Maybe this train thing is genetic.
Anyone who's been around my dad when a train goes by knows he gets this slightly gleeful expression on his face.
"I love trains," he usually says.
I didn't pay much attention to trains for the first quarter century of my life. I had a positive association with them only as something my dad really liked, but that was about it.
But then I moved to the DC area. I started taking the train, and I was amazed at how simple it was. Show up a half hour before your departure time, snag your ticket and maybe a to-go meal or snack, get on the train. No shuttle from distant parking, no security line, no shoes off and laptops out, no anarchic rush to board and find enough space for your carry-on. And, especially, no stupid little quart bag.
I'll admit I could still care less about freight trains, save the part they play in keeping semis off the interstates. But passenger rail is something I rapidly came to love, even though it currently falls well short of its potential here in the United States.
Let's face it — not a lot about Amtrak hearkens back to the golden age of train travel, when men and women dressed to the nines sat down to gourmet meals in the dining car, and GIs with their gear bags waved goodbye to sweethearts and families on small-town platforms, headed for the great wars of the last century.
Most Amtrak trains today are tiny silver tubes that fall significantly short on character. When Barack Obama rolled in to Washington for inauguration in a vintage 1930s train car attached to standard Amtrak stock, it looked downright comical, as if both came from entirely different universes but had somehow come to be hitched together through some train yard time travel mishap.
What Amtrak trains are, though, is comfortable on the inside, and generally cleaner and better-maintained than planes. Seats are as large as business or even first class seats on your average airplane, and there's legroom galore. No seat belt to keep buckled, and you really are free to move around whenever you want. There's no high-altitude pressurized cabin, and no recirculated, germ-filled air. And while there's noise, it's the more pleasant clack of the tracks and brief sounding of the horn, not the loud drone of an airplane. I'm not packing my noise-cancelling earphones.
Until extremely high speed trains, like those in France and Japan, are embraced here, flying is still going to be the means of choice for a cross-country haul. Few of us have the time to take several days to cross the country, even if we have the chance to see some truly spectacular scenery along the way.
But for short to mid-range trips, I think more and more of us are going to choose comfort and convenience over saving a few hours. Many can't, though, until Amtrak adds more service, and high speed rail lines in uncovered areas become a reality.
I lived in Cincinnati a few years ago. You can get to Chicago from Cincinnati by train, in 10 1/2 hours going out, and 8 1/2 hours coming back. The trouble is, you'll have to leave Cincinnati at 1:10 a.m., and get back at 3:17 a.m. But if you could take a train at a convenient time between those two cities, wouldn't it beat flying into busy O'Hare, or driving into Chicago's mess of traffic? And what if that route was high-speed rail, and got you there in less time than it would take to drive?
There's a real chicken or the egg problem with train travel in the United States. People won't ride trains until they are more convenient, and Amtrak can't provide more convenient routes and times (even at standard speeds) until more people ride the existing trains.
It's why I took the Carolinian down from Washington to Charlotte for my sister's wedding last year. It was cheaper than flying, and maybe a bit more expensive than driving, back at the height of $4 a gallon gas (my car gets great highway MPG). It was also the longest of my travel options, at 8-9 hours in the train. But it was also the most hassle-free. And as I read, dozed, worked on my plugged-in laptop, and just enjoyed the view out the window all the way to Charlotte, I knew I'd made the right choice. I wasn't alone, either. The train was full going down and coming back, my own personal experience of Amtrak's record year for ridership in 2008.
That, and the significant support of President Obama and "Amtrak Joe" Biden for train travel, gives me hope that rail service in this country will get the funding and support it needs to improve and expand. Recent money allocated for high-speed rail is a huge step in the right direction.
I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't fascinated by bygone means of travel. But in the case of train travel, it's pretty obvious that the past is also going to be the future. The question is how quickly we embrace it.
Right now, though, I'm mostly focused on the near future, and the fact that tomorrow I'll get to go the fastest I ever have on land — up to 150 mph. I am so ready for this trip to actually begin.