Riding a train instead of an airplane always seems 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Score! I’ve taken the Empire Builder to Chicago before. I can make this work!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
- Amtrak can only reach stations on its “big name” routes.
- Amtrak sells tickets on a “per route” basis. You can buy a ticket between two stations on a given route.
- Longer trips require you to change trains. Amtrak doesn’t sell tickets that involve train changing.
- Not all trains handle checked baggage.
- If you change trains, I’ll bet you have to handle the baggage change yourself, too.
- Everything is done by rule.