Rail Travel Fail

Riding a train instead of an airplane always seemsrailroad crossing sign with big X like a great idea. But railroad travel remains a half-century behind all other forms of passenger travel.

I’m going to the Boy Scout Jamboree this summer, and Amtrak stops at the Prince, West Virginia, station. This is within driving distance of Mt. Hope, site of the Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel Reserve. But I can’t quite make it work.

The rail industry assumes that train riders are either traveling locally or are willing to do a lot of research and planning. Train travel also requires a super-flexible schedule and creative baggage management.

Here is the process by which my rail travel plan failed:

  1. I visited the Amtrak web site and did the obvious thing: I put in a starting station (Red Wing, MN) and a destination station (Prince, WV). So far, so good. Amtrak grudgingly admits that both stations exist. If I were to put my “real” destinations (say, St. Paul, MN, and Mt. Hope, WV), Amtrak would reject my attempted trip as impossible.
  2. I enter plausible travel times and ask for routing. Amtrak announces that the trip is impossible. The error page suggests I should read the vague section on “routes.”
  3. After cogitating on mythic names like Empire Builder, California Zephyr, City of New Orleans, I figure out what to do. These identify a train and a route the train uses. I need to attach a train through Red Wing with a train through Prince.
  4. The Cardinal is the only passenger train going through Prince, WV. Curiously, it starts in New York, snakes through Richmond, VA, and then heads west. The westernmost stop is Chicago.
  5. Score! I’ve taken the Empire Builder to Chicago before. I can make this work!
  6. The Cardinal only runs three days a week. I look at motels near Prince and Mt. Hope. The Jamboree doesn’t want us to arrive too early.
  7. Fortunately, the Cardinal leaves Chicago on Saturdays. I can leave from Red Wing in the morning and arrive in Chicago by 3:30. The Cardinal leaves after 5, and arrives in Prince the next morning. If I catch the Empire Builder on Saturday morning, I can arrive for Jamboree check-in on Sunday morning. Right on time.
  8. Baggage: The Empire Builder has baggage service. Amtrak’s service lets me check 2 bags for free, and 2 oversize bags for $20 each. But I must leave from the Minneapolis/St. Paul station, since they won’t handle baggage at Red Wing.
  9. Fail

The Cardinal doesn’t want to carry my checked baggage. I’m allowed to bring “carry on” sized bags plus two “personal” items. I can’t bring my duffel bag with its 2 weeks’ worth of clothing and equipment.

The Cardinal’s downloaded “guide” or “timetable” says that it handles baggage between Chicago and Prince. When I try to buy the ticket, the web site says “No baggage service.”

The Amtrak web site has an “Ask Julie” box that looks like an interactive chat. It isn’t. The box directs questions to a bot that generates simple answers for simple questions. This doesn’t surprise me. Traditional rail travel assumed low labor costs and they’ve never been able to adjust to the “service economy.”

The apparent rules for rail travel

  1. Amtrak can only reach stations on its “big name” routes.
  2. Amtrak sells tickets on a “per route” basis. You can buy a ticket between two stations on a given route.
  3. Longer trips require you to change trains. Amtrak doesn’t sell tickets that involve train changing.
  4. Not all trains handle checked baggage.
  5. If you change trains, I’ll bet you have to handle the baggage change yourself, too.
  6. Everything is done by rule.

4 thoughts on “Rail Travel Fail”

  1. Not sure why the Amtrak web router didn’t find your source and destination pair, but consider yourself fortunate that a single-connection path actually exists between them! The rail network of the early-mid 20th century was *much* denser. I’ve definitely seen and booked connecting trips myself; it may be a bug that this one didn’t show up. More likely, perhaps, the posted connecting time may be too short to be ticketed? The Empire Builder starts in Seattle and Portland (yes, really – there are two sections that merge in Spokane) so has a couple of days in which it could be delayed before reaching you, and the routing algorithm might consider that connection too risky, particularly to a train that doesn’t run daily. 26-hour stopover in Chicago between two hops, anyone?

    Your travel stations don’t appear to have checked baggage service, even if their trains may handle checked baggage between other stations that do, but don’t underestimate the capacity of Amtrak carry-on allowances. Two (per-person) 50 lb. bags, each of which can be up to 28x22x14, is probably a few times more volume than a single airline carry-on, and personal items allow even more space. They may not all fit in a sleeping compartment, but you can bring a lot with you if you’re up to carrying it.

  2. I stand corrected on baggage. The carry-on size is dramatically larger than airline “carry on.” I need to measure my duffel, but I think it’s still too big.

    I was wondering about the 90-minute stopover and whether that was considered a reasonable amount of time for a connection. It sounds like it isn’t. This explains another bit of railroad lore: how they handle late connections. The answer: they don’t.

  3. I suspect the threshold for what connections Amtrak is and isn’t willing to guarantee may vary with specifics and circumstances rather than being a fixed number. A tight connection to a destination to which the next train won’t leave for a few days is a different beast than one where there’s one a few hours later. Also, trains that have already been enroute for days themselves have more opportunities to have become delayed.

  4. The long distance trains have to yield to freight trains since most of the tracks actually belong to the freight lines. That makes the scheduling even more tenuous

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