Brian Major | September 08, 2015 1:30 PM ET
The Unexpected Pleasure of Travel by Amtrak
The sun slowly turned the dark purple night skies a faint shade of yellow as my wife Karen and I sat on a metal bench outside of the closed, near-deserted Miami Amtrak station far from the center-city lights. It was 6:30 a.m. and no one else seemed to be around until an outstretched leg stirred just beyond a wall 20 feet away. It was a homeless guy. I remember wondering, “Who takes Amtrak?”
It turns out a lot of people take Amtrak. In 2013, ridership hit an all-time high of 31.6 million passengers, the most in the rail line’s history. That year Amtrak also recorded the tenth annual ridership record in the last 11 years.
More than 86,000 passengers ride aboard more than 300 Amtrak trains every day. While ridership declined slightly in 2014 to 30.9 million passengers, Amtrak is clearly a successful and valued travel product.
Which was all news to me. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I was as familiar with train travel as any other urban American kid: I’d seen countless movies and TV shows that took place aboard passenger trains, but my real-life train experience did not extend beyond the New York subway.
In fact, with the exception of some Amtrak trips between New York and Boston during my high school days, I hadn’t traveled by train in years. I was even naive enough to imagine train travel was largely a forgotten relic, like so other things from my youth.
PHOTO: The Silver Meteor. All photos by Brian Major.
Turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. Millions of people take Amtrak; a high percentage of travelers even opt for vacations on the rail line. Despite its gritty beginning, the trip turned out to be one of the best I’ve taken in years. The comfort, service and downright pleasure of traveling by train are largely absent from air travel.
Karen and I were returning from Miami by train because a surgical procedure I’d had done had made it too risky to fly back to New York. After thinking over our options, we decided on Amtrak.
We didn’t have to be back in New York in a hurry. Also traveling by train meant we wouldn’t have to drive, and we bought a sleeper car so there would be a measure of privacy. So Karen went online and booked Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Miami to New York. We both thought, “How bad could it be?”
As the station’s 7 a.m. opening approached, other people arrived, slowly unloading suitcases from their cars onto the sidewalk. There were families, couples and single women and men.
Inside, the station was clean and equipped with vending machines, restrooms and plenty of passenger information signage and pamphlets. The Amtrak attendants who had opened the station doors also sold tickets at the counter and checked passengers’ bags at a separate table nearby.
Boarding time soon arrived and the attendant checked passengers’ tickets in an orderly but relaxed manner. He assured everyone there they would get onboard. Other attendants transported passengers who didn’t want to walk out to the train on golf carts.
We too boarded a golf cart driven by the same attendant who sold us a couple of blankets earlier in the terminal. He took us to our section, hundreds of feet away near the front of the train. Our driver stopped at our section and alerted the porter that new guests had arrived. “Oh, the Majors?” asked the porter, who later introduced himself as Preston Ross.
We boarded there and for a while sat comfortably in our compartment, a clean, modern and ingeniously designed tiny stateroom. It was well equipped with a wash basin, toilet, and two beds that folded into place during the day, leaving two comfortable lounge chairs at the window. With the door closed and locked and the door shades drawn, we had complete privacy. It was very cozy.
We were testing the curtains out when Preston gently knocked. “What have I done to make you lock me out already?” he joked. A happy and outgoing guy, Preston welcomed us and explained how the stateroom lighting and other controls worked, told us where to find the dining car, said he’d advise us of stops at which we would have time to disembark to take in the local air and discussed how to reach him if needed (there is a buzzer for the porter in the compartment).
PHOTO: Our porter, Preston Ross.
Soon we were underway and Karen and I headed for breakfast in the dining car. I felt like Cary Grant in North by Northwest as we walked the train’s narrow corridors up to the dining car. From time to time the train rocked gently as we watched Florida roll by from the dining car windows.
We enjoyed a great hot breakfast and coffee as we passed by Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach and Okeechobee on the way to Jacksonville, the last stop in Florida.
Early on we passed Opa-Locka, founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who conceived a “One Thousand and One Nights” theme for his new metropolis. As a result, in addition to street names like Sabur Lane, Sultan Avenue and Ali Baba Avenue, Opa-locka features the Western Hemisphere’s largest collection of Moorish Revival architecture. Twenty of the city’s original buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In time we began to learn who takes Amtrak. At the next table a 50-something businessman was saying he enjoyed train travel, finding it the most comfortable option. He talked with a middle-aged lady from New York who said she was working on her master’s degree. She’d taken a few days to visit her son in Miami and traveling aboard Amtrak gave her the time and comfort to study effectively.
Later in the dining car we met a married couple who were traveling from Tampa, Florida to New York to visit their daughter, a performing arts major at a New York-area college. Their son had flown to New York to join the family but Mom and Dad were content to take the train, again stressing the comfort and convenience of train travel and their relative lack of urgency. “We don’t have to be there at any particular time,” the husband said at one point.
We stepped off briefly to stretch our legs in Orlando, and later we watched from our compartment as we rolled past farms, railroad crossings, suburban backyards and small-town squares in Georgia and South Carolina.
That evening Preston folded out our bunk beds, and Karen and I enjoyed a cozy night in our compartment. After some time reading a book in my top bunk, I switched off the night light and retired as the train’s gentle rocking put me to sleep.
As we slept, the Silver Meteor passed through North Carolina cities including Kannapolis, High Point, Raleigh and Rocky Mount and into Virginia. We had breakfast that morning in the dining car, and later watched as the train traversed Alexandria, Virginia, where I photographed the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. At Washington, D.C., we spotted the Smithsonian and the Washington Monument.
PHOTO: The George Washington Masonic National Memorial as seen from The Silver Meteor.
Preston strolled up and down the aisles from time to time, and I could also see him out on the platform at a few stops. The friendliness and camaraderie among the Amtrak staff was noteworthy and heartwarming.
From there it was a short ride through past downtown Wilmington, Delaware, at the confluence of the Cristina and Delaware rivers and onto Philadelphia, Trenton and Newark, New Jersey. The train lingered a bit on a bridge over the Passaic River just beyond downtown Newark, and I stared for a while at the city, my mom’s birthplace, where I’d spent many of my younger days.
Finally we arrived in New York, although in a way it seemed the preceding day and a half had passed very quickly. We were right in midtown Manhattan, rested and ready, with no airport terminal to walk through. Also, Amtrak has a couple of new fans. Karen and I are definitely the type to travel by train.
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