Save the Melksham Train
A Comparison - travel in the USA by train

The choice of the train

The US is the land where the automobile is King ... and where businessmen fly from city to city, State to State from meeting to meeting. So why - when we visited the USA on what was primarily a business trip last week - did Lisa and I choose to get around by train? Because (even in the USA) it seemed to make logistical sense for this trip. And because I wanted to get an international comparison between rail travel in the UK and USA ... and what better trip to use. And because the price seemed economic / sensible.

Friday, 10th August

A Rude awakening

Transatlantic flights seem to run pretty well these days, with fewer major delays than I can remember in the past, so I'll put it down to pure bad luck that we arrived at the ticket / checkin counter at Newark Airport's Amtrak station about three hours late - which equated to about 15 minutes after our train had left. We weren't too bothered - after all, there are one or two trains every hour until late in the evening on this corridor and it wasn't yet 5 O'Clock.

But the desk was unmanned. "Back a 4 O'clock" said the handwritten sign. Hmm. Automated machines demanded a credit card which we were disinclined to give them, as we were picking up pre-bought tickets, but there was a help phone on the wall. Picked it up and spoke to control. "There should be someone there" we were told and, yes, we knew that. "I'll call him". An ongoing confusion (and a mixum concerning Newark Airport v Newark Penn Central) and a few minutes later an agent had been extracted from the back room to assist us.

Our "USA Rail Passes" were duely issued. Sold to me as the American equivalent of the BritRail pass, these tickets were to allow us to ride any train in the North East of the USA for up to 15 days - and at $299 each (150 pounds) that's something of a bargain compared to buy-as-you-ride. The same incredible value is offered to USA visitors to the UK on Britrail - or rather, we were just about to discover that we had been oversold on our tickets ...

"There's no space left for you to reserve on the rest of today's trains from here" says the agent. "This IS a Friday, you have to have a reservation, and there's only so many per train for these tickets". Wonderful - 5 p.m. in Newark, speaking with a "jobsworth" who isn't really interested in offering solutions but rather in stating problems ... and a hotel booked way down in Virginia. But fortunately, I had studied the maps / timetables a bit. "Any Space on the trains from Newark Penn Central to DC" I asked and, begrudgingly, he checked. "Only on the two minutes past seven". "WE'LL TAKE 'EM!"

Now - how can we get up to Penn Central - the next stop up the line, five or ten minutes away with plenty of suburban trains and some long distances services that call at both of them too. "I can't get you on to any of the long distance trains - they're full and you're US Rail pass doesn't cover the suburban trains" ... and so it was that we found oursleves starting our USA Train Adventure an hour late, heading away from where we wanted to go, and having had to pay $7 each extra over and above our "unlimited train travel" tickets.

Newark, Penn Central

I write computer software, I train people who write computer software. And I would LOVE to train the people who wrote the software for Amtrak's ticket agents to use as they sell tickets!

We took the opportunity of 90 minutes at Newark to make reservaltions for the following Sunday - New Carrolton to New York Penn Central, and then New York Penn Central to Albany for the following Sunday. What a good job we had 90 minutes - I have never seen such an incredibly long process as the one the agent took to issue me with a reservation for the train we wanted from New Carrolton, and then the huge trouble he had trying to locate the ongoing train in his system. It just wasn't showing up. "It must be fully booked" he concluded, leaving me with a three hour layover in New York (great with all that baggage!) and a scheduled arrival in Albany well in the evening on a train that left two hours after I wanted, and then took longer too.

And having booked MY reservation, he had to repeat all his keystokes (though, to be fair, he left out the section of trying for the 3:45) to make Lisa reservations on the same train.

All tickets have to be signed upon issue, ID provided just like an airline flight. But I was able to present him with Lisa's passport, point to her across the waiting hall, and promise that I would have her sign them straight away and ... we had our tickets for Sunday. I'm so relieved he took pity on us and didn't have me drag Lisa up there and loose our one valuable-in-the-rush hour seat. A human face, a guy trying to do his job within a frustrating system!

Tea with the homeless

Still an hour before our train, and no food eaten for a long while. Some interesting looking food places at the station. But wandering around in the great cavern under the tracks, they're all takeaways - no where to sit, and dragging our 49lb cases with us, we're not exactly going to be Mr and Mrs Popular as we stand in line and explore all the options with the foodsellers. Ah - one's a sit in cafe; "Waiter service only" but the waiters are packing up for the day, chairs propped against tables to indicate that they're no longer open for new customers. We find seats in the ticket office, labelled "for ticketed passenger only" and Lisa heads off to one of the stalls.

It starts to dawn on me ... the seat that we're on is one of the few labelled that it's for travellers, and the others are clearly occupied by people who are not there so much for the railway facilities, but because it's somewhere that's warm and dry. Some interesting character studies to be had, for sure ... nut also care to be taken that the bags and cases remain in sight and in our control. And I wasn't said as the clock ticked around and it was time to go up onto the platform.

Denied Boarding, but a nice train in the end

Some things are the same the world over ... the 5:02 was posted, was signed as being on time, but then just as it was due went "30 minutes late". The story of our journey! The 5:14 - also going down to DC rolled in on time. Very nice looking train ... but a quick word with the conductor elicits the response that even though we have an "unlimited" ticket, that's not really the case and we are limited to travelling on less glamorous and slower trains than his.

The 5:02 drags in at - what - around 5:30; busy, but we do get in, find room for our luggage, and find seats - sleeping much of the way on the now-dark Friday evening down through Philadelphia and Baltimore, train getting quieter all the way, and so on to Union Station in Washington DC where the remenants of the passengers alight. The Amtrak carriages all seem pretty well standardised - a similar livery, a similar look and feel, a comfortable ride, airline-style seating but reasobaly spacious; we'll be in other similar trains on subsequent legs of our journey.

Across Washington DC

We're met at DC with a blanket of hot air, even at 10 p.m. at night; past experience has lead us to travel in shirt sleeves and indeed my one pullover remained in the suitcase all week. Off the train, off the platform, and down into the DC metro having negotiated the ticket machine. At $2.75 (that's just under 1.50 in UK money) for a ride all the way out to the end of the line at Springfield Franconia, it's a bargain - a fifth of what it would cost in London - and the Metro is much smoother and more comfortable as the tube, although just as crowded.

Change from the Red line to the Yellow Line, then from the Yellow to the Blue ... and you'll be in Springfield in just half an hour. Except there's a section of the Yellow line that's closed from 10 p.m. this Friday night ... so we have to make a great horseshoe loop on the Blue. Up past Foggy Bottom, across through Roslyn, and back down past Pentagon and Crystal City (what a Misnoma for a concrete cavern of a station!) to Van Doorn and - eventually Springfield. The "Great Way Round" - now where have I heard those GWR letters before? A quick call to the hotel that we've prebooked to have their van pick us up (a common USA practise) brings the news that they don't do pickups after 10:45 and ... of course ... it's now after 10:45. A final 2 miles in a taxi, and a chance to check in and collapse for the night.

Sunday, 12th August

Springfield-Franconia to Troy, up state New York

The DC Metro

A transfer ride from our hotel (we WERE in their time frame today!) and a Metro ride from one extreme of the Metro system to the other brough us to New Carrelton.

Even here in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, Sunday is engineering works day .... and our train clearly labelled "New Carrelton" all the way along was pulled up short two stations early in an interetsing suburb of what is also one of the most violent cities in the nation and we were all dumped out onto the platform.

But engineering works don't mean "bustitution" here - they mean single track working, and the service had been sensibly thinned out to alternate trains to th eouter terminus. A service that ran every 15 minutes under normal circumstances was half-hourly; not causing a conjestion problem, efficient, clearly well practised. And it looked like the works were quite major ones too. And so, on to Carrolton still in good time for the Amtrak.

Amtrak to New York

You don't wait on the platform in the USA - you wait in the waiting room. You've heard me desribe the one at Newark earlier in this article; the one on Sunday Morning was much cleaner, quieter .... and with fewer facilities. To the extent that we were tempted up onto a bare, bare platform for a boring, boring wait - no seats at all - 20 minutes ahead of time. I have been in trains calling here before and wondered about the bareness, and now I know.

An on-time train, seating together, power points at the seats, for the 3 hour ride back up through New Jersey past Newark and under the Hudson river into New York's Penn Central station. A somewhat event-free journey, but a handful of things did strike me.

The ticket checking system. Above each seat is a clip rail, and the ticket inspectors - one for every 2 or 3 carriages - come along on each major leg of the journey, collect issued tickets, and put a smaller card in the clip rail above eash passenger's head. Some are near-plain, others have station names coded into them and in spite of a few minutes idly wondering, I wasn't able to suss out the system. But I do know that shortly before passengers are due to leave, the conductor can tell in an instance who's due to leave and he clears their card.

The buffer car. "Chicken Sandwich" request Lisa. Yeah - right - that's REALLY gonna be possible! But I find the menu panel offering a Ham and Cheese bagette, and a chicken summat bap. Pictures of both, but with a big cross through the chicken. Hmm - "no Chicken today" I ask. "Yes, we have" replies the lady on the counter and I'm thinking "is this the dry British hurmour come to the USA, or does she mean it". Tursn out she meant it - she went on to explain that one of her colleagues previously operating the buffet car had run out and crossed though the item with a permanent marker; well - actually she wasn't that polite about it, in fact she expressed quite a low opinion of him!

Station stops. L-o-n-g-e-r than in the UK as passengers are encouraged, airline-like, to remain in there seats until the trtain has come to a complete halt. So plenty of time to admire the platform at BWI - Baltimore Washington International Airport - and at MetroPark, where we were watching a couple, probably waiting for a subsqeuent local train, handling a teddy bear in a way that would be quite inappropriate to handle a child. The initial clutches were very private and intimate indeed ... and then they moved on to swinging the poor beast by its ears.

And so to New York ...

Written 2007-08-21 19:17:29

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