Sunday, July 8, 2007

I hear the train a comin'...

Over this past weekend, the family and I traveled to St. Louis, as we do about once every other month to visit Christina's family.  Normally we'll drive the 7 hours from Little Rock to St. Louis, we've flown a couple of times, but this time we decided to try something different.  The idea was actually inspired by my 4-year-old step-son who, as most toddlers do, has an infatuation with trains.  Yes, we did; we took a train to St. Louis and back.  I decided to describe the details of our adventure in transportation and provide some suggestions in between.
When we first considered the idea, it sounded novel.  After a short trip across cyber-space we discovered that the cost was actually little more than we would otherwise spend on gas alone.  The phrase, "It's something different", was spoken more times than I can remember as an explanation to our friends and family after we had purchased the tickets online.  As I'm riding home now, I realize just exactly what "different" means.
Having never been on a train before I was expecting a train and station similar to those you see in the movies... I can guarantee you that the Little Rock Train Station will not be seen in Mission Impossible IV.
We arrived at the station in Little Rock at about 11 pm, as all passenger trains travel through the capitol city late at night.  The high-backed wooden benches, tile floor and vaguely present air-conditioning of the station was reminiscent of an old southern church on a summer Sunday night (I expected a sweaty preacher to appear with a "hellfire and brimstone" sermon at any minute).  Most of our fellow passengers seemed to have collaborated on matching luggage: Wal-Mart sacks and trash bags mostly.  I think it really added something to the motif of the station.  So much for first impressions.
I would make some kind comment about security, if there was any.  Ok, all right, I'll take that back... I was asked for my ID... twice.  Seriously though, it was as if we had entered a world where we were no longer at war.  There wasn't a single semblance of any real security: no security guards, no TSA agents, there wasn't even a freaking metal detector for Pete's sake!  Oh, that's ok Mr. Chertoff, I'm sure the enemies of the United States are only interested in hitting airborne targets, you can go back to sleep now.
As we boarded the train in Little Rock, we crept up into the second level of the car where we found our seats.  Most of the people onboard were sleeping in all kinds of positions in their seats.  Once we were settled in, we attempted to do the same.  This became a futile effort.  
Suggestion #1: Get a bed.
While the crew made a valiant effort to provide a comfortable atmosphere for those who wanted to sleep in their seats, you just can't get a good night's rest with an armrest between your cheeks (if you know what I mean).  Upgrading your travel to include a bed is a little more costly, but it will be worth it in the end.
The next morning the conductor stopped by to make sure that we knew that the Dining Car was open for breakfast.  Originally this wasn't part of our plan, but since the train was running about 90 minutes late (and we weren't quite ready to give up our adventurous spirit) we figured we'd give it a shot.
Suggestion #2: Get a bite.
The service and the food in the Dining Car were excellent.  Breakfast being my favorite meal of the day, there's nothing better to start your day than a western omelet, toast, fresh fruit and hot cup of joe, all while enjoying some of America's scenic beauty.
Suggestion #3: Set a loose schedule
We arrived at the station in St. Louis almost two hours late.  Luckily we were able to call ahead and let the rest of the family know not to drive 40 minutes out of their way just yet. Hindsight shows this to be a recurring theme in rail-travel with Amtrak, as our homeward-bound train picked us up over two hours past it's scheduled time and we arrived back in Little Rock a full three hours late.
After trying to decide whether this was a good experience or bad, I think it's best said: this was a learning experience.  Will we do it again?  Maybe so... but we'll definitely get a Sleeper Car with beds... and a hot cup of joe in the morning.

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