Martinez: Rail travel better than expected

September 25, 2012 

Last week, I accomplished what relatively few Americans have: I took a vacation that relied completely on public transportation. It wasn’t half bad, and I’d probably do it again.

But it wasn’t my first choice.

When I decided to head to Washington. D.C., to see my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers try and claw their way into the playoffs, my first travel choice was to hop on an airplane. Then I discovered that nonstop service from RDU to D.C. (Reagan National) is limited to commuter planes. For a variety of reasons, I avoid putt-putt aircraft. Flying to D.C. on big-boy jets now requires a connection. And that pushes the travel time way up. I had settled on taking the pocketbook hit for gas and drive the pickup to the nation’s capital when my wife suggested I look at the train.

Me? Take a train? I have devoted countless columns to deriding rail transit as soooo 19th century. Worse yet, I thought, don’t government bureaucrats man these behemoths of the past?

But since I’d rather be waterboarded than be saddled with maneuvering and parking a vehicle inside the D.C. Beltway, I checked out Amtrak – on the Internet.

Certainly the price was right. A ticket from Durham to D.C. was $75, or a little less than one tank of gas for my Chevy. For the price of two tanks, I could travel business class and enjoy all the soft drinks I could down on a seven-hour trip – not much longer than a Google map says it would take for me to drive from my Orange County house to Nationals Stadium.

Swallowing my anti-public transportation bias, I booked a ticket.

When the day arrived, I was still skeptical. And things didn’t start out well. I had trouble finding the Durham Amtrak station. Once in the door, things got better. I cashed in my reservation at a digital kiosk at the station, which is immaculate, spacious and beautifully accented with large photographs from the city’s rich past. To my pleasant surprise, I could clearly hear and understand the boarding call over the public address system, and I was told exactly where to stand to embark.

The business-class car was clean and smelled fresh, which is not always the case on public transportation. The seats were comparable to first class comfort on an airplane, and better than flying when it came to work space.

The ride, however, is bouncy. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that a steel spring is the only suspension buffeting a steel wheel riding on a steel rail. The train was also behind schedule. I arrived 45 minutes late in D.C. and was just as late getting back to Raleigh. An employee told me Amtrak doesn’t own the track and must yield to trains owned by the host railroads. At times, The Carolinian slowed to what seemed to be 15-to-25 miles per hour.

Once at Union Station in Washington, my final obstacle was finding an Amtrak employee to direct me to D.C.’s Metro, which I knew how to take to the ballpark. He was at the well-marked information desk. Mission accomplished.

Here’s the biggest surprise of the whole trip – the people.

Let’s face it. I did not look forward to putting my safety and comfort in the hands of people with the closest thing on earth to lifetime employment. Yet, at each encounter, the Amtrak employees were professional, informative and courteous. Some even had a sense of humor. Frankly, they were much better to deal with than some flight attendants I’ve encountered.

This trip opened my mind. Next season, Amtrak will be my first choice to D.C. and I’ll probably look at a trip to Philadelphia as well.

Yes, I know. Amtrak is heavily subsidized. As priced, it couldn’t survive. But that can be fixed. I would have easily paid $275 for the same trip and been just as happy as a passenger and even happier as a taxpayer.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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