In Support of Amtrak, our Nation’s Railroad

In light of the recent train derailment outside of Philadelphia this past week, train travel has been thrust into a controversial spotlight. As a country, and particularly in the heavily populated and hard-working Northeast where train travel is a commuting necessity, we mourn the victims and the injured of Amtrak train 188. The people who rode the rails that fateful night were our friends, neighbors, family members, business partners, professors, and classmates. And anyone who has ever ridden the train to Union Station in Washington D.C. from New York or Boston has given heartfelt pause for a ride that is often taken for granted…because we too could have been sitting right next to them.

So taken for granted is train travel in the U.S. that members of Congress voted last week to decrease funds to our national railroad, Amtrak, rather than to increase it. Upon researching the reason for this, I was left with only one loud and clear answer: politicians don’t believe railroad travel is an important issue for their constituents.

Think Again.

This is our country. The best way to see it and the best, most environmentally viable 21st-century means of getting around it should be rail travel. The railroads built this country. They enabled the migration of people from east to west, the movement of U.S. mail for the purpose of business, the transportation of goods and ideas, the movement of commuters and ultimately the safe passage of travelers seeking adventure.

In the Northeast Corridor, rail traffic has increased drastically since 2001. We take for granted the trains that bring commuters to and from the business centers of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. Every time I’ve ridden the train to or from Union Station D.C., the line to board that train has snaked on a seemingly endless trail through the train station. These trains are packed and will continue to be. Are the railroad ties new? Are the bridges refitted? Are the train stations state-of-the-art? Perhaps our elected representatives should set out to find the answers to these questions and strengthen our infrastructure and leave an actual and tangible legacy for their countrymen and women.

Train travel, such a vital part of America’s past is destined to be America’s future. Our politicians need to be attentive to the needs of their constituents, not pander to the airline industry. They shouldn’t be running on a platform based on “going green” and then ignore the most environmentally-friendly form of short and long-distance travel, which also happens to be readily embraced by the rest of the world. Let Europe and Asia race ahead? Where’s your sense of innovation America? Rise to the occasion and solve the problem of moving our increasing population efficiently and safely across the rails.

We have Amtrak, the neglected middle child of transportation, which has likely been doing the best it can on our ultra-outdated infrastructure. It’s ageing. Yet to read the reports of Congressmen would make Amtrak seem like a luxury town car. Recent references by a congressman quoted in the New York Times that he refused to support a budget increase for Amtrak because it spent money on “luxury sleeper cars they can’t fill” fell short on my ears. I always have trouble getting a room in a sleeper to Florida, because they are so heavily booked. Same with trips to Chicago. Perhaps the Congressman would like to ride in coach for 21 hours straight? Or hop onto the top bunk in a roomette and see ‘luxury’ firsthand. Or likely he’ll prefer to hop on his chartered jet.

Like a flower, urged to bloom while picking off its petals one by one, Amtrak is doing its best to fulfill its promises with very little. The tragic derailment outside Philly was the first of its kind in 28 years. This record is likely due to one thing: the dedication of Amtrak staff. You will not find a more dedicated group of people in the field of transportation. Many of them were inspired to start working for Amtrak, and stay there, for their sheer love of trains. This is visible in all of their hard work on every journey, long or short. Derailments and accidents leading to loss of life are still quite rare on our nation’s railroads. More are likely due to people not riding the train, ending up on the tracks when they are not supposed to. Even minor accidents are few and far between.

Make it better. Don’t turn against the grand dame of American transportation. Instead…write your Representatives, your Senators, your President. Let them know that you are a constituent and you are mad as hell that we as a nation are failing to support the infrastructure needed to maintain the railroad: the gates, the switches, the roads, tracks, and bridges desperately needed to support our most viable and environmentally friendly system of transport for the new millennium. Ask them to take a train ride. Ask them to look out the window. Ask them to notice the beauty in the passing countryside, the bright lights of the cities, the homes that line the routes through our suburbs. Ask them to see the people that wave at each station and ask them to wave back. Wave back with a vote to support train travel. Because it matters to us.

Train travel matters to Americans. It is the great equalizer. You might just be sitting next to a student or a mother or a soldier or a businessperson or the Vice President of the United States.

We should vote to support train travel and railroad infrastructure. Only then can we begin a dialogue that pushes for high speed trains that match Europe and Asia.

Only then will the rest of the world race to catch up with us economically and environmentally.

Now that’s a platform to run on.

That’s a platform to board a train from.

“All Aboard!”

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What to pack for long train trips

Regardless of where you are heading, you will want to be as comfortable as possible for the duration of your train trip. Small to medium-sized luggage is easily stored in bedrooms and roomettes in the sleeper car on racks up by the top bunk so that you can move easily throughout the cabin, however this storage is up quite high, and it is not so easy to get down suitcases without assistance from the attendant.  For items you will need to access regularly during your trip, I recommend bringing a tote as your carry on.

Keep everything you need for your train trip close at hand by packing a tote
Keep everything you need for your train trip close at hand by packing a tote

To organize and find items you need quickly, separate and store in small and large plastic freezer bags. I do this for every trip to sort and protect my phone charger, headphones, toiletries, snacks, socks, undergarments, etc. The bags are transparent, so if I need my toothbrush, toothpaste, and facial soap to get ready for bed, I just have to reach in my tote and pull out my toiletries bag instead of rifling around for each small item. Train temperature varies throughout your trip, depending on the climates you are traveling through. While there are temperature controls for heat and cooling, as well as adjustable air vents in your cabin, I strongly suggest dressing in comfortable layers so you do not have to access your suitcase frequently. Because you will be sitting for long periods of time, wear loose and stylish separates. I recommend pants or jeans, a t-shirt, and a buttoned or zip up sweater. Also remember to pack a pair of shorts or lighter clothes for your destination (there’s nothing relaxing about hopping off the train in hot, humid Orlando in your jeans and New York Winter Parka). Jackets can be hung in a small coat closet in the bedroom or roomette. If you are sensitive to temperature, bring along your jacket  for meals in the dining car, particularly on the Silver Star or Silver Meteor routes. It can be very chilly in there during dinner! Shoes should have soles that grip, because your balance will be off at times as you walk through the cars on the train to access other areas. You will also want shoes that come off, and can be slipped on, easily. Take them off at night for bed, but you will want them on the floor next to your sleeping area in case you need to get up and use the lavatory. In the bedroom cabins, your commode doubles as a shower. In my experience, the shower head at times may drip slightly, leaving a small bit of water on the floor, which is not fun to walk onto at 2:00 AM in your socks or bare feet. Amtrak attendants work hard to maintain the cars on every line. In general, the bedrooms and roomettes are clean and stocked with new soap and towels and clean sheets and blankets for your stay before you board. However, I find it nice to spruce the place up for long train trips. I bring a travel pack of clorox wipes and a small travel lysol spray with me. As soon as the luggage is stored away, I go over all of the communal surfaces like the door handles, sink area, storage latches, light switches and table with the wipes to ready it for our stay and then I spray the lavatory with the lysol. It makes the room homey and fresh, gives me peace of mind, and it goes a long way to ensuring that we won’t have the sniffles at our destination.

Here is a brief packing list for your carry-on tote for train travel:

1. A sweater or wrap to help you adjust for air-conditioned areas and drafts

2. Cleaning wipes, travel Lysol spray, & travel hand sanitizer

3. Headphones and digital device for music (listening to music as I watch the scenery fly by for hours  is my favorite thing to do on a train trip! Give your trip a personal soundtrack.)

4. Pajamas or sleepwear (stored in a carry on tote, not in your luggage)

5. Reading materials, tablet with saved movies (no streaming is available at this time on the New York to Florida route!) travel games, or other hobby items

6. Toothbrush (Colgate wisps work great), small toothpaste, facial cleansing cloths, hairbrush

7. Medicine (over the counter and prescription) and eyeglasses/sunglasses. Do not leave these in your luggage. Carry them with you.

8. Chargers for phone and other digital devices

9. Snacks

10. Your Amtrak e-tickets and a pen

On the subject of number 8, I usually bring a few snacks in my carry on tote. There will be times when you want a snack, particularly late at night or very early in the morning. Often, my husband and I do not go to the dining car for a big breakfast (sadly we forgo the Railroad French Toast) and instead have a granola bar to tide us over. Dry items are best to bring, including trail mix, crackers, dried fruit, pretzels, breakfast bars etc. Coffee, water, juice and ice can be found at the attendant’s station at the end of the sleeper car. You are permitted to access this when you need it, and in my experience, it is kept stocked during the trip.

If you prepare well by packing your train travel tote, you will have the most relaxing trip and want for nothing. When you pull into your destination station, take a quick look around. I find the majority of passengers look well-rested and groomed as they hop off the train. If you’re prepared, it really is a civilized way to travel!

Adventure 1: New York to Florida by Train

One of the most enjoyable ways of traveling quickly and efficiently without flying is by rail. In the United States, there is only one long-service rail provider: Amtrak. My husband and I recently traveled to Orlando, Florida for some sun, fun and relaxation at Disney World.  A full trip from New York’s Penn Station to Orlando, Florida is approximately 21 hours long. I highly recommend shelling out the extra bucks for a Roomette or Bedroom in the sleeper car for longer journeys. Each of these types of rooms is equipped with a lavatory, sink, storage for luggage, and comfortable chairs which allow you to relax in privacy and have a bed made up for the evening hours. Most important, you will also have your own window to look out at the scenery racing by, and you can press your nose against the glass to your heart’s content without disturbing your neighbors.

An Iconic Start to A Long Rail Journey
An Iconic Start to A Long Rail Journey

If you get a compartment in the sleeper car, there are some perks included in your ticket. For departures from Penn Station, this includes a separate quiet waiting area in the Acela Lounge. Here you will find a private check-in area, racks of useful travel information (to plan your next train trip!) and complementary coffee, tea, and danishes. There are also big comfy chairs and private restrooms. It’s a nice place to fill out your Amtrak luggage tags and get organized before the train ride. Electronic boards and announcements are visible from every corner of the lounge ensuring that you do not miss the train. There is something very romantic about embarking on a trip by train. I have grown to love standing out on the breezy concrete platform alongside the train while the porters and attendants do a great job greeting and assisting everyone on board. I love the smell of diesel. I love the sight of e-clips. The rush of knowing the train only has stopped for a few minutes to let you on board before going on to its next destination just adds to the romance! And that first step onto the train and into the hushed gray corridor holds within it all of the excited anticipation of an adventure just beginning.Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 7.21.10 PM Shortly after boarding the train, you will be greeted by an attendant who will direct you to the dining car for lunch, and take your reservation for dinner. Lunch, Dinner and Breakfast are included in your ticket price for sleeper compartments from New York to Florida. Amtrak dining cars currently are the last holdouts of old-fashioned style that all trains maintained a century ago. White tablecloths, curtains, etched glass dividers, bread baskets, and teal upholstered seating make for a rather elegant space to enjoy your meals in. Lunch fare is usually pretty basic, with a choice of “soup of the day” (Manhattan Clam Chowder), a garden salad, or a massive, yet tasty, hamburger with potato chips. Dinner options tend to be quite good, and often include a hanger steak with baked potato, roasted chicken with rice pilaf, beef merlot stew over rice, vegetarian lasagna, and a fish of the day option. Soft Drinks and water are also included with your ticket, however you will pay a few dollars out of pocket if you would like glass of wine with your meal…oh go on, you’re on vacation!

Culinary delights on Amtrak
Culinary delights on Amtrak

If you are traveling in a party of two (or alone) be forewarned you will be seated with other travelers for most of dinner. This is something I have always enjoyed, and I highly encourage you sit down to dinner with a friendly smile and an open mind. On numerous trips, without fail, I have met very interesting people who have traveled across the country by train for various reasons. From my fellow travelers, I have learned about the mountains of Montana, biking across Ohio, farming grapes in Indiana, teaching English in Austria, and where to get the absolute BEST Philly Cheesesteak. While you’re in the dining car, don’t forget to look for the vintage posters at the back, which change on different routes. Also don’t forget to order dessert. Amtrak desserts are delicious! At various times they offer peanut butter pie, cheesecake with strawberry sauce, chocolate mousse, or small cups of sorbet or vanilla ice cream. You can even take it back to your room for a midnight snack if you are too full to eat it at the table.

If you don’t feel like sitting for an hour in the dining car for lunch or dinner, walk straight through and into the Cafe car. The Cafe car provides snacks, sandwiches, and beverages with a wider range of hours than the dining car. You must pay for items in the Cafe car, they are not included in your ticket price. Be forewarned, the price for some items is expensive, sometimes double what you would pay in the grocery store. They do offer some hot items, including hot dogs and microwaved pizza, as well as cheese and crackers, potato chips, and candy. Beverages offered include wine, beer, coffee, tea, cans of soda and juice. If you want to bring home a souvenir for a train enthusiast, the Cafe car sometimes sells Amtrak memorabilia on the longer trips, including playing cards, blankets, and baseball caps.

For the majority of the trip you will be sitting in your seat watching the scenery fly by. The route on the Silver Star and Silver Meteor, New York to Florida will run through major cities, including Trenton, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Raleigh, Savannah, and Jacksonville. Washington allows for great views of the mall, including Washington’s monument, several Smithsonian buildings, and the Jefferson memorial. You will be going by pretty fast, so try to have your camera ready. I like the abstract quality of this photo of the mall in D.C. I once read about an artist who traveled the country by rail and created abstract pastel paintings of the views outside her window. Maybe you want to bring your sketching materials on your next trip! Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 7.20.21 PM One of the prettiest parts of the Northeast route is the Chesapeake. The train will travel over several bridges crossing the span of the river and its tributaries. Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 7.20.39 PM By the time you are exiting Virginia on the North to South route, it will be time set up the beds for your night’s sleep. I liken a stay in an Amtrak Bedroom or Roomette to an evening in a spaceship. First, there are many buttons for reading and room lights to play with. Second, you must ease your way through the slim passage of the room to get from one area of the cabin to the next (i.e. the lavatory).  In a bedroom the couch seating slides out into a full bed and the top bunk folds down for a second twin bed. Be forewarned, once the bunk is pulled down, there will be limited walking space in the room, due to the metal ladder needed to access the top bunk, and it will be difficult to sit up on the bottom bunk. Be sure you are ready for bed before asking the attendant to set up for sleeping. Most attendants request that you have your room turned over for sleeping by 10:00 PM. Complimentary bottles of water, soap, towels and washcloths are supplied and make getting ready for bed easy. If you need extra pillows or blankets, these can be found on the top bunk or provided to you. Once the lights are out, you will be rocked to sleep by the movement of the train and wake up in another state in the morning. Don’t forget to plug in your phone and digital devices for charging in the double outlet while you are sleeping, so you are good to go when you wake up.