In Praise of Trains again

One of the many pleasures of living in New York is the easy access one has to a massive commuter and trans-continental train network that radiates north, south, and westward into North America. Even before I moved to the city, I took a trip on Amtrak from Boston, where I had flown in for a conference, to New York (to interview for the job I now have). I’ve done that trip twice since I moved here and find it about as close to peaceful travel as I’ve ever gotten. It’s a four-hour ride, most of which I tend to pass in the café cars, two of which sandwich the café lounge. I usually stake out a booth and watch the country zip by while sipping a cup of tea. Occasionally, if I have to catch up on work, I’ll devote some time to it on my laptop (Amtrak being somewhat equipped with wi-fi).

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I took the same route for a slightly longer trip to Portland, Maine, this summer

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(which requires switching to a different train that starts from another hub in Boston or catching a bus).

Amtrak has also taken me to Baltimore (via both the regular train and the marginally faster Acela)

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and Washington D.C., a route that runs southward through New Jersey and Maryland.

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In all these cases, I first head to Manhattan’s Penn Station, which is the hub for Amtrak’s network. I normally buy tickets in advance, since fares can go up from $30/one-way (two weeks before travel) to $150. Most of the time, I can use e-tickets with barcodes through my phone but occasionally, as on the Portland trip, paper tickets are needed to make the switch from train to bus. Penn Station has plenty of auto-tellers where you can print out the ticket with your confirmation number or a credit card. Then there’s a lot of staring up at the electronic board to see which platform the train will arrive/depart from, though regular commuters seem to be able to predict it.

I try to scope out where the line seems to be forming close to my train’s departure time and join it, not so much because I’m scared I won’t make the train but because I like to get that café car booth. (The tickets I buy are almost always for economy/coach seats so there’s no assigned seating.) The access to each platform entrance is usually manned by a couple of employees who check your ticket and then let you onto the escalators that take you to the platforms downstairs. Once I’m in my seat (and I often share a booth with other travelers), I drop my (usually small) piece of luggage on the floor and wait for the train to depart. Once the trip is underway, I head over to the café for my tea and a bag of Utz chips, which are ubiquitous in the Northeast. (I have also tried what passes for a burger and a salad on these trains; sufficeth to say, there are some things below airline food.)

On most trips, the conductor comes around to view your ticket and may take any paper copies you have and stick a punched strip of paper onto the back of your seat. I think they can also sell you a ticket but it may involve a hefty markup.

While Amtrak has taken me longer distances, New Jersey Transit allows for shorter trips   into the eponymous neighboring state from New York. Departing from Penn as well, these commuter trains ferry workers back and forth from Manhattan and other parts of the city to and from Jersey every day. I’ve had occasion to use the trains to go to Princeton on professional trips (which can take less than an hour on the express train)

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to Tuxedo for a hike (after switching to the Port Jervis line at the Secaucus hub)

Harriman State Park

Harriman State Park

and to other New Jersey towns like South Orange, Metropark, and Metuchen to see friends and family. I know that the United States is the land of cars and freeways and being zen while maintaining your motor cycle. But I’ll take the sway of the carriage, the view from the café car, and the pleasure of seeing friends at a train platform over the pleasures of the open road.

                Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track

Forks into two; and one of these

Wheels onward into darkening hills,

And one toward distant seas.

 

How still it is; the signal light

At set of sun shines palely green;

A thrush sings; other sound there’s none,

Nor traveller to be seen-

 

Where late there was a throng. And now,

In peace awhile, I sit alone;

Though soon, at the appointed hour,

I shall myself be gone.

 

But not their way (the bow-legged groom,

The parson in black, the widow and son,

The sailor with his cage, the gaunt

Gamekeeper with his gun.

 

That fair one too, discreetly veiled

All, who so mutely came, and went,

Will reach those far nocturnal hills

Or shores, ere night is spent.

 

I nothing know why thus we met-

Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:

And what shall I remember, except-

The evening growing late-

 

That here through tunnelled gloom the track

Forks into two; of these

One into darkening hills leads on,

And one toward distant seas?

Walter De La Mare

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