The other day, I had to go to New York for business. Finally: A chance to try out the Acela Express train!
Kids, if you've wanted to experience the best American railroading has to offer, now's the time - given the way things are going in Washington, you might not have this chance much longer. But reserve early - I tried getting a seat 11 days before my trip only to discover that all the morning trains were already all booked. So I had to settle for a "regional" train (you know, the one that stops in places like Old Saybrook) in the morning and Acela back in the evening.
Acela has much to recommend it: You can get to the station 10 minutes before the train shows up and not worry about having to take your shoes off or being randomly selected for a strip search. In three hours or so, you're in midtown Manhattan, not stuck in a taxi sitting in a traffic jam by LaGuardia. The seats are comfy and you'd have to be incredibly tall to have your knees get anywhere near the seat in front of you (and for you, they have these single seats at the ends of the cars with folding tables). All the seats have outlets for plugging in your laptop. The hot dogs in the cafe car are surprisingly good. And there's some really nice, soothing scenery along the way. To New York, sit on the left for views of marshes, harbors and Long Island Sound; to Boston, sit on the left again for a really nice view of the New York skyline:
Of course, this is Amtrak we're talking about, so nothing's perfect. Before boarding, there was a little drama at the station. First the train number disappeared from the departure board at the station. Then it reappeared but "stand by" started flashing next to the train name - just like next to the Silver Meteor train to Miami that was now four hours late. Not a good sign. Then the announcer guy announced our train on track 9 East. Everybody rushed over - only to find out that was really the New Jersey Transit train to Long Branch or Metuchen or some other godforsaken place. Now, the announcer guy announced all trains like this:
"Now boarding on track 7 West, the ..."
instead of, oh,
"The 6:04 train to Philadelphia, now boarding on track 7 West ..."
So for the next few minutes, every time he started announcing a track, a horde of people would rush over to the escalator - only to find out that it was just another New Jersey Transit train. It was just like that scene at the end of "Airplane" where people run from gate to gate as the plane skids around the runway.
Once on the train, we learned the reason for the delay: The "quiet" car, where you're not supposed to use your cellphone or talk loudly or play touch football in the aisle, had a bit of a problem. Seems the electrical outlets were not working quiet right. In fact, there was "sparking." So they turned off the outlets on that car.
Between New York and Stamford, one of the conductors went on the PA several times to tell us about the quiet car and its rules - each time preceded by this really loud, really annoying bonging "announcement coming, wake up!" sound. Seems some people just weren't getting the message about what "quiet" means. After the third or fourth such announcement, I really felt like getting up, finding the conductor and shaking him by the shoulders as I sternly told him: "Look, you're the adult on this train, enough with the stupid announcements, just go in there and kick some butt!"
One thing really surprised me: How smooth the ride wasn't. Here's the sine qua non of American passenger railroads, with those fancy leaning things so the train can go fast around curves without making passengers nauseous and yet: Had this been an airplane, there were a couple of times when the captain would've come on the PA to announce "folks, we're going to try to climb out of this, but for the next few minutes, please stay in your seats with your seat belts fastened." Plus, there were a couple of spots in Connecticut where the train just slowed to a crawl - that seemed to have been built in the schedule, so it's not like it made us late (as opposed to the sparking problem, which got us into Rte. 128 a few minutes late), but why?
Still, in all, it beats driving and if you ask me, flying. Note: If you get on at 128, parking will cost $10 for the day.