Through the night on Amtrak

By | Category: Travel destinations

Pulling into Richmond

Just for the heck of it, I thought I would take a long distance journey on Amtrak to see what it was like. After a while, airports become a bit of a bore so I thought I would see whether it was possible to get a night’s sleep on an overnight trip. This may not be on a par with Frederic’s holiday on the Golden Chariot we ran earlier this year, but I was looking to see if this was a practical way of getting around the US. How comfortable would it be and what services would be available?
So I booked a $97 (say £60) one-way ticket from Richmond in Virginia to Boston, nearly 600 miles away. The journey would take about 14 hours and we would travel via Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. For the money, the fare is about $20-$30 cheaper than you could get on a flight except on very lucky days, so there isn’t a lot in it. Another $45 or so would have upgraded me to business class but I wanted to try economy.
The journey began at Richmond’s Main Street station, a magnificent building, which has less than a dozen train services a day although attempts are being made to increase the number of services. The main station in Richmond is Staple Mills which is about 12 miles from the centre and picks up services coming up from the states of Florida and Georgia as well.
Waiting for the train I was surprised to find tables with cloths on them, a table set aside with drinks and people running around in the way that looks like panic but is actually planned and organised. No, this wasn’t for yours truly, but for a large wedding party that had decided it hold its reception here. In a station? A working station. The seven passengers didn’t quite mingle with the guests, but we saw the bride and groom escorted in, the drinks beginning to flow and the nibbles being passed around. All of a sudden, I was hungry. And thirsty. Main Street was obviously no ordinary station.

More hotel than station?

It’s a proud landmark in Richmond, has a balcony to go out on and a lounge with comfortable armchairs and sofas. Plus a fireplace. Is it used at all in winter, I wondered?
We weren’t allowed on the platform until just before the train arrived. Lights a-flashing and that tell -tale noise as its wheels grated the track, indicated its arrival. No level platform here like we are used to, just steps to climb. Inside, I picked a seat by the window so I could plug in my laptop. A pull down table and a power point seemed to be at every table. The leg room was fine, the seat reclined and, unlike our trains, the seats are wider. No arm between the seats so it looks as though I could more easily stretch out when it becomes to time to try and sleep. So far so good.

We crawled the first twelve miles, but after we left the other Richmond Station (Staple Mills) we speeded up. And when the train gets into its stride it can be a little jerky in places (you have no idea how many corrections I have made as I have typed this!) As we came closer to a place called Ashland, it was surprising to see how the houses and roads were so close to the track. There must have been a protective fence but I didn’t see one.
There is no restaurant car on this train, just a buffet service. Since the bride and groom saw fit not to add me to their guest list, I needed something to eat. And that consisted of a cheeseburger and an iced tea which cost just $8.25. As you’d expect the cheeseburger was microwaved but this is no worse and no better than you’d have back home. Except the service was miles better. I was thanked for waiting while the cheeseburger microwaved for 30 seconds, and the whole attitude was one of interest in me rather than that disinterested disdain that often seems to be part of the training that our buffet and restaurant staff receive. The price is as good as you’d get in a restaurant over here and if I wanted a beer, I could have had it for just $5.
The buffet car attendant was quite surprised when I said I was going to Boston. Usually it seems, there aren’t many that go that far. The service is travelling quite quickly now as we head to Fredericksburg, another civil war centre in Virginia. The state must be doing well with all the tourists that are coming to see the battlefield sites, museums and monuments. Still it’s dark now so I shall probably see nothing. You do wonder sometimes why stations aren’t built in places where there is something to see. Usually you see sidings, fields and woodland plus the odd industrial site and that’s about it.
Somewhere after Fredericksburg I drop off, only vaguely aware of stations until we get to Washington where large numbers of people get on. The noise level rises as they chat to each other about majors and subjects. Obviously many are university students who stay on until Baltimore and Trenton, which is the station Princeton students use. For most of the journey until New York, I am fairly oblivious to the busy carriage as I doze. In many ways it was just like an airline seat. You try and find a comfortable position and every so often you partially wake up when numbness or a nagging pain hits you in your backside, neck or somewhere else.
We get to New York’s Penn Station just before 2am where all but three of us in our carriage, get off. Here it seems surprisingly busy. A New Jersey transit service arrives at about 2.10am and it has a couple of packed carriages. Why do people travel at this time of night? How do they get home as, surely, the subway system has stopped? Night buses? Taxis must do good business. Still this is New York, this is the place where a gym was opposite a hotel I was staying in. Jetlag awoke me at about 3.30am one morning and, looking through the window, I saw the gym not only fully lit but with people using treadmill machines and weights? Still, they do say New York doesn’t sleep!
We stay here for 50 minutes before the final five hours of the journey. It seems to have gone pretty quickly so far, but that’s probably due to the fact that I have slept on-and-off for about four hours. At three in the morning, we are rolling through New York suburbs with hardly a light on in any of the houses. At least someone is sleeping. There aren’t even many cars on the roads or at the toll booths but then I hear a siren. Do they really need those at night when the roads are so empty? There must be some mothers cursing it as babies wake up.
And now onto New England where the autumn leaf colours is something to see. For the last hour and a half of the journey it should be light. But am I too early in Autumn to see it? It’s still dark as we go through Connecticut. I must have slept again as this is nearly three hours on from New York and there is only another two to go. But with no sign of sunrise and so few lights outside, who knows what the landscape looks like?
It started getting light about the time we came to the smallest of US states, Rhode Island, but the landscape was largely trees with light amongst them. And as the light preserves into the day, what do I have but early morning mist, obscuring the sights. Just my luck! As we pull into Providence, the guard wakes us up and tells us seven times that we are coming into the city. The station seems to be underground because all I can see is…station. One thing I have noticed is that Amtrak doesn’t tend to emblazon the names of its stations on the platforms. Sometimes you have to look quite hard to see where you are.
As we drew to the end of the journey, the fog persisted and the heavens had opened. The closer we got to Boston the more it seemed we were travelling between concrete walls. Is this so we can’t see anything or to protect the views of the householders or whatever is the other side? But I was seeing the mish-mash of America. Even after all these years of visiting it still seems that houses are near industry; posh mansions seem to have dereliction next to them and the planning controls we take for granted are non-existant. And the train has allowed me to see more of that. I have made only one other long journey by rail in the US which was from Poughkeepsie in NY state to Niagara Falls about 12 years ago. That is much prettier as it hugs the Hudson River for part of the journey and it was nowhere as long as this one was. But on this trip I have proved that a night journey is pretty comfortable, you can relax and sleep and you can even save the cost of a hotel room!
If you’ve got the time, seriously consider travelling this way. Amtrak also provide passes covering different arts of the country so you can see more. And I certainly saw more, even allowing for darkness, than I would have done from a plane.

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