Review #15 – Amtrak

For many years, my go-to travel method when visiting family for the holidays was the Peter Pan bus. I was never really a fan, but it was affordable. Since getting a day job, I have largely made the switch over to Amtrak. Which has been a general quality of life improvement on those trips.

But don’t let that fool you, because while that statement is definitive, it’s also relative as heck.

One of the worst mornings of my life for reasons not relevant to this review took place in Tokyo early last year. The bad part of it ended with me on the Nozomi Shinkansen, the fastest bullet train in Japan and thus anywhere. Looking out the window, even in my horrendously bad state, was a thrilling experience. Watching Japan zoom by like that was amazing, and the ride was as smooth as Alien Ant Farm’s criminals. Truly a travel experience unlike any I had had before. To then come back to America and jump on an Amtrak train was more than a little disheartening.

Here, I think of trains as The Least Bad Option rather than the actual Best. Cars don’t give you any freedom of movement but give you unlimited freedom to just pull over and stop being in them at any point. Buses typically have a little more space and you don’t have to drive them, but you’re limited by schedules. The smoothness of both rides is outside of their control, entirely at the whims of American infrastructure and other drivers. Are the roads alright? Is there hella traffic? Probably not and almost certainly yes, respectively; during holiday weekends, even moreso. Traveling in or out of New York City, inevitably. The seemingly endless stop and start of those wheeled vehicles is exhausting. And I hate it. Throw in their cramped nature, and it’s something I avoid whenever possible. Though, sometimes I really just can’t afford the nicer option.

This past weekend being Thanksgiving, I traveled. One way, I took Amtrak from the hellhole that is New York Penn Station, seen here at something resembling capacity. It was a pretty easy trip, all things considered, and I got to sit in my favorite spot – more on that in a bit.

The other way, I took a bus, having waited a little bit too long to buy the tickets.  That… wasn’t great. A supposedly three and a half hour trip was a full hour longer; and I hated it.

My real problem with wheeled vehicles is the bouncing. It’s something that you rarely do on a train, because if somehow you started bouncing, it would likely mean the train had left the track and you would die and the last thing you would be talking about was the fact that you felt a little up and down. Even when they’re a little rougher, as Amtrak trains are vs. those in European or Asian countries, the result is mostly swaying. Side to side is fine – certainly, Ariana Grande seems to have no problem with it. Up and down is less so.

Plus, train cars are a bit more open, especially in my preferred spot: the café car. I’m always a little surprised that more people don’t go for that – only three of the few dozen times I’ve taken Amtrak have I not been able to get a seat. There’s more room, since you can typically sit just one person per side of the booth, and the shorter seat backs and typical lack of overhead storage leave a lot more empty space. I can get up and walk without bumping into people. Without adjustable seats, I can write this review without worrying about some guy in front of me jacking the seat back and warping my laptop screen. I have written many reviews in the café car of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional. (I tried rewriting on the bus… but that didn’t work out super.)

The regional slower and therefore cheaper than the fancier Acela. But really, the Acela seems to be faster mostly as a consequence of taking fewer stops and not because the train itself is better. The regional is a little rougher, but neither that nor the better seats and slightly shorter trips really justify the added expense for someone who isn’t particularly wealthy and only takes the train every few months – i.e. me. If it was a frequent occurrence that I could expense to a business, I get it. But for a middle-class schmuck like myself, the regional is generally fine.

Timeliness in general is something of a concern. I have found that Amtrak trains are typically ten-to-fifteen minutes late over the course of a three-hour-thirty-ish trip. Sometimes, they’re entirely on time. Others… not so much. Once, we sat motionless for a full hour because some rando was on the tracks and refused to leave. I was in the café car watching Gravity Falls; so it was fine, except it meant I got home at 1 AM, which wasn’t my favorite. That one also wasn’t their fault. The other ones, well, they definitely were.

But I get less frustrated by long train rides than I do long bus rides or car rides. The fact that I could get up and walk a bit helps. Certainly there’s a lot more length to a train; even just a trip to the bathroom at the other end of a car is more than you could ever really do on a bus. And have you ever been in a bus bathroom? Or tried to use one in New York City traffic? Good golly.

But it can’t be divorced from the reality of Amtrak. It’s the best of bad options, but that doesn’t even make it “good,” let alone great. The prices are high, especially when compared to other countries that do it better, and the trains are… fine. But no one writes home about their experience on Amtrak, because it’s never anything special. I’m fortunate to live in an area that is serviced and reasonably well by it; in most parts of the country, that isn’t the case. The US just doesn’t put the money behind the rail system that it would need to to make it a truly competitive and compelling experience.

Which is sad, because trains are awesome.

Just not these trains.

Six-Point-Six out of Ten

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