One Man's Opinion: "Romance of the Rails"

If you travel much outside of the United States, particularly in Europe or Asia, you will find rail travel remains a primary method of transportation, particularly on distances of 500 miles or less. Here in the United States, rail is really only a primary transit method in the congested northeast and around other major populations centers like Chicago, as well as increasing its presence again in Rust Belt power centers like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Thanks to a lot of Amtrak business travel in the northeast during a prior decade, and a credit card which also racks up Amtrak Reward miles, most of my rail travel is in Sleeper Cars, with all meals included. It's the only way to roll.

Amtrak's service frequency is limited. The Crescent rolls seven days a week out of Atlanta, but only one train heading north from New Orleans and one south from New York City each day. Departures from Atlanta are in the evening heading north and in the morning heading south. Heading to either the Big Easy or the Big Apple you will have the opportunity also for three meals by rail.

The trip north rolls through Charlotte and the Carolinas into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and on to Washington, D.C., with stops in several charming towns associated with the Civil War, such as Charlottesville with the UVA campus just steps away. In winter-time or during the holiday season, parts of this trip looks like you are moving through a Christmas card.

Though I believe that high speed rail in the United States is largely a fantasy, due to the high costs of right of way acquisition, our vast terrain and differences in topography, there is a solid and well-established rail network already in place, though the bulk of rail lines are not owned by Amtrak, outside of the northeast, and though federal transit rules dictate otherwise, the rail freight corporations which own those rails frequently switch the Amtrak passenger trains onto spurs, to expedite movement of their freight. This can result in hours long delays and makes departures and arrival planning problematic for all passengers, but particularly difficult for business folks on a tight schedule.

Our airlines are subsidized, at least indirectly, by massive federal expenditures and support of U.S. airport infrastructure. Federal funds for replacing our aging rail stock and repairing decrepit infrastructure are finally moving Amtrak's way.

The two single under-water tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, each more than a century old, are leaking and will cost nearly $250-million to shore up, expand and potentially replace. Arguments between the two states on the funding split, as well as the federal government piece of that pie result in regular service delays and periodic outages. Let's hope repairs are fully underway before either tunnel collapses.

As you travel east to west, there are some incredible routes to consider which can show you this country in all of its grandeur, from New Orleans to Chicago and the Great Lakes and Midwest, there is the City of New Orleans, and from New Orleans to Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited, from Tijuana and San Diego to Seattle, along the Pacific Coast and parallel to much of the Pacific Coast Highway, is the Coast Starlighter, which includes a glass-domed observation and bar car. That trip is 33-hours, but there are few more beautiful ways to experience America's left coast. Amtrak packages and offers more than 30 routes criss-crossing our continental United States.

Admittedly, the longer routes tend to be heavy with young families with children (seeking a scaled back version of The Polar Express) as well as more senior citizens, long familiar with and generally preferring rail travel. Like your first time on a cruise ship, you can always spot the land-lubbers learning the wide legged gait best suited for a moving train and some don't like the constant rock at night (I sleep like a baby) as the train rolls through towns large and small towards its next destination.

Though the sheer vastness of our nation will not likely expand our passenger rail network anytime soon, I'm hopeful you will consider expanding awareness of rail as a travel option. My daughter and I are next off to Tuscaloosa on the Crescent in a few weeks, there and back in 48 hours. The drive and the rail trip are approximately the same length, if there are no major freight delays. And I can assure you...the train ride is a LOT more fun.

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