TRACKS TO NOWHERE - IS AMTRAK WORTH RIDING?


Trains are the greatest dream machines.

From the moment I step aboard a train, I feel transformed into another dimension. The familiar sights outside the window, station platform, friends/family seeing me off, skyline of the city, will soon be swept away as the train glides out of the station, leaving forever, bound for magical places with exotic landscapes and the promise of rich travel experiences and sensations on the way. My mind is released, if only temporarily, from the mundane troubles and concerns that inundate our brains daily; the train is an easy escape from the droll of daily life as well as an assured arrival at a much sweeter place. But, the destination is not important; only the fact that we take the step to arrange these trips of dreams, as portals through which we pass and return utterly transformed. Transformed with the satisfaction of having accomplished the goal and full of the energy and enthusiasm that will inspire.

My destination may be a city in the frozen north on the Silver Star; the exotic capital of Russia at the other end of the Trans - Siberian, the dramatic image of Table Mountain as it stands ever on guard over the Mother City of South Africa. Or, it may just be the last station of a branch line as I sit as a casual observer on a rattling local train travelling up the West coast of Honshu, stopping every few minutes to give villagers a lift. It is said that “tourists don’t know where they have been, but travelers don’t know where they are going”[1]. The true train traveler’s destination is not important; but experiences while moving along the rails, provides the stuff of making travel dreams reality. Travel brings out in me the fire to spark my imagination and creative juices with the irresistible urge to share them with others. I never tire of it.

Early September’s afternoon sunlight washed down on Gotham’s crowded streets as I boarded Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train #85 and it soon slid smoothly out of the depths of Penn Station.

Emerging onto the New Jersey flatlands I was anticipating a nostalgic ride back to the days of my youth passing by many memorable places where I once lived, visited and worked during my formative years. Linden – I could identify the restaurant in the middle of a roadside strip mall where I attended a wedding reception for a close friend just after my university graduation. Trenton – where on the parallel road bridge over the Delaware River since 1935 proudly boasted a large sign: “Trenton makes, the World Takes”; from a bygone era when economy of the area had seen better times. I had traveled to Trenton many times visiting a friend and former colleague living in nearby Levittown. Just south of Philadelphia is Wilmington where I spent my early years dicing with death while playing dangerous games on the nearby railway tracks. If I look quickly at the right instant, it would still be possible to see the house where I lived on Seton Drive, just a short block from the rail line, at what used to be Bellevue station, but no more. Then Baltimore: during my childhood, my first rail trip was with my mother was from Wilmington to Baltimore; taking one hour in those days, about 45 minutes by today’s Northeast Regional; and even quicker by Acela. I had never ridden Acela but soon my time would come.

Amtrak horror stories. Lots of people complain about Amtrak.

What was your most disgusting ride on Amtrak? Toilets were not cleaned frequently? Food in the diner not up to standard? Had to sit with strangers in the dining car? No TV on board? Hmmm…..terrible travel experiences. So now, I ask the question: how does Amtrak compare with trains overseas in terms of service quality and price? Are we justified with our complaints or is Amtrak really doing well when compared with overseas experiences, and our trains are indeed, on par with those overseas?

This new book, now published on Amazon, describes many of my Amtrak experiences, as well as some of the best (and worst) horror stories of riding trains overseas. I then compare, on a cost and service quality basis, Amtrak trains with its overseas brothers. To me, the results were quite surprising.

This book can be found on the Publications page of my website: https://www.thomaslkennedy.com

[1] Paul Theroux


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