Disappearing railroad blues.

Do not ask why I love rail travel. It makes no sense. The equipment is falling apart, the attentiveness to schedules casual, your fellow passengers a mix of Greyhound misery and People Express cheapskates.

(True story: A friend of mine was traveling by bus one day, coming back to Columbus from somewhere in southern Ohio. Her seatmate said she’d been visiting her husband in Lebanon. “What’s he doing there?” my friend asked. “Three to five,” she replied.)

It doesn’t make financial sense, either. For short hops, you might as well drive. For longer ones, fly — it’s faster and cheaper. But for trips like the one we did this weekend, Detroit to Chicago, it still works. Travel time is less than an hour longer, and you avoid the big-city headaches of traffic and parking. Tickets for Kate and me cost $192 round-trip. We saved $70 in parking and $60 in gas, leaving a difference of $62 for the satisfaction of having five solid hours to sit back with a book or stare out the window at the passing junkyards and rust-belt industrial graveyards. I’d call that: Priceless.

We took the Wolverine, which ran on time and reaffirmed my faith in rail scheduling, probably because this train only goes back and forth across the Mitten, three times a day. The trains I took out of Fort Wayne — the Capitol Limited, the Lake Shore Limited and the Empire Builder — were long routes, NYC to Chicago and beyond, and had many, many opportunities to get behind schedule. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be an hour or more late arriving at the cursed siding in Waterloo, Ind., which served as the Fort’s station. (We once had our own, and lost it — long story. Short version: It was the railroad’s fault.) Bonus: You’d sometimes take your seat to find that day’s Daily News or Post abandoned in the pocket in front of you. And maybe you have to be a writer, but there’s something about sitting down in the club car with a beer and looking at the posters for the other routes on the wall — the California Zephyr, the Sunset Limited — that makes me think, “That’s one for me.” It just has a nicer ring than Flight 32.

I didn’t grow up riding trains. If Columbus, Ohio had passenger train service, it was long gone by the time I was going anywhere. People in the eastern states take rail travel for granted, having done the Boston-New York-D.C. route too many times. Large city interurban routes are nothing special to them, either. I guess it’s even possible, in these places, to see your car as an escape from the drudgery of rail commuting. All I can think is, rail commuters read newspapers, and drivers listen to morning radio. Case closed.

Only once did I spring for a sleeper. I went to Syracuse to visit my friends Lance and the Blonde, and got a berth for the trip out. Fort Wayne to Toledo, where I caught the Lake Shore Limited around midnight, just in time for the porter to fold down my bed and plump my pillow. I climbed in with a copy of “Clockers” and drifted off in perfect comfort. I awoke several times through the night, watching one frozen town after another pass by through the frosted window, and drifted happily back to sleep, knowing someone else was driving. It was like being a kid asleep in the back seat, heedless of seat belts, while my dad took us home.

Yes, we had a great time in Chicago. A bit chilly, but otherwise fine. More tomorrow. A little bloggage:

I never thought of Bode Miller and George Bush as the same person, but when you put it this way…

There’s a moral in this story — sort of a Midwestern version of the two Samurai standing in the rain.

Posted at 8:48 pm in Same ol' same ol' |

33 responses to “Disappearing railroad blues.”

  1. basset said on February 27, 2006 at 12:30 am

    A great time in Chicago? Tell me you got pizza, lots of pizza.

    The Southwest route from Midway to Nashville takes just under an hour… if you’re careful about wrapping a hot deep-dish from the Giordano’s nearest the airport will still be a little bit warm when you get it home.

    my wife & middle-school son came to pick me up at BNA one night and ran into my boss in the concourse… “well, did you miss your dad while he was gone?” “Yeah, he’s bringing pizza!”

    Bode Miller, on the other hand… who cares? Not me.

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  2. Connie said on February 27, 2006 at 8:58 am

    From here we can catch the South Shore at its eastern most stop, the South Bend Airport. $19 round trip, and it is easy to do one long day. Last time I took AmTrak home from Chicago (June 2000) I got bumped! All passengers leaving the train before Toledo got bumped. We were put on a later train, and arrived at the Elkhart depot at something like 3 a.m. OTOH my husband took the City of New Orleans from Chicago to NO a few years ago and had a wonderful trip.

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  3. Kirk said on February 27, 2006 at 9:18 am

    My mom, sister and grandmother took a passenger train from Washington C.H. to Columbus at least once, and I’m thinking the train was pulled by a steam engine. The dining car seemed like a royal banquet hall to a 6-year-old. My other grandma and I used to take a train from Greenfield to Cincinnati for day-long shopping trips. I didn’t take another train trip until the ’90s, when a bunch of us caught Amtrak in Crestline, Ohio, and went to Chicago on a baseball trip. It wasn’t as exciting as when I was a kid, but it sure as hell was a lot more comfy than sitting cooped up in an airplane. I still want to take that trans-Canada train someday.

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  4. Dorothy said on February 27, 2006 at 9:31 am

    I’ve never been on a train in the USA (not counting the one at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh), but when my daughter and I spent several days in Ireland two years ago, we went from Dublin to Galway by rail. It was lovely. It was also a way to avoid driving on the notoriously narrow Irish roads. Despite knowing that, I looked longingly out the window during the 3 hour ride, wishing I was in a car, negotiating the tricky turns and vowing to come back one day to see more of the country.

    I followed a link at the Bode article and read how nasty he was to someone asking for a picture with him. He sounds a little too full of himself if you ask me. And he doesn’t even deserve all the attention. He’s a putz.

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  5. MichaelG said on February 27, 2006 at 9:36 am

    There’s a train operated by the State of California that runs between Auburn and San Jose on Union Pacific right of way . It overnights in Auburn and stops in Sacramento, Davis, Oakland and elsewhere on the way to San Jose. The train is listed as the Amtrak Capitol Corridor. It carries a loyal band of commuters, shoppers, business travelers, students and the rest of your usual train population. On occasion I have business in Oakland. I can drop my car in the parking lot of the Auburn station (free) about two miles from my house and catch the first train in the AM. It can be cold at first since it’s been sitting on a siding next to the station all night and one time they couldn’t get the damn thing started and had to call for buses. It has a bar car that serves coffee and cellophane rolls in the morning and beer and cellophane sandwiches on the way back. It’s a short cab ride or a 10 – 15 minute walk from the Oakland station to my meeting. Then a nice lunch in Oakland and a pleasant train ride back to Auburn. It isn’t cheap at around $75 round trip but it’s not much worse than gas, tolls and parking. But what a nice, easy, relaxing and just plain civilized way to travel. Plus you get to see all the stuff out the window that you would never see otherwise. It has a kind of small time, small town feel to it that can’t be duplicated. I would urge anyone, if there is a train anywhere around, to grab the kids on a day off and go somewhere on the train, even if it’s only a couple of stations down the line, lunch and back. You’ll all love it.

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  6. Lance said on February 27, 2006 at 9:51 am

    Don’t forget the pleasures of arriving in Union Station instead of at O’Hare Airport—unless things have changed a lot since I last took the Lake Shore Limited.

    The other beauty of train travel as opposed to flying is that you can’t build an airport downtown. I used to take the train home and back from Iowa to upstate New York when I was in grad school and sometimes when we lived in Fort Wayne I’d take the train into Chicago to catch the Lake Shore Limited back to New York instead of catching it up at Elkhart. Both trips included a layover of a couple of hours in Chicago. It’s so much more cheering an experience to be able to walk around the Loop and have lunch at Miller’s Pub while waiting for your train than to sit around the airport McDonald’s waiting for your flight to be called.

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  7. brian stouder said on February 27, 2006 at 9:57 am

    An excellent point!

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  8. basset said on February 27, 2006 at 10:11 am

    and try THIS with an airplane…


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  9. Claire said on February 27, 2006 at 10:20 am

    I’m glad you had a nice time in Chicago. Saturday was a pretty day. Once, when I was little and we briefly lived in Connecticut, we took an Amtrak from the east coast to Chicago. I remember my mother staying up all night talking with different people in the diner car. There is something romantic about trains, probably due to nostalgia more than anything else. It’s a nice way to see the country though.

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  10. MarkH said on February 27, 2006 at 10:57 am

    Hey, Dorothy, that Kennywood train counts! At least in my book, especially when you’re under ten years old.

    In the mid-’60’s, when I was 14, my mother knew train travel was going away, so she made sure my younger sister and I had the experience. We went from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to West Newton, PA to see some of the old relatives before they, too, died. A great trip watching the eastern countryside go by and experiencing the mix of people who populated trains in those days. My regret is I don’t remember much more about it than that; can’t remember which rail lines, where we switched trains, etc., but it was long and great.

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  11. Carmella said on February 27, 2006 at 11:06 am

    I thought Chad Hedrick was as big of a jerk as Bode.

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  12. mary said on February 27, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Not that it really makes anything better, but at least Chad won an event. Bode just screwed up every time.

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  13. nancy said on February 27, 2006 at 11:22 am

    And really, if Bode had just screwed up and been honest about it, he could have salvaged some face. But he acted like screwing up was something he planned all along, bro. That’s why I found that Tom Watson post so amusing — going for gold or going for WMD, and then the “what, what?” face when it doesn’t pan out.

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  14. Dorothy said on February 27, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Hey Mark – I’m always tickled when someone understands my references to something Pittsburgh! I guess that train counts – but it only circled the park! I’ll be back there in June when my niece gets married and we are planning to spend Sunday of that weekend at Kennywood. Planning our matching outfits as I type!!

    The train and the Thunderbolt (one extreme to another) are about all I can ride anymore. Actually any of the roller coasters are fine by me, as long as I don’t go upside down.

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  15. brian stouder said on February 27, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    “going for gold or going for WMD, and then the “what, what?�? face when it doesn’t pan out.”

    If Barney Fife (to invoke the memory of Don Knotts) was a sort of classic American archetype – incompetent, heart in the right place, even if his self opinion was overly inflated; or if Quentin McHale (for another 1960’s teeveeland talisman) is another classic – skirt chasing party-hardy loafer, but absolutely the guy you want on your side when the chips are down –

    Bode embodies some of the best and ALL of the worst of both worlds – competent but untrustworthy, skilled but undisciplined, overly proud of himself even as he fails to come through.

    And W….Is his heart in the right place? Possibly, but years ago Woodward’s book about “Bush at War” gave me pause – he kept quoting the president as ‘going on instinct’. Is he competent? His admin has fumbled one BIG thing after the next since the end of the election cycle.

    Does he come through when the chips are down? After the Miers mis-step, and as we watch his continuing backtracking on the Dubai debacle – I guess the answer is a conditional one…it depends on who is calling his hand

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  16. Dwight The Troubled Teen said on February 27, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    “Backtracking on the Dubai debacle?” Whom are you speaking of, Bri?

    Certainly not Dubya. His position has not changed since the matter came to his attention.

    I believe you are mildly confused. Monday is a GWB “Damned if you DON’T” day. You are supposed to be villify him because he’s cocky and self-assured and doesn’t change his mind often enough to reflect careful consideration.

    TUESDAY is “Damn if you do” day, where you can find some more appropriate example of his changing his mind to reflect careful consideration (Harriet Miers) and use the example of him switching course as a means to pillory him for being an errant fool who doesn’t make good decisions.

    However, GWB is in the exact same place on Dubai as he was on Day one. There are any number of Dem and ‘Pub politicians backtracking and eating their racist rhetoric. Dubya just isn’t one of them.

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  17. Dave said on February 27, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    Nance, Columbus had Amtrak passenger service up until, I believe, 1978, train was the National Limited, if memory serves me correctly, ran toward St. Louis, having come from Pittsburgh and points east.

    Person who mentions riding the train from Washington C. H. goes back a ways, that train was discontinued by about 1956.

    Columbus is and has been one of the largest, if not the largest, city in the U. S. without any rail passenger service.

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  18. Tom said on February 27, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Gosh that post comparing Miller and Bush was silly, even for the Internet. Bush is sort of the anti-Bode. He goes to bed at 9pm every night and wanted to accomplish something in office but was too ambitious (i.e. Iraq). Bode wanted to party every night till 9am and wasn’t ambitious enough. Reading blogs actually makes me appreciate newspapers.

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  19. brian stouder said on February 27, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    Well, D-triple-T, let me say I voted for George W Bush twice (4 times if you count the primaries), and therefore I grew used to defending him against his carping critics over the years….but damned if the c-c’s didn’t WIN the argument afterall!

    I laughed out loud the other morning – after hearing a sound byte of the president saying that this Dubai deal was perfectly sound and safe, and had been reviewed, and that we should TRUST the administration (his words), and that he would go to the matt defending it –

    and then an hour later I saw a “BREAKING NEWS” banner on msnbc.com saying that the White House stated that they had not been aware of the UAE deal before it came to pass!!!

    Aside from totally undercutting the president’s own (vigorous!) defense of the deal, that’s just a lame-assed cop-out don’t you think?

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  20. Dorothy said on February 27, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    I just love the “D-triple-T” moniker! I’m gonna have to think of three “t” words to describe myself so I can adopt that…

    I’m also wondering if D-triple-T has a sense of humor and can laugh at that. He always seems to have his shorts in a bunch so tight he can’t fart.

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  21. Dwight The Troubled Teen said on February 27, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    I’m aware of your conservative epilats, Bri.

    You made the same error that I often do, assuming that “White House” and “President Bush” are synonymous. The guy isn’t omniscient. He doesn’t do every single function of the Executive branch of government single-handed.

    And the BREAKING NEWS thing… Yeah… Dude… That’s all subject to the needs of a news cycle. Old news is BREAKING NEWS if it new to them… Kind of like the DJ yesterday I heard calling Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes” her “new hit.” That album has been out for over a year, and the song has been on the charts for five months. Please.

    There is nothing incongruous about:

    A. Bush making a public statement and
    B. Bush having found out about the Dubai deal after it was put together by low-level staffers.

    And brother, before all is said and done, you are going to get the facts you will realize that … on this issue… Dubya’s right and you are wrong. I don’t mean that assholically. I am sincere.

    I empathize. I, too, banged my head on my desk when I first heard “PORT SECURITY CONTRACT SOLD TO UAE!!!” My first thought was “Oh, shit… First Clinton selling warheads to the Chinese, and now this. Say good-bye to the moral high ground, Mister President!” But early news reports were over-reaching and the old codger does have some good points on this topic if you’ll hear him out.

    There are plenty of other knucklehead things Dubya has done that are more worthy of a red spot on your forehead. I just don’t thing this is one of them.

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  22. Dwight The Troubled Teen said on February 27, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    And Dorothy…

    You are probably right. The picture of Ashley in A PARADE with a sign over his head saying that he did not want to be an American citizen… That was one of the most offensive things I have seen in a long time. I probably missed an opportunity to revel in the satire. I admit that I missed an opportunity to enjoy what may very well have been clever humor. I let my button get pushed.

    Similarly, Mark saying that mass U.S. terrorism casualties would have an upside of removing GOPers from power struck me as not only bass-ackwards logic, but idiocy of such an egregious level that it should be held up to the light of its own putrid hatemongering.

    I opened this comment window to politely disagree with you, but I now think that you are right… (Even if I did find the “D to the triple T” thing funny and flattering.)

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  23. Dwight The Troubled Teen said on February 27, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    “Epaulets.” Mea culpa.

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  24. Danny said on February 27, 2006 at 6:12 pm

    Similarly, Mark saying that mass U.S. terrorism casualties would have an upside of removing GOPers

    DT-cubed, slight correction. That brilliant comment was Alex’s.

    And one other thing, I am happy you are conservative, but please do not admit to knowing too much more about Kelly Clarkson. Poptarts like her are not fit to shine Pearl Jam’s shoes, much less someone with real talent like Led Zeppelin.

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  25. Dorothy said on February 27, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    Ah hell, the best I can come up with is Dorothy, tart-tongued troublemaker.

    I’m glad you found it funny, Dwight. Brian nearly always makes me laugh at the funny things he says!

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  26. alex said on February 27, 2006 at 8:47 pm

    No, nothing about “mass U.S. terrorism casualties” being a good thing ever came from me. The beginning of the civil war in Iraq is the upside I mention. Our troops will be coming home in that event and the GOP will likely be sidelined for a few terms while the Dems make some much-needed repairs here at home.

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  27. Jeff said on February 27, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    Re: Columbus w/o rail service

    At least Columbus has missed out on having a vast Union Station to rehab into the world’s largest Sbarro container . . . tho’ the Cinc’y Museum Center is one of the best of the genre.

    And Kennywood is THE amusement park; those who disagree have not been there, QED. History back to Braddock and Lt. Col. Washington, the early traction company parks, and modern rockin’ coasters. The Casino and strawberries and turn the kids loose — thanks for evoking Kennywood on a grey Ohio Monday in February’s hind-end!

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  28. Joe Kobiela said on February 28, 2006 at 7:49 am

    Gee, Bodes failure was W’s fault, I wondered how long that would take.

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  29. brian stouder said on February 28, 2006 at 9:09 am

    As Zell Miller would say – “IT’S A MET-A-PHOR, JOE! MET-A-PHOR! DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT A MET-A-PHOR IS?!”

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  30. Danny said on February 28, 2006 at 9:38 am

    I never met a phor I didn’t like.

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  31. Paul Bouzide said on February 28, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    Las Vegas and Phoenix I think count as larger non-Amtrak-served cities now that the Desert Wind is no more and since the wretched Sunset Limited was rerouted via Casa Grande due to UP’s downgrade of the Phoenix-Yuma secondary.

    For fun I tried a Vegas-Phoenix oneway trip on the Amtrak website (city center to city center of course) and got the following amusing routing: leaving Las Vegas at 11:50AM on a bus connection to LA Union Station (or “LAUPT” as I will always think of it), catching the Chief at 6:45 PM to Flagstaff (arriving at 5:56AM!), then another bus connection to Phoenix which leaves Flagstaff at 7:30 and gets to Phoenix at 10AM. Almost 24 hours to describe a backwards ‘N’ across the deserts of the southwest, probably a 6 hour drive max.

    Columbus certainly ranks in the top 10 US cities sans Amtrak though, probably even #3.

    Other significant Amtrak-less cities include:
    Madison, WI
    Birmingham, AL
    Rockford, IL
    Allentown, PA
    Norfolk (or should we count Newport News as Norfolk metro?)

    And then there’s the “served, but not at any convenient time” (e.g. Cleveland) and “possible but not worth it” routings (e.g. Chicago-Atlanta or Texas-Denver)

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  32. Paul Bouzide said on February 28, 2006 at 7:56 pm

    I truly do dislike when politics intrudes on mostly non-political subject matter such as the original post in this thread, but…

    …I just had to point out the active and relentless hostility the current administration has to the mode of rail passenger transport. Examples are legion, but the essential philosophy that rail passenger (and rail freight for that matter) transport must fund the vast majority of capital and operating expenses via the ticket fare (or freight shipping charge), while massive subsidies exist for rubber-tired and airborne transport is ludicrous in the extreme.

    That is unless we believe there is no place for rail transport in modern society trying to wean itself away from costly and unsustainable foreign oil, a notion put to the lie by the US frieht rail system and the European, Japanese and (emerging) Chinese rail passsenger systems.

    It’s abundantly clear from the experience of the privatized air passsenger transport industry that (even with Federal capital subsidies for airports and air traffic control systems and Federal operating subsidies for running said air traffic control) that a fully privatized transportation system that pretends to be national (or international) in scope just isn’t a viable business without government assistence. And yes I know Southwest makes money but would they still if all the others disappeared into bankruptcy tomorrow?

    Nowhere in the world does this idea work.

    That said, yes Amtrak could have a more efficient cost structure and could be better managed. But David Gunn was the best leader Amtrak ever had, and he was axed because he wouldn’t agree with the Bush DOT’s plans for dismantlement under the guise of significantly reducing capital funding (guaranteeing slow death for the crown jewel Northeast Corridor through deferred maintenance) and shifting operating funding to the states (who don’t have the revenue).

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  33. Joe Kobiela said on March 1, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Watch what you say about subsidiesed air travel, The taxes I pay on the aviation fuel I buy supports ATC, and airports, and before you go off saying that you don’t fly so you should not have to pay for the service, remember I don’t drive on the roads you drive on yet I help pay for them. This country has the best and safest air system in the world, lets keep it that way. Railroads are cool I wish we could ride them more, but when I can fly to florida in 2hr why would I take a train that takes 24hrs? and pay less??
    Commercial Pilot

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