Thursday, August 11, 2011

Train Travel Has Its Advantages

(From the August 11, 2011 Grand Haven Tribune)

ST. LOUIS—It sometimes seems that traveling by train has lost its appeal. Americans either drive because of their love affair with the automobile, or they fly because of their need for speed. Trains seem to be an artifact of previous centuries for the majority of us.

This point is illustrated in Grand Haven, where a stationary train is preserved on display near Chinook Pier. The former Grand Trunk Railroad depot now at the corner of modern day Washington and Harbor serves as a museum. The building itself is a sentinel to earlier days when trains were primary modes of transportation.

Historical records show that the last passenger train left Grand Haven on April 30, 1971, with 200 people aboard. The tracks had been built in the 1870s; the depot was built in the 1920s. A line ran through Grand Haven from Muskegon to Allegan as part of the Pere Marquette system until passenger service was taken over by Amtrak.

Amtrak named the train that now runs from Grand Rapids to Chicago the Pere Marquette. We who live in the Tri-Cities have to drive to Grand Rapids or Holland to board. I got on the train in Holland recently as part of a trip to St. Louis. I was originally thinking of flying as usual, but booked the train instead on a whim. I am glad I had the experience.

Apparently train travel is more than a nostalgic whim for many other Americans. On Monday morning the platform in Holland was crowded, and the Pere Marquette to Chicago was completely booked. The station in Chicago was crowded, and my train—the Texas Eagle—to St. Louis and ultimately San Antonio was very full as well. Conductors told me this has been typical lately, even though there have been regular reports of financial trouble for Amtrak.

A variety of other people take the train. I met a couple from southern Illinois who had attended a performance by their granddaughter at Interlochen. I also talked with a group of young professionals who had been in Chicago for the Lollapalooza music festival. It was amusing to be on a train hearing their debate about whether or not the aging band called “The Cars” gave a decent performance last weekend. There was a young family moving from Michigan to Texas where they had family and hopes of better jobs. There were also a variety of business people who busied themselves with briefcases, laptops and smart phones.

The obvious drawback to train travel is that it’s slower. Trains on tracks at ground speed can’t compete with the jet engines and as-the-crow-flies routes of airplanes. But that can be an advantage as well. In our fast-paced era of instant gratification and pressure to always go faster, the relaxed pace of the train was like a breath of cool air on a hot day.

Train travel has several other advantages. It beats driving because you don’t have to worry about traffic, directions, staying awake and the other stress of controlling your own car. As far as comparing it to flying, it struck me how many pros came to mind. There’s no invasive security screening (though Amtrak has its own police force and bomb-sniffing dogs and they are watching passengers come through the boarding gate in major stations and occasionally inspect a bag). There is much more leg room, as well as the ability to get up and walk around. On longer trains there is a viewing lounge and a dining car. Every seat has access to electrical outlets to re-charge laptops and phones. Phones actually can be on and they work at ground level.

Even though the train makes frequent stops along the way, the conductors make this an efficient process. I also enjoyed seeing the stops along the way. It was interesting to see everything from one-light towns to capitol cities as the train rolled on through. To me, the view was the best part of the trip. I got lots of reading done, but I found myself frequently looking out the window. On a plane you may have spectacular views from 30,000 feet of mountains, bodies of water, or the Grand Canyon. But from a train you can see the fields of corn and soybeans, backyards, town centers and other sites up close. Clouds out a plane window are only interesting for so long, but out a train window you can watch a group of people leave their old pickups on the curb of small town America as the enter a place called “Old Joe’s.” It’s amazing how fast the time passes with such visual variety.

I know I’ll fly again, especially when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. But travel is more than being transported from one point to another. It’s about seeing everything along the way. Sometimes we save time at the expense of other enjoyable aspects of life. A train ticket can save you money, get you where you’re going, and actually give you back a sense of time and place that is too often as elusive as clouds these days.

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