Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Travel by Train


We are a family that loves trains. My daughter, of course, loves trains the way any small child seems to do. I guess there is just something about the rushing sound and speed and the long drawn out whistle that is fascinating. She’s been excited about trains since she was just about one year old. My husband has also always loved trains. He is a very detail oriented, analytical person and he is fascinated by time tables and schedules and maps, so trains are right up his alley. He is also big on caring for the environment, and train travel is less polluting than a car. As for me, I love the romance of the train. Trains in my mind are connected with so many stories and books as well as so many of my own past adventures. After I graduated medical school my husband and I took a cross country train trip, from D.C. to Boston to Chicago to Oakland. Then a week later we came back from L.A. to Chicago to D.C. We slept in a Pullman car with funny fold-down beds and ate our meals in the train dining car. We read books across the Great Plains and saw the Rocky Mountains from the glass observatory car. It is still one of my favorite trips ever, one that I hope we can repeat with our daughter when she is a little older.

So you will probably not be surprised to know that we opted to take the train this past weekend when we had a special event in New Jersey. Our goal was attending a dear friend’s baby shower and the train seemed like the efficient, low stress way to travel for a very short trip. It would take us about 3 hours up, we could rent a zipcar locally to get around town, stay in a hotel room overnight, and get home in about 3 hours the next day. We cashed in some points from a credit card and there we were, tickets in hand. We should have remembered though, that travelling almost always teaches you to be flexible.

The train ride up worked beautifully, just as we had hoped. My daughter sat in her seat (she has to have her own) and watched our Kindle, I sat next to her and knitted and read a few stories to her, my husband sat across the aisle and handed us snacks, and we arrived on time in calm, happy spirits. It was the ride back that got us into trouble. The train broke down about 100 yards out of the station. We sat on the track for about 45 minutes while the engineers tried to fix the problem, and then we backed up to the station and got off the train. We were directed to another train and so we schlepped our baggage (which wasn’t much, but did include a suitcase, some backpacks and our daughter’s car seat) onto the next train. Of course at this point there were not two seats together (there is no assigned seating on a train anyway and people spread out) but a kind woman offered to swap seats so my daughter and I could sit together. Just as the train got into motion the conductor announced that we would have to swap trains again a few stations down the line, since this train wasn’t actually heading to our destination. So we schlepped our stuff back off the train about 45 minutes later and back onto another train, which was much more crowded. This time we could only find two seats for the three of us, and we felt lucky to find those since many people were left standing. My daughter sat in my lap for the rest of the 2 hour ride. We arrived at our destination about 1.5 hours late and made it home a little before midnight.

I had two separate trains of thought myself during this adventure (as opposed to the three trains we boarded to get home…). The first was my usual internal grumbling when I don’t get my way. Growl growl growl… we paid (well, used points up) for my daughter’s seat and she didn’t get one. Why doesn’t Amtrak have extra cars available to connect to trains in circumstances like these? Why isn’t the service more reliable, what’s wrong with their equipment? I’m tired I’m crowded I want to be home already. Why didn’t we just drive? Growl growl growl…

The other train of thought was realizing that my family and I are really blessed. We travelled about 500 miles round trip in two days and still had plenty of time to attend our event and connect with some other dear friends. That’s still pretty amazing to me; I can travel so far so easily. We did this safely and although there was some hassle involved there was no pain, no trauma and we made it home in time for me to get to work the next day. We didn’t have to endure bad traffic (always a major consideration in the northeast US) and instead were all able to relax and engage in hobbies. Our daughter was a super trooper during the entire event, as she almost always is while we are travelling. She smiled at people, said cute things, and sat patiently on my lap watching a movie on the Kindle during the last, crowded part of our journey. She was as sweet as can be. Other people on the train were kind to us, we had some nice conversations with fellow passengers (nothing like a little adversity to bring people together) and we did actually have seats for my husband and I the entire way. We were a little inconvenienced and a little uncomfortable, and there is nothing really wrong with that. In fact, it’s probably good for us.

I am sure we will opt for the train again the next time we travel this route. We love the train too much to switch. And I imagine we will encounter delays and frustrations along the way, since that is pretty typical for travel in any mode, to any destination. Like I said, travel itself teaches you to be flexible, to be patient, to endure. Travelling reminds you that life isn’t about you and won’t arrange itself to your preferences and schedule. That things happen but that you can cope with them and get where you’re going and have a good time anyway. Not a bad set of lessons for a weekend trip!