Recently, I boarded the Acela for a weekend trip to New York City, 60-some years after my first train ride as a terrified 4-year-old. The Rock Island Rocket ran right through the Illinois town where I grew up, and when we drove by the railroad station, I watched people boarding, and then both the train and the people disappeared. I described this phenomenon to my parents as “going down dark,” and when they planned an overnight train trip to Oklahoma City, I wanted no part of it. They finally coaxed me on to the train, the conductor called, “All aboard,” there was a loud whistle, and the steam engine moved forward with two violent jolts. I screamed, sure that my short life would soon end in a black hole.
However, my fascination with a sink that pulled down out of the wall, a toilet that flushed directly on the roadbed below, and a ladder to climb into the upper berth soon calmed and replaced my fears. By the time the sun came up the next morning, I was reassured that I would reach my fifth birthday.
I enjoyed many more train trips with my parents. Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station became the starting point for travel to New York on the 20th Century Limited, New Orleans on the Panama Limited, and the West Coast on the California Zephyr. Even the Acela cannot match the luxury of those old trains: the club car for refreshment and conversation while watching the passing scenery, the dining car with a red rose in a vase, white tablecloths and real china and glassware, and the Pullman porter who would brush my father’s suit jacket for him when we reached our destination.
All travel was more refined then. Cruise ships were smaller and we were content to simply sunbathe, read, and enjoy food, drink and sea air. Today, Royal Caribbean’s new ship, longer than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, offers a climbing wall and skating rink. On auto trips sans superhighways we were aware of the character of the region and saw more than a blur of rear bumpers and green and white signs. Even plane travel was easier. I could make or change a reservation at the last minute, didn’t have to go to Dallas to get to Denver, could sit in a coach seat with a modicum of comfort and eat a decent meal.
I wonder why anyone flies when there is an alternative. The train is the only remaining form of public transportation that allows me to travel with some dignity. From the time I leave home until I get to my destination I can keep my shoes on and my possessions intact. My husband’s treasured penknife stays in his pocket, and I don’t have to worry about surrendering my favorite manicure scissors. And I am spared the airline safety spiel. Even through I know it by heart, I feel guilty if I don’t pay attention, and hearing about using my seat cushion as a flotation device while looking down at the ocean from 20,000 feet and wondering how cold the water is offers a new version of “going down dark.” I find it more relaxing to look at the white caps from sea level and to let the shore birds do the flying.
Although train dining cars with white tablecloths and red roses are rare, I can get a palatable sandwich and a generous drink in the snack car. On the plane I open a package of stale peanuts or crackers with my teeth because there are no sharp objects available. I quench my thirst with a half glass of soda.
Invariably, whenever I use the restroom on a plane, the captain comes on with an announcement of expected turbulence. The train, which has both handicapped and baby changing facilities offers much more peace of mind – and, in deference to environmental protection, toilets no longer flush onto the roadbed below as they once did.
Peace of mind is also available on Amtrak’s Quiet Cars – one of the few places left where you don’t have to listen to a constant barrage of inane personal and pompous business conversations. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of a Philadelphia businesswoman, continuous conversations, crying babies, and cell phones are not allowed in these cars. Can you imagine what will happen when the airbus planes, which can carry up to 700 passengers, hit the tarmac, and everyone calls home at the same time?
Now, when the plane lands, I have to decide whether to remain in my seat and risk being hit in the head by luggage being pulled down from overhead bins or to join the crowd pushing for the door like third-graders waiting for recess.
Although there isn’t a porter to brush off my suit coat when the train pulls into the station, I can calmly walk down the aisle, pick up my heavy luggage from shelves at the end of the car and walk off at a pace that resembles a graduation march instead of a stampede for recess.
So for me the choice is simple. I realize there are times when a train trip is not feasible, but with the Acela to take me to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington and the Downeaster to get me to Boston without encountering a single Massachusetts driver, I’ll take the train every time I can.