Have you ever heard of or watched the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)? It is a classic comedy which stars Steve Martin and John Candy as business travelers who share three days of misadventures as they try to get from New York City to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. This movie came to mind when I recently traveled with my family from Los Angeles to Chicago with stops in St. Louis and Springfield (Illinois). Our journey was not disastrous and hilarious like the movie, but it certainly was fun and we did end up using all three modes of transportation on this trip: a flight to St. Louis, followed by a car ride to Springfield and then a train to Chicago. I really enjoyed the ride on Amtrak and because it was so memorable, I want to devote the rest of this article to the topic of train or rail travel.
As most people know, Amtrak is the national rail operator in the U.S. The name “Amtrak” is the blending of the words “America” and “track.” Amtrak operates over 300 trains every day to more than 500 destinations, and serves 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces. On our recent trip, we hopped abroad the Texas Eagle which travels daily between San Antonio and Chicago. It took about four hours to get from Springfield to Chicago, but it was a leisurely ride that did not feel that long. The train staff were fantastic from the start, assisting us with our luggage and helping us to find two seats together. The seats were comfortable, with leg rooms far superior to that available on the plane (economy class). The windows were large, allowing for maximum views of the outside.
I found it relaxing and refreshing to see the farmland, open space, small towns, and historic train stations that are located between Springfield and Chicago. After all, these are sights I rarely get to see as an Angeleno and as a resident of Downtown Los Angeles in particular. Overall, I was very impressed with my Amtrak experience and plan to ride the train again soon to explore new destinations. If you are interested, there are a few recently published books about Amtrak and train travel: Amtrak: An American Story (2011); Amtrak Across America: An Illustrated History (2012), All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide (2011), and Riding Amtrak: The Rise and Fall of America on Rails (2012).
National Train Day
While on Amtrak’s website, I discovered that there is an annual event called the National Train Day which was created to celebrate trains, and increase public awareness of trains and their importance. I highly recommend checking out this interactive infographic which very effectively and visually demonstrates why trains matter. This year’s National Train Day is Saturday, May 11th and will be celebrated at major train stations across the country.
Here in Los Angeles, there will be an event at Union Station which will feature free kids’ activities, interactive and educational exhibits, model train displays, and giveaways. Visitors will also have the chance to tour private luxury railcars, freight and commuter trains, as well as current Amtrak equipment.
It is impossible to talk about trains these days without discussing high-speed rail. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is in charge of developing the transportation infrastructure necessary for high-speed trains that can reach speeds of up 220 miles per hour. Initially running from San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim via the Central Valley, and later to Sacramento and San Diego, high-speed trains will travel between L.A. and San Francisco in under 2 hours and 40 minutes and will interconnect with other transportation alternatives. The high-speed rail system will involve 800 miles of track and up to 24 stations. According to the Rail Authority, high-speed rail will offer a variety of economic, environmental, and community benefits which are summarized here. As a planner, someone who grew up liking trains, and a general supporter of train travel, I think the high-speed rail project is very exciting. It should be noted, however, that the Rail Authority must overcome major obstacles to make high-speed rail a reality in California. Just a few days ago, a Los Angeles Times article highlighted various regulatory and political problems that could jeopardize the project’s July construction kickoff, which has already been delayed by over six months. Specifically, these challenges are coming from a private railroad company, a legislative committee and a powerful federal agency asserting authority over the project.
While the high-speed rail concept is great, its implementation in California remains uncertain. I love the idea of being able to take the train to San Francisco and arrive in less than 3 hours, but I just don’t know when that will happen given the obstacles and opposition to the project. I’m also not sure how the outside view looks from a train traveling at 220 miles per hour! In the meantime, we can still rely on Amtrak for train travel and I look forward to my next ride.
Note: All photos by author