The train is better than the plane, especially on the east coast. The Northeast Regional moves from Boston to Washington and back again, passing stations on average once every hour (more if you count the Acela). It’s great to be able to walk around as you travel, to read without getting nauseous, to go get a drink at the bar. But what’s it really all about? What is train? Here’s some tidbits on the Northeast Regional from a guy who’s been up and down probably about fifty times.
Sometimes you notice the train going slow. Where is this most likely to happen? Between New York and New Haven when following a Metro North train as MTA goes slower around bends and stops than Amtrak, approaching station through tunnels like New York and Baltimore, and the approach to Baltimore if it’s waiting for an Acela to pass.
There are certain parts of the Northeast corridor with no cell service. These include the tunnels leading to NY Penn Station, when the train is sitting at Philadelphia 30th Street Station, the long tunnel to the south of Baltimore, and sometimes it’s spotty between Trenton and Metropark.
When doing a quick weekend trip, try to sit on different sides on the way down and back (i.e. if your left side faces the window one way, make your right side face it the other). This will mean you see the same view on both legs but will prevent the development of scoliosis from leaning in a particular direction. It also can prevent sinus infections from exposing the same side of your nose to too much AC.
Getting on the train in DC to head north can be a bit tricky. If you have any type of seat preference, get there early. Mob behaviour forms and people get airplane-y even though it’s not that serious. People automaton into a long line that goes half the length of Union Station, blocking entry to all the stores. Some people cut nonetheless. Sometimes an Amtrak employee walks the line allowing families and seniors to move ahead (everyone but me!!!). Many northbound trains start in Richmond or Newport News or Lynchburg. Many of these arrive in DC late, and the tracks that go through the station have low platforms meaning that the cars will drop staircases down at select points for boarding. This makes the mad rush even more insane, and also means that lots of people will already be onboard.
In New Haven, some trains split off the main Northeast corridor to head toward Vermont. In this case, the trains switch engines because those tracks are not electrified with a catenary cable. This takes about 15 minutes and allows that one guy who talks on the phone too loud and who has an oily gold necklace to step outside to smoke. Similarly, when those trains come down from Vermont, show up 15 minutes early to the station; your train will already be at the platform. But it will be hot because the power will be out while the engine switches.
In NYC, become a mote of dust and flow with the currents of rage which board the train. Do not try to resist or be assertive.
If you board in Boston to come south, you may think you’ve lucked into having no one sit next to you. This is because most of the train gets on at Back Bay station. Sorry.
If you are human, you will know when you’ve come to Philadelphia. The Philadelphians yell across the train car, open stinky foods and eat with mouth sounds, immediately lean back their seats upon sitting down, move other people’s bags, and ask other people to move so they can sit together. If you’re in a tense boarding situation, it is best to keep quiet around people heading to Philadelphia as they are more likely to turn conflicts into physical altercations. Fact!
The microwaved hotdog is really the best food item on the train; the oils soak into the bun, which gets steamed like a Chinese bbq pork bun. The hot dog is super salty. Delicious. The best moment to go to the cafe car is about five minutes after leaving a station. This has given people a chance to find a seat so you can walk unimpeded and also so that you don’t come back to find a surprise seat mate. I tend to go to the cafe car between Baltimore and Wilmington when there’s 45 uninterrupted minutes to do so.
There are some good sights from the train. Here are some in a list: the bridge just south of Trenton station with the “Trenton makes, the world takes” sign, the bridge over the Susquehanna River, the dome of Catholic University, abandoned bits of Baltimore, downtown Philadelphia from the bridge over the Schuylkill River, ads aimed at desi folk at the Metropark station, the former Hecht’s store in glass block just north of DC Union Station, the Rhode Island state capitol, the Connecticut shore, beautiful swamps and streams near BWI station, and of course the gorgeous view of NYC from Queens.