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Traveling by train remains a pleasant option

Feb. 20, 2013 @ 12:05 AM

Once upon a time, traveling by train was not only a fashionable but also a primary way that people covered long distances. It was easy and relatively inexpensive.

Then the automobile became a "must have" item offering independent travel. Soon air travel became popular and passenger train service decreased. It became less glamorous and much less profitable for corporate owners, leading to Amtrak's control of passenger services in 1971.

Today train travel is often looked upon as unfashionable or unnecessary. An acquaintance recently remarked, "Why would anyone travel by Amtrak?" The answer is simple; train travel is still great for many reasons.

While trains are generally not as efficient a mode of travel as planes or as private as personal vehicles (the Acela in the I-95 corridor is an exception), over 31 million people traveled on more than 300 Amtrak train routes last year.

Blame it on our age and familiarity with trains in our youth, but my husband and I think that train travel offers many positives that other forms of transportation lack. It can be relatively inexpensive and lets you depart from and arrive in city hubs. In this age of security procedures at airports, there is something relaxing about just carrying your suitcase onto the train, finding your seat and watching the miles go by.

In the past decade, my husband and I have had three enjoyable adventures on Amtrak from Huntington to the West Coast. Each time we were surprised to learn how crowded the trains were and how important this mode of travel was to people around the country. Residents of small cities and rural communities, who no longer have air service nearby, have found that it is too costly and time consuming to drive to distant cities to catch a flight.

Our list of "we're going to do it someday" included taking Amtrak from Huntington to Washington, D.C. A late fall weekend offered us a scenic time to view West Virginia and Virginia and reminded us why train travel is often under-appreciated.

Views of the countryside were fantastic and no one was forced to keep their eyes on the road. The dining car offered good meals and interesting dinner companions. While most travelers have and use their technology gadgets, train passengers are unlike plane travelers. Many actually enjoy talking to others.

We learned much about Australia from a retired school administrator taking a two-month train trip around the U.S., met a Delaware couple celebrating their 70th anniversary by touring West Virginia state parks and learned why a young man left his TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) job and looked forward to train travel.

Our train was completely sold out. In talking to the helpful staff, we learned that the train that serves Huntington, the Cardinal (so named because five states along the route have the cardinal as their state bird), is often completely booked.

Now if you can't abide by the haunting sound of a train's whistle that must be blown at all grade crossings, if some shaking and bumping bothers rather than relaxes you and if you worry that Amtrak might be late arriving at your destination (it often is), then you might not want to travel with Amtrak.

But if you want to see the countryside in a more leisurely pace, avoid airport chaos and meet some interesting folks, take a railroad journey. You'll discover why many people find that passenger train travel is still great.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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