I love traveling by train. Of all the modes of transportation I’ve tried, and I’ve tried almost all of them, trains are my favorite.
Trains in the United States
I admit that out west, Amtrak doesn’t have the best reputation. I’ve got personal experience with the Coast Starlight’s little schedule snafus, but they’ve gotten much better in recent years. I adore the Coast Starlight–the wonderful long route from Los Angeles all the way up to Seattle. Even the cheap seats are big, with plenty of legroom and often an electrical outlet in which I can plug in my laptop.
Travelers with disabilities who notify Amtrak in advance can get downstairs seats, which have even more legroom, plus space for oxygen tanks and other medical equipment. Also the restrooms are downstairs in each coach car, and all seats have electrical outlets for easy recharging of computers and any medical equipment that runs on batteries.
Best of all, disabled passengers receive personal attention from an assigned porter. That means that if you can’t climb the stairs and make your way across the swaying, jouncing cars to the lounge or dining car for a meal or a drink, the porter will do it for you.
Of course the way to really get around most of the potential trials and discomforts of train travel is to get a first-class compartment in a sleeping car. In first class, you’ll get plenty of personal attention from the train staff, first crack at meals in the dining car, and an honest-to-goodness bed to lay down if you need to. Plus your own (tiny) in-compartment bathroom with handheld shower. If you’ve brought your own food into your first-class compartment, you really don’t have to leave it again until you reach your destination.
For day trips, I can usually make do with the cheap seats in coach. They recline nicely, letting me change positions and even nap if I’ve remembered to bring my comfy pillow from home. But if I’m headed cross-country on an overnight train, I save up for a first-class compartment. Coach seats, while great for a few hours, aren’t comfy enough for me to get a full night’s rest. I need the real bed with sheets and blankets and pillows if I’m going to arrive feeling at all well. For my visible-disability readers, there are wheelchair accessible bedrooms on cars on most Superliner (long-haul) routes.
The major problem with trains in the United States is that there aren’t enough of them, and they don’t run fast enough. Where Asia and Europe embraced bullet trains and electric-diesel hybrid locomotives in the last part of the 20th century, we in the US are still lumbering along with slow-moving trains using technology that’s now decades out of date. We’ve also got the problem of too few trains–something I sympathize with a little bit more. The US is an awfully big country. In the East, Amtrak’s routes tend to be a great deal more comprehensive. But in the vast West, there’s a lot of distance to cover. I can only hope that we’ll keep building new rail lines to reach more destinations, more quickly.
Because right now, the timing is as follows:
San Jose-Los Angeles by car: 5-6 hours into the LA Basin (no promises once you hit the 405 freeway)
San Jose-Los Angeles by airplane: 2 hours, including airport time
San Jose-Los Angeles by Amtrak train: 7.5-8 hours
Granted, the train’s cheaper than the plane and far more relaxing than the car. But still, we need to get those bullet trains built!
Next in this series…Trains in Europe