The Charming Luxury of Train Travel

August 14, 2019 Updated: August 14, 2019

The plane from Detroit to Las Vegas was taking longer than expected to take off.

I happened to be sitting next to one of those people who is psychologically addicted to complaining. As we waited, every few minutes, she would erupt into a variety of audible protests.

“Why is it taking so long? What’s with these people? Come on! Let’s go! I can’t stand this wait anymore.”

Amazing. And yet it’s true that plane travel these days is enormously frustrating. Old-timers will tell you that it is entirely ruined. The security searches, being treated like a criminal, the long lines, the crowds, the unreliable schedules, the cuts in amenities, the nonstop demands for proof of identity, the high cost of everything in the airport—it all adds up.

The time you spend in the apparatus of travel is two, three, or four times as long as the travel itself. That’s crazy, if you think about it. Still, it’s no excuse for bad behavior on the part of consumers.

Here’s another case of postmodern impatience. I was turning into a grocery store in a town I didn’t know that well. As I turned, the woman in the car behind me had her arms up in the air, screaming and yelling at me. As soon as possible, she floored it in order to make up for those possible four seconds of life that she couldn’t otherwise get back.

What a world we live in. The impatience is justified if you think theoretically: we would all rather live in a zero-transactions-cost world. We would wish we were in Paris and, poof, we would be there. Want to go to the beach? Blink and the ocean would appear before you. Humanity won’t rest until we get to that point.

Still, for now, travel takes time. There is a question of how you want to spend that time.

The Train!

I have my answer: the railroad. Because I’ve lived most of my life in Texas and the Deep South, trains aren’t too much on the radar. Automobiles are the way you travel. There is no particular reason to change.

But the Northeast, where I now spend swaths of time, is different. Train travel is normal, even essential, mainly because cars, while useful for local travel, are nearly impossible to drag into a place like New York.

In case you have never done this, let me describe to you how it goes. I arrive at Penn Station in New York City. I find the right place to grab the train to Hudson, New York, which is my destination. People are surprisingly helpful in the train station, by the way, even in this famously difficult city.

You don’t have to arrive two hours ahead. You can get there exactly at boarding time. My train was boarded at 8:15 a.m. At this time, a line formed to go to the platform. You choose your car, choose your seat, put your stuff away (plenty of room!), and settle in.

Wait, you say. You might be wondering about security. It seems like an inconceivable luxury, but there is none at all. You just walk into the station and onto the train like a normal human being. You look around you and see other normal human beings. You show your ticket to the person who walks by after the train is already moving, and the person prints a ticket and sticks it above your seat. This really happens.

The whole thing is stunning and super-relaxing.

Music-on-the-Acela
Aboard the Acela Express. (Amtrak)

Once the train begins to move—it all happens very quickly—you are not barked at with orders to sit this way or that or stuff your computer at your feet. Instead, you … do whatever you want. The wireless internet connection is pretty good, and there are electric outlets for your computer, phone, or anything else.

You can get up and walk between railway cars—it makes me feel like I’m in a film noir scene from the 1940s!—and saunter up to the cafe. There, you can order food or coffee, or indulge in a bit of morning drinking with a beer, wine, or cocktails. You walk back through the cars to find your seat again.

The trip from the city to Hudson is remarkably picturesque. You watch the Hudson River most of the way. The train moves at a steady pace that feels relaxing as compared with a car, and the experience is far less abstract than that in a plane because you can actually observe the landscape. The scene in the foreground is fast: trees and pretty bushes and older homes on the river. In the background is a hill with a view of the sky. Between them is this river that has been so important for the commercial development of the United States since colonial times.

The train makes other stops along the way, so it’s best to set your alarm so you know when you are arriving. You have to hop off pretty quickly, unlike when traveling by plane.

Imagine arriving at your destination more refreshed than when you embarked on your journey. This is truly what happens. Then you step off the train and feel like a character out of Anne of Green Gables. You smile and look at the beautiful sky. This is how travel could be—and it still is in the Northeast. (I can only imagine how much better it would be if Amtrak were truly privatized.)

The Hudson train station is especially charming. Indoors features lots of woodwork with a ticket window with iron bars and an old sign above it that says: TICKETS. There are benches around the periphery. You expect to meet an old guy there who is complaining about the policies of President Harding.

Time and Travel

The experience is a reminder of how dramatically train travel changed life for Americans. Maps of railroad travel rates found in the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States give some perspective. Lines on the maps signal geographic space, with the starting point of New York, indicating how many days or weeks to travel westward.

Writer Michael Richard reflects on the maps: “In 1800, it took a whole day to barely get outside of the city; two weeks to reach Georgia or Ohio; and in five weeks, you could just about get to Illinois and Louisiana.”

Just imagine taking off a full month just to go from New York to New Orleans—and doing it without wireless internet.

By 1830, things had changed.

“Train travel in the U.S. was almost twice as fast (a huge improvement!), but still quite slow by modern standards,” Richard writes.

“Rather than taking two weeks, going to Georgia or Ohio from New York City took one week, and in two, you could get to the state borders of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Illinois. Getting to Minnesota would have taken about five weeks!”

By 1857, you could “do in a day or two what used to take a couple weeks. With a week’s travel you could get to the eastern border of Texas, and in about four weeks, you could get to California. Only the Northwest took longer than a month to reach from New York City.”

By 1930, you could go across the entire United States in two days. These days, of course, we would all find that intolerably slow.

So let’s remember just how dramatically trains have improved our lives. They changed our conception of space and opened up new possibilities for progress. It is something striking that even now, they are the most luxurious travel I’ve experienced, and this will probably be true so long as there is no commercially viable market for flying cars.

Back to the pathological complainer on my flight to Vegas. It’s very much possible that she would be less crabby had she been in a train with a nice view and a stiff cocktail. At least the rest of us wouldn’t have had to listen to someone complaining about spending only a few hours on a trip that 150 years ago would have taken the better part of a month.

Jeffrey A. Tucker is the editorial director for the American Institute for Economic Research. This article was originally published on AIER.org.

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