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Trainspotting

by Brian Clarey

Trainspotting

A train ticket from Garden City, NY into Penn Station in New York City costs $10 these days, about double what it was when I briefly commuted through the city for work almost 20 years ago. It’s as hard for me to believe that the price has doubled as it is that 20 years have passed, saying this with full realization that complaining about how the price of things has gone up and marveling at how fast the time goes by— in the same breath, no less — officially makes me an old fart.

Ten bucks ain’t what it used to be, but it’s still a pretty good deal for a ride all the way from Long Island into the heart of midtown Manhattan in 25 to 40 minutes, depending on where you pick up the Long Island Railroad and whether you have to change trains at the station in Jamaica, Queens. It sure beats fighting traffic and paying tolls in a car, and a cab ride over this distance could run $100.

I grew up in a place with trains rushing past intersections and squealing into stations. I’d take it out to Philadelphia to visit friends, into New Jersey to my grandparents’ house, out to Long Beach to see the ocean. As young adults, my friends and I took the train into New York City to go to concerts, museums and ballgames, just as our fathers did each morning and evening for their commutes.

Millions ride the LIRR every day, not just because it’s a good deal — which it still is — and not because they don’t have cars — which most of my friends who take the train do. They ride trains because it is a great way to travel over distances long and short.

I lost sight of this fact when I moved to the South more than 25 years ago. People don’t take trains here — or, at least, not as much as they do in the Northeast, where train travel is an accepted way of life.

I caught a 6:05 a.m. local in Garden City a few days later, made the change at Jamaica and got to Penn Station in plenty of time to make my 7:05 Amtrak train to Greensboro.

I make the trip between Greensboro and New York several times a year, sometimes by plane, which is fabulous if you can get a direct flight and a cheap rate, and mostly by car, which is by far the most efficient way to transport a family of five across the 550-mile distance. This is the first time I’ve ever taken the train back home. I booked it because it was a last-minute trip and I was looking for the fastest, cheapest way to cover the distance. The Amtrak passage was about half of what a plane ticket would have cost and slightly cheaper, even, than driving by myself after figuring the price of five tanks of gas and tolls. Had I paid the fare a couple months in advance, it would have cost significantly less.

For the trip up, I got to the Depot in downtown Greensboro about 20 minutes before departure time — no security screening, no baggage check, no waiting around save for a short line to board the train. I had a bit more leg and arm space than I would have in the first-class cabin of a plane, and my seat leaned back much further than any plane seat I have ever sat in. No seat belts, either — I could get up and walk around as I pleased, and we even took smoke breaks at a few stations.

Plus there’s free wi-fi. I wrote most of this column on my return trip to Greensboro, in the café car of the Carolinian line, sitting at a booth with an electric jack in case I needed to recharge. The food was halfway decent — some of it is, anyway — and a bargain compared to airport prices, though I had the option of packing my own if I wanted. And there’s like 10 bathrooms. No waiting.

Outside the windows of the Carolinian I saw the relics of industrialized New Jersey roll into coastal headwaters as we approached Washington DC, which tapered off into vast swaths of land and rural Virginia neighborhoods. As we passed through one quaint downtown district outside Richmond, some people on the street stopped and waved at us.

You don’t see this part of the United States when traveling the interstate highways, which have evolved into homogenous strips of blacktop with the same fast-food chains and gas stations at every exit. And it’s a more intimate way to travel than by plane — visiting a city’s airport is far different than passing through the actual city.

Looking at the Amtrak map, I see that I can catch the train out of Greensboro east to Raleigh and up to Washington DC. I can ride south to Charlotte and get all the way down to New Orleans. The train goes everywhere that I want to go — all I need is a ticket to get on board.

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