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May 28, 201302:36 PMBlaska's Bring It!

with David Blaska

All aboard the American train

(page 1 of 2)

I love passenger rail. That may not be politically correct for a Scott Walker fan, but I say it anyway, especially compared to the alternatives.

I hate planes. You’re stuffed into a too-narrow seat with no legroom and no food worthy of the name. The fat guy in front of you is trying to force Walmart into the overhead bin and the kid somewhere in back won’t stop bawling.

Flying is bliss compared to the airports, depots of dread. Everyone is a potential Tsarnaev. They pat you down, stick wands in your nether regions, force you into lines, X-ray your bags, and bark at you with badges. The full mistreatment except for the Miranda warning.

You packing lotion?

No. #1 Son and The Squire aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Limited sleeping car.

That is why Your Humble Squire, the Lovely Lisa, and Number #1 Son took Amtrak to Washington, D.C., last week.

The Van Galder Coachways bus picked us up at the Dutch Mill Park & Ride on the SE side of Madison. No charge for parking for up to seven days. The bus drops you off at Union Station in downtown Chicago.

If you booked a sleeper car – and it is the only way to travel long distances by train – it’s a short walk from the down escalator to the Metropolitan Lounge. Leather seats, sofas, subdued lighting, free snacks. Your luggage? Just put it over there.

We kept our shoes on the whole time. Our dignity, too.

Amtrak’s Superliner roomettes are a marvel of engineering small spaces, measuring 3 feet 6 inches by 6 feet 6 inches. But it’s yours and yours alone. You sit face to face on a fabric reclining seat with a pull-down table between you, should you want it. There’s even a small closet, although most of your luggage is stashed on the lower level of the car – where it is always accessible, via a narrow stairway. (Take the virtual tour of an Amtrak roomette here.)

You get your own picture window – a front-row seat on America. You get to see how people live and where they work – all the while sipping a glass of wine and cuddling with a good book. The industrial desolation of South Chicago and the forbidding U.S. Steel works of northern Indiana are interesting, to say the least. Cleveland and the rest of Ohio passed by during the night, unobserved. In the morning, the Capitol Limited follows the Potomac River through the verdant West Virginia and Maryland mountains. Lovely country. A National Historic Park guide situated in the observation car explained the historic, including Harper’s Ferry and Cumberland.

(Indeed, that was the theme of our one-week trip: War and Peace. We visited the Manassas [aka Bull Run] Civil War battlefield, Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Jefferson’s Monticello and University of Virginia. We noshed in Georgetown and spoke to a Jesuit at the university. Toured Embassy Row north of DuPont Circle and the imposing National Cathedral, slightly damaged by the earthquake. Relaxed at Shenandoah National Park straddling the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we saw a black bear cub in the wild. Perhaps a story for another time.)

That’s the other great thing about trains; you can exercise your legs. You’re free to roam about the train. A snack bar resides on the lower level of the observation car.

Pull the curtain and sliding glass door for privacy and quiet. Tell the attendant when you want your roomette “turned down” for bed. (There’s a lighted button for that purpose.) That’s where the fun begins. Undressing is a contortionist’s routine. Each of the two berths, one atop the other, sleeps only one. Two steps are built into the roomette (otherwise serving as shelves). But there’s a small reading light even up top. And a gate to keep you from falling out. You awake in the morning, a copy of USA Today under your sliding door. The cheery dining car attendant is singing, “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! We’re serving breakfast!”

Sleeper car patrons get first call for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – included in the sleeper room fare. My meals were excellent and capacious, ranging from ribs to steak to tilapia. Always a salad, dinner rolls, and plenty of coffee. You are seated four to a table. “You will make friends,” chirped our diner gal.

Bathrooms are down the hall, including a dedicated shower room. There was no Wi-Fi on this train.

Washington’s Union Station Amtrak terminal is its own must-see.

Put it on the card

Amtrak first class ain’t cheap. Rail fare (coach) is $123 each person, one-way, including Van Galder bus from Madison to Union Station, Chicago. Add $350 each way for a Superliner roomette, which sleeps two. Our bill for three passengers in two roomettes, round-trip, amounted to $2,138.

A quick Expedia search found round-trip airfare for three, Madison to D.C., at $918.

But consider the two sleeper cars for one night each way as a hotel room. Say, a cheap hotel room at $130. That’s another $520. Now suppose the five meals for three persons averaged $12 each. That’s $180. That’s still a $500 premium for rail that my math says was worth traveling like a human being, rather than a can of Spam, with America rolling by right outside my window.

And it beats the numbing drive through the Indiana and Ohio Turnpike. Avoiding Chicago and its hellbent motorists is worth it, alone.


Old to new | New to old
May 29, 2013 09:44 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Welcome back- thought they'd finally hauled you off to re-education camp. Have made the trip many times over 40 years by car, and a few times by train. Didn't care for Amtrak- I settled into my seat, wide awake, for a late night read and they turned out the lights! Lots to see out east- you missed the Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in DC, and also my folks' hometown of Winchester, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley. Harpers Ferry has been a family favorite hangout for decades- beautiful scenery at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. A bit farther west and we're talking banjos and tobacco juice spittin'. Glad you made it back.

May 29, 2013 10:40 am
 Posted by  David Blaska

Did see the Shrine of St. Mary on a previous trip. Didn't make it into the valley past Front Royal. A lot of small civil war skirmishes in the valley. I do so much love Va's climate. One of the gardeners at Monticello said seeds were in the ground in February. Average January high in Charlottesville is 45 degrees. They do have fall colors but winters are mild. Love the green of the grass and the mountains in the background of the piedmont country.

May 30, 2013 09:46 am
 Posted by  uwbiz96

I've been through northern Indiana many times, although never by train. It should serve as a caution to anyone who believes in increased reliance on the outdated economics of manufacturing and mining.

And the beautiful national parks and monuments you visited are a treasure. Glad some president didn't cook up the idea to sell them off.

May 30, 2013 12:47 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Actually trains are more economical for trips that are only a day- myself and my daughter have used them a lot from Ann Arbor (which unfortunately means an uncomfortable bus ride to Chicago ever been on a Van Galder with a broken air vent blowing in your face- I have often I do a lot of second job work in Chicago and often take the bus as in the long ruin it is cheaper) The train to Ann Arbor is comfortable has a nice schedule and oddly since Obama became President runs on time at least when we have used it-(never ran on time during the Bush years- key was some minor changes in scheduling freight versus passenger ) the cost compares favorably with the gas cost on our midsize subaru for the trip and you can read or work the whole way. The Ann Arbor train has a lot of passengers but is not overcrowded
The thing I miss most about moving to Dane county is the Chicago El- I worked freelance while I commuted and earned money or relaxed for the 30-45 minutes from home to work. Also did not have to exercise to keep off the pounds .
The oddest thing about the train debate here was the narrow focus of it- no one discussed the possibility of adding a frieght car for express packages and mail which would have generated income but then increasingly this is a failed state in a failed country we talk soundbutes instead of finding ways to acoomplish things.

May 30, 2013 01:01 pm
 Posted by  Douglas Alexander

I'm with you. Sleeper rooms on a train make it a highlight of a trip, part of the fun, not a "pain" before the fun begins. I use them whenever I can. And AmTrak isn't so inefficient as many people say when you consider that the US Govt. subsidizes air travel by paying for airports and air traffic controllers.

May 30, 2013 01:04 pm
 Posted by  mark

Sounds like a fantastic trip, David! And thank goodness there's no deficit spending on Amtrak!! Which makes the point I think you missed, based on your closing comment. If you don't build it, they won't come. But, to your point, they're not coming today even at the taxpayer subsidized prices you experienced. Not arguing with your choice of mode of travel, but you seem to undercut the very case you're trying to make.

Now I'm off to drive to Milwaukee to fly into National...where I'll catch the Metro to my hotel...(grin)

May 30, 2013 02:33 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Different strokes for different folks I guess. Me, I love driving Back East. I download some audio books (the last time I listened to The Johnston Flood by David McCullough) and just drive. I love saving the money. And no, a sleeper berth is NOT the equivalent of a $130 hotel room. And no WIFI? Is that bug or a feature?

Jun 5, 2013 08:52 am
 Posted by  madisonexpat

Suggested reading: The Iron Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley.

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About This Blog

Raised on a farm near Sun Prairie, David Blaska is a recovering liberal who spent 18 years in daily newspapers, including 12 at The Capital Times in Madison as a reporter and editor. He served Gov. Tommy Thompson as acting press secretary in 1998 and is a veteran and survivor of 19 years in state government. He served 12 years on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. From December 2007 to November 2011 he wrote the consistently popular "Blaska's Blog" for Isthmus online's "The Daily Page" until, he says, the intolerant liberals ran him off. He blogs from Madison.

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