With my Davidson bike in the baggage car, Dervla Murphy’s classic bicycle book Full Tilt on my lap, and my wife by my side I’ve been riding Amtrak: The Cardinal from Indianapolis to Charlottesville, the Piedmont from Charlotte to Cary (both in North Carolina), and the Silver Star from Cary to Deland, Florida.
One of Amtrak’s positive features is its approach to traveling with bicycles. With pedals removed and handlebars turned, bikes can travel in cardboard boxes purchased from Amtrak for $15, or they can be transported in other bike cases of the passenger’s choice. In either case, the transportation charge per ticket is only $5.00. Since my bike is equipped with S & S couplers, it packs in a soft case that travels as checked baggage at no charge. On some trains, bikes can be ridden to the baggage car where they travel hanging from a hook on the wall.
Most of my train travel, which started 75 years ago, has been on western trains, such as the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight, the Cascades (the local Amtrak subsidized by Oregon and Washington), and the San Joaquin (subsidized by California). The trip this year has reinforced my determination that henceforth overnights on Amtrak will be on cars with sleeping compartments!
Train personnel are polite and pleasant. Most seem interested in helping passengers travel comfortably. Station crews differ from one place to another. Some are civil but impatient, with little apparent interest in helping travelers. Others really want to help. The outstanding examples on this trip were personnel at the Cary station.
Equipment varies widely. In contrast with our favorite air carrier where standardization rules, Amtrak accepts diversity. Cars come from different manufacturers, with differing design characteristics, and they stay in service for a long time. Some are double deckers, which I enjoy, and others are low riders, which are adequate for short hauls. Club cars and diners differ in their services and style. Western trains have observation lounges, but this amenity was missing on the trains we used on this trip.
Cars are well-equipped with electrical outlets, and electronic devices are easy to use. Mobile phone service is available, depending on the terrain, and Wi-Fi is advertised as available, although I made no use of it.
Stations differ widely from one city to another. Faded glory survives in some stations from the classic era, with Portland and Seattle as good examples. Our local station in Vancouver, Washington, is another station from an earlier era, and it has recently been renovated so that it is functional, clean, and pleasant.
The grubbiest we have seen on this trip is in Indianapolis where the station is a bare-bones space, salvaged under an elevated track, with gray I-beams, dirty floors, dim lights, and station personnel whose manners seem just right for such a disheartening space.
In contrast, newer, smaller stations, in places like Charlottesville and Charlotte (and Martinez, California), are bright and clean, and they communicate a sense of wellbeing. On this trip, the station in Cary, North Carolina, was best of all. Its construction included funds from the National Recovery Act.
Although North Carolina’s presidential vote was for Romney, Wake Country (where Cary is located) was Obama territory and he won with 35,000 more votes than he received in 2008. Brochures in the station make it clear that the city of Cary is interested in passengers and wants them to notice their community.
The state subsidized Piedmont (Charlotte-Greensboro-Cary-Raleigh) is a model of good public transportation. The cars are beautifully restored and modernized coaches from an earlier era. A volunteer host, with blue blazer and red tie, greeted passengers, offered assistance, and tidied up the seats when passengers detrained. The train stopped frequently as it made its way across the state. Although many of the riders traveled relatively short distances, most seats were occupied most of the time.
There were no food services on the train, but the club car provided complementary coffee, tea, and bottled water. Vending machines offered a wide variety of beverages and snack foods at ordinary prices. The rest rooms were modern and clean, and they worked. Our three-hour ride was thoroughly enjoyable.
Some of our travel on this extended tour has been by air and on highways in rental cars. The ugliest part of the trip was on the interstates and expressways of Greensboro and Charlotte. The finest parts were on Amtrak, which on the right trains is the next best thing to a bicycle ride.
Our Amtrak journey through the New River Gorge in West Virginia was the travel highlight of this trip. More about that another time.