Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Train Travel Is Better

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and subtle insinuations of mild sensuality.


 Six years ago I blogged (here, here, and here) about my family’s trip on Amtrak from the Bay Area to Chicago.  Well, we’re at it again.  I’m typing away from the observation car as the train makes its way through the mountains east of Grand Junction, Colorado.  Our destination this time is Denver.

(As far as you know I posted this after the fact and/or we’re flying straight home from there so by the time you read this it will be too late to burglarize our home.  Or maybe not … maybe this is the beginning of a long vacation, in which case you’re welcome to try to steal our sentimentally valuable but commercially useless family heirlooms, though you’ll have to deal with our psychotic gun-nut house-sitter and his meth-fueled pit bull, who never knew his father.)

Having tackled the overall train travel experience in my previous posts, today I’m going to give you the top 10 reasons why train travel is the best way to go. 

Reason #1:  Train travel is novel

Train travel is novel.  Flying has become as routine as taking a bus, more so actually, as has driving, and both activities get old pretty quickly (unless you’re driving on a cool highway like US 50).  And on the train if you get tired of your coach seat or sleeper car berth, you can mosey on up to the observation deck, or down to the lounge, and at mealtime you get to sit in the dining car (and actually, the Amtrak food is pretty darn good).  At bedtime if you’re in a sleeper you fold down one bed from above and turn the seats into another bed, which is really fun for kids (I think this gave my younger daughter goose bumps the first time).

The train stops from time to time, in places more rustic and less bland than the convenience stores along an interstate.  You can step off the train for a little fresh air.

Reason #2:  Flashers

Also, if you take the California Zephyr route you’ll cruise along the Truckee and Colorado rivers, where there are lots of rafters, and your chances of being mooned or flashed are very high.  It’s a long-standing tradition, apparently, for young men to moon the train, or young women to pull up their shirts or bikini tops for the benefit of Amtrak sightseers.  When my brother took his kids on this train back in ’05 they were flashed by rafters, as was my wife in ’06 (while my head was, alas, turned the wrong way).  And while I was sitting here peering into my laptop just now, a rafter flashed the passengers to my right.  I’m so bummed to have missed that.  Serves me right for writing this instead of just gazing out the window and watching life go by.  I hope you’re happy.

Reason #3:  Better for the planet

Wikipedia reckons that “a train seems to be on average 20 times more efficient than automobile for transportation of passengers, if we consider energy spent per passenger-km.”  They base this on an assumption of the car getting 39 mpg, which is far better than most cars get, especially with a bunch of luggage and/or bikes fastened to the roof rack.  In contrast, Wikipedia estimates that a passenger train gets 468 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel.

I’m not sure how Wikipedia gets their “20 times more efficient” figure because they don’t show their work.  My Volvo gets about 28 mpg on the highway, so with 4 passengers that’s 28*4 = 112 passenger-miles per gallon, which—compared to the train’s 468 passenger-miles/gallon—makes the train look only 4.2 times as efficient as a fully-loaded automobile.  I’m not going to ponder this disparity at length, because I’m more interested in comparing a train to a plane.

Wikipedia estimates that an Airbus 380 (the dumpy plane most of us tend to fly) gets 78 passenger-miles per gallon.  That means the train is 6 times more efficient (per passenger) than the plane. On top of that, the plane is polluting up in the atmosphere where the emissions do the most damage.  The so-called “climatic forcing” effect of jet aircraft means that although “per passenger a typical economy-class New York to Los Angeles round trip produces about 715 kg (1,574 lb) of CO2,” this is “equivalent to 1,917 kg (4,230 lb) of CO2.”  That is, the fact of the aircraft emissions being high in the atmosphere increases the environmental damage by a factor of 2.7.  So the train is actually about 16 times less bad for the environment than a plane.  In other words, for the environmental cost of one family vacation involving air travel, we could take 16 train trips of equal length.

If these numbers start to make your head swim or your eyes glaze over, here’s a more interesting way to express the efficiency of trains:  in 2007 a man dragged a 7-coach train weighing almost 300 tons along its track for more than 9 feet, using his teeth.  This is possible because the steel-on-steel interface between the train wheels and the track incurs so little friction.  (You think that guy could lift even a small single-engine aircraft off the ground with his teeth?)

A final environmental consideration:  the benefit of your choice doesn’t end with your train trip.  Amtrak pays freight train companies for the use of their tracks, so by supporting Amtrak you’re also supporting the railroad freight industry, which is far greener than long haul trucking.

Reason #4:  Can be cheaper

If you can tolerate coach class—where the seats are way bigger than an airplane’s, by the way, with far more legroom—Amtrak can be very inexpensive.  I’m sharing a table in this observation car with an lady who is traveling from Winnemucca, NV to some town just outside Chicago for under $280, round-trip.  The gal across the aisle is going from the Bay Area to Denver and the total tab, one-way, is $222 … which covers herself and her two kids.  (Full disclosure:  this was her original cost, but a couple days before her trip, Amtrak ran a special on the sleeper car so she upgraded for “not much money.”)

The sleeper car is generally a lot more expensive than coach, but I sprung for the sleeper car because this is our big vacation for the year.  It was worth paying extra just to be able to tell my kids, “We’re livin’ large as possible, posse unstoppable, style topical, vividly optical.”  I can’t make this boast with air travel because first class there is way too much money to even consider, and the seats are still smaller than even the coach seats on Amtrak.  (Each seat in the sleeper cabin is wide enough for two.)

Reason #5:  None of the airline bullshit!

I hate flying.  Going through the security check, and having to take off my shoes (even though the one guy who tried to smuggle explosives in his shoe got caught), and having to drink up or forfeit my water, and let some guy pat me down so closely I expect him to ask for my phone number afterward, and then having to take my bag over to some table where somebody runs a little cloth swab all over it to check for explosives—as if!—and then, once I’m finally on the plane, being deprived of legroom, food, even peanuts, and invariably being seated right above the wing with the jet engine shrieking in my ear, and having the baggage policy get ever stingier practically every time I fly, and being asked to pay—get this—$150 each way to bring my 17-pound bicycle on the plane … it’s all just such bullshit I can’t even describe it without the “-shit” part.  I tried to use “BS” but it just wasn’t enough.

On Amtrak, there is no security check.  None.  I mean, what are you going to do, hijack the train and make them take you to the Flagstaff, AZ station instead of Denver?  The Amtrak process is so simple:  you make your reservation, print out your single sheet of paper which serves as the boarding pass for your whole family, show up at the station 45 minutes in advance (no check-in required), and bring practically as many bags as you want, for free, and take them right to the train where you’ll have access to them the whole trip and never have to wait for them to come off the carousel.

And you know what?  If you’re not that organized, and you get a late start riding bikes to the station with your teenage daughter, and if Google Maps totally screws you by leading you not to the station but to a barren place across the tracks and more importantly across a giant fence from the station, so you have to spend an extra ten minutes racing around on surface streets, you can literally roll up with your bike less than 15 minutes before the train leaves.  At least, my daughter and I did, and incurred only a very mild, brief tongue-lashing at the ticket counter, where I paid $10 each to take our bikes on the train.  And the bikes, un-boxed (because Amtrak had run out of boxes), didn’t have to go through some system of conveyor belts like at an airport, which present some danger to the bikes, which danger the airlines—being dicks about this, like everything—accept no liability for.  I put the bikes on a luggage cart, and the conductor said they’d just be leaned on a wall and lashed down.  Simple.

Reason #6:  Less stressful than driving

Driving is a leading cause of accidental death.  Even if you’re the best driver ever, you’re sharing the road with drunks, and irresponsible young men who think driving fast is a game, and drivers who just plain suck.  And you have no control over the weather, which can turn your road trip into a nightmare.

With a train, you’re responsible for  getting yourself to the station and that’s about it.  Then you can read, sleep, look out the window, play a board game, blog, or take advantage of the seventh reason why trains are better.

Reason #7:  Friendly fellow passengers

It is technically possible to have a good conversation on an airplane with a fellow passenger, but highly unlikely.  First of all, your only opportunity is with the person in the next seat, vs. wandering around a train with the opportunity to chat up anybody who seems friendly.  Second, most air travelers are too angry, too tense, and/or (if they’re on business) too preoccupied to want to chat.  In my experience, everybody in the Amtrak observation car is there to soak up the view and relax.  I’ve conversed with several friendly passengers today.

Conversely, if you don’t feel like chatting, you don’t have to be rude to the person in the (assigned airline) seat next to you who keeps asking what you’re reading instead of letting you read.  On a train, you can just return to your seat, or into your sleeper car where you can close the curtain and/or door.

Now, if you’re sharing an automobile with your favorite people, of course you can chat with them, but only to a point.  If you’re the one driving, you shouldn’t get too caught up in the conversation or you’ll become that “distracted driver” that is such a menace to society.  (Once, at the end of a 6-hour drive, I missed the exit to my mom’s town because I was so caught up in reciting the poem “Kill My Landlord.”)  If you’re not driving, you need to take care to not distract the driver too much.  And you can’t have a good conversation with your kids because they’re too busy fighting in the backseat, and dispensing toilet paper out the window to make comets, and fussing, and squirming, and asking, “Are we there yet?”  On the train you can split them up, banish them to their sleeping room, or tell them to go pester the conductor about the ETA.

Reason #8:  Better scenery

The view from the tiny plastic airplane window is okay during takeoff and landing, but once you’re at cruising altitude you’re usually too far up to see much.  Occasionally the pilot will get on the PA and say, “Those of you on the right side of the aircraft can see the Grand Canyon down there … looks a little like a cracked lip.”  Often there’s cloud cover below the plane so you can’t see anything at all.

The view from an automobile is better, but you still don’t see as much.  Train tracks sometimes go through places that don’t have roads.  I’ve been looking out at the Colorado River and the gorge it winds through, and it’s pretty impressive.  The tracks go through less developed areas so the landscape is often especially impressive.

Right now the train is threading its way between Routt National Forest and Arapaho National Forest, near the towns of Kremmling, Heeny, and Sheephorn.  Have you heard of these places?  Of course not, and that’s the point.  (“I used to live in Kremmling,” a friendly fellow passenger just piped up, having perhaps read that over my shoulder.  “One saloon and one cabin.”)

Even familiar scenery can be completely changed by the unique vantage point of the train.  I’ve seen the Carquinez Bridge hundreds of times, but never from below, as I did yesterday.

There are even volunteer docents on some stretches, who will give you history about an area (such as the gold country or the gorge we’re going through now).  They don’t just drone on either; they’re pretty funny.  “Look at that white thing way up on the bank there—that’s a Suburban,” one just said.  “That’s a teenager’s driving lesson.”

You also get to see cooler animals via the train.  On this trip my family has seen antelope; prairie dogs; some strange animal we’re calling a desert badger; a jackrabbit; mule deer; and even a T-Rex scarfing baby Ewoks like they were croutons.  (I made that last bit up to see if you’re still awake.)  Some animals seem curious about the train whereas no living creature has any interest in cars (except certain humans).

On top of all this, you’re not going that fast on the train, so you get a better look at everything.  (And you still get where you’re going sooner than a car because the train doesn’t stop for the night.)

Reason #9:  Don’t have to look at people

There comes a time during a conventional voyage when you get so bored, you may be unable to resist looking at other people.  How often have you been on a 6-hour flight and you get so stir-crazy you decide to head over to the lavatory, even though you know there’ll be a line, and you stand there looking out over all the other bored, irritated people, packed in like cattle, and you just hate them all?  Or you’re so bored during a drive that you start to look at every driver you pass, and in every single case they’re looking back at you, and you’re both thinking, “What are you lookin’ it?!” and it’s just kind of creepy?

I guess if the answer to those (albeit rhetorical) questions is “No,” then you’re a better person than I am, and you can have your boring interstate highways and jam-packed airplanes.  For me, boredom just isn’t a problem on a train, and there’s so much to look at, and everybody looks better to me because, like them, I’m so much more cheerful.

Reason #10:  No deep vein thrombosis or perforated eardrums

Okay, I’ll concede that deep vein thrombosis isn’t exactly an epidemic.  It’s the rare person who, due to being too cramped and still for too long, suffers a blood clot that moves through his/her system and causes a pulmonary embolism.  But it can happen.  What if you got one and died on a plane or in your car?  Wouldn’t that be a rotten way to go?  (“He died as he lived … stuck in coach” or “He didn’t die alone … his car veered over several lanes and took out a school bus.”)

Meanwhile, train travel is easier on your ears.  The pressure changes on a train are very gradual.  As you cross the Continental Divide, you might notice the foil on a single-serving coffee creamer start to bulge, but you won’t feel much in your ears.  This train is at over 7,000 feet elevation right now and I’ve barely felt a thing.  Airplanes are different.  Cabin pressure is at cruising altitude is equivalent to 5,000 feet of elevation, and can decrease to zero in a matter of minutes when you land.  Once, I had a minor cold resulting in a clogged Eustachian tube, so when the plane descended I suffered a perforated eardrum.  This was absolutely excruciating and turned my ear into a geyser of blood and pus for several days, and required several follow-up visits with a doctor.

Bonus Reason:  Hand-to-hand combat

If you try to give somebody a real beat-down in the aisle of a passenger jet, you’ll probably get arrested when you land.  And an automobile is just too confined a space for a good fistfight—your elbows keep hitting things.  The sleeping cabin of a train, however, is private and spacious.  I could hear my daughters going at it from across the aisle.  They don’t pack a good punch, those girls, so neither was injured, but I think they had a good, satisfying tussle.

This was confirmed when I interviewed my daughters for this post.  Among the reasons my older daughter gave for preferring train travel was “Can finally fight it out with your sister once and for all.”  She even admitted that she was fantasizing a bit about being James Bond, who never boarded a train without having one final battle with this or that nemesis.  (And for the record, upon reading over my shoulder just now, she has assured me that she was pulling her punches and actually could have done serious damage.  Maybe on the way home?)

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  1. Nice post! I especially like how your pictures of the train trip supplement those taken by my son Anthony Albert, which were in a NYT feature. Seems like we Alberts like our Amtrak rides into the Sierra!

  2. Hi Peter, glad you liked the post! I just checked out your son's photos in the NYT article and they're really great. I like the coincidence of our names, and the added coincidence of our photos being posted only four months apart. Thanks for commenting!