Rail chronicle: Live-blogging a train trip
Today, with UNC Wilmington on spring break, I’m heading from North Carolina to New York, with a twist: I’m traveling via Amtrak (officially, the National Railroad Passenger Corp., the U.S.’s partially public intercity passenger rail service).
I thought I’d take the chance to use this long trip (~9 hours on the train, plus a 4 hour bus connection to get me from Wilmington to Wilson, NC) to practice live-blogging via the iPhone’s WordPress app, and to offer some thoughts and comments on the materiality of transportation. That last part’s very much a work in progress; the goal’s to go beyond simply “these seats sure are comfy,” though there will be some of that as well.
Below, I’ll be posting time-marked updates throughout the trip, with the most recent on top. Feel free to send comments my way, either on the post or through Twitter (@JohnRRoby).
9:51 p.m. – I think this will be it for tonight. We’re nearing Philadelphia, and the end’s in sight. So it’s a good time to talk about, well, time.
The time involved is one of the big knocks on long-distance travel by car, bus, or rail over air. I think in two ways, this is a false argument. The first is pretty obvious, the second is maybe less so.
First, all schedules are not created equal. A flight that “takes 90 minutes” doesn’t include travel to and from the airport, the vagaries of security, and the ripple effects of hub delays on increasingly consolidated airlines. The last time I flew from Wilmington to Binghamton, the trip took 7 hours, only about 3 of which were in the air.
That’s obvious. What might be more hidden is the notion of what one’s time represents. This is a way bigger issue than I want to deal with on an iPhone keypad. Briefly, then, two thoughts:
1. Is it worth more time to be more comfy, more dignified, more social? If it’s not, what’s more important?
2. Would there be value in saying “no” to the (very odd) expectation that we could cross a continent in an afternoon? What would that value be?
6:59 p.m. – Briefly, for the record, in response to emailers:
1. Wi-Fi on this train’s only in the Lounge Car. Works fine for my purposes, no drops while I’ve been here.
2. Two 120v outlets at every pair of seats. I’ve spot-checked a half-dozen or so, all work.
3. No dining car, just the lounge. Food there is … unappealing to me (all packaged and run thru a microwave.
6:37 p.m. – More on space, this time less material and more metaphorical.
Obviously, train travel gets you around the increasingly intrusive and bizarre and somewhat arbitrary airport security dance. Obvious yes, but it’s still striking to experience. I got the feeling Amtrak wanted my business, rather than attempting to put up roadblocks to it. That isn’t a totally fair comparison, but no amount of forced “we’d like to thank you for flying X today” can erase the sheer pain of air travel.
There’s a sense of openness – dare I say “freedom”? – to seeing the landscape speed by (or even crawl by). It’s a big, and pretty, damn country. A bird’s eye view, oddly, doesn’t capture that.
Metaphorically, everything from the light to the view to the legroom and headroom to the boarding process to the easy conversation, is mutually constitutive, and reinforcing. One aspect glides easily into another, and it seems welcoming and empowering, in a very unforced way.
I’m beginning to wonder why we don’t expect this sort of travel-as-experiential-spectacle more.
As mentioned below, I’m 6’1″, and I can comfortably stand. The big windows let in lots of natural light. I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic on planes; I don’t see how that could happen here.
That openness extends to the seating too. They’re quite clever: they have a sort of extendable legrest and they recline. You can get very comfy very quickly. And the seats are generous enough that two adults who aren’t friendly can relax without awkwardness.
Below, I gripe about seat pitch on the bus. Compare this view of my knees, and check that foot of spare pitch.
3:49 p.m. – Time to take stock of the supplies.
Full water bottle, and the coffee thermos I filled at Wilmington’s excellent Port City Java this morning is (amazingly) still hot. But unlike everyone else in the car, I packed no food. Rookie mistake.
Chapstick, yes, hand lotion, no. It’s quite warm and dry.
Copious reading material: oh yes. The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Zizek); Re/Presenting Class (Gibson-Graham, Resnick, and Wolff eds.); and New Directions in Marxian Theory (Resnick and Wolff). On the lighter side, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (Howe) on the Kindle. Hoping to put a dent in all of them this coming week.
3:31 p.m. – Two things strike me already: a feeling of motion and a sense of space. I’ll save space for a bit later.
Motion: This train hauls. Acceleration is quick and smooth, not like a plane or car at all. It feels effortless and fluid.
And passing an intersection, with the guard arm down and flashing, cars lined up and the whistle blowing, is oddly a bit of a thrill.
2:26 p.m. – “All aboard!” I love that they say this.
Scheduled departure from Wilson, NC was 2:23, and we left right on schedule. Compares pretty favorably with most of my recent bus and plane trips.
Briefly, the bus ride from Wilmington to Wilson was fine. Amtrak operates or contracts scores of these “Thruway” routes (on full-size, intercity buses) to connect unserved cities with its train stations. In Wilmington, pickup was from the main city bus station, which was quite convenient for someone like me who is carfree.
The bus made three stops en route. That seems like a lot, and the whole process took nearly 4 hours. I suspect most Thruway routes are shorter. Still, that was made very clear on booking, and it was on time and reasonably comfortable, so no complaints.
Well, one complaint. The seat pitch – the distance between rows – was VERY skinny. I couldn’t sit without my knees hitting the row in front of me. I’m 6’1″, so not everyone will have that issue. This wasn’t an Amtrak bus, but a contracted one, so maybe that’s not the typical Thruway experience.