Live Local, Live Small: The train vs. plane experience of travel

Mar 18 • FEATURE BOTTOM, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on Live Local, Live Small: The train vs. plane experience of travel

For the last two weeks, I have been exploring the realities and costs of cross-country travel by train, car, or plane. So far this trip has taken me from Wilmington to Wilson, NC, by a Greyhound Thruway Connector Service to the Amtrak train bound for Washington, DC. From there I took a sleeper car to Chicago and then went on my way to LA. I left the beautiful art deco train station to head up the coast of California aboard The Coast Starlight—a truly elegant train with phenomenal views of the coastline.

Leading up to my trip, one of the main complaints I heard about Amtrak was how they suffer from delays. While pulling out of the station in DC, we encountered the first: A freight train broke down on the tracks in front of us. We went back to the station to be turned on to another set of tracks, but whatever irritation I might have had at this minor setback was far outweighed by delight over my sleeper compartment!

Think about when you fly in a jumbo jet and realize you have the third seat in the middle row of five seats. Something in the back of your head mumbles, I could just lie down across these seats and take a nice nap. All that space seems so inviting until four seat mates arrive. Well, Amtrak’s roomette (the smallest sleeper accommodation available) is a little wider than those five seats and has a little more depth than a full span on a rocking chair. It houses two reclining padded seats facing each other that convert into a bed at night. Another bed folds out of the ceiling if a second person is sharing the car.

I arrived to find bottled water, pillows, and coat hangers awaiting. If I wanted a cup of coffee, the attendant would come by to offer it, along with the daily newspaper.  The attendant promptly offered help if I needed it and ensured I knew the lounge car was perfect to set up for my daily writing. She served wine, beer, and snacks until the dining car opened.

The dining car attendant came through to take reservations for dinner—Amtrak serves three meals a day, including dessert, which we paid for in the train’s ticket purchase.

“What time looks good for you, honey?” the sweet attendant asked.

While I was at dinner, the sleeper seats magically transformed into a bed with sheets, blankets, and two very fluffy pillows.  Stretching out under the covers, I thought about the last time I slept on a plane in that awkward upright position with a doll-sized “pillow” and my rain jacket as a blanket. I wrote and read in privacy ‘til after midnight, then turned off the lights and let the train rock me to sleep.

Upon waking the dinning car was serving omelets, French toast, pancakes, sausages, and lots of hot coffee. More bottled water and a newspaper had materialized in my sleeper while I was at breakfast.

Compared to a flight attendant’s dry question, “juice or coffee, peanuts or pretzels”—or request, “please, do not leave your seats,” while sitting on a tarmak for hours, awaiting the resolve of mechanical issues, while sweating next to strangers and listening to families fight and babies scream—Amtrak far exceeded expectations.

We arrived in Eugene, Oregon, perfectly on time, in spite of a two-hour delay in Chicago due to an avalanche on the tracks near the Canadian border. Amtrak employees busily got everyone re-routed to their destinations.

I flew home from Eugene, partly to compare the experience with the train travel.  The train averaged about $200 a day in cost. My plane ticket was a little over $350.00. I arrived at the airport hours early to enjoy the TSA inspection process. First I had to get a boarding pass. Untied Airlines apparently no longer likes to employ real people, because their ticket counter consisted mostly of multiple self-check-in computer terminals. I fought with two of them for about 20 minutes. Neither could find my ticket by my reservation number, my name, or the bank card that had been used to pay for it.

“Oh, fuck!” I was screaming for the fourth or fifth time at the computer when my colorful language eventually produced a human who asked if I needed help.

“Hallelujah! A human!” I cried.  “Yes, I need help!”

Do you have a bag to check?” He asked amiably.

“No, I am carrying on—I have been very careful with selection and packing to make that possible. What I need is a ticket—the computer and I have reached an impasse, shall we say? Do you have any ability to make this work?”

He took my driver’s license, the print out of my reservation, and my bank card. Within minutes I was headed to the joy of a TSA screening—which is so effective in catching and tracking people that no one with a missing or stolen passport would, for example, be boarding a flight in Malaysia that week, right?  I took a deep breath and tried to erase all thoughts of the Malaysian plane scenario from my mind as my driver’s license was scanned. I proceeded to begin undressing and unpacking for security screening.

My laptop came out of my bag, as did every bit of liquid, including my toothpaste. My shoes had to come off, and let’s not forget the full body scan and pat down followed by having my hands swabbed for trace particles of explosives (I have to admit that I played along pretty nicely up ‘til that point at which I started laughing so uncontrollably it took several minutes for me to calm down enough to proceed with that particular bit of street theatre).  While completely repacking my luggage—and tying my shoes, less I forget—I reflected upon the request Amtrak employees asked for my picture ID once when I boarded the train, but not again afterward.  No one searched or X-rayed my luggage (or me, for that matter). I certainly wasn’t patted down before, during, or after the train ride.

I had four flights to get home to Wilmington, NC, and I was on the red eye. No meals were offered. A flight attendant came around with cups and a bottle of water; we couldn’t even have an entire drink to ourselves. I couldn’t comfortably cross my legs or recline to any point that would actually be relaxing. By the time I made it back to Wilmington, I had been forced to check the bag I so carefully selected and packed to be carry-on, all because I didn’t want my laptop beaten around in luggage handling (I have actually informed one of the American Airlines personnel the spawn of Satan  must run their company). When Jock met me at the airport he really couldn’t believe my foul mood.

“You are supposed to be happy! You’re home!” he stated.

“I hate the satanic policies of the airlines.”

“Oh, their safety procedures?” he asked.

“Satanic procedures—and I am from the South. I know what that really means.”

He chuckled and I grabbed my bag off the carousel, grumbling and griping all the way to the car.

“I didn’t get patted down once on the train, and no one separated me from my luggage!  Instead they gave me champagne and oranges on The Coast Starlight!”

So, I made it home by plane for under $400, but I would argue that I had more than a ration of aggravation that would be hard to put a dollar figure upon. For time and speed, I accept that for long distance travel, it is hard to beat.  But for quality of experience and consideration by staff and crew, Amtrak wins—hands down.

Gwenyfar Rohler is the author or ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.

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