The Amtrak: Wonderful and Terrifying

Met with rejoicing from teachers and students alike, Spring Break has arrived. I’m not sure what most high school and college students do on their Spring Breaks (sleep; complain, probably), nor do I know what my fellow teachers will be doing (avoiding teenagers at all costs, probably), but I know that I am spending the bulk of my vacation in the great city of Chicago. And I’m getting to Chicago the way stingy people do: by train.

I’ve taken the Amtrak to Chicago a few times in the past, and I usually love riding by train (with the exception of one instance in Australia). The reason I love riding by train is that, if you have the time to travel by not flying, it is the best. It takes about the same amount of time as driving, but you don’t have to worry about traffic, gas, falling asleep and crashing, etc. You can read a book, watch a movie, even sleep! And in Chicago, at least, you don’t need a car when you arrive, so abandon the train at the station and promise to call while you cheat on it with the el, buses, and your own feet.

Riding a train is almost guaranteed to be cheaper than a flight, it is less stressful, and in my experience there has always been something inherently adventurous about it. On the drive up to St. Louis, where we would catch our train, my friend Scott and I were driving through a rainstorm that was present for the entire drive. The rainstorm blurred everything in sight and Scott and I had to trade off on driving a few times because our eyes were getting so strained. Also we started driving at 11:00PM to catch a train at 6:40. (We lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time.) The time I rode the Amtrak before that, my friend Jimmy and I were making our way to Chicago via the St. Louis train, and drove through a blizzard to reach the Amtrak station at around 3:00AM. The train ride through Australia was the most adventurous of all. It had everything–homelessness, a lack of funds, dangerous wilderness (if we were outside the train), illness, multiple days of travel, antagonists (good for most adventure stories), a befriended Canadian…everything!

Oh, and I’ve never seen people take babies on a train. So that’s a plus, too.

But the Amtrak isn’t perfect. It can show you the ugly side of a place–the side you don’t see from the sky or the highway. For example, until you reach Chicago, Illinois looks like it is mostly composed of graffitied concrete and mud. A sad blend of grey and brown, for miles and miles.

Also, I could be dead right now, because the Amtrak doesn’t do bag checks. Their website is big talk: don’t bring this, don’t bring that, make sure it weighs less than this amount…NO ONE CHECKS! The workers don’t even check your ticket to see if you belong on the train until after the train has started moving. And I mean several minutes after travel has begun. What do they do if you don’t have a ticket? “Oh, well you’ll have to get off at the next stop”? “Well, I’ll let you get off at Chicago this time, but bring a ticket next time”?

I feel like the lax security must be a well kept secret. I mean, this isn’t OK, right? Does Obama know about this? Does the staff not care that they don’t know who and what they are letting on their trains? I guess not. And does that mean that I shouldn’t either? Maybe the Amtrak is one of the last places that relies on the Honor System. You are being let on this train because decency requires that you have purchased a ticket and you aren’t carrying anything illegal or harmful, and people of all ages are going to be reading, listening to their iPods, or sleeping soundly near you, and you’ll be doing the same–not something creepy or insane. 

I don’t know how to really find out if there is an unspoken agreement of safety among passengers on trains, but I’m going to keep riding them anyway. Because they’re the best.


5 thoughts on “The Amtrak: Wonderful and Terrifying

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