Tuesday, 20 November 2012

travelled on Amtrak, the only way to fly

Amtrak trains are awesome – in both senses. These two-storey sleek silver monsters that ship the thrifty or plane-phobic across the vast distances of the States are rarely seen on the Hollywood screen, and yet to anyone who's spent time on the paltry, single-decker, narrow-seated, overcrowded excuses for trains we put up with in the UK, they are a complete revelation, and (IMO) much preferable as a mode of transport to small-plane domestic flights.
This is why they call it a Superliner.
Riding Amtrak has a lot in common with flying, except that there's plenty more to see and less security to get through. You're haunted throughout the journey by the mournful lowing of the train's horn, which sounds like it's warning ships off rocks in the fog, but is in fact making sure the locals clear the tracks – no level crossings here, just road, rail and where the two meet. Here's what it's like:

-        Passengers turn up early (typically half an hour: we were advised to get there by 6.15 at the latest for our 6.40am train) – though I have no idea why, as getting the tickets takes five minutes and the trains themselves often leave ten minutes or so late.
-        The seats look like aeroplane seats, except it's like flying first class: they are broad and comfy, there's acres of leg room, little seatback trays, and on the overnight/early trains pillows are even provided.
-        There's no wifi (as on flights, except domestic ones, where they will sting you several dollars for internet access)
-        You can check your bags in the hold/luggage compartment (though there is a two-bag carry-on limit per person, and a weight limit of 50 pounds per bag).

Now here are some things that make it better than flying: 

The dining car 
Serving hot and cold lunches at reasonable prices (for some reason there's no tax on the food on trains – or rather, it's included in the price, which is a refreshing change)

The observation deck (left)
Not to mention the endlessly changing views of wherever you're travelling through. However, as we spent much of the nine-hour journey passing through Mississippi this was somewhat depressing, as what wasn't swamp or cotton field was a catalogue of rural poverty – the only inhabited buildings this run down I've seen before were a couple of hours outside Moscow, in a desolate part of the Russian countryside.

It's a double-decker train!
A double-decker! That will never cease to be cool. I want one. Although to be fair I haven't seen a double-decker bus anywhere in the US, so conceivably Americans get just as unreasonably excited when they see our exotic public transport in London.

There's room on board. By which I mean that on our journey at least, almost everyone who wanted it got two seats to themselves. And there's room to curl up and properly sleep on two seats. Amazing after overcrowded British rail trains ... The food is also ... NOT BAD!

They stop for smoke breaks. And unlike in England, there are no ridiculous rules about not smoking in the open air. In fact, the stations are not separated from the surrounding area by anything more challenging than a single metal rail or platform pavement. This is because there are only two or three doors per train, and there are conductors checking your ticket before you board (on all trains which arrive at stations without automated entry gates, anyway). Conductors also come round regularly: if you manage to slip past them at the doors you could hide in the toilets for nine hours (they're certainly roomy enough) but why bother when:

They're super cheap! 
Our 900-mile journey from Memphis to New Orleans was $52 (about £36) each. You'd be lucky to get to Manchester for that in the UK. The size and scale of America has one incredibly valuable bonus, as far as I'm concerned: all the public transport we've used so far – the T in Boston, the Memphis public bus, Amtrak, the Megabus coach, has been comfortable, convenient and, mile for mile, extremely good value for money. $17/£12 Nashville to Memphis (5 hrs) ain't bad – and that was booked the day before. The other great thing about US trains is that the price is the price: fares climbing to impossible heights as your date of travel approaches is not the norm here.

They cover vast swathes of the States
So if you want a scenic journey and aren't in a hurry, it really is the best way to travel. However, if you live in South Dakota or Wyoming you're shit out of luck: large tracts of the Midwest are simply not served.


Annoying fellow passengers
As always, you can't choose your fellow passengers: Bex and I were sat in front of a guy who managed to be annoying in three separate ways: he was wearing cheap headphones of the variety that shares your personal taste in music with the five or six seats around you (West Coast rap in case you were wondering); he had some sort of sinus problem which caused him to take deep, phlegmy, hockling sniffs every few minutes; and in his fitful sleep (as his music thunked, as the snorts got thicker) he also burst into occasional speech. “Grown-ass man!” he'd cry, out of nowhere, and then echoing softer and more sadly: “grown-ass man … you know it's wrong”.

Luckily, he was the only disadvantage of the journey (apart from the lack of wifi, which actually had the advantage of allowing me to catch up on my blog entries) and he got off at the first stop of Greenwood, Miss. (below)

It's not green, and you really don't want to go into the woods
Poor guy. I hope he doesn't live there.

Downright frightening fellow passengers

Quite frightening: The grizzled gentleman who got into conversation with his seat-opposite (fortysomething, white, Army-surplus fatigues) and casually revealed that he’d just finished a thirty-year stretch for murdering a guy who’d disrespected him.

Very frightening: Army-surplus-fatigues bloke, who looked his interlocutor in the eye and drawled “Prolly deserved it,” in a tone of grudging approval.

They then had a slightly less frightening conversation about how messed up Britney Spears was. (Verdict: VERY messed up. Plus apparently, her Mom doesn’t tip – a Federal crime over here). 

On the plus side, there's never a dull moment, and there are a lot of great views. 

Swamp, N.O., La
Brookhaven, Miss.
Obligatory clapperboard pic with wrong title ...

Click to play a video of New Orleans swamps from the train, above. (Despite delays, we got there in the end - debarking straight into the waiting arms of Hurricane Isaac. Like I said, never a dull moment ...)


  1. Took the train from Chicago to NY. Had time to kill - all 23 hours of it... SLOW! Doubt the train ever got above about 50... Also, not very scenic, not scenic at all. So I guess you have to choose your journeys with care! NY to Boston isn't bad ... you skirt the ocean for a stretch, and it comparable to plane and way faster than greyhound. Bit more pricey, though.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I have to agree with you. Amtrak is a great alternative for people, like myself, who have a fear of flying. I think it is one of the best, if not the best train in the US. You can travel the whole country with Amtrak, its wonderful!