical if you need to get there now. Still, I can't help but wonder what would happen if Americans gave this travel option more of a chance. We do have rails in the U.S., and maybe they're exactly what we need to relax and rediscover the simple pleasures of "getting there," by train, just like we did in Europe.