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Archive for September 7th, 2008

Last week I decided that I needed to go for a train ride.  I hadn’t been on a train for years and I’ve never been on the American rails, so I popped onto Amtrak’s site to have a look.  That’s when I discovered that I could arrive in and depart from Chicago on the same day and have thirteen hours to explore the city – a city I hadn’t been to in a very long time.  Four days prior to departure I secured round-trip passage for $166.

On Friday night I headed for Cleveland to catch a 2:47 am Saturday departure.  I decided to drive because parking at the terminal is free and had I taken the bus, I would have had to pay for cab fare to the station.  I figured that a half tank of gas would be about the same as cab fare, and it gave me some added flexibility.

Cleveland’s terminal is small – odd for a once prominent city,  but the space was clean and surprisingly filled with others waiting for one of two Chicago-bound trains.  Despite a thirty-minute delay the staff was helpful and communicative about the late departure.  Boarding of the train was easy.  We crossed the tracks and were escorted to our respective car by a well dressed and pleasant crew.

Onboard, I was surprised by the amount of personal space and cleanliness of the Amtrak Superliner.  My coach seat rivaled any First Class airline seat.  My seat reclined nicely and with the leg rest and foot rest extended I had plenty of comfort for the 6.5 hour ride.   On board, attendants took care of information personally so that those who were sleeping wouldn’t be awakened by public announcements.  On the lower level of each coach car were three bathrooms and a large dressing room which was equipped with a nicely upholstered stool and large mirrored vanity.  Every seat had access to electrical outlets.

When I lived in Salt Lake I lived a block from the rail line which led, not only to the Amtrak station but to a large rail yard, both just a few blocks in either direction.  Once I got used to the sound of passing trains and the unique horn-blowing patterns of various engineers, I found that the heavy sounds of steel cars rolling past were actually restful.  From inside the Superliner the deep, distant muffled sounds of engine and horn blowing at grade crossings reminded me of that.  I dozed off along the way while watching the small American Gothic-like towns pass by.

Toledo’s train station came as a surprise – as an icon from another time.  Multiple platforms were covered by large arcs of iron framework and drop lights gave the nearly abandoned place the look of an Edward Hopper painting.  Heavy shadows against equally heavy iron and stone.

Daylight broke before we reached South Bend.  I knew I’d sleep no more as the landscape became visible so I made my way to the lounge car to get a coffee.  Downstairs a small cafe offered packaged treats and drinks.  Above it was the beautifully appointed observation deck with larger windows, arcing glass ceilings and overstuffed chairs set up for viewing.  Passengers met there to chat and watch the countryside move past.  A formal dining car was also available, complete with reservations and after 7 am, announcements were made when one’s table was ready.  The inter-state freeway system has moved commercialism away from the tracks, but has left behind the traditional agricultural interests of mid-west, leaving the view unencumbered by modernism.  I sat upstairs for a bit and watched the golden morning light weave its way through soon to be harvested crops.  Telegraph lines still hang from leaning weathered poles.

Flourishing agriculture gives way to an eerily vacant Gary, Indiana.  Soaring, vast and expansive facilities rust away as far as the eye can see.  Strange and mutated land where it would be difficult to imagine anything could grow again.

Chicago’s Union Station greeted me at 9:30 am.  Up to the street I found the city already awake.  Spotless!  Downtown Chicago is spotless.  First stop was the Chicago Architecture Foundation to get tickets for their river tour.  A ninety-minute tour for $30.  They sell out quickly on the weekends. Breakfast at the corner of Wacker Drive and Wabash with the Marina Towers watching over me.  A stroll along Michigan Avenue with a friend from Columbus who happened to be there for a wedding.  The afternoon, including the river tour, was spent with a friend who is in Chicago for her Master’s in architecture.  Deep dish pizza for dinner.

We’d planned to visit one of the museums, but found that they were closed by 5 pm, so we walked along the lake, stopped for an ice cream and spent time at Millennium Park – part of the 24-acre Grant Park which abounds with interactive public features, including the new outdoor concert venue by architect Frank Gehry.  Hundreds upon hundreds of people were out enjoying the space in picture-perfect weather.  A truly magnificent city.

I arrived back at Union Station with time to spare.  Its grand hall soars to coffered ceilings atop fluted columns.  The platforms are now below grade, as the city purchased the air rights from the railroad and built over them.  Boarding the train back to Cleveland was efficient, and Amtrak offers pre-boarding to the elderly and families first.  A standard train for the ride home was equally spacious.  Greeted once again by a friendly staff and escorted to our appropriate car, we were individually offered fresh pillows after our tickets were inspected.  I slept the entire way home, exhausted from a wonderful day in the city.

Amtrak was better than I ever expected and while not as fast as the trains in Europe, the quality of the ride was equal, if not better.  Compared to airline travel, it is far superior.  Downtown to downtown travel requires no additional cost in transportation and when Amtrak returns to Columbus, I’ll be hard-pressed to want to return to the long lines, intrusive security and hoards of angry people that the airlines have created.  If there is to be another golden age of American travel, it most certainly will include trains.

My total expenditure for the trip was $281, including the gas to drive to and from Cleveland.  A great price that included the great journey.

Photos from the visit are on Flickr – up and to the right.

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