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A Different Way to Travel

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Posted 06-09-2009 at 11:40 AM by upthesaukee
Updated 06-09-2009 at 03:44 PM by upthesaukee

Back in the early years of travel to the lake, as has been well documented by McDude in his historical postings, rail travel was a prominent mode of transportation. Here is a perspective on that mode of travel.

During the winter, we were talking with our friends, who moved from Laconia to Georgia, about going down to visit them. We talked about driving down vs. flying down and then my wife got the idea that perhaps we should look into taking a train down. She had never been on a train, not even a commuter train into Boston. Her grandparents had taken a train across country and back decades ago, and raved about the trip. So, after looking at Amtrak’s schedules and pricing, we decided that we would take Amtrak from Boston to New York to Atlanta (our friends live about an hour northeast of Atlanta). We discussed the trip with our friends, and they suggested that we get off in Gainesville GA, which is only 20 minutes from their house, and doesn’t require getting into the Atlanta traffic.

Now Amtrak is about twice the cost of flying, and our total time of travel was going to be about 23-24 hours each way, which is about the time required to drive it, but we would be traveling in a more relaxed situation. We booked the trip with coach seating from Boston to New York (Penn Station) and then a roomette on the NY to Gainesville leg. The return trip was similarly booked, and we had two months to think and dream about this vacation, where we would be playing a lot of golf with our former golf partners up here.

Our departure date (April 18th) arrived and we headed to Portsmouth to pick C & J’s bus to Boston’s South Station. We were traveling reasonably light; two golf travel bags, two rolling suitcases that would easily fit in an overhead, and two small carry-ons. The trip to South Station was uneventful after first dropping off the Logan passengers, and our first trip through the Ted Williams tunnel. We were dropped off at the bus terminal side of South Station, which is about a two or three hundred-yard walk to the train side.

Signage about where to go was almost non-existent, and we finally spotted a sign that said “Trains” with an arrow. There were no Red Caps (train version of Sky Caps) in sight, so I carried the two golf bags and my carry-on and my wife dragged the two suitcases and her carry-on. The walkway is only about 4 feet wide, and we were almost immediately met by a throng of people who had just arrived from a train and were heading to the bus terminal or parking garage. What particularly attracted our attention to these folks was their attitude, which was basically “get the @#%% out of my way”, which of course is not the New Hampshire way, i.e., being courteous by taking pity on two old folks traveling, lugging their baggage themselves (did I mention there were not Red Caps in sight?), and not knowing particularly where we were going.

Well, we finally made it to the train station, and I checked in with the ticket counter. Everything was in order, and I asked what track the train would be leaving from, and was told they hadn’t determined that and it would be announced about 30 minutes before boarding, and that we should listen for the boarding call. No problem, we will find a table to sit at, get some coffee and a muffin, and wait the hour or so for boarding.

After sitting there for about 15 minutes, a Red Cap came up and asked us if we need help getting our baggage on the train. Resisting the temptation to ask “where the heck were you half an hour ago?”, I said sure. So he tagged our baggage and put it on his cart, gave us a card with his name on it, and said he would be by in a little while to get us out to the train. Okay, this is good.
True to his word, “Joe” came by and said let’s go, and we were finally on our way to the train. He took the group, none of whom had any children traveling with them, up to the “quiet car”, which means no cell phones, no loud conversations, no ankle biters to disturb the peace. Things are getting better after a rough start.

After Joe got our baggage on the car (a little area where you can place luggage that is too bulky or heavy to go in the overhead) we quickly found a seat, Seating is great: larger seats that an airplane, more leg room, a 110V outlet for your laptop or other electrical device, easy access to an overhead area for suitcases, and plenty of leg room. Seats recline, and have a large table to fold down off the seat in front of you. Yeah, things are definitely getting better.

I took my Garmin auto GPS out, plugged it into the 110 outlet, turned it on and waited for us to get out of the underground area of South Station and be able to receive a signal. Right on time, our Acela train started to move, and we shortly were out in the clear, and after a few minutes I had a signal on the GPS, and after zooming out to get a fairly large map view, we settled in for the trip to Penn Station.

The tracks to Penn Station are “high speed” tracks, meaning the trains can run at higher speeds than we see on tracks in NH, for example. We made a stop at Back Bay and Rte 128, and then we were off for Providence New London New Haven Stamford and into Penn Station. In the almost four hour trip, we were treated to some nice scenic views, and a surprisingly quiet ride. We were able to not just talk at a normal level (try that on an airplane), but we could almost whisper and still be heard. We put on our MP3 players and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the ride. A glance at the GPS after leaving rte 128 had my eyes open wide. The GPS was recording speeds of around 105-110 MPH, with no sensation of speed in the train, unless you look out the window staring straight ahead, and saw the blur of scenery going by. Between stations, we were consistently over 100 MPH, and had a high speed of 128 MPH. What was interesting was when we would pass another train heading in the opposite direction, or parked on another track. It would appear so quickly and you would be startled by a whomp sound. If you were lucky, sitting next to the window and having the tracks curve in just the right way at the right time, you might see the other train before it passed, but not often.

It was also interesting to walk down to the snack car to get something to drink and eat. We got a couple of sandwiches, chips and a soda and headed back to our seats. It was a strange feeling to walk in the train at those speeds. The aisles did have more room to pass someone than on a plane.

There were views of Narragansett Bay, and then many scenes of Long Island Sound. There were times when the train would slow to 30-40 MPH going over some bridges, but that just gave you more time to enjoy the scenery. We finally started to get into the NYC area, and were treated to a magnificent view of the New York skyline. What a great ending to a wonderful first leg of our trip, as we arrived at Penn Station a few minutes ahead of schedule, and we would only have a little over an hour layover, and we would be back on the rails again.

So, we grabbed our golf clubs and luggage, and fought our way off the train to the platform, and looked for signs to tell us which way to go. We also looked for a Red Cap. Yeah, right. However, the masses, who seemed to know where they were going, were all heading toward the rear of the train, so we followed them. I spotted a NYC Transit cop, and asked where we had to go to connect with Amtrak’s Crescent service towards New Orleans. His answer: “Take the escalator upstairs”. I thanked him, and we continued to follow the masses, and found an escalator, which is about one person wide, which makes getting on with two golf bags and my wife with her two suitcases some kind of fun.
We arrived at the top of the escalator to find ourselves in the middle of chaos. We moved out of the way of those behind us (the NH way) and looked around for Amtrak. All we saw was Long Island Rail Road, and the service to Philadelphia (PASS, I think). We once again started to carry and drag our stuff, because we could not find a Red Cap anywhere, and I spotted an LIRR conductor. I asked him where we had to go to connect up with Amtrak’s Crescent service, and he said, “I work for LIRR”, and pointed to his hat which had LIRR letters on it, which, of course, I had noticed. Letting him know (very nicely) that I realize he works for LIRR, I asked where we had to go to get to Amtrak, and he said “take the escalator over there” up to the next floor. (At least he told us where the escalator was!)

So, we once again had golf bags in hand, and suitcases dragging behind, and headed for the escalator, getting in line with others who were going up, and finally got to the bottom of the escalator which was one person wide so it was a lot of fun to get the two golf cases on and for my wife to get the two suitcases on, and then ride the escalator to the top where there was more chaos, and then get off and get out of the way of those who are coming up behind us (the NH way) and then looking for the Amtrak ticket area, and finally spotting it and finding a place to set the luggage down and not be in someone’s way (the NH way), I proceeded to check in with the ticket counter, who told me that all was in order, and that we could check our bags over at the baggage check area off to my left. (I think that is the longest run-on sentence I have had in over 50 years!)

So, with golf clubs in hand, we go to the Baggage Check area, and after a few minutes wait, and feeling really good about the worst of this experience being over, we get to put our golf bags down to be checked (the suitcases will go on the train with us, as the roomettes have an area to store suitcases (like an overhead on a plane). The agent asked us where we were going, and I said “Gainesville Georgia”, to which he replied “You can’t check your baggage to Gainesville, they don’t have baggage check service there.” Now, in looking at the itinerary on Amtrak’s website, I saw a notation that they did not have baggage check service at Gainesville, but I am thinking they have no Red Caps, which as it turns out would have no consequence to us, because we did pretty well without them anyway! I assumed that they would just hand down the clubs and we would be off and running. Obviously, such is not the case! So, I asked what we were supposed to do with the clubs, and he said they would have to stay in the roomette with us. I thanked him, and we went into the Club Acela area, which was right next to the baggage check area. Club Acela is a lounge area, and because we had sleeping accommodations, we could go in. The have complimentary beverages (non-alcoholic) and snacks, wireless, TV, restrooms, etc.

So we explained the predicament we were in to the customer service rep in the lounge, and asked if we could change our reservation to get off in Atlanta (the next stop after Gainesville) so that we could check the golf clubs. In order to do that, we would lose our AAA and senior discounts, plus would have to pay the additional costs, which was going to be a cost prohibitive. She did say that the cabin attendant on the train might be able to find a spot for them. I thanked her, and we sat down to relax for the hour or so before departure time.

We then got the boarding call and once again grabbed the golf clubs and luggage, headed out the door to the boarding escalator and got in line with the hoard waiting to board. We showed our tickets, fought our way onto the escalator once again, having tons of fun getting two golf bags and two suitcases on a narrow escalator, got off at the bottom and headed toward the front of the train for our sleeper car, where we met our cabin attendant standing outside. As he saw us approaching with the two golf bags and the luggage, he asked where were going. I said, “Gainesville GA” and he said “You can’t check your baggage there”. I explained my predicament to him, and told what the CSR in the lounge said, and he told us we would have to put them in the roomette for now, and once the train got rolling, he would see what he could do. True to his word, he came by about 5 minutes after we started moving, checked our tickets, and took the bags to an empty roomette.

So we settled into the roomette. The roomette has two seats that face each other, and they can recline, and also fold flat to make a bed. Cozy, but comfortable. There is another bed that is up nearly to the ceiling, and it lowers down for an upper berth second bed (both of them being twin size). There is climate control in each roomette, a sliding door for privacy, privacy curtains, a fold down sink that empties when you fold it back up again, 110 volt outlets, and a toilet that doubles as a step to get into the upper berth. Now, when you are traveling with someone else, you either have to be modesty free, or the other traveler will be leaving the roomette while you do your thing. As we were sitting there waiting to get under way, I had a flashback to my youth, and a little ditty that my dad used to sing:

When it is late and it gets dark, we goose the statues in the park,
If Sherman’s horse can take it why can’t you?
Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets on the train,
Especially when it is standing still!

So, we are now on our way again, with GPS plugged back in, and once we get out of the underground route, we are again treated to a view of the NYC skyline. Our route will take us from Penn Station, to Washington DC Charlottesville VA Greensboro NC Charlotte NC Spartanburg SC Clemson SC to Gainesville GA (where they do not have baggage claim service!). There are actually about 20-25 stops along the way, too numerous to mention. Total time is about 17 hours or so. The Penn Station to Washington DC leg is also on high-speed tracks, and we hit a high speed of 116 MPH on this leg.

Once again we are treated to nice scenery and after being underway for a little while, the dining steward came by to ask us what time we would like to eat. We decided on 5:30, which would have us eating in the Baltimore to Washington DC portion of the trip.

We went to the dining car, which was right next to our car, at our reservation time. Meals are included with the price of sleeping accommodations. We ordered drinks (they do not have full bar service, only beer, some wine, and common mixed drinks. They could not do a vodka martini or Manhattan. A little disappointing). We had appetizers, salad, entrée, and dessert. I had Jambalaya that was very good, as was the rest of the meal. Can’t remember what my wife had, but it was good as well. The food is not prepared today as it was in the glory days of train travel, but is more like the meals you may get on a plane in first class. I had taken a train back in the mid-sixties to Chicago and then on St. Paul MN, and the food was prepared right there on the train, real live plates with the trains logo on it (NY Central), regular glasses and coffee cups, and fine flatware. Now, it is quality plastic dishes and basic flatware, again like what you may get in first class while flying, still very nice.

The service was fantastic, and as I said, the food was very good. We were not rushed and really enjoyed our meal, eating and being able to look out at the surroundings between Baltimore and Washington. The dining steward, who was also our waiter, asked us where we were going, and we said Gainesville GA. He did not say that you can’t check your baggage there, but he did say that the train would arrive there about 7:00 AM and that they start serving breakfast at 6:30, and he would make sure we had time to eat before we got to Gainesville.

After a half hour layover in Washington, we were once again on our way, treated to a nice view of Washington including the capitol and some of the monuments, and the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria VA, a beautiful building with a huge square and compass emblem on the grounds leading up to the Memorial.

We soon were traveling through the Blue Ridge mountain foothills, and now on more familiar style tracks, often times single tracks, going through small towns, farming areas, and the occasional city. Speeds in this portion of the trip were reduced considerably, more in the range of 50-65, although sometimes we would be up around 75-80. When we were on the high-speed tracks, we were passing cars on interstates at a rapid rate, but now it was not uncommon to have cars on two lane roads slowly pass us. Once again, not a big deal, because we were able to enjoy the scenery in a way we would not if we driving.

About 10:30, we decided to go to bed, and I climbed up into the upper berth, complete with a webbing restraint system that covered the middle edge of the upper berth to keep you from falling out. The mattresses were about two inch thick pads and were surprisingly comfortable. We thought we would have a basically sleepless night, but the movement of the train was almost like being rocked in a cradle. What did tend to wake us up was the pulling into a station and then stopping. Even then, you are treated to some scenery or points of interest. In Charlotte, the train stops right behind the Carolina Panthers stadium. There was one other thing that could wake you.

If you are driving along a road next to a railroad track, you may notice a sign with a “W” on it. That “W” is placed about a quarter to a half-mile from a railroad crossing, any railroad crossing, including one from the county road across the tracks to Billy Bob’s farm. When the engineer sees that sign, he blows the train’s horn: a long blast, a long blast, a short blast, and a long blast. That would be long-long-short-long. That would be 24/7. The good news is that the train cars have pretty good noise reduction, as I said earlier, and like anything else, after a while you do tend to get used to it. Of course, now if we are driving up here, and see a railroad track and the “W” sign, I just have to go “beeeeeeeep-beeeeeeeeeep-beeep-beeeeeeeeeep”!!!!

After a restful night, we got up about 5:15 or so, got dressed, and I went down to the end of our car for a couple of cups of coffee…that had been there all night…but it was coffee, it was hot, and did help to open our eyes. We put the top bunk up, brought the seats up to their upright position and watched as we went through Clemson SC and Toccoa GA. We decided that since our friends who were meeting us would probably say let’s stop for breakfast, we decided that we would not go to breakfast on the train.

At about 6:35, the dining steward stuck his head in the roomette and said that the dining room was open, he had our coffee poured and juice on the table, waiting on us. Well, we didn’t have the heart to say no thanks, so we went down to the dining car, had a nice breakfast (I had scrambled eggs, she had french toast, both had bacon or sausage), good coffee, and true to his word, we were done and walking back to the roomette as the train started to slow for its arrival in Gainesville.

Our cabin attendant got our golf clubs to the steps between cars on the train, and we brought our suitcases, and we all arrived in Gainesville. I had tipped him the night before for the clubs, but gave him another tip as we left and thanked him so much for a great train trip.

Our friends were there to meet us, and Nels grabbed the golf bags, even though he didn’t have a Red Cap on. We headed for IHOP for breakfast (no, we didn’t say we already ate) and we were on the first tee at Chatahoochee Golf Club at 9:00 AM.

The train trip was all we hoped it would be and more. Looking beyond the fiasco of no Red Caps and not being able to check our baggage, the trip was totally enjoyable and something we want to do again. It is scenic, peaceful, comfortable, and relaxing. It is not fast, but you also do not have to stand in line for an hour going through security, you are not crammed into a seat with no legroom, and we were not delayed at the gate or enroute.

We played golf on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. We played a total of five different courses, having played their course twice, and thoroughly enjoyed our visit. After Friday’s round, we went back to their house, put the golf clubs into the travel bags, and headed to the UPS store, where we spent a hundred bucks to ship the clubs back to NH. We got them on Tuesday.

With no golf clubs, the train ride home was equally wonderful. We boarded the train in Gainesville GA (remember Gainesville, they do not have baggage check service there) for a 9:15 PM departure, went to bed about 11:00 and got up about 6 in the morning. We had breakfast around Charlottesville VA, around 7:00 AM. We then had lunch around Baltimore at about noon, arriving in Penn Station at around 2PM. We then caught our train at about 6PM for Boston. Slow train. It only hit 116 MPH. It wasn’t one of those Acela speed demons.

Would we take another train trip? Absolutely. Would we recommend train travel to others? Absolutely. It can be a great way to go to NYC, Washington, Philly, etc., with plenty of legroom and comfort. Having the GPS was great, as it let us see at a glance where we were when between stations. I might be tempted to also bring an atlas, depending on where we are going. If you have a GPS, bring it. It is a nice thing to watch.

Hope you enjoyed the trip.
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Comments

  1. Old Comment

    Thanks

    Thanks for writing that. A great read. I've always been very curious about train travel. And, thought it would be a nice way to see the country side go by. Maybe one day...
    It's funny. As I was reading about your trip, I kept thinking, "wow, if you had just thought to Fed Ex your clubs, and not have to deal with them, things would have been soooooo much easier". So, at the end, I laughed upon reading the UPS part.
    Thanks again....
    Curious if you might share some $$$$ aspects of train travel?
    Posted 06-17-2009 at 05:55 PM by sa meredith sa meredith is offline
  2. Old Comment
    upthesaukee's Avatar

    Costs

    Thanks for the comment. We really did have a lot of fun on the trip, but those #$#%^&% golf clubs...

    The cost of the trip was just a little under $1100. That was reserved seating coach to and from Penn Station and Boston; to and from Penn Station and Gainesville we had a roomette. It was a leisurely way to travel, and very relaxing. Other costs: Alcohol, some appetizers, tipping cabin attendants (sleeper car), tipping waitstaff in dining car, tipping Red Caps (when you could find one, or did he find me ), snacks sandwiches etc on the Boston NY segment, and I guess the cost to get to and from Boston to the house, but you would have that cost flying.

    Time from get on the departure train to arrive at destination station was about 23 hours...plane trip from airport arrival (1.5 hours ahead) to baggage in hand at destination (Atlanta) total probably just under 5 hours. So, the train took 4-5 times as long, but we travelled in a very relaxed environment, a lot of "us" time for my wife and I, and again, we would do it again in a hearbeat.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments. amtrak.com is a wealth of info, too.

    Regards, Dave
    Posted 06-17-2009 at 10:04 PM by upthesaukee upthesaukee is offline
  3. Old Comment

    Sounds like a wonderful trip !

    Thanks for sharing your story Dave, it sounds like you and the Mrs. had a wonderful trip. I will have to talk "Mac" into a train vacation some time. I loved reading your story. You are a great story teller....keep them coming. Hope we get to see you some time this summer.
    - "Mee"
    Posted 06-19-2009 at 06:32 PM by Winnipesaukee_Girl Winnipesaukee_Girl is offline
  4. Old Comment
    ILoveWinnipesaukee's Avatar

    Amtrak is the best

    After reading your story, I had to add my own experience with Amtrak. My mother-in-law and I took Amtrak from Worcester MA thru Chicago to Fort Worth TX to visit my brother.

    We got a sleeper coach which is larger than the roomette and includes a full bathroom with door, well I say rull bathroom, there is a tiny room with a toilet and a hand shower. If you are a larger person like myself, it is a one way in and one way out area. But at least there is a door and it is private.

    The food we had was delicious. My mother-in-law even had rack of lamb. The price for the two of us included all the meals and we were on trains for two days, with a few hour stop over in Chicago.

    I recommend Amtrak travel to anyone who has the time and the money, as it is somewhat pricy. It was so relaxing to be able to just relax and enjoy the view. I am hoping to take Amtrak across country all the way to the west coast.
    Posted 06-21-2009 at 02:21 PM by ILoveWinnipesaukee ILoveWinnipesaukee is offline
  5. Old Comment
    mcdude's Avatar
    Interesting read Dave. You know how I love train trips! McD
    Posted 06-29-2009 at 12:23 PM by mcdude mcdude is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Rattlesnake Gal's Avatar

    Very Interesting - Thanks For Sharing Your Story!

    Thanks for the great story Dave. Felt like I was along for the ride with you.

    Please say hello to Jane for me.

    Celia
    Posted 09-14-2009 at 01:24 PM by Rattlesnake Gal Rattlesnake Gal is offline
 

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