US passenger railways, while they don’t exactly have a stellar reputation, do nonetheless connect a myriad of cities, particularly on the east coast, allowing for cheap and incredibly comfortable travel between both major cities and more provincial towns. They are not for those in a hurry – on all three occasions we have taken the Amtrak the service has been both slow and late and almost pleasingly chaotic – but on none of those occasions has the experience been negative.
Our first Amtrak experience was back in 2007, when we travelled the – I’ll be honest – dull route from Chicago down to Dallas, during which we saw a lot of corn and not much else, punctuated by avid questions from out excitable train guard, Phyllis, as to whether, being British, we had met the Queen. (Answer: yes, I had, and I made the mistake of telling her this.) A few years ago we took the altogether more efficient service from New York to D.C. on the Acela Express, a surprisingly pretty route that took us through some beautiful Spring scenery from the heart of one iconic city to another.
This time we made the mistake of travelling the day before Thanksgiving. The problem with travelling the day before Thanksgiving is that – of course – EVERYBODY travels the day before Thanksgiving, and, what’s more, many of those people were as inexperienced in the use of the US rail network as we were, as they were taking the train only to avoid the huge queues on the freeways. Cue hoards of bewildered families flooding the boarding areas of a station that has clearly been designed not for them, but for the mix of seasoned commuters and occasional oddballs like us who use the trains. Inevitable delays only added to the confusion and eventual fury, since Amtrak isn’t hot on things like giving their customers consistent or even vaguely accurate information. At one point, 20 minutes after our train was due to depart, the big screen in the terminus was saying it was on time, the web app was saying it was delayed indefinitely, and an angry man at the back of the crowd was shouting to apparently the world in general that it was cancelled completely.
Union Station, D.C. is beautiful but utterly impractical. It’s a vast, temple-like symbol of the American Dream – opulent and grand and glorious and full of high-end shops and cafes and other opportunities to be parted with your cash. However, it’s completely devoid of actual train information. To board your train you need to leave the station and go into what feels more like a 1970s UK bus terminal – a long, grey corridor over to one side with insufficient seating and a lingering smell of disinfectant from washrooms I would not recommend using. That there might be some benefit in linking the two in a more tangible way seems to have so far escaped anyone with the power to do so. This means if you are early for your train you can linger in the comfort main station and come away with an altogether positive memory of your experience, whereas as soon as your train is late the overwhelming memory you will be left with is standing in a sweaty tunnel hoping you don’t get mugged while people throw various bits of misinformation at you.
Anyway, we did eventually board – an hour late – to go all the way to Norfolk, Virginia. The buffet car was closed (note: always take snacks) and the air conditioning was on so high I couldn’t feel my hands by the time I got off almost five hours later. It took almost as long to cross the state of Virginia as it took to cross the Atlantic, but the seats were huge, the luggage racks plentiful, and we made it to our destination on what was probably the busiest travel day of the year, having seen some cracking scenery on the way.
For more information on train travel in the US, see the fabulous Seat 61.