Monday, January 3, 2011

Getting some Training

A relieved suburban Greenmom puts her kids on the school bus and writes her first report on "What I Did Over Winter Break"

I’ve never been so glad for a Monday to hit for as long as I can remember.

But today I got to put the kids on a school bus again and actually have an hour of peace and quiet at home before I have to head off to my own peaceful quiet office and start exercising the stunned synapses of a child-noise-saturated brain once again. Christmas break is over, thank God. (I love my kids. I love their company. But at a certain point I just need a little space.)

The extreme saturation level is largely due to the fact that this year, instead of flying back East to visit my folks with the kids, we took Amtrak, the Capitol Limited line from Chicago to (almost) Washington D.C. We did this for several reasons: the most practical and immediate was that we had planned to drive, but we didn’t feel comfortable leaving my mother-in-law on her own for the 5 days of the trip, so my husband stayed behind with the dogs while the kids and I travelled East on our own. This happened late enough in the game that there were no airline tickets that were even remotely affordable, and I didn’t feel comfortable driving that haul by myself with no driver to share the trip with, so the train it was.

The initial decision to drive, however, had come about due to increasing frustration over the general misery of airline travel—costly luggage charges, tinier and tinier coach seats, and now the TSA rules which might not affect us at all but which might on the other hand force me to choose between having my kids (and me too, I guess) walk through a full-body x-ray machine and having strangers touch them in all the places we’ve tried to teach them no one is ever allowed to touch them without permission. Maybe an overreaction, maybe I’m reacting to media hype, but I don’t like flying much anyway, so this made it easy to stay away. And while the various calculators of the most- and least-green ways to travel don’t always agree on the particulars, there is pretty good consensus that planes are generally the least carbon-footprint-efficient way to go, unless you're driving cross-country by yourself in an SUV or something.

So we took Amtrak. We rode coach on the way East, and were able to book a sleeper compartment—the smallest, the “roomette” size—on the way back. Coach travel is definitely less expensive than air travel unless you got a really good airfare deal, and adding the roomette pretty much made it comparable to what reasonable airfare would have cost. The trip in each direction departed in the evening, rode overnight, and arrived the next morning; about 17 hours each way. (The flight is 2 hours, and the drive is 12.)

So I’d like to offer this post, the first of my new Monday spot in the Green Phone Booth lineup, and describe our experience, particularly the surprises—good, bad, and ugly--it involved.

The Good

Surprise #1: instead of crazy-nuts security or no security, honestly the only options I had really thought of, Amtrak uses K-9 officers who just sort of stand there with their smarter-than-a-lot-of-people-I-know dogs. If the dogs detect anything out of the ordinary, they react; otherwise we all just go right on by. Very efficient and non-invasive, but I suspect very effective.

Surprise #2: a train, in coach, has two seats on either side of the aisle, as opposed to three on a plane. And they are wide and comfy. The recline is a real recline, and there is a footrest you can put up at night. And there is real room in front of you, between your seat and the next one—room enough that my son chose to sleep down there rather than try to share a seat with his sister or sleep sitting up. If you are a good sleeper—someone who can drop off fairly easily in any situation where you’re not horribly uncomfortable—this would be a really pleasant way to travel. (I am not such a sleeper—more below on this!)

Surprise #3: while the “café car” sells mainly your “bad convenience store” kind of fare, the dining car with actual food is pretty good, although the selection is of course fairly limited and I doubt if any of it is organic, sustainably grown, etc. and so forth. But if you are traveling with kids, do not discount the value of a "dinner seating"--passing away time is key on a trip like this, and it's a change of scenery and a chance to get up and walk somewhere else for a while.

Surprise #4: the train makes a number of overnight stops, which I figured would be hugely disruptive to any hope of sleep…however, I was incredibly impressed with the ability of the operators to bring the train to an almost imperceptible stop-start each time, so you often could only tell you were moving by looking out the window. And they make no announcements overnight, so there is genuinely an 8 hour period of quiet and darkness in the cabin.

Surprise #5: the sleeper car was a much, much pleasanter way to go, honestly, although definitely more expensive and less green in that fewer people can fit into a sleeper car, thus increasing the carbon travel footprint of each. However, those roomettes are very efficient in their use of space—there are two seats facing each other which then convert to one bed, and a second bed folds down from the ceiling. (See “The Really Ugly” below.) Three of us went in one roomette, since my kids are small enough to use just one of the beds. Here we could really get peace and quiet and good sleep. And from a kid perspective, it was just sort

The Bad

Surprise # 6: apparently we are not the only family who decided to forego the unpleasantness and cost of air travel, although many I suspect did so because we were traveling at the same time as that awful mid-Atlantic snowstorm and their flights were cancelled. The train was overbooked, absolutely mobbed. However, despite non-reserved seats, families were able to semi-pre-board (after the seniors) and get seats close together. The train was understaffed and underserved, and coach passengers found out only after they were on the train that there would be no dinner option for them, but they could buy pretzels or microwave sandwiches in the café car. (Even so, though—the overnight portion was fairly peaceful and quiet.) The boarding process was frenetic and kind of scary, and it apparently does matter which car you get onto, because not all of them wind up at the same place or something, and there were no signs to indicate where we needed to be, only a few very harried attendants.

Surprise #7: for all Amtrak trumpets about its great green efforts, I was frankly appalled at the waste in the dining car, where garbage is concerned. Cloth napkins, real flatware, and plastic everything else—dishes and cups and everything. Dessert ice cream came in little paper cups. Morning cereal, same deal. Everything that could be packaged in throw-away small packets, was. I was very disappointed. (Next time I’ll plan ahead—we’ll bring all our own food and skip the onboard food service all together. Bear in mind, though—if you get a sleeper, your meals are included in your fare…hard to turn that down, you know?)

The Ugly

Surprise #8: those senior citizens can move pretty darn fast when they want a good seat on a train. I thought the families with children were going to get trampled by all these fairly spry Boomers clamoring to be first onto the platform.

Surprise #9: a car full of families with excited and thus largely sleep-deprived children, on a train for 17 hours straight. If you don’t know what this looks like, I won’t disillusion you by trying to explain; it’s something that must be experienced. By 10 in the morning, things were a little chaotic once all the little boys with Nintendo DS games discovered each other…(er...this one is only a surprise if you don't have kids. The rest of us can kind of picture it.)

Surprise #10: one of the charms of rail travel is supposedly the scenery, and through parts of the Allegheny Mountains it was indeed very pretty. But it broke my heart to see us going by factory after factory, many rusted and boarded up almost beyond recognition. The trains follow the freight routes, which means factories and manipulated waterways and lots of first-hand witness to what we have done to the beauty that was our land.

The Really Ugly

Surprise #11: this is where I would post a picture of me, a fairly ample woman of 5”10”, trying to get into—and out of—the top bunk of a Superliner Roomette. ‘Nuff said. If you have the option, put someone short and skinny up there.

The Not Really Surprising: I am not a good sleeper. I am a chronic insomniac, and I live in deep envy of all of those who when they have half an hour to spare can actually take a 20 minute power nap with actual sleep involved. I don’t sleep well at all while moving, I don’t sleep well in strange places, and I don’t sleep well in enclosed spaces. So basically I didn’t sleep much on either leg of this trip. At least on the return I could lie there not sleeping in comfort, as opposed to the coach trip the other way, wherein I had a backache and all that maternal anxiety that my kids a) were okay themselves and b) not disrupting everyone else too much. On the other hand, my kids found the whole thing a giant grand adventure, and I’m sure they will remember it forever.

The long and short of it: this is a good way to travel, and I was mostly surprised at how much more pleasant it was than I’d expected. Considering how much time you have to spend on either side of an airline flight at the airport, if your trip isn’t too far, or if you can let someone else drive during a nighttime period you’d otherwise have to spend in a hotel or campground, taking the train really doesn’t lose much time. (For instance, if we’d driven, we would have probably done maybe 8 hours the first day, slept somewhere overnight, where I would have slept badly, and then finished the trip the next morning. It would have in the end taken longer than the train. Air would have gotten us there earlier, but at much greater cost on pretty much every level—environmental, cost, and personal.)

How about y’all? Do you take the train? Any thoughts or reflections on your own experiences, any other things people who’ve never considered train travel as a viable option might want to know?

--Jenn the Greenmom

(Jenn's posts will be found here on Mondays starting January 2011)


Green Bean said...

I'm so impressed that you took the train! That's something I always think about but have never done (in the US). The only thing I've noticed when I've done some digging into it is how much longer the trip seems to take by train versus airplane (duh!) or even car (!). Did you find that to be the case?

Jenn said...

Yes, it definitely took longer--all those stops along the way, I guess. But since it was an overnight run, we didn't have to stop driving and sleep, which sort of made up for it. (Flying would definitely have been much faster.)

There's also just sort of the sense of fun and adventure of BEING on the train, you know? And being able to read (or in my case listen to audiobooks and Mahler symphonies, since I get motion-sick when I read) and chat and hang out without having to be on for driving is really nice.

For me the tipping point, in most cases, would be time, though--like, if I wanted to get from Chicago to, say, Cleveland: it takes maybe 6 hours by car, 7-8 by train. By air--it's only maybe an hour and a half, max, in the air, but if you have to get to the airport two hours before that to get in line and go through security, and a half an hour before that to even walk from the ginormous parking garage to the terminal, you're already up to 5 hours right there, and that's assuming you don't have to wait around for luggage afterwards. At that point, it's pretty much apples to apples.

For a really long trip, honestly, since the overnight thing doesn't work for me, I won't really love the train. But getting to do this rather than having to peel my eyelids to keep from skidding off a road in the mountains on the Pennsylvania turnpike was awesome. And I hate the airport immensely, so that was nice to avoid too.

I wish Ohio, the state whose governor pooh-poohed the whole high speed rail thing and gave back his stimulus money, wasn't right between us and where my folks live...

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I already mentioned on your personal blog that my family took the train from Indiana to Utah when I wad 10 or so, and I remember that trip with immense fondness to this day. I think for a kid, train travel is super awesome because for one thing, you can get up and move around instead of being strapped into a seat. I remember my sister and I walking up and down the train, hanging out in the dining car, and like your son, sleeping on the floor. That was 20 years ago, so I don't know how comparable trains are now, but I always think of train travel with fondness.

Farmer's Daughter said...

How neat! I've only taken relatively short train rides from CT into NYC, but that's the way to go!

I would admit that I'd be very nervous to take my son by myself though. I bet he'd love it when he's a little older!

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Actually, my first train "trip" was Chicago to Milwaukee with my 2-month-old daughter, and THAT was sort of terrifying! (It was a work thing I was committed to, and I had help from friends during the few times I couldn't be with her, but mostly I was still in that fourth-trimester thing...) Traveling alone-with-kids is incredibly stressful...but again, it's another reason I was glad to forego airline security checks! I've done that before, trying to get myself and two short people, with bags, coats, and 6 total shoes all through there and re-assembled. Urgh. Nightmare. Train is MUCH better.

Olivia said...

I have actually done a lot of train travel. As a child I routinely travelled from the Atlantic Coast to Central Canada and back every summer with my grandmother. Same thing when I was in university, although without the grandmother. I have travelled Coast to Coast in Canada by train - especially impressive going through the Rockies and I have often made short haul trips by train, both with and without 3 kids in tow. It is actually my preferred way of travel.

Nathan said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing your experience. My wife and I have kicked around the idea of taking a train trip with our toddler just because of the hassle involved in catching a domestic flight these days. Plus, we both love excursions on tourist railroads so making a cross-country trip would probably be just as much fun we figure. If we did it, I would definitely want a sleeping cabin as opposed to going coach. I wish rail travel would make a resurgence in this country. It only make sense!


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