May 28, 201302:36 PMBlaska's Bring It!
with David Blaska
All aboard the American train
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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.