This column will take a different track from the usual. Many folks probably think that taking the train in the U.S. is something out of the past or done in Europe, via Eurail.
Nothing could further from the truth! We recently had a great trip and we started by going to our local Amtrak station, buying a USA Rail Pass and “building the pass” based on our destinations and buying additional amenities when the trip demanded overnight stays. You can buy 15-, 30- or 45-day passes. Each pass type allows you a specific “number of travel segments within the travel periods.” This means that if you change a train or deboard and at a later date get back on the same train, you give up a segment. For instance, if you travel to New York City from the Twin Cities, it will take two segments because you change trains in Chicago.
When you buy overnight accommodations you are going first class. In this case you have a choice of windowed rooms. According to Amtrak, “Sleeping accommodations are available on most long-distance routes…trains traveling on long-distance routes typically use either two-level Superliner or one-level Viewliner train cars…, each of which include bedrooms arranged in various configurations and private and public bathrooms and showers.” You read it right, “showers,” and they work.
Dining is available whether you ride in coach or first class in a “full-service Dining Car.” If you buy overnight accommodations, then meals are included. Amtrak offers several types of private lounges for sleeping car passengers known as ClubAcela, Metropolitan Lounge and First Class Lounge. These lounges are located at various stations and have a host of features that make long journeys more enjoyable.
As we pulled out of the Twin Cities on the Empire Builder to Chicago I thought about the many cities we would roll through and the history associated with the building of this great nation. We chugged through Wisconsin, into Milwaukee and headed for Chicago’s Union Station. The station was designed by architect Daniel Burnham and is known as a Beaux-Arts railroad station, which is a neoclassical architectural style. This station was designated as one of America’s “Great Places” in 2012.
We grabbed the Lake Shore Limited through some of the once and still mighty industrial cities of Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady and Albany. We turned the corner at Albany and part of the train went to Boston. The rest of us steamed right down the Hudson, through Poughkeepsie, past West Point and into Manhattan’s historic Pennsylvania Station, another Beaux-Arts style station designed by McKim, Mead & White.
While in New York we visited Grand Central Station, which is in the midst of a year-long 100th anniversary celebration. The two architectural firms of Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmor designed this station in all of its glory. “Completed in 1913, the awe-inspiring Beaux-Arts landmark became the country’s busiest train station serving commuter and long distance rail lines and bringing development to midtown Manhattan.”
A week later we were on the choo-choo Palmetto, to Charleston, S.C. We chugged through the great historical cities of Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte.
After a week’s stay in the “The Holy City” as Charleston is known, we smoked back north on the Silver Meteor into D.C.’s marvelous Union Station. This station was designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham, assisted by Pierce Anderson and incorporates a number of architectural styles including classical elements, Beaux-Arts and Baroque. It simply doesn’t get any better.
We whistled back to Chicago on the Capitol Limited as we rolled through Harpers Ferry, Cumberland, Pittsburgh and Toledo. Between the Palmetto, Silver Meteor and Capital Limited we chugged through the heart of the Eastern, Southeastern and Midwestern Civil War campaigns. Back on the tracks on the Empire Builder, at night heading to the Twin Cities, I thought about James J. Hill, who built the Northern Pacific RR. The “Empire Builder” himself who the train was named after had done business with my father’s father. It was quiet and peaceful, save the whistle at crossings, as the train barreled though the night. We were moving at top speed, hugging the tracks with barely a bump — no click-clack here.
All in all modern day training can work and be fun. Being right on mother earth gives us humans a different perspective and feel than we get from 30,000 feet with an old-fashioned romantic charm. With trains you get more leg room, you are free to move around, you can take more checked luggage and carry-ons, pack a lunch, use your phone and some trains and stations have free Wi-Fi. In many cases door-to-door can be shorter because stations are often located in downtown hubs. And, of course, the big two are that you get to see the country and traveling by train can be easier on your wallet.
The big thing here, especially if you are going to take an extended trip, plan, plan and plan. Just like investing. All aboard!!!
Quote of the week: “It would be difficult, indeed, to overestimate the transcendent importance of the part the railroad has played in making the Nation what it is to-day. Perhaps it would be within bounds to say that without railroads to bind the States into one homogeneous whole, the Nation never could have attained its present size and importance.” — Charles Frederick Carter
Bart Ward is the chief executive officer of Ward & Co. Ltd., an Anoka-based registered investment adviser – specializing in the management of stock and bond portfolios in companies which are listed on the NYSE.