My wife and I recently were chaperones for a group of students on an educational trip to Washington, DC. We traveled to Washington via an Amtrak train from Fort Worth, Texas. This article expands on my impressions and observations about riding a train for 48 hours one way and then back.
Even though we were mostly riding a double-decker train, the visibility out the windows was limited by generations of tree growth on both sides of the track, and much of the trip was within an endless boring “green tunnel”. On the return trip from Washington to Chicago, we were on a single level train because the double-decker was too tall for the many tunnels we traveled thru in the mountains.
We were limited to checking in one large bag weighing less than 50# and whatever you can carry on as an individual. There was plenty of overhead storage, and the seats were adjustable to some degree with foot and leg supports. Seats remained comfortable for about 12 hours, and then the comfort level declines with lack of ability to completely stretch out. The headrest was supported by a replaceable linen cover that was freshened when changing trains. Restrooms were on the lower level, small in size, and relatively clean until the end of the trip when trash began to accumulate. Often handicap individuals and mothers with little babies would be placed on the lower level, so they did not have to go down the narrow switchback steps. The cost for this coach class on the train was $350 per person round trip from Ft. Worth to Chicago (with 4-hour layover) and on to Washington, DC with tickets being purchased about 120 days in advance. Don’t sit in cars near the engine because the train horn blows at every single train crossing and don’t sit near the connecting door to next car as it is noisy opening and closing (connecting platform is not insulated, and you hear the tracks much louder) as many people are continually going to concession, observation car, restroom, or dining car.
Within the train was an observation/lounge car with glass sides and top, nice seats and tables, a concession car with drinks, snacks, and tasty microwave food such as burgers, pizza, hot dogs, muffins, and hot pockets at a reasonable price. There was also a dining car that served tasty hot meals by reservation with seating of 4 per table usually required. That was pricier with a steak or salmon costing over $25. Several conductors ensured people were comfortable, well behaved, did not smoke, and they would deliver food to the less mobile individuals. There were also sleepers with beds and private restrooms and commercial coach cars that were more expensive. The ride itself was relatively smooth except when going thru towns or crossing intersections. There was some rocking back and forth that you became accustomed to, and I only observed one presumed motion sickness during 4 days of travel. You also get used to the “clickety-clack” that is on some tracks but not on all. Often on flat open stretches, the ride is very smooth and quiet. A conductor informed me that on open stretches, the train would travel up to 79 miles per hour, passing cars and trucks on parallel highways. At other times the pace was more like 20 miles per hour thru towns with stops lasting 15-30 minutes on side tracks to allow freight trains or other Amtrak trains to pass in the opposite direction. We lost about 45 minutes going thru Cleveland at 1 AM when the train hit a car parked on the tracks. No one was in the car, and it was speculated that someone wanted to collect insurance. Nothing was felt when the car was hit and knocked off the track. The conductor says you can feel it when a train hits an 18-wheeler!
Upon leaving Ft. Worth, I observed that the full train of about 200 people consisted of single mothers with children, grandparents with children, minorities, and a few millenniums that appeared to have no other transportation. I visited with some older people that actually prefer riding the train and make a habit of it. (One man had a 35-day pass and was going to various family stops in multiple states). Frequent stops were made including Dallas, Mineola, Marshall, Texarkana, Hope, Delphia, Popular Bluff, St. Louis, Springfield, Bloomington, and Normal before arriving in Chicago. Most stops lasted less than 10 minutes with longer smoke breaks about every 100 miles. From Washington DC back to Chicago, I noticed that we were scheduled for 24 stops on the 20+ hour trip. Thus, there were probably 80+ total stops going both ways. It would have been nice if there had been some narration explaining the history and importance of towns we traveled thru.
As we traveled thru Illinois, we noticed that the Dept of transportation had invested heavily to build new train stations at each stop and had attractive black wrought iron fences along the train tracks within city limit signs. Many of the small neat farming towns gave the appearance of pride and cleanness. The predominant type of tractor seen on this trip was John Deere. A large amount of the hay was put up in round bales, covered in white waterproof plastic. Springfield, Ill had a sign claiming to be the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. We observed a large dairy operation in Rennselaer, IN. The dairy farmer appeared to be injecting liquid manure into the fields by pulling a long hose connected to a chisel plow. Areas, for the most part, were too wet to plant corn, and only a few fields of corn were sprouting. In a couple of places, corn was piled outside with big tarps because the bins were overflowing. Many of the fields appear to use the no-till process. In Hinton, West Virginia, we met numerous coal trains, and as we followed the Greenbriar River for about 150+ miles, we noticed hundreds of campers on the riverbanks. At Sulphur Springs, Virginia there was a fancy golfing resort. In some places like Montgomery, WV, the steel mills looked closed. In La Fayette, Ill we notice one of several wind farms, and in Huntington, WV the Martha White plant make cornbread kits. Riders indicated that the town was declining in population with a nickel plating plant closed down. We did not see many Wal-Marts, and the people stated they did not want them nearby.
In Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, we started picking up Amish riders. They had no technology, and they hired a car to deliver and pick them up at the train station. One older Amish couple had been to Washington DC area to watch a granddaughter graduate from high school and said they lived in a partial underground home in Ohio. Another large family of about 15 Amish had been to California to attend a funeral. We met several bikers that would use the train to get home and pay $20 to transport their bike. Two young women had hiked for a week in the Shenandoah Valley and used the train to get back to Cincinnati. There was a group of girls traveling as a group and competing in tennis. Our Midway students were always polite, and one older couple was so impressed that he gave me $80 cash to spend on them, (they had kinfolks in Wichita Falls). One concessionaire gave all the kids free treats because he said they were uncharacteristically polite. We were able to take pictures of the Lucus Oil Stadium in Annapolis and the Chicago Cubs Stadium in Chicago from the train. We were able to see the capital domes of several states, including Little Rock and the big steel arches of St. Louis, Missouri. The Grand Central Station in Chicago was massive, impressive, and ornate. People rent large areas for parties, weddings, and other socials.
Once we were in Washington, we toured Mt. Vernon, attended a play at the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot, the house across the street where he died, a wax museum, Washington, Lincoln and other monuments. We were given a guided tour of the US capitol by an aide of Congressman Thornberry. The most memorable part for me was visiting the Arlington National Cemetery and watch the changing of the guard at the unknown soldier tomb that happens every 30 minutes, 24/7/365 days a year. The biggest problem in Washington, DC, in my opinion, was the horrible traffic and lack of parking places for our rented transit van. Tour buses had many places reserved, but other parking was challenging to find. Two days was not nearly enough time, but the kids were terrific, and the trip can be chalked up to a major learning experience in many ways.