Monday, April 17, 2006

Train Travel - Thoughts & Lessons Learned

I find myself in my Columbia, MD hotel room, (so close to MS&W's locale I can smell the barnyard animals!), (okay, not really THAT close), with a couple of hours to kill before dinner, and therefore have decided to record my thoughts and lessons learned as I've ventured into this "new-fangled" mode of transportation known as train travel.

It amazes me that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 40 and have never ridden anything more “train-like” than the inter-terminal trains in various airports like Atlanta’s or Dallas', the Metro in Washington, D.C., or the old-timey steam train at Kings Dominion, which I'm not sure even exists anymore. None of those experiences I count as actual train travel, although I suppose some might consider them so.

Now that I'm no longer a train virgin, I give you my thoughts, below.

Things that surprised me about rail travel:

* How anti-climactic boarding was. The train rolls in, stops, a guy opens a gate, and everyone just walks to the train and boards. Tickets aren't checked until after it departs - so cool.

* Departure - also anti-climactic. One quiet announcement and it just starts moving. On my first trip last week, the frequent flyer in me kept expecting the train to "take off" after rolling for a few minutes. Since I live in this universe, that didn't happen.

* The close proxity of trains traveling on parallel tracks. If the window opened and I had an amputation-wish, I could have reached out and touched the passing trains.

* How close some homes are to railroad tracks. Yikes! I thought I had it bad, living within a half-mile of an RR crossing. Some of these homes (think Ashland, VA), have tracks within 20 yards of their front porch. I guess you really don't notice the train after awhile, when living that close. A scary place to live with kids or pets, I would think....

* How a train whistle is no louder when riding the train than it is if you live a half-mile from an RR crossing.

* How vulnerable this mode of travel is to unthinkable events like those that occurred in Madrid. One such event on U.S. soil and passenger rail travel could be history.

Lessons learned about rail travel:

1) The 6pm train from Richmond to BWI stops in D.C.’s Union Station for an hour-and-a-half before proceeding on to Baltimore and points North. This might be a good thing if one has all the time in the world to play, nothing to do when you get to your destination and it’s not a Sunday evening, but, if I have to travel on a Sunday for work, all I want to do is get to the damn hotel and go to bed.

* Cab from Union Station to Columbia, MD = $80
* Getting to the hotel an hour and a half earlier = priceless.

2) Do not, under any circumstances, sit near the front of the business class car (or any car), if at all possible. The bathrooms are at the front. Need I say more?

3) Do not bring complicated knitting projects (finicky yarns, difficult patterns to follow) to knit on the train unless you’re a better knitter than I am, as the lurching will impact your accuracy and precision. Mindless garter stitch rectangles all the way, baby....

4) Make sure that you have an mp3 player with headphones, to drown out the a-holes who sit next to/beside/in front of/behind you and talk on their phones THE ENTIRE TIME. We’re talking three solid hours, people. My guess is that their companies pay their cell phone bills?

5) Make crystal-clear sure that the cab driver knows the difference between Union Station in D.C. and BWI Station in Baltimore – do not wait to find out their inability to discern the two as you’re pulling into one when you need to be at the other.

6) Most importantly, if you've never been to a particular train station, and you hear there's construction near the highway exit, it's best to make a dry run on a non-travel day, or else you might experience my previous fiasco.

(Addendum - I remembered two more lessons learned today, 4/18):

7) For the Richmond-D.C/D.C-Richmond route, the west side of the train seems to have better views and sights, in my opinion. It might also be hotter on summer afternoons, however.

8) Do not look desperate, pimply-faced college kids in the eye when trying to catch a cab at Union Station, or else you may be subjected to unbridled whining, crying and begging as they attempt to cajole for cab fair to Georgetown. Hey kid -- the Metro to Foggy Bottom is only a buck-fifty.

Other miscellaneous musings on rail travel:

* Best whistle-stop town between Richmond & D.C.: Ashlahd, VA, without question. (2nd place: Quantico, VA)

* Best whistle-stop city between here and there: Fredericksburg, VA.

* Grandest station to explore if you have the time: Union Station, D.C.

* Funniest-named sight along the way: Possum Point Power Station

* Most patriotically-beautiful sights: Jefferson Memorial & Washington Monument at night

* Most surprising monument I didn't know existed: George Washington Masonic National Memorial

* Best business class "perk": footrests at every seat

So, do I prefer train travel over air travel? I don't think so. I have to admit I'm a speed freak, and prefer the fastest mode of transportation possible. Do I prefer train travel to driving on I-95 and the Beltway? Hell, yes.

I think that's it, for now. I'm sure I'll discover new surprises and lessons-learned on my way home Wednesday.


Gingersnaps with Tea... said...

Trains can be a little bit of heaven! The Royal Hudson from North Vancouver to Squamish… the observation car on the train from Calgary to Vancouver (my favourite mode of transportation as a starving art student--I cried when they stopped running the route, now it's privatized and costs a fortune) up in the dome in the pitch black of night as you travel through the Rocky Mnts., Snow covered peaks on either side and a sheer drop away from the train to the river far below… traveling through the highlands of Scotland… I've adored train travel since I was 16-years-old and you've made me feel very nostalgic. Thanks!!

Courtney said...

I just got home after arriving at RIC on the 14th plane that I've been on this month. 14 planes!!! Train travels sounds positively heavenly, but getting to Texas or Wyoming on a train from Richmond would probably take a very long time. On many of my flights including my most recent flight, I've found that there are yahoos who find a way to yammer at someone all the way from point A to point B even though there are no cellphones allowed. It's always some business-y guy who's way too impressed with himself, and talks really loud. The guy on tonight's flight was talking so loud that I could hear him over my iPod. What's with that?

jessie said...

I haven't ridden the train as a day rider since I was a child (Lee, MA to NYC) but about 15 years ago I took the overnight train from northern VT to Baltimore. (This was before husbands and kids; I don't think this train runs anymore.)

My impression: heaven. I had a "roomette," which is about what it sounds like. But I got to read to my heart's content. The porter brought me a glass of wine at night, and coffee in the morning. The sound of the train and the motion were so relaxing. The sights were interesting; where the tracks go are not the high-rent districts of most areas.

Best of all, I didn't have to deal with the noise and bustle and general crankiness at airports and on airplanes.

As an efficient mode of travel, trains may not be the way to go (but maybe they are). But as an experience, it was great.

Liz said...

I keep reading thet you're in Columbia, MD and that is about 20 minutes from my house! If this is going to be a semi long term assignment, give me a call and we can get together for dinner one night if you're interested...

Ranger Susie said...

I have yet to try the train trip to DC, but now I'll have to try it some time.