Riding the Rails

Jan 30, 2012

I have been traveling by air for most of my adult life, and for a few years, flew somewhere at least once a week.

Yet while I took trains in Europe and Japan, it never occurred to me to do so from Detroit. Amtrak, people said, took forever and was a fairly nasty experience; a shabby relic of transportation’s past.

However, air travel has become less and less fun, from the increasingly cramped seats and loss of anything resembling service, and more and more intrusive security procedures.

So last weekend, I decided to take the train from Detroit to Chicago, something currently advertised as a six-hour trip. People told me not to be surprised if I experienced long delays, and that I should expect it to be more like an eight-hour trip.

Well, I figured anything was worth trying once. To my utter surprise, the entire experience was pretty wonderful.

I got on the train at Dearborn. I drove to the station, parked about 15 feet from the door and walked in. The décor was similar to that of a bus station, but cleaner. The train was about five minutes late, and when it arrived we walked outside and got on.

Conductors helped us with our luggage if we needed it. Nobody put me through any metal detectors, or took away my shampoo. We permitted ourselves the luxury of traveling business class, which is the rough equivalent of first class.

Except, that is, for about three times the leg room. The bathrooms were clean and spacious, and we were next to the food service car, which had a fair variety of decent fast food and drinks.

Everything was extremely comfortable. You can use your cell phone or your laptop, and most of my fellow passengers did. What was most remarkable was the extreme helpfulness and courtesy of everyone on the train or at either station. I got to Chicago 13 minutes late. The trip home was similar, except the coach was slightly nicer. This time, the train arrived 17 minutes early. I was home in less time than it would have taken me to collect my baggage and make it to an airport parking structure. The round trip cost was under $100. That would be far less in coach and less if you bought the tickets today; Amtrak is running specials through April.

I felt that I had stumbled onto some kind of wonderful secret, and discovered I’m not alone. Amtrak ridership was up considerably last year. This summer, Michigan is scheduled to make major improvements on the Detroit-Chicago line that could cut as much as 90 minutes off the trip.

New engines and coaches are coming in the next three years, too. Now, there are still those who think Amtrak is an outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars. And it does lose about a billion a year. Presidential candidate Ron Paul would get rid of it entirely. But some of civilization’s benefits can’t be measured on a balance sheet, and some forms of accounting are deceptive.

Train travel is more energy efficient than either car or airplane travel, and you can read, write, and they won’t take your penknife away. If anyone wants to spend more to improve the rails, especially in this state, that would be more than fine with me.