A FEW YEARS AGO, I bought a rail pass from Amtrak. For 15 days, I was allowed to ride on up to eight trains going pretty much anywhere in the United States. Since I was about to leave the country for a year of grad school, I decided to visit my friends on the West Coast, and then to loop back around to the East Coast to meet some other friends for a beach weekend.
I probably spent around five of those 15 days actually on the trains. Once, we got stuck in a field in Montana for 15 hours while we waited for the crews to switch. Once, a crazy lady sat down next to me and talked — whether I was listening or not — about how the NSA was beaming porn into her head while she was trying to go to sleep. Once, a caricature of a redneck sat down next to me and pulled out a photo album of his gun collection for me to peruse.
But I still loved that trip. Far more than I’ve ever enjoyed traveling on a plane or in a car, and almost as much as the cruise I took when I was 12 and got to binge on free pizza for seven days straight. The US hasn’t invested all that much in trains lately, favoring sitting in hours of traffic or flying on increasingly less comfortable planes. Here’s why American travelers should be riding the rails as much as possible.
1. There’s so much space.
Look, the reason airplanes are atrocious isn’t entirely the fault of the airlines. It’s a tough business to make a profit in, so naturally they’re going to try to cram as many people on the plane as possible. It doesn’t really serve them to make the planes more comfortable. But trains are absolutely delightful to travel on. First, the chairs are a little more spread out, and a little wider, so a 6’3″, 220lb gentlemen like myself can fit comfortably.
Second, because it’s so crammed on planes, it’s easy to feel like getting up and walking around is an inconvenience if you’re not sitting on the aisle, so instead you hang out in your tiny seat, eventually get deep vein thrombosis, and then you die. But trains have dining cars and some have viewing cars. You can go grab a cup of coffee and meet a friendly looking stranger. You can not die a horrible death on a long flight over international waters.
2. It takes way longer to get there by train.
I can see why you might think this is a bad thing. But here’s why it’s not: First, train travel is actually one of the more environmentally friendly ways to get around, especially if you’re traveling on your own or with just one other person.
Second, because it’s easy to move around on a train, this is actually a pretty nice way to spend your time. Most Amtrak trains have wifi now (though it can be spotty), and there are some amazing viewing cars that are especially spectacular if you’re going through the Rockies or the Midwest. There’s also generally a dining car and a snack bar, and the snack bar usually serves the type of mediocre coffee that’s perfect for sitting with at an empty table, reading a long book as the country zips by.
That’s actually my favorite part about trains. You can read, you can write, you can draw, you can catch up on TV shows (if you’ve got them downloaded or on DVD), and you can have leisurely conversations with your fellow passengers. I’ve actually made friends on trains, which has never happened on a plane for me. It’s hard to be friendly when everyone around you is miserable and counting the minutes till landing.
3. It’s really hard to hijack a train.
Okay, so this doesn’t happen that often on planes either, but seriously — if you were to hijack a train, you’d still have to go wherever the tracks lead. You’re not ever going to have a Malaysian Flight 370 situation with a train. Yes, it can crash, and yes, you could totally be killed while riding on a train. But you know what you don’t have to deal with?
Airport security. You don’t have to take your shoes off. You don’t have to get anally probed. You don’t have to explain why you have an inhaler to a particularly dickish TSA agent. You don’t have to worry about some creep looking at you naked with that new x-ray machine of theirs.
This has a few knock-on effects. First, it means you don’t have to get to the station two hours early. You can cut it relatively close. Second, it means you can bring your own water and food on board, which means there can actually be healthy, refreshing food options that don’t cost you half of your trip budget. And third, it means there’s a whole different group of people you get to ride with. Which brings us to…
4. The people who ride trains are way more interesting than the people who ride planes.
Each form of travel has its own constituency. Airplanes tend to be more business-oriented, as businessmen don’t have time to take long trips, and because they like having large, confined audiences to be awful in front of. Boats tend to be populated by vacationing suburbanites, working-class sailors, or people who think Jimmy Buffett’s lifestyle is something worth aspiring to.
Trains are ridden by people with quirks. Sometimes this means the lady who thinks the NSA is beaming porn into her head; other times it means the people who are afraid of flying. But usually it’s something much more innocuous and endearing. I’ve found that the type of people who take trains are people who aren’t as keen on getting to their destination as they are enjoying the journey, which is generally a much more interesting type of person.
There are also a lot of Amish that ride the trains, which is cool because it’s just not a part of America I’m remotely in touch with, even though apparently like 50% of the Amish in America share the same last name as me. Regardless, the people on trains are far less furious that they’re traveling, and as a result, are a far friendlier crowd than you’ll find on most other forms of travel. So take a train for your next trip.