Saturday, December 05, 2009

On the train

Though I will be posting this from somewhere else, I am writing it on the train. While it has many unexpected comforts and conveniences (like 120V outlets at every seat), it is not only thoroughly free of WiFi, it even manages to avoid having good cell phone coverage, and not just in the wilds of Vermont but even here in Massachusetts. (Not that my netbook can use cell signals, but even my phone has been uncharacteristically offline.)

Though the seats and legroom are comparable to an airplane, and the ride is a lot rougher, the train still contrives to feel far more comfortable. Is it the quality of the air? The thin and artificial air of a jumbo jet is sometimes cited as the non-obvious cause for that curious sense of exhaustion and grouchiness that accompanies air travel. Is it the scenery? Probably not, because a distressingly large amount of the scenery is litter-strewn back ends of people's yards, and anyway. no one can deny the majesty of the view from an airplane. It's probably not the periodic stops since I haven't gotten off the train anyway.

Maybe a large part is just that there's plenty of room for everyone to have their own row, and I hope this continues to be true all the way to D.C. (Even so, I did have to change seats once because the person in front of me is a smoker and no amount of discreetly-applied spray could purge the stink. This unfortunately leaves me in a row between windows. If we change seats when the train changes direction in Springfield, maybe I'll remedy that.) People also seem more chatty on the train than on a plane, so I've had to wear headphones and listen to music more than I intended by this point (in turn forcing me to recharge my phone already -- I had a spare fully charged battery, but since they gave me that 120V, I'm using it instead). Nevertheless, I have my own space to spread out my netbook, phone, soda, M&Ms, Kindle, fanny-pack, and other jetsam, without feeling crowded, and that makes a big difference.

We brought way too much food, or so it seems four hours into the thirteen. I've been snacking on hard-boiled eggs, a clementine, and a candy bar, and lunched on a bologna sandwich. (Yes, I chose bologna. Don't judge me. Bologna may be bland, but you never get a bit of gristle, it's never undercooked, and it weathers travel very well. You can count on bologna. And with a nice mustard, its blandness serves well as a substrate for the mustard's tang.) Dinner will be cold sausage pie (actually a quiche, but the family recipe calls it sausage pie). I've no doubt we'll end up in the hotel well-provisioned with leftover snacks, which is fine, it won't go to waste (though we'll still need a supermarket trip tomorrow, for beverages if nothing else).

The railroad staff are supremely friendly without being pushy.

About the only problem, apart from the lack of WiFi, is that the snack car only serves the expected mix of overpriced, poor quality stuff. Hauling your own food is a limitation but one we can overcome, but hauling enough beverage is untenable, so I'm forced to pay $2 per 12-oz can of Diet Pepsi, which isn't even cold, they just give me a cup of ice with it. As I go through about a can every 2-3 hours, that would add up, so I'm switching to tap water, though that's kind of nasty and also isn't very cold. It would be nice if I could just get the ice; it would make the tap water far more palatable (and I could even bring some of my own soda). But they probably wouldn't hand that out without a purchase.

Of course, this trip is thirteen hours, and that's the big cost of train travel relative to airfare. It's not as big a cost as one might think, though, particularly on this trip. The train station is not even a half-hour from home, and at the other end, a half-hour or less from the hotel; there are no layovers and no time spent going through security checkpoints or staring at a belt in baggage claim. The airport is more than an hour away at either end, and takes at least a half hour and usually more to get through, so there's about two more hours of overhead on the trip already, and it's even more when there are layovers. In the end, traveling by air would have taken enough of a day that it effectively would take all day, just as the train does. I'm just trading a few hours of relaxing in the hotel to recover from the flight and the airport, for a few extra hours on the train, failing to build up as much need to relax in the first place.

Admittedly this balance won't be the same for many trips. You might live nearer an airport, and at your destination, the airport might be as near to your hotel as the train station, or nearer. Your flight might be direct, or the train route might have layovers. Some train travel might have checked luggage and baggage check instead of letting you haul your own bag into the overhead. Some train stations might even have long lines or security checkpoints, I suppose (ours barely has seats). The point is, it's easy to be misled by the "flight time" compared to the actual travel time door-to-door; and even when there's a difference, if it's not enough to get you there in time to do something once you get there other than crash in the hotel, it might not matter. So train travel might be worth more of a look than first glance would suggest.

Addendum: We're now in Penn Station, and still no WiFi. The train is nearly empty but due to some flights being cancelled we're expecting to get a full train, so we're compressing down to a single row. Better to be compressed on our own terms in our own time than after the flood comes in. Even with this, it's still more roomy than an airplane, and more comfortable, though not hugely so. I wonder how many of these people will be with us all the way to DC. Maybe most of them are bound for Baltimore or Philadelphia and we'll have an empty train again this evening.

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