ODE To Amtrak? Certainly an Ode to Train Travel.
National Train Day in the USA was on May 7, 2011 (see an article on last year’s celebration here:
That got me thinking about train travel in general. In the USA, train travel is not as popular and ubiquitous as in many other countries, notably in Europe and Asia, where we have traveled extensively by train, especially in France and Japan. In our opinion, that’s a pity as train travel is fun and convenient and has many other advantages.
The main train company in USA is Amtrak and we’ve recently been on two trips; from our hometown, Urbana-Champaign (IL), to New Orleans; and from Chicago to Champaign.
First, on the City of New Orleans train, and the train trip is part of the adventure. “New Orleans, here we come”.
This is the life…sipping sundowners in the domed observation car with huge picture windows, watching the sun slowly sink over the rice paddies, tingeing the cotton fields golden, highlighting the trees on the horizon. We watch through the domed windows and roof of the observation deck on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans. The setting sun makes rainbows in the irrigation sprays. Mississippi slips by, Tennessee is behind us, and Louisiana is next. We get an expansive view of this vast land rolling by, very different to the view from a car window. This is more immediate somehow—we can feel ourselves sliding between the trees. We get much closer to the trees than on the highway—sometimes we’re almost in a green tunnel and I feel I could almost touch the overhanging trees.
This is a relaxing way to travel, as we do get to see some of the countryside in a leisurely way, and get some idea of the diversity of the land and the agricultural production; corn, rice, cotton, fish ponds, potatoes….
Click-clacking along the rails, woods and fields flying by, train whistle going to warn people at crossings, is very relaxing.
There’s more space, we can stretch out, and even nap a bit (if they remember the pillows). The dining car offers three meals, all pretty good, with real cloth tablecloths and napkins, and served adroitly with the swaying. Reservations are needed for dinner, at one of three sittings. A parks ranger is on hand some of the time to give information, and at the end of the trip, between Hammond and New Orleans, it’s especially good, as they tell about the small towns, some of the history of the area, statistics about the lakes and the Mississippi River, and the spillway, and interesting facts about the swamps. If you can’t do a swamp tour, then at least do this stretch of the train trip, because you do see some of the swamps and marshes, a couple of turtles and alligators, herons and egrets. You also get an idea of the bayous stretching between the trees.
The ‘toot, toot, here I come’ sound evokes childhood memories -of train travel, real and imagined, actual or seen on TV or in movies. We relive childhood train adventures in Africa, in those bygone days when trains were more popular. The sound of the wheels clicking and clacking, the feel of the coach swaying, transports me back to my childhood.
Even on a short trip, like between Chicago and Champaign, there are benefits to train travel:
–quicker than by car
–a glorious feeling to go flying past cars on the highway
–no parking problems or costs
–we can relax and read, or be lulled by the rhythmic soothing motion
–we are saving gas and helping the environment. We are leaving a smaller footprint on the earth
–we can drink wine at lunch!
–it encourages us to walk at our destination
–because we are higher in the train, we can look out over the fields and can see how green and fertile Illinois is. We see neat little towns that we miss on the highway as they are bypassed, little towns with cute main streets next to the train station.
But… Why does life always seem to have a ‘but’?
But, the trouble with Amtrak is that there is no schedule, not really. A schedule is posted but they seem unable to stick to it. Don’t know why. People just shrug and say, “Oh well, this is Amtrak”. It’s a pity, as it’s a nice way to travel.