For my Christmas vacation, I rode the train from New York Penn Station all the way to my hometown train station in Alton, Illinois, which happens to be less than a mile from my parents’ house. The trip involved riding the Lake Shore Limited from NYC to Chicago and switching trains at Union Station.
The scheduled length of the first leg is 19 hours, followed by the 5-hour southbound second leg in Illinois. And because everyone including Amtrak knows trains frequently run late, they leave plenty of time in between trips, making for long, leisurely layovers. On the way to Alton, it was just 4 hours, but on the way back it was closer to 9.
I was fortunate enough to have friends in Chicago to hang out with (most notably fellow writesman Jake Enriquez), which was probably the best part of traveling via train rather than plane. On a plane, even if I had time to burn after landing at O’Hare, busy airport security and the remoteness of the airport would have made it impractical to leave and come back. With Union Station right in downtown Chicago, however, it was a cinch.
I don’t want to go too far into the topic of why I took a train. Let’s just say it had to do it with being cheaper, wanting to try the experience, and having anxiety about flying. The real occasion for this blog post is to post some observations about the experience of long distance train travel.
Train kids are the worst
Everyone knows kids in transit, particularly babies, are supremely annoying. All we want is for them to be quiet and behave, and they rarely manage that. I posit that train kids are the worst kids – much worse than plane kids or bus kids. My theory is that having more space and the ability to move around, which is the best aspect of train travel, is what empowers these kids to chatter all day, fall asleep, wake up at 5am and start chattering again. Two or more kids are especially bad because the parents leave them to their own devices while they sit across the aisle talking about whatever parents talk about.
College kids are dumber than I remember
I myself was in college just a few years ago (I turned 27 in October) and already it has become apparent to me that I’ve done a lot of growing up since my University of Illinois days. On my way back to New York it seemed like it was going to be a quieter, more civilized ride since instead of moms and dads and little Blakes and Tylers and Ashtons and Baileys, my car was chiefly people in their 20s. Not so. These clowns also chattered the whole time about the dumbest possible things. The girl behind me kept bugging her male friend to change into nicer clothes because they were going to New York, and he said he would be sleeping as soon as they got there so he was not going to change. He said that because instead of trying to sleep a reasonable amount of time, they woke up and started talking again around 4am. Of course they were uptalking almost the whole time, so it was like listening to two teenage girls from California instead of two college age young adults from Chicago. It took me back to my freshman year dorm days listening to people like that whole working in the Illinois Street Residence dining hall and “late night” snack bar.
Train coffee isn’t bad
You get a smaller cup than you’d want for two dollars, but it still tastes and works like coffee.
It gets dark early in winter
You think when you’re booking a train trip of how much of the beauteous American countryside you’re going to get to enjoy, but when you ride in the winter, much of the ride is at night when you can’t see anything. In the daytime, the view was of snow and bare trees, except for once we got to Illinois, when it was snow and empty corn fields. The most exciting part outside of the major cities was passing Gary, Indiana and seeing all the stinky-looking rundown factories puffing smoke.
Don’t trust the lounge car menu
I lost my earbuds at some point in Chicago while hanging out at the Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park. I was hopeful because I knew the lounge car menu had a “sundries” list that included ear buds for $5. After waiting in an epic line, I found out that the lounge car did not have them, and from the tone of the cafe employee, they never did or would. So don’t trust the cafe car to have what it says, and make sure you order your hot food item first (before your drink or drinks) unless you enjoy having passive-aggressive interactions with Amtrak employees.
Pray that if you must have a seatmate that it be a woman
Let’s face it, guys. We’re big and take up too much room when we’re sitting, even in a method of transit known to afford extra room per passenger. We need a lot of space because we cant comfortably squeeze our legs shut for a prolonged period of time. So let’s agree not to sit next to each other.
It’s not necessarily going to be a smooth ride
There were a few moments where I was feeling a little nervous like how I do when a plane encounters turbulence. The worst part was that the bumpiest parts of the track, when the train was really trying to cover a lot of ground quickly, came when I was trying to sleep. It’s hard to sleep when you are picturing your train derailing and wondering if picturing the derailment is making it more likely that the train will derail. And at the same time you’re sitting next to a stranger and hoping you’re not invading their personal space and also hoping that they won’t do anything too weird or try to steal something when you leave your seat.
Trains aren’t always late
I was amazed at how after being about 90 minutes delayed in Buffalo, we got to Chicago only a half hour behind schedule. My second train that only crossed one state while I was on it was later than that (but still less than an hour). My Lake Shore Limited trip back to Penn Station actually arrived about 15 minutes early!
Sometimes hand dryers can smell surprisingly bad
I never smelled rotten eggs when using a hand dryer before my Christmas train trip. Just typing about it brings that hot nasty smell back to mind.