Amtrak

Photo: Halfway home

welcomes-you-to-philly

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Homeward bound: Norfolk to Baltimore

There is only one northbound train departing Norfolk each day, and if it wasn’t departing at 6:10am, I would’ve been glad to take it. Instead, I continued my adventure by commuting by bus to their next station tucked out of the way somewhere in a residential area in the western part of Newport News.

The good news is: their 7:35am Thruway-Bus came reasonably on time and got us to the station well ahead of schedule. The bad news is: said station is a tiny, non-descript concrete building with only: a ticket window with adjacent Quik-Trak machines, 20 chairs, one television and a pair of restrooms. There was no restaurant or gift shop, but they did have a pair of vending machines (not that I could get even remotely close to them with all the people\luggage crammed into that one room, but they were there).

I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the kind of station they were building at Norfolk. God, I hope not.

Train 94 started boarding at 9:14am and within 10 minutes we were on our way to Williamsburg (which has a nice looking station from the outside, but the old guy on the platform with the Camcorder kinda creeped me out). From there, we continued our journey north and west with every sway, stop and jerky start feeling like a fresh punch in my still ailing stomach.

After a series of starts, stops, slow-downs and delays, train 94 finally pulls into Richmond around 10:45am. It was a shift change stop so I took the opportunity while we were stopped to go into the restroom and at least TRY to get rid of whatever shrapnel was ripping my insides apart. I hung my head over the sink, focusing on a spot near the drain and just as I almost felt something come up…

BAM, BAM, BAM!

The shock of this causes me to not only lose my concentration, but to nearly hit my head on the overhang. It also made me realize this wasn’t going to happen this time either, so I unlocked the door and to my surprise found no-one waiting on the other side. I made it back to my seat just as the train started moving again.

I will say this: Northern Virginia is actually very pretty… once you get past the ugly warehouse\industrial landscape of modern Richmond. Unfortunately, it soon lends itself to the highways, warehouses, strip malls and sub-divisions of the encroaching DC suburbs.

We pull into Quantico station at 12:55pm. Truthfully, I’d been trying to sleep for the past two hours, but between my stomach flu, motion sickness and a very unhappy two-year-old sitting two rows behind who started wailing every time the train stopped or jerked forward (which was every 5-10 minutes). Seeing this as another losing proposition, I made my way over to the dining car for a microwaved Panini, bottled water and a bag of chips. I figured they wouldn’t help me feel any better, but starving myself until I got to Baltimore seemed like an even worse idea.

We pulled into DC’s Union Station at 2:18pm after getting a very good of the Capitol in passing. It was a twenty minute stop, but, more importantly, I knew it was only 90 minute commute back to Baltimore. My Amtrak journey was coming to an end, pity I was too sick to enjoy it.

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Southward ho: Baltimore to Norfolk

Last year, I took Amtrak’s Northeast Regional to its northern terminus in Boston so this year I figured it might be fun to try and take it to its southern terminus – Norfolk, Va. The problem with this proposition is the city has ONE inbound (9pm) and ONE outbound train per day (6:10am), but no adventure is without its compromises.

I arrived at Baltimore’s Penn Station at 1:30pm, a full hour before my train was scheduled to depart.

Unfortunately, by this time it was already “delayed” and every time I checked the monitor above the Information desk, the departure time got pushed farther and farther back. However, the train itself arrived only 10 minutes behind schedule…just for it to sit in the semi-shaded station for another ten minutes due to the “excessive heat warning” from their bosses in NY (there was a heat index for 101 degrees forecast for today, and it easily felt like twice that for the ten minutes I was out in it).

The same thing happened when we reached DC an hour later. Except, this time it was a full half hour we were waiting in the underground station before slowly making our way south.

We got an excellent, if fleeting, view of the Chesapeake Bay as we departed Quantico Station and equally fleeting views of farms and fields through the rough overgrowth as we crawled towards the idyllic postcard town of Fredericksburg, Va that eventually gave away to the bland industrial landscape of exurban Richmond.

The truth was, I was hoping we’d be past Richmond (the unofficial “halfway point” of the trip) by 6pm. However, the various “heat delays” slower traveling speed made that virtually impossible as we pulled in to the city’s northern suburban station around 6:39pm.

We limp our way south through the dense forestlands of Central Virginia as I made my way to the café car which was already out of nearly everything “except sodas, chips, candies and beer.” Fortunately, I was just there for a snack.

The sun starts to set and train finally starts to pick up some speed just to slow down for its next station in Petersburg. From then on, the train lumbers along before coming to a full-fledged stop somewhere outside of Waverly before barreling our way through a variety of towns that were too dark to see outside my train window.

It was at this point that the crew came over the PA to announce the obvious: “we will not be arriving at Norfolk on schedule. However, we will be arriving around 9:15pm.”

Fortunately, the actual arrival time was 9:13pm and there were still numerous friends, family members and assorted taxi drivers waiting at the bottom of the ramp leading to the otherwise ordinary train platform.

Now, all I needed was to find my hotel and get some rest so I could be ready for the first day of my vacation.

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Not quite a rail convert

Last year I took my inaugural trip on Amtrak from Baltimore to Boston for a vacation. The ride was smooth, comfortable and relatively uncrowded (on the way up anyway). The problem is “medium” distance (5-8 hours) train rides are almost as boring and claustrophobic as long flights – especially if the person in front of you puts her seat back all the way.

The one thing that surprised me about Amtrak was while they had a definite security presence, there was a noticeable lack of screeners, backscanners and strip searches. I arrived a half hour before my train arrived and spent the vast majority of my time in the waiting area playing my 3DS, yet somehow I didn’t feel remotely unsafe.

This year, I made a weekend trip from Baltimore to Harrisburg with a transfer in Philadelphia. Both legs of the Northeast Regional trip were extremely crowded though the Keystone Service trains weren’t as bad. However, I did encounter a somewhat rude conductor on the Regional and had an Amtrak sales woman insult me at the Harrisburg station when I tried to ask her a question (technically, I was re-asking as the first time I asked she simply parroted my question back to me in the form of an “answer”).

If you’re reading this then you are well aware of the various indignities of modern air travel from authoritarian TSA agents, overcrowded planes that rarely leave on time (if at all) and the brusque flight attendants. Not to mention turbulence, lack of leg room and having the tray table stabbing you in the stomach when the person in front of you reclines their seat all the way back while being constantly ribbed in said stomach by the woman next to you doing her Sudoku puzzle – and that’s a good flight.

Whereas with Amtrak, I arrive 30 minutes before departure (rather than 2-3 hours), don’t have to worry about delays in Denver or Chicago (okay, that one does effect the NE corridor as both The Cardinal and Capitol Limited serve Chicago) and can spent the entire ride seated without being hassled with pushy flight attendants demanding I give them $5 for my once complimentary beverage\pretzels. I also don’t have to worry about traffic jams, crazy drivers or speeding tickets (though the recent train derailment in Canada does have me worried).

This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on flying. As big of a headache as post-9/11 travel is, it does have speed on its side for cross country routes, and the unfortunate reality that more cities have airports than train depots (for the record, Shamokin has neither but it used to have a train station).

Right now, I’m working on another “medium length” train ride (southbound this time). I chose it because it was shorter, cheaper and more convenient for me than flying, but mostly because it was cheaper. Unfortunately, the price doubled since last night…

P.S – This is my 195th post!

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A day on the rails

ONBOARD the “Northeast Regional” – Train #86 from Richmond arrived at 9:47am. It was twenty-three minutes behind schedule, but still too quick for me to get a decent arrival photo with my shitty “tourist camera” (because it’s just a cheap digital camera I bought from a gift shop at Disney’s MGM Studios).

This was my first time riding anything beyond a simple “foliage tour” so I was a tad nervous – especially because I tend to get nauseous just riding the Light Rail. If I can’t handle MTA, how was I supposed to handle REAL “High Speed Rail?”

I boarded the smaller than expected car and began my search for an open seat. Finally, after traversing three cars I find a pair of open seats – right at the bulkhead too leaving enough space to put my bags on the floor in front of me. Naturally, a full minute after I sit down, a friendly old couple appears.

“Oh, that was our seat,” she said disappointedly.

I got up, grabbed my bags and traversed another full car before finding a pair of open seats near the back of 2nd car. I asked the young women across from the seat if anyone was sitting there. They said “no” so I threw my duffle bag in the overhead compartment and took my laptop out of its bag, and hunkered down in my seat. This was going to be a long trip.

Amtrak likes to brag about having “free on-board wifi,” but they don’t tell you it that it is slow and barely works for most of the trip. I also come to the conclusion that Amtrak is the perfect way to see America… without actually seeing anything. The whole way from Baltimore to NYC was nothing but an ugly blur of crumbling factories, back of strip malls and plenty of empty parking lots.

11:16am – make way 6 cars back to snack car, I can tell which car is mine on way back since lavatory is flooded. Sandwich is just okay, but cheaper than I expected. Shortly after returning to my seat, there was an announcement that they were closing the café car in preparation for their arrival at Penn Station.

12:17pm – we arrive at NYC’s Penn Station, and the new crew FINALLY lays down newspapers on floor to clean up water. I tried to access the station’s wifi during the 15 minute layover, but it told me there was “no signal.” Interestingly enough, one of the options available to me when I booked my train was a 90 minute layover in NYC, but it was $100 more each way.

2:47pm – 5 hour mark, I am starting to regret not taking that layover in NYC. Fortunately, the scenery drastically improved once we got out of the New York metropolitan area with oceans of asphalt giving way to endless forests and the occasional postcard perfect New England town…but mostly just forest, lots and lots of forest.

4:49pm – Train #86 from Richmond, Virginia FINALLY pulls into Boston’s South Station – 7 hours and 2 minutes after I boarded it at Baltimore’s “Classic” Penn Station…and I’m going to have to repeat it on my way back.

Categories: Amtrak, Boston, transportation | 1 Comment

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