Amtrak for Eight Hours is a Breeze Compared with Flying


We showed up at the Greenfield MA train depot for a 1:07 departure for our long train voyage down to Baltimore. Not surprisingly, we were told that the train was running 20 minutes late, so we got a coffee at the little cafe there and waited. When the five-car Vermonter showed up, and we left Greenfield, we crawled along at a very slow speed. I did not realize that much of the route we’d travel would be at these slow speeds, but that’s what you get when you repurpose tracks used by freight haulers into what America accepts as the best rail service we deserve.

On the tracks was a guy wearing an Amtrak train hat taking photos, and carrying a radio. I asked him about why the newly rebuilt railroad tracks were using wooden ties and not the cement ties I have seen in Europe. He said that these tracks are class 2 and 3, which use the familiar creosoted wooden ties, but the class 4 tracks use cement ties. Those are found only on higher speed trains.

We crawled out of Greenfield toward my village of Deerfield, picking up speed and passing by backyards of houses I’ve driven by a million times but never have seen the back of. Surely this is one of the distinct pleasures of rail travel, that unexposed side of things you get to see.  The back doors of shops where employees slouch catching a smoke, the rear entrances of businesses with old rail sidings that once connected them to the main tracks, the tons of debris left over from re-building the tracks—piles of old ties, stacks of metal track fasteners, and the rusted over steel rails, which someday will be melted down into new seamless rails like the ones we are riding on now.

We rolled into Northampton and took on more passengers, surprisingly a family that had boarded with us in Greenfield departed there—just 20 minutes after they’d boarded. The Connecticut river had rapids unlike any I’ve seen there– big whitecaps and a swollen banks. We didn’t stop in Holyoke, as their station stop is not yet built. One business we passed that had many of its own railroad cars is Sullivan Scrap Metal.  Giant cranes were plucking metal with a scoop and with magnets to sort them in bins.

We were warned after Springfield that as we approached Hartford, we’d be bringing on 100 additional passengers, so those of us who had spread out across our own sets of seats were warned we’d have to remove our luggage from the seats or risk having to buy the luggage its own ticket!

At New York’s Penn Station, we were told that every seat would be taken.  Many students piled aboard, and I moved my seat so as to avoid the pillar and give me a full window view. In the cafe car at about 8 pm, we bought some beers and sandwiches, and I asked a conductor why so many people were just camping out at the tables with their laptops. “We used to ask them to move, but Amtrak said we can’t do anything, so now they just take up the space and people who want to sit down with their food.”

Overall even with these hiccups and unreliable Wi-Fi service as we traveled, we felt so relaxed after we got to our destination right on time, Baltimore’s lovely old Penn Station. I can’t recall feeling that way after an eight hour flight, ever.