Trains offer same companions as planes but with more legroom

August 10, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |

I've sworn off air service as a means of domestic transportation. It's nothing personal, but they have engaged in a business decision to make air travel uncivilized, and I have engaged in a business decision not to reward such behavior.

Since making that decision, I had not had the occasion to travel more than 500 miles, which I consider to be the upper limit of what is comfortably achieved by automobile. But when affairs took me to Chicago for a few days, it seemed as good a time as any to give rail travel a try.

I called Amtrak for a seat on the Capitol Limited Thursday out of Martinsburg, W.Va. They said the train was booked.

Booked? "Oh, I must have the wrong number," I said. "I'm trying to reach Amtrak, the train that government is always trying to cut because no one rides it."

Well, apparently trains are riderless no longer (largely because of the aforementioned indignities of flight), and next to elected office holders, I was the last to know.

Round trip was $170 cheaper than air, but it involved an overnight, 14-hour ride. For basic traveling comfort, there is no comparison. Seats are what I like to call (for no particular reason) "Hagerstown wide," there is plenty of legroom, and the food is light years ahead of anything ever served at 30,000 feet.

If I were doing it again, I would have reserved a sleeper, but then again, dozing in your seat or in the lounge exposes one to individuals whom, for better or worse, a private cabin might cause you to miss.

I was fascinated with a young woman whose thoughtfully etched tattoos and hair the color and consistency of shredded tobacco suggested she was a member of today's "in" crowd.

The natural pallor of her skin indicated rare exposure to sunlight, a trait greatly accentuated by the glow of her laptop, which sent her skintone needle way past pale into "Night of the Living Dead" territory. In fact, she herself looked as if she had been plugged in, and every time the screen brightened her face resembled one of those old, just-popped magnesium flashbulbs.

She said nothing, which was the opposite of the woman sitting behind her, who left no encyclopedia entry unexplored. She volunteered that she had "control issues," which her psychologist said led to her fear of heights and deep water.

She had no issue with applying makeup in public, apparently, and commenced to lather it on like a mason dressing a brick with an especially generous layer of mortar.

But of course the most tedious fellow was reserved for the seat next to mine. I saw him on the platform in Pittsburgh arguing with the conductor and instantly had felt the Chill of Knowledge go up my spine that told me he would be sitting next to me.

Al (his name was Al) was a bit like an aging Jackie Gleason with a "Deerhunter" accent, who took in life as a woodchipper takes in saplings and spit it out in chips and chunks of anger and disgust — "What am I on here, a rocking horse? Back and forth, back and forth, I'm not going to be able to take this all the way to Reno .... Where do you have to go around here to get a snort?"

He boasted that "I've been everywhere," it later coming to light that everywhere pretty much consisted of Florida and New York City. His formal education had ended with the eighth grade, but he had saved money in a Christmas club for the better part of six decades, which was now his traveling money.

"These people they get to retirement age and they want to travel, but they don't know how to do it."

I guess. The nice thing about train travel is that by this time I had moved on to the observation car.

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