I’ve got a friend, named Jereme, who is sort of the John the Baptist of rail travel. He is a train nut. I’m not saying he is annoying about it, because he isn’t, but it is a subject that he will bring up at the slightest provocation- much like me and Roadhouse (which is an amazingly great movie, seriously you guys should watch it). He’s out there in the wilderness, living on locust and honey, proselyting to me, you, them, squirrels and basically anyone else who will listen about the wonder and glory that is locomotive transportation.
The thing is, he’s right.
On Monday I had to go to New York City for a meeting.
Driving there takes about five hours assuming that the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike isn’t horrible, which it always is. Once you actually get to Manhattan, you have to deal with Manhattan congestion, which is terrible. Finally, you have to find something to do with your car, which is a complete and total pain. To drive up for a Monday noon meeting I would have to have left the night before and stayed over and I like sleeping with Cass too much to stay in a hotel if I don’t have to.
I could fly up, but everyone understands what a pain in the ass modern air travel is. You have to get there early in order to fight with security, which is simultaneously a joke and serious business. The airlines seem to delay and cancel flights on whims and the actual planes themselves are cramped, which is made up for by the total lack of reasonable amenities. Most airlines don’t even give you peanuts anymore. Or pretzels. Or anything resembling appreciation for the fact you are spending a lot of money to be neglected. Plus, even if I flew into New York I would still have to actually get to the meeting.
I decided to do something I had never done, despite Jereme handing me tracts with titles like “Amtrak and You: Making America Great” and “Rail Travel: Not Just for Hobos” every time I saw him. I decided to take the train.
My family has something of a history with trains. My grandfather, who I am, by all accounts, the mirror image of, was a railroad investigator for the L&N Railroad Company. He would hop trains and travel all over the country, going to the scene of accidents or derailments or murders. I’m not sure about that last part, but in my head he was totally the Sam Spade of trains.
He actually was involved in a pretty cool train heist and as one of the heisters, which is even cooler. During the Civil War there was a famous train called the General. The L&N eventually came into possession of the train which it displayed in Chattanooga. At some point in the late 1960’s the mayor of Chattanooga decided that the train belong to the city and a custody battle broke out. The mayor refused to let the train leave the city so, in the middle of the night, my grandfather and what I can only assume was a handpicked, racially diverse crew of guys, all of whom had their own special skills and talents snuck into the secured rail yard where the train was being kept and stole it back, racing back home under the cover of darkness.
I’ve got train cred, is what I am saying. Just no real train experience.
My train was scheduled to leave DC’s Union Station at 7:30 in the morning. Trained (ha!) by airline travel, I arrived an hour early, at 6:30. I parked in the lot and was standing at my gate, or terminal, or whatever you call the waiting area at a train station by 6:45. I had expected to have to go through some sort of security. In reality, I didn’t even have to show anyone my ID. At first, I was a little concerned by this. I mean, this was transportation, right? And transportation requires having to wait in line after line and then dealing with extensive security protocols that don’t make me feel a whole lot safer. Apparently, this isn’t the case.
There was a line to go through the doors that actually led to the train, and a woman who worked for Amtrak was going along it checking tickets, but only to make sure that everyone was in the right line.
Amusingly, the train was late. I guess because “making the trains run on time” is a phrase that I use, if not often, then at least occasionally, I just assumed that trains usually run on time. According to the nice, eighty year old or so gentleman in line in front of me who had been riding the trains up and down the east coast for seventy years, they usually do.
“This is unusual,” he said. Then he whipped out his cell phone. “Hold on, I’ve got an app on here, lemme find our train….yup, it’s here. They are switching over the locomotive to a ‘lectric one. That just takes a few minutes.”
It only took a few minutes.
Boarding took less time. Again, trained (Ha! And ha! Never gets old!) by the airlines, I was used to boarding being a process that takes forever. We walked through the doors, down some stairs and onto the platform next to the train. Everyone moved quickly. You sat wherever you wanted to, so people gradually peeled off and entered whichever car spoke to them. Cass had recommended that I find the “Quiet Car” but I didn’t see any markings on the outside, so I walked almost to the front of the train before picking a car.
The seats were huge. I mean, not Sunday afternoon recliner huge, but really big and really comfortable. There was a ton of leg room. I picked an empty row by a window. A man sat down in front of me an instantly reclined his seat, but it didn’t noticeably effect how much space I had. I actually though, “He’s going to have to put that in an upright position before we leave the station” and then realized that was ridiculous. He didn’t even have to sit down if he didn’t want to! It was travelling anarchy and very freeing.
I had the whole seat to myself. Just a few minutes after I sat down the train glided away from the station. One of the first things I saw out the window, off in the distance, was the building where Jereme the Train Prophet lives.
The countryside glided by. A lot of time the urban areas around train tracks aren’t fantastic. At Baltimore I am pretty sure we passed right by some of where they shot The Wire. In a lot of places the side of the tracks were littered by debris of all types- glass, broken concrete, pieces of wood. The buildings were abandoned or boarded up.
Once we cleared Baltimore, however, the scenery changed. It became more rural or, at least, rural in appearance. I was surprised by how much water we travelled over. A lot of it was just runoff water ditches designed, I am sure, to keep the tracks elevated and in one place, but an equal amount of it were ponds and lakes.
I did a little work. I read a book. It was extremely pleasant.
Right out of DC the conductor came by, checked out my ticket and then put a little piece of paper up over my seat indicating, I imagine, that I was really supposed to be on the train, at least until it got to New York. We made half a dozen stops. Baltimore and its airport. Philadelphia and its airport. Trenton and its airport. One or two other, smaller towns. Every time the train would slide to a stop, people would quickly get off and others would just a quickly get on. It never took more than a few minutes.
New York City showed up in the distance and then we were in a tunnel and at Penn Station.
I stood up to leave and, for the first time, noticed a sign indicating I actually was in the “Quiet Car” which explained why nobody had been using their cellphones or even really talking. I’d just assumed train riders are naturally polite, which may be also be the case.
I went to my meeting which was a dozen blocks away at Grand Central Station. Grand Central is fantastically beautiful, like something fake out of a movie that is actually something real (and in a lot of movies). My meeting went well. I left Grand Central and had to reroute around 42nd Street where the police had closed down the intersection.
“What’s going on?” I asked another youngish man in a suit.
“Guy says he is going to jump,” he replied.
I looked up at the surrounding skyscrapers. The other youngish man in a suit laughed.
“I did that too,” he said. “Not up there, right there.”
He pointed to an over pass maybe 15 feet off the ground. A guy in a sweatshirt stood hanging from the railing. Cops stood a few feet away. Tourists circled the intersection, cellphones filming. “We saw the Statue of Liberty, Top of the ‘Rock, AND a jumper!”
“Man, let him jump!” yelled a rather large black guy in a Knicks jersey.
“He not high enough, he’s only gonna break his legs,” yelled his friend. “Let him do it and let’s get on with our day!”
I skipped the rest of the show and got back to Penn Station. Getting on my 6:35 PM train was as easy as boarding in the morning had been. This time I sat in the Quiet Car on purpose. Again, a comfy seat to myself. The train left on time.
The Quiet Car is no joke. Somewhere between Trenton and Philadelphia a guy took a call. The conductor was all over him.
“SIR!” he boomed, breaking the tranquility of the car, “SIR! YOU HAVE TO TAKE THAT CALL IN ANOTHER CAR! SIR! LEAVE THE CAR!”
There is no fighting in the war room.
There was WifFi! Nothing in a plane or, actually, in a hotel, than when they charge you for wifi. Ride the train and you get your wifi for free. It’s not great, but it is good enough.
At some point I was hungry so I got up, walk-staggered to the café car and had a beer and a hotdog. Just like James Bond. I finished my book and started another.
We arrived in DC right on schedule and I was home a little while later.
In a time when having to travel for work is more and more distasteful for me, riding the train was actually an enjoyable experience and I’ll be doing it again whenever I can.
It was great.
News part one- A Clean and Shiny Place is now on its own server. It’s pretty exciting, like it’s moved out of mom and dad’s house and into its own apartment. Y’all shouldn’t notice any changes though.
News part two- I’m going to cut all the emails off at the pass. “No T2?!?! No T1!?! What the hell is this?”
I know, I know, but sometimes things happen that the boys have little or no association with. I’ll try to keep those times to a minimum.