Off Tracks

IMG_0612The train tracks come into Columbus from the south.  At night we regularly hear the whistles moan as the trains approach the downtown area.  As the cars rattle past German Village, they roll underneath the Whittier Street overpass.

The overpass has a tightly meshed fence that keeps the passersby away from the tracks and makes it impossible to get an unobstructed picture of the trains as they rumble by.  It’s an apt physical sign of Columbus’ circumstances when it comes to trains.  We are serviced by freight trains galore, but we’re blocked from boarding any passenger trains.  If you live in Columbus and want to take a train trip, you need to drive about a hundred miles south or a hundred miles north — because neither Amtrak nor any other passenger rail line stops in Ohio’s capital city.

midwest-rail-map-2015-revsIf you look at a passenger rail service map, you can see Columbus’ isolation.  It’s there smack dab in the middle of Ohio, far away from any of the operating rail stations.  Even with efforts underway to increase passenger rail service in other cities, when it comes to trains Columbus is nowhere.

It didn’t use to be that way.  If you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you about Union Station, which used to anchor the northern edge of downtown Columbus, and how you could catch an interurban train to other cities in Ohio, take a long cross-country trip, or even book a ride on a special car that took Ohio State football fans up to Ann Arbor for the games against That Team Up North.  But now Union Station is demolished, its classical entrance arch has been reconstructed in a park in the Arena District, and the train trips from Columbus are a distant memory.  At some point, when the superhighways and the airports had taken away many of those former passengers, train travel became uneconomical, and somebody decided that Columbus really didn’t need passenger trains anymore.

Now we just hear the trains, and it’s a lonesome, sad sound.

All Aboard The Acela Express

IMG_1839On Thursday I needed to get from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Rather than taking a plane, I decided to try the Amtrak Acela Express.

I’ve never taken a train trip in the United States. I’ve ridden trains in Europe, but there is no American passenger train station in Columbus. I figured it was about time I tried an Amtrak train. After all, as an American taxpayer, I’ve been subsidizing Amtrak for decades. The Acela Express is supposed to be one of the few Amtrak routes where ticket revenue actually covers is operating costs (some people dispute this), although capital costs of the route remain subsidized by the federal government. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to see what my tax dollars have produced?

IMG_1842I liked taking the train, and I’d take it again. The Acela Express leaves from Union Station in D.C., has stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Newark, then arrives in Penn Station about 2 hours and 50 minutes after you’ve left the Nation’s Capital. Total travel time is about what you’d have by air, factoring in the time needed to get to the airport and go through security, and you end up in the middle of Manhattan rather than at LaGuardia. The cost of my first-class Acela ticket was about the same as the cost of a flight, too.

The first-class car was clean and spacious, and the train was sold out. Most of the first-class passengers were taking advantage of the free wireless that was afforded and the free beverages; my traveling companion and I each had a glass of decent red wine. Our car was quiet and spacious. The train rocks a bit, but you can stretch your legs and walk to the cafe car if you want, or just watch the scenery roll by. As an added bonus, I saw a U.S. Senator on the trip — New Jersey’s Bob Menendez.

A New York attorney I know said the Acela Express advertises itself as the “civilized” travel alternative. That’s not inaccurate. Thanks, fellow taxpayers, for a pleasant journey!