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The Overlooked Travel Alternative

Amtrak conductor Harrison Knapton checks the time 
upon arrival at the station in White River Junction in April 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Amtrak conductor Harrison Knapton checks the time upon arrival at the station in White River Junction in April 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Plainfield

May 11 was National Train Day. Did it have any impact on your life? It didn’t on mine, and I’m married to a man who has subscribed to Trains Magazine since 1972, can calculate train speed by clocking mileposts, and has 93 railroad channels on his portable radio. In fact, he and our youngest daughter were riding on Amtrak on National Train Day, but by the time they boarded the train in Emeryville, Calif., it was 10:30 at night, and all that was left of the event were some posters in the train station.

Amtrak started National Train Day five years ago. It’s a great promotional idea but, like the idea of train travel itself, it didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind here. Even though Amtrak runs daily right through the Upper Valley and Claremont is the only Amtrak stop in western New Hampshire, the local Train Day events in White River Junction didn’t attract much, if any, notice. Even though all the free seats on the Vermonter that day were claimed, the only mention of Train Day the next morning was buried in a small column about Maine’s Downeaster, a train that doesn’t even touch the Upper Valley.

I love going by train, and I do it as much as possible. It’s a very civilized way to travel. There are no TSA lines, no baggage-weight restrictions, no prohibition against pocket knives or knitting needles, and no need to get to the station two hours ahead of time — just a need to be on board before the wheels start moving.

Last year, I attended a conference for food cooperatives in Philadelphia. I took the high-speed Acela train from Boston, which was fast, fun, clean and quiet. On the return trip on the Vermonter, I found that board members from the Brattleboro Co-op and the Upper Valley Food Co-op were also on the train. We immediately grabbed the four seats in the middle of the car that faced each other, so we could talk. Each of us had some left-over food we’d brought along — chocolate-covered almonds, cheeses, sesame sticks — that we merged into a kind of rolling buffet for seven hours. We were joined along the way by a couple who belonged to a co-op in Burlington, who added their foodstuffs to ours. The relaxed atmosphere and the camaraderie made it feel as if we all got an extra day of the conference just by traveling together.

More recently, I attended the national co-op conference again, this time in Austin, Texas, which meant traveling by train wasn’t feasible. Returning on a Sunday morning, I was up before sunrise in order to get to the airport with enough time to get through baggage check-in and security. The lines for both at the airport were unexpectedly long, and it was touch-and-go as to whether the baggage would make the cut-off for getting on the plane and whether we’d all make it through security in time. The plane ride was fine, but there was little opportunity to talk, given the general noise of flying and the cramped seating.

Rail travel does take more time than air travel, especially if the journey is a long one. But here in the Northeast, we are in the main corridor for rail travel. On shorter trips up and down the East Coast, rail should be a viable alternative, but it doesn’t seem to be registering in the national consciousness. When our high-school age son headed off to a conference in Washington, D.C., last fall, the registration application offered two transportation logistics options: how to get picked up at the airport or where to park a car. There was no mention of how to get there from the train station. One would think that in Washington, with its prominent Union Station and multiple trains daily, rail travel might have been regarded as a viable transportation option, but our son was probably the only participant who arrived that way.

Amtrak is making improvements to the rail up our way. The Vermonter, which once ran through the Upper Valley at a top speed of 59 mph, now blows through Balloch’s Crossing in Cornish at close to 80 mph. It has cut a half-hour off its time from St. Albans to Brattleboro, and improvements in the rails, signals and crossings are under way on the southern part of the route to Springfield, Mass. The ride south is getting smoother and faster.

An Amtrak ad in the bottom of the bins for shoes at the security line at the Philadelphia airport reads “Wear mismatched socks — we’d never know,” an obvious reference to the fact that one doesn’t have to remove shoes or any other articles of clothing to get on a train. Rail travel has convenience and comfort that air travel does not.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of realizing or remembering that it is available. As air travel gets harder and there are fewer flights and more delays, perhaps train travel will become more attractive. As the conductor played by Tom Hanks in The Polar Express notes , “One thing about trains ... it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.”

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.