Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Travel tips: Amtrak

I wrote this last Friday, but think it's wiser not to tell the whole world you're out of town right at the beginning of your trip, so I'm waiting until I'm home to post it.

I was talking the night before I left about the relative security of taking a train vs. an airplane, and also the relative amounts of damage you could do with a train vs. a plane. For those of you who have not traveled by rail before, I'll just say this: not secure. People get off and on all the time, and there's not scanning of any kind. I think of it every time some new, entirely cosmetic "security measure" gets enacted at an airport.

Then the next morning, I had to get on a train. I'd switched my reservation late the night before so I was getting onto the same train at a more convenient stop. The new station, Windsor Locks, CT, was an unfamiliar one to me, so I got there good and early (which is to say, half an hour early) to be sure I'd have time to deal with whatever the parking situation is and print off my new ticket and whatnot.

Parking situation? As it turns out, it's just a medium-sized, unpaid, unattended parking lot, mostly empty at 5:45 on a Thursday morning.  No problem.

But also... no station. It's essentially a bus shelter by some tracks. Which is fine, except there's nowhere to print a new ticket. That worried me a little, but I had 30 minutes to figure it out. I called Amtrak from my car, and burned many of those 30 minutes growing increasingly panicky on hold. It was very dramatic. 

Except, as it turns out, according to the nice lady on the phone, I could just show the conductor my eTicket on my phone,* and that'd be sufficient.

So i was relieved. 
And then I got on the train, and the conductor said, "How far are you going?" 

And I said, "Washington." 

And he said, "[my real last name]?" 

And I said, "yes." 

There was no ticket showing of any kind even asked of me.

In New York, there was an announcement that there was a new team of conductors, and so they'd need to see our tickets again. I had another moment of panic when I couldn't find my phone briefly, because I'd been asleep most of the trip with my phone in my coat pocket (I thought) and my coat just on the seat next to me, and with people getting on and off the train or whatever, anyone could easily just have swiped it. More of that famous train security. But I found my phone, and a few stops later, the conductor got to me.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Washington," I said.

"Did they already scan your ticket?" he asked.

"Sort of," I said.

...and then he moved on.

I have always understood the appeal of the hobo life, train-hopping and whatnot, but have always thought it was not for me, with the discomfort and the athleticism. Little did I know I could be living the hobo life just by getting onto random passenger trains and hunkering down with a good book. 

It is possible that I get less scrutiny because I am a middle-aged white lady and do not look like a hobo, but I made it from Windsor Locks, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C., without anyone seeing a ticket or any identification whatever. They haven't even asked me for my name; they've told me what my name should be.

*At what point did it become OK to just call it a "phone" and know that everyone would understand from context that you did not mean some form of landline? Remember when you used to have to say "cell phone" all the time? And some of us still do say that, but also, we all get it when I say I showed someone an e-mail on my phone.


Lisa Clarke said...

I enjoyed this post, right up to the point where you referred to yourself - and me, by extension - as "middle-aged."

I fully intend to live well into my 90's, and expect my friends to do the same, so I refuse for us to be middle aged for at least 3.5 more years.

So there ;-)

Mike said...

Here's the thing about security: while it's true that someone could grab your luggage and get off the train while you sleep or something, it is not possible to hijack a train to an unplanned destination, e.g to crash it into a building. So there's security and there's security.

bzzzzgrrrl said...

Mike- yes. That was the nature of the conversation of the night before. It is still possible to strategically blow up a train, but I get it, less damage. You also don't need any ID to get onto a bus. But I feel like to get on a bus you usually need to at least show a ticket at some point, if only to show you're not stealing a ride.

Anonymous said...

I agree that you are not middle aged. And otherwise, I think you should hobo down here ALL the time, though "hobo" technically means "homeward bound.". Love, Kay