Friday, December 28, 2007

This train's on the right track

In a holiday season so rushed that I felt like I was sitting in Han Solo’s seat as we went into warp drive, a quick trip over to Charlotte and back the other day was a blessed respite from the frantic pace and constant blur of the pre-Christmas sprint.
I did it the old-fashioned way, a rediscovered a forgotten pleasure: riding the rails on Train Nos. 73 and 74.
Here’s what it’s about: It’s pleasant. It’s comfortable. And it’s on time.
I can’t remember the last time I felt that way about airline travel. When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to fly on airplanes. It sounded glamourous and luxurious.
But long before 9/11 and the long lines and intrusive inspections and metal detectors, airline travel got old, got weary and got uncomfortable. You’ve got to arrive at the terminal way too early, stand in too many lines to be ordered around by people who have a hard job, and then sit for hours in a cramped airline seat in a crowded airplane with just enough room to squeeze in and out. These things make airline travel a chore at best, though most of us who need to get somewhere far away in a hurry are grateful that you usually can get from one side of the country to the other in a day’s travel that will merely wear you out and, if you’re lucky, give you your baggage back when you arrive.
But if you’re looking for a relaxed short trip and you’ve got business in Raleigh or Greensboro or Charlotte or several other stops along the way, you can’t beat the Piedmont’s east-west trains. The Piedmont’s one of two daily round-trip train sets that Amtrak operates between the state’s two largest cities. The Piedmont is a state DOT train operated by Amtrak under contract and for my money it’s a pleasure.
I boarded No. 73 at 7 a.m. the other day at Raleigh’s nicely redone station and settled into a comfortable seat with more legroom than you’ll find in first class or business class on any airline I’ve ridden. We pulled out precisely on time 5 minutes later and pulled into Charlotte three hours and nine minutes later – precisely on time. Along the way we made short stops in Cary, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis. The evening train, of course, follows the same route in reverse every day.
My return trip on No. 74 the following evening was also on time – from the instant we left Charlotte at 5:30 p.m. to the arrival in Raleigh a minute ahead of the 8:40 p.m. schedule. Total cost round trip: $48, approximately a third of what it would have cost the company in a mileage claim.
At three hours and 10 minutes, the elapsed time is beginning to compete with auto travel; one day the service will be closer to two hours.
The new stations along the way are a sight to see, especially those in Burlington and Kannapolis and the grandly refurbished depot in Greensboro. New housing being built near the station in Greensboro and nearby restaurants make it clear that the depot is part of a vibrant downtown revival.
The passenger cars are nicely done with plenty of electrical outlets to plug in a laptop or cell phone charger. There’s complimentary coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soft drinks and assorted snacks in the dining car, and spacious restrooms in each coach.
I know this sounds like ad copy. But a long time ago I worked for the Association of American Railroads and we heard nearly every week from people who longed for the good old days of gracious train travel, when a pleasant journey was as important as the arrival. The trip between Raleigh and Charlotte would be more gracious if there were hot food service, a bar car and a few other amenities.
But everyone I dealt with at the stations and on the train was pleasant and helpful – as if they were pleased to have customers travel with them and wanted them to return. There were no hassles. The train was pretty full but there were no long lines, no waiting to have your shoes inspected, no dehumanizing procedures to endure.
I read a book, made some notes for a column, talked to some nice folks and watched North Carolina’s backyards roll by. It was, I think, the calmest, sanest few hours I spent between Thanksgiving and Christmas.


Anonymous said...

I would like to see a BULLET train going to Washington DC from RALIEGH. They have a track in Europe that goes 300 MPH on magnetics and computer. This could be a straight shot to Washington across Countryside . From Charlotte People could take the Amtrack and then board the speed train to D,C. for a real time on the city.

Anonymous said...

Jack we are looking to put a HARRAHS in Downtown Charlotte ; After the Lottery episode how possible would that be ? Would the State try to interfere because of the State Lottery? Could Donald Trump bring a Casino in his new Buildings Trump Tower? I wonder How Art Pope would deal with this?

Mary Newsom said...

Jack, and other readers interested in rail travel might want to buy or borrow "Train Time," by John Stilgoe of Harvard University. I've just taken a fall semester course at Harvard with Stilgoe (who's a popular and fascinating lecturer) and he makes a sound case for his theory that rail travel is in for a huge resurgance, based on travelers' desire for speed and comfort.

Air travel rarely delivers, and auto travel doesn't either, especially on the crowded interstates with so much truck traffic.

And the difficulty with bullet trains is a federal law, passed decades ago, that limits passenger trains to 79 mph unless the tracks have special equipment.

OK, enough shilling. Happy New Year everyone!

Anonymous said...

You're lucky the train from Raleigh to Charlotte left on time.

I've used the rail between Charlotte and Raleigh numerous times and have found the evening train leaving from Raleigh to be late, by hours, 30% of the time.

None the less, I'll continue to use the rail when timeliness is not critical.

Excepting that, the trips are an easy, inexpensive way to travel.

Lewis Guignard

Uncle Dennis said...

The return to rail cannot happen soon enough. I too, have enjoyed the leisurely ride from Charlotte to Fredericksburg MD. There is a grace to the train, but it is easy to see that things need to be upgraded to catch mass appeal.


Anonymous said...

This is where America is so far behind.

If we had bullet trains like they do overseas, people would be much more likely to use the trains.

When it's about the same time to drive it, there's not much incentive.

Mason from Atlanta said...

Far Behind.. Exactly.
This past summer, I rode a French TGV from Paris to Marseilles. It's really the most incredible way to travel.The trip took exactly 3 hours. That's roughly 500 miles (Charlotte to Philly. Also, in the middle of a continuing leg from Marseille to Toulon, the train suffered a minor mechanical problem when the to halfs of a doubled train wouldn't separate, causing a rare delay of about half an hour. The french travelers were vivid about this. Can you imagine the idea of people freaking out about a half hour flight delay here?

Mason from Atlanta

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