The Epic Low-Carbon (??) Journey

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
Trip End Aug 02, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Illinois
Saturday, June 28, 2008

OK, so taking the train is not "epic" in the way that, say, walking from Northampton to Missoula would be - or even biking.  Nor is it as low-carbon.  But, with two children under 6 and - more to the point - a sadly underfunded national rail system - it was plenty epic enough.

The trouble started when we got to the train station in Springfield.  We were fully prepared for the fact that we'd be bused rather than trained to Albany, as Amtrak had called us (not once but twice) to let us know.  The same day we heard this, both Joe and I had independently called Amtrak's national line to make sure that we wouldn't have any trouble getting our bikes on the train.  No reservations needed for the bike boxes, we were told, just $5 per box extra charge when we got to the station.

What we weren't prepared for was the matter-of-fact incredulity of the ticket agent at the window.  "You have three bike boxes?  Well - I doubt those will fit on the bus.  It's not a train, you know.  We don't have unlimited room."  

"I see.  You know, we called Amtrak about this and was told it would be fine."

"I don't know what they told you, but if there's no room, there's nothing I can do about it."

"Mmm-hmm." I tried to stay calm, which is not my strong point in such situations, but I kept it together.  "Well, if we can't get them on the bus, it makes sense that Amtrak would pay to ship them to us, right?  These bikes are our transportation for the summer.  We won't have a car."

"I don't know what Amtrak will do.  I'm not in a position to tell you they'll ship them and neither is anyone else here.  You'll have to call the 800 number."  

I glanced with chagrin at Khiem, who had already given up his lunchtime to drive us down here and no doubt wanted to get home to his family.  "We'll figure this out - just give me a second."  I dialed 800-USA-RAIL.  According to Julie, the Automated Reservations Agent, it would be about 18 minutes before I could talk to a live human being.  I held the phone until Ren runs off, then left it dangling to chase him.  Khiem picked it up and waited for me.  When I finally spoke to a live human (who needs to put me on hold to talk to another one for awhile), her pronouncement was: ship them, save your receipts and hope for the best.


Amtrak's customer service didn't get much better.  The bus was fine, as buses go, and thanks in part to Joe's quick moves with bike boxes, all three made it in.  The wait in Albany was undramatic, though I was glad we'd brought our own food - the snack bar didn't have much in the way of actual edible nutrition.  Then the Lakeshore Limited chugged in, remarkably only a few minutes late.  Stupid me - I thought that the "Reserved Seating" label on our tickets meant we had, you know, reserved seats.  By the time kids and luggage were gathered and down to the platform, the conductors couldn't find four seats together.  (They were using an advanced method of seating, called paper-slips-with-open-seats-written-on-them.  Oh, and did I mention that despite huge signs detailing Important Security Measures, no one ever checked our IDs?  Amtrak doesn't seem to be much for logic or accountability.)  Joe misunderstood the surly conductor who told him where to put his family, and we ended up - oh goodie! - right behind her seat, right next to a door that was busy all night, and right under a safety light that never dimmed.

We didn't sleep too well, which made it all the more difficult to respond appropriately when we got to Chicago and were told that, due to Mississippi River flooding, we would be bused 9 hours to St. Paul, Minnesota. The kids, who had been desperately anticipating the family room we'd splurged on, took it better than I did. (Amtrak at least promised to refund part of the price of the sleeping accommodations, though as I write this - two weeks later - they have not yet done so.)  On the bus we were given a pasty turkey sandwich, a bag of potato chips, water and Mountain Dew, and instructions to pass them back hand over hand until everyone had one - one of the few moments of levity on that leg of the trip.  

Things got better once we hit St. Paul.  Though we were the first of nine buses to arrive, we were let onto the train almost immediately.  We collapsed into beds already made up for us, though not before sharing cookies and champagne (sparkling cider for the wee ones) reserved for us first-class customers.  (I hadn't realized sleeping horizontally qualified as first class, but I now appreciate on a new level that humans were really not designed to sleep upright.)  The train pulled out almost two hours late, but we didn't care, at least not then.  (24 hours later, when we finally arrived in Whitefish with two fast-asleep babes, I wished it had left on time.)  The next day we met lots of other people with complaints about Amtrak, and lodged a couple more of our own when we found there were no vegetarian entrees left at lunch.  But all in all it was fairly civilized on the Empire Builder.

Was it worth it?  Should we have simply driven or - heaven forbid - flown?  Well, cost-wise, even with our sleeping berth I think we came out ahead.  The trip cost us about $1800 round trip - much cheaper because we booked early and had flexible dates.  (My first Amtrak encounter was in February with an extraordinary bastion of customer service - a man who spent 40 minutes on the phone with me figuring out which dates had the cheapest seats available.)  Flying would have been, I suspect, at least as much, plus we would have had to ship the bike boxes.  Driving the 2500 miles each way at about 50 cents a mile (the going governmental rate) would have been $2500.  In addition, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures for 2003 (the most recent I found), Amtrak weighs in at 2,935 BTUs of energy per passenger-mile, compared to 3,587 for airlines and 3,549 for driving.  So we can feel that we made the energy-efficient choice, right?

Still - good lord!  Almost 3000 BTUs per passenger mile?  Four of us traveling round-trip from NoHo to Whitefish burned 60 million BTUs!!  That's enough to heat our (admittedly energy-efficient) house for about three winters!  So much for feeling smug about our low-carbon vacation, and probably too for our plans to do it again in a couple of years.

The best part of the trip, though, were the people.  Our time in stations and on vehicles had a totally different feel than it would on an airline.  Perhaps it's the lack of tedious security measures (terrorists, are you listening?).  Perhaps just knowing we all made a choice to buck the transportation trend and go by rail.  Whatever the reason, everyone we met seemed open and friendly.  By Albany we were fast friends with a toddler from Cleveland and his family.  Somewhere around Madison we were borrowing a total stranger's map atlas.  On the lounge car of the Empire Builder we compared notes on parts of Montana with travelers hailing from Portland and Texas.  That aspect, the sense that everyone you met was someone worth getting to know, is a legacy I hope I can leave my children, however (and even whether) we travel.
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