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Opinion: Of Planes and Trains
Enjoying AMTRAK’s 90-Percent-Off Summer Sale
By Philip J. Moran, Skillman NJ
Most of us would never consider that the act of
traveling could itself be the best part of a trip. Our experience
waiting in line at the airport check-in, waiting in line for security,
removing our jacket, then removing our watch and jewelry, removing our
shoes, then our belt before finally passing the machine or wands test.
Never an auspicious beginning, our relief at the supposed security thus
gained carries through this post 9/11 ritual.
Once through security, often more than two hours
later, we wait at the gate. Now we search to find, or watch the
passengers in line before us, search to find, the boarding ticket or
photo ID, we last used at security but now need to proceed.
Finally we are in the airplane itself. We search
for room in the overhead nearest our seat, and marvel at the size of the
carry-on already squeezed and the multiple bags other passengers are
bumping up the aisle. Finally we are ready for the drama of sitting
itself. We may have the aisle seat we booked. But we observe the armrest
between our “space” and the center seat has been raised and the flesh of
our new closest companion flows over and across the meager seventeen
inches we have been allocated. But we smile, and maneuver and excuse
ourselves and finally, more or less, plop down.
If we are lucky, an hour or two or perhaps three
later, we reach our destination and can finally begin our vacation. If
our trip is, however longer, the airline torture may also be more
profound. Although for the most part, we are now spared that awful food,
and the smell of our neighbor’s awful food, other senses suffer still.
We hunch our shoulders to reduce contact, readjust the overhead air flow
looking for freshness from any source, stretch and turn as we can, and
realize that in fact those little bottles are a good deal and a
necessary relaxant regardless the price.
There is, sometimes and, regrettably, only some
places an alternative. An alternative where the travel is a part of the
vacation, not a preliminary torture. The alternative is the nations
inter-city rail carrier, AMTRAK, and this summer, on selected routes,
there is an ongoing sale of up to a sensational 90%.
This sale, these discounts are only available for
tickets purchased on line through Amtrak’s website. Further the deals
are only available for tickets purchased within a week of the date of
travel. But for the retired or perhaps summer free among us, these
restrictions are only minor impediments for the opportunity to
experience a way of travel not torture, but a way of travel that may not
be long with us.
There are many different reasons to consider a
vacation that starts or ends or simply consists of a long overnight
train ride. The prospect of an adventure that might, at least in this
Country, be soon gone. The romance of "Dinner in the Diner' or of a
Pullman ride and the memory of the songs we heard in our youth, they too
likely to be soon forgotten. But whatever the reason, for residents who
live in or near a community served by AMTRAK, AMTRAK offers an
experience neither senior citizens nor children (of all ages) could soon
Although names, equipment, destinations and available discounts all
vary, a representative experience is available to individuals interested
in travel along the East Coast between Charleston, South Carolina and
Unlike the airlines, trains, at the least passenger
trains that pass through Charleston, still have names, not just numbers.
The "Palmetto" or the "Silver Meteor" is your alternatives. The "Meteor"
promises to leave Charleston every day at 2:40 PM. Its ultimate
destination is New York, but along the way one can draw a sense of other
major cities and small towns, a full flavor neither accessible along the
Interstates and Beltways nor visible at 30,000 feet. The return "Meteor"
leaves from New York's Penn Station at 3:15 PM for a 4:28AM Charleston
From the window beside your full size seat, a seat
with honest legroom, you will have a view of into history, not just
scenery. Rather than billboards and fast food signage, you pass through
old and crumbling neighborhoods and see buildings new when this railroad
came to town. You peek into a world that can only remind of a life that
was and for some still remains. Oh you will see the new construction,
rising malls and apartment buildings, chain stores and chain
restaurants, the same that line the highways, but still on a rail trip
there is much more.
Your "Silver Meteor" includes a full dining car.
Nothing could be finer, as you order your roast chicken, salmon or
steak, sip your choice of wine or spirit, and of course, the cobbler and
coffee. Laugh as the attendant serves and jokes and points out the
scenery that you observe passing by at a speed conducive to observation
Despite the too early morning arrival, the
Southbound "Meteor" has the added advantage of a Sleeper car, one of the
latter "Pullmans," with a private sink and toilet and an available
shower in even the smallest accommodation. The cost for a roomette,
sleeping two in separate berths, includes that dinner in the diner and
adds only $254.00 to the list price.
Past fields, farms, woodlands, and over unnamed
rivers and streams, from city to town to isolated home, you travel
though time and past strangers who seem compelled to wave, with their
entire hand not a solitary finger, as you pass. Unlike your car, no one
needs to be designated driver. Unlike the plane, no unknown neighbor's
bulk presses under or over your armrest. You have time to read, to
write; to even talk with your grandchildren as the scenery and
experience pulls against the claim of their "I-pod" or "gameboy."
In darkness, you can watch the lights of Richmond
fade and better yet, the lights of DC, the Capitol, the Lincoln and
Jefferson Memorials and the Washington Monument, come into view.
Room to stand without encountering an overhead bin,
room to stretch and not contact another passengers chin, room to
walkabout from car to car or to a restroom itself big enough to allow
comfort, this is a different type and feel of travel.
As your trip winds toward an end, the Porter may
bring a glass of milk and warm cookies for the grand-children, and lean
over and point across the Jersey Meadows to where the lights of the
World Trade Center once shone and share his wonder and yours that the
world outside can be so different from the world shared within the
Go, now is the time. Our government, with the war
on terror, the economy, the price of oil, the Middle East, the demands
of poverty and an aging workforce, has said that intercity passenger
service serves too few and costs so much. It may not last.
AMTRAK the quasi-governmental agency that runs our
nations intercity passenger service has never claimed a profit. Although
arguably, the most efficient method of moving large numbers of people
over journeys of up to 3 hours length, railroads throughout the world
require government subsidy for infrastructure and longer trips. The
costs of this infrastructure and the need for great investment now will
have come to your posterior attention during your trip.
Although the reclining seats are broad and
comfortable, the "Meteor" crawls over tracks owned, but only
theoretically maintained, by private Freight Railroads These carriers
are not concerned with passenger comforts or speeds greater than 50 mph.
As the train progresses over their trackage, the old wooden ties and
gravel roadbed transmits every bump and lurch through the steel rails,
steel wheels and undersprung carriage. Above Washington, through to
Boston, the gravel and wood disappears. There high speed concrete ties
and welded ribbon rail allows speed in excess of 135 mph with smoothness
beyond even the newest interstates. The result is that the 220 miles
from Washington to New York City can be covered in less than three
comfortable hours. The 500 miles from Charleston to the District of
Columbia take over 10 hours of teeth rattling rumbles to pass.
But those interstates, that infrastructure is owned
and paid for by the government. The maintenance and repair, the repaving
and clean up, the security and roadside assistance are all paid or
subsidized by the government. But somehow those monies are, perhaps
rightly, still found. Although it seems all the airlines are in
bankruptcy, or surviving with government handouts or tax breaks, Amtrak
is still seen as less deserving, as it serves far fewer of the populace.
The Governors of AMTRAK are attempting the same
desperation sales and economies of their brethren in the auto, airline
and computer businesses. The apparent wisdom is to turn the tide by
giving more away. These Titans of transit have fixed on an arcane series
of discounts, advertised as up to 90% (but more frequently offered at
70-80%) on routes and trains that vary each week. Perhaps the theory is
since this audacity has worked for so many other industries, it may
still turn the tide for the railroad.
But regardless of their wisdom, these discounts are
now available, as is a trip to be savored not just endured.
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