Trains vs. Planes

When we travel long distance across the country, time is often in short supply. Driving by car is usually out of the question and traveling by Greyhound or Indian Trails, unless you’re a masochist, doesn’t offer much of an alternative. That leaves the choice between trains and planes, Amtrak versus Delta or United.

Over the past twenty years, attending various trade shows around the country for business purposes, I’ve been inclined to fly. Not because I enjoy it, but because of time constraints. There’s nothing enjoyable about having to remove your shoes, enduring the pat down, emptying your pockets, and walking through the security scanner. I realize, of course, that these precautions are necessary for passenger safety, but they are still a gigantic pain in the ass. Not to mention the need to arrive at the airport terminal two hours before your flight. We are like cattle being hustled off to the stockyards. By the time we board the plane and stuff our carry-ons in the overhead bins, we’re overheated and exhausted. So after take-off, what’s the first thing the flight attendants do to make our lives more pleasant? They offer us a bag of stale peanuts or pretzels. Really? This is supposed to put us in a better mood? Pass the Valium , please.

Then, years later, when I was no longer riding the retail merry-go-round, I was free to set my own schedule. On a recent trip out east, my wife and I decided to travel by Amtrak. We drove to Grand Rapids and boarded a train to Chicago. Since the train station was situated near the heart of downtown, and having a few hours to spare before our next departure, we strolled down State Street for lunch at a local deli, then headed over to the Chicago Art Institute to spend the afternoon. (The Cubs were in the playoffs that day, but no tickets and not enough time.)

By early evening, our train pulled out of Union Station on its way to Washington,D.C. We were free to choose our seats, which were as roomy as first class on the airline. There had been no pat downs, no shake-downs, no scanners. We simply showed our tickets and boarded the train. After a couple hours of reading, we meandered up to the lounge car and had a sandwich and a beer. It was refreshing to simply walk about the train cars and talk with a few fellow travelers. When we returned to our seats, the car lights had been dimmed so passengers could close their eyes and dose.

The trip to D.C. was smooth, interrupted only by an occasional train whistle as we passed through small towns in the night. After a few days there, we climbed aboard Amtrak’s Acela¬† Express for New York, then headed back to Chicago. Although the route on our final leg had been rather bumpy, we found the overall 10-day train trip to be relaxing and memorable.

Certainly, before long, the time will come when security at Amtrak stations will have to be beefed up for passenger safety. And the calm, leisurely pace of train travel will have changed forever. I’m in no hurry for that day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. In his heyday, the well known Oakland Raiders football coach and colorful NFL broadcaster John Madden was renowned for his unusual travel arrangements between games. He much preferred train travel to jumbo airliners, even if it required an extra two days to cross the country on his way to the next NFL city. He simply adjusted his schedule. And I can see his point. Overall, trains seem far safer than planes. On a train, if an engine fails, we simply coast to a stop rather than dive in a free-fall from five miles up. On a train, take-offs and landings are a non-issue; we don’t have to worry about slippery snow-covered runways, de-icing of the plane, or landing gear that won’t descend. Sure, there are occasional train wrecks, but rarely anything catastrophic.

Maybe it would be a good thing to model John Madden in our travel preferences: slow down our hectic lives and let the world adjust to us. We might even discover a good book to read.