There are a few commonly acknowledged advantages to train travel: It is much less stressful than plane travel (no TSA!) and it gives you time and space to read, sleep, watch movies or get work done — big advantages over cars.
It keeps you off the roads, meaning you're less likely to be subject to rush-hour traffic jams or construction. And depending on the route, it can be cheaper (especially once you add in the cost of the plane with getting to and from the plane, plus parking).
On a recent trip, I opted to take the train for 19 hours rather than a two-hour flight, a layover and one-hour flight, because all told, even though flying was "faster," I would end up traveling for about nine hours (taking travel to the airport into consideration, plus all the transfers and the layover time.) I knew from experience that between the lines and boarding and bag wrestling and train-to-subway-to-light-rail-to-plane I would be totally stressed out. Taking the train meant a 10-minute commute to the station and then I was off to my destination. It would take longer, but the time en route would be enjoyable, as opposed to almost 10 hours of what I consider to be nerve-wracking travel via plane (or more if I missed a connection somewhere).
But more than avoiding the pain and stress of plane travel (not to mention the crazy-packed jets and the fact that my just-a-bit-taller-than-average self is never at all comfortable in plane seats), train travel allows me to move around more like people historically have — while seeing what was in between point A and point B.
In an age when almost everyone seems to complain about disconnection (and flying), one simple way to avoid both is taking the train. Staring out the window at the landscape flying by is both incredibly relaxing and also lets you see what's between the cities. Those landscapes that we never get a chance to see inform us about seasonal change, different ecosystems, small differences between towns in the same state, and what people are doing in small, often overlooked towns.
Oftentimes you get a chance to see slices of life; on a recent trip I saw dogs playing in a backyard, children waving at the train from the shores of a riverside park, a wedding party leaving a church and a man working on a '40s-era vintage truck. These are vistas you'll never be privy to from a car on the highway, and definitely not from the height of a plane. Because trains take routes that go through the middle of towns, instead of around them, the train rider experiences what it's like to drop in on towns with one stoplight, or see how far suburbs sprawl outside of a destination city.
I got plenty of work done; Amtrak has enough outlets for everyone, and I got to catch up on my non-Internet-connected work, which in this day and age, is a boon for all of us distracted by email. And on some Amtrak routes, there's already Wi-Fi (or it's coming in the near future), so soon, the train can be a mobile office, with probably the most fabulous view ever — one that never stays the same.
All photos: Starre Vartan
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