Whether you’re riding on the City of New Orleans, taking the “A” train, letting the Midnight Special shine a light on you or dreaming of dinner in the diner aboard the Chattanooga Choo Choo, train travel holds a special spot in America’s heart – one filled with possibilities and adventure, hearkening back to a simpler, less hurried time.
Today’s Amtrak passenger trains are greener, safer and healthier than those of the past and the journey remains remarkably enjoyable as the rail service’s 300 daily routes send tons of massive, rolling, clickety-clacking cars down ribbons of steel into 46 states with more than 500 destinations.
When examining my options to get to Michigan for a family reunion in the summer, Amtrak came to mind. I quickly found that I could get there from Oklahoma. The 1,400-plus miles took 32 hours and would have been a much shorter trip had I flown. But what I gave up in speed, I more than made up for in comfort, reduced stress, scenery and good old-fashioned fun.
The Heartland Flyer, with a terminus in Oklahoma City and a stop in Norman, gets you to Fort Worth, Texas, where you catch the Texas Eagle to Chicago. From there, you hop the Pere Marquette to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
One of the frequently asked questions on Amtrak’s website is, “How early do I need to arrive at the train station?” The answer is you should be on the platform before your train leaves. Really. That’s it. It’s good to buy tickets ahead of time but no advance check-in is required at the station. There are no security checks and nobody asks any questions. You simply climb aboard and, once seated, show the conductor your ticket.
The exception is if you book a sleeper, as I did on the Texas Eagle. Your ticket lists which sleeper car you’re in and which compartment. You show your ticket to the conductor as you board. The security is there, but it’s unobtrusive, although I did see drug/explosives-smelling dogs patrolling Chicago’s Union Station.
There’s no better way to see Union Station, an iconic 1920s monument to transportation, than to pass through it and see the staircase where the baby carriage scene was filmed for The Untouchables, the platforms used in numerous movies, including Public Enemies, and the beaux arts Great Hall. A roomy Amtrak lounge offers snacks and beverages for the exclusive use of departing passengers.
America has some extraordinary train terminals – several Penn stations, Grand Central, Seattle’s King Street Station and dozens of Union stations, so named because they’re where many divergent rail lines come together in the downtowns of major cities.
The legacy of train travel in America is multi-faceted, including a high level of personal attention on board. Stewards for sleeping compartments and dining cars take a cue from the past with their attentive service. And the food is excellent. Evening steaks are cooked just right and the mussels for lunch are tender and tasty.
Diesel engines provide a smooth, quiet ride punctuated only by the train’s plaintive whistle. The never-ending panorama passing outside your window is a show unto itself – big-city downtowns, fields of crops, small-town Americana, rushing streams and placid lakes. You view scenery that you can see no other way.
A word of caution: If you’re in a hurry, bypass the train. Competing rail freight traffic sometimes produces delays and schedules may change. Bring books, playing cards, board games, electronic readers and downloaded TV shows and movies. Most of all, relax, smile and enjoy rolling with the flow.