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That's the question I set out to answer with Nancy Solomon, an editor at WNYC who's been commuting from New Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan through Penn Station for more than ten years. Yet, Nancy and I turned up a handful of grace notes: a hidden water fountain, a sanitary restroom, decent sushi. More than most municipal facilities, Penn Station is haunted by the ghost of its earlier incarnation--a Beaux Arts masterpiece by legendary architects McKim, Mead and White.
After spending time in Chicago we caught the Empire Builder for a three-day, two-night trip to Seattle. After the Cascades took us to Portland, we switched to the West Coast's long-distance train, the Coast Starlight, for two runs: An overnight trip to Oakland, and what was to have been a daytime trip from San Jose to Los Angeles. We pulled into Oakland four hours late and hopped the BART at Lake Merrit to San Francisco. At San Jose, we caught the second of the two Coast Starlights, and it was running even later. In Washington, the Crescent picks up an electric engine for the relatively speedy home stretch along the Northeast Corridor.
But if those guys are correct, why the evident difficulty selling those subdivisions we saw?
The bike car in Caltrain is a nice feature, and in fact I use it twice a day, every day now. Speaking of Amtrak, wish me luck–I just did a voiceover audition for a couple of their radio spots.
Paul Theroux has taken some of my dream rail trips, although the way he tells them, they weren’t exactly dreamy.
This railway love-in would be incomplete without mention of the Sunnyside railyards at the Hunters Point Ave LIRR Station. Not sure the NEC is fastest due to electrification; that only makes a significant difference for frequent starts and stops. The NEC is only 150mph in two places – both short stretches between New Haven and Boston. New Jersey governor Chris Christie spiked plans to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson, likely leaving the metropolitan region for the next quarter century with all of two rail tunnels to carry New Jersey commuters into Midtown Manhattan. Like ants, 600,000 passengers per weekday course through it, pausing only to stare at an overhead information board until their departure track is revealed and then, toward that specified bowel, they descend. But that won't happen until Amtrak decamps across Eighth Avenue into a new space at the Farley Post Office, which is at least four years away. Our tour of the station on a sweltering summer afternoon revealed a bi-level, nine-acre public space that, in some places, barely functions.
And to our surprise, we stumbled upon a large, and largely overlooked, piece of the original Penn Station. Its dismantled columns, windows and marble walls suffered the same fate as a talkative two-bit mobster: they were dumped in a swamp in New Jersey.


In this case, we forsook that little pleasure for the much greater pleasure of departing for a transcontinental honeymoon from the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, where we ran into a friend getting his shoes shined who took our picture and good-naturedly warned us about what married life was like. You travel along the lake at night, so you never really see it (at least I never have and I've taken this train quite a few times to Cleveland). Pulling through Chicagoland's suburbs, I noticed a number of shipping warehouses with spur tracks going into them that were buried and weedy, while trucks in large parking lots had taken over rail-marshalling yards. After our time there, rather than go back on the BART again, we we rode the MUNI light rail (it was packed with baseball fans hoping to see Barry Bonds hit his 755th home run) to CalTrain for a ride south along the San Francisco peninsula to San Jose. The morning we were to head to Los Angeles, a woman from Amtrak called to say that our train was running 12 hours late. Vast portions of the east side of the state were flooded when we passed, but thankfully this didn't stop the train. The densely built-up cities in this part of the country are obsolete -- relics of a past and much different economy that didn't allow people to have the amount of private space and separation that people demand today. It also goes to Chicago, but it leaves from one of our grand old stations, that is still a train station, Union Station.
All the Amtrak California routes (Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin, Capital Corridor) have bike racks in every coach. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck behind freight trains because Amtrak owns much of the right-of-way on the corridor.
Between New Rochelle and New Haven, I think track speed is a measly 79 mph, often even lower.
Joseph Boardman at the Regional Plan Association’s conference last week at the Waldorf Astoria. Those two tunnels are more than a century old and carry more more than 160,000 passengers a day. On the levelled site rose Madison Square Garden and a nondescript office tower; station operations were shunted to the basement, where they remain. If you can afford to leave New York in the late afternoon, this train gets you into Chicago at a quarter to 10, refreshed, well fed and relaxed, in time for your morning meeting or power lunch.
The freight railroads stock was on the rise for years before Warren Buffet started buying (look up BNI, UNP, CSX or NSC for some examples), and these warehouses indicate that they have plenty of room for continued growth if shippers continue to switch to fuel efficient freight rail.
Then it was a long night and day roll through the northern prairie and big sky country of Montana before we got to the Rockies. CalTrain is a double-decker commuter train that has an incomparable feature that encourages intermodal, non-oil-guzzling transportation: The bike car. It had gotten stuck behind a freight train in the Cascades mountains and that train had broken down. We took a lot of photographs on that train because there were plenty of sights that illustrate humanity's impact on the environment. And the public transportation in Silicon Valley is so bad that the bike is almost literally the only way to get from the station to where I work.


Of course it’s also electrified, which may or may not have an affect on speed or acceleration. Yes, I suppose it needs a better on-time rating to be used more by business travelers, but it is not uncommon for planes to run late as well. To answer Ianqui's question from the other day, yes, the trains generally seemed filled to capacity, although people would get on and off at intermediate stops to create an ever-changing dynamic.
With wood and glass paneling and plush swivel seats and benches, this lives up to its old-timey sounding name. The bottom level has a large open space where you bring your bike in and tie it to racks on the wall. Well, I suppose I could take a bus from the train, which would require taking a slower train and add maybe 40 minutes to my commute. They are also a dangerously narrow chokepoint on the one of the busiest rail corridors in the world.The state and federally financed project called Access to the Region’s Core would have doubled the number of cross-Hudson tubes and relieved that bottleneck. The Empire Builder was the most crowded, and it would have been impossible to book this one but we lucked out because someone cancelled.
They have television screens that show your relative position over the land you're traveling, which they sometimes show on a flight, and a looooong safety video that goes into way too much detail for a train.
Give us a sleeper!" Actually, we had already been in touch with Julie, Amtrak's ever-chipper automated agent, who told us about the lateness. I can't shake the image of a whole crew of workers in some kind of big open warehouse stopping what they were doing and waving at the train. By the end of it, you're waiting for them to say: In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.
We pulled into New Orleans six hours late, but we didn't care much because we were just excited to be there. Amtrak's literature puts the target completion date at 2030, but Boardman, recounting a panel discussion he'd attended earlier that day, said the panel's consensus was “25 years if you’re lucky.”By his lights, that’s not nearly soon enough, particularly with what he describes as at least a half-billion dollars' worth of Hurricane Sandy-related damage. That could pose some very big problems for the New Jersey commuters and regional rail travelers who rely on those tunnels to get from New Jersey to New York, and back again.“Today those two tunnels carry 24 trains per hour, 24,” he said. So if Amtrak’s selfish and owns the infrastructure and says we’re gonna do our four, well it doesn’t matter whether New Jersey Transit gets two or not, because with two they’re dead anyway.
Boardman was making in his comments at the RPA Assembly is that damage from Sandy accelerated what was already an urgent need for additional tunnel capacity between New York and New Jersey,” he continued.



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