Come ride the friendly rails

OPINION

  • Amtrak
Amtrak (Curtis Tate/MCT file photo )
September 25, 2013|By Ryan Smith, @ryansmithwriter | For RedEye

Admitting that I'm an Amtrak travel junkie often elicits a shocked double take. Even to CTA users who regularly ride trains of the city variety, the notion of a long-distance trip via rail sounds hopelessly antiquated—as if I were some chap out of a Charles Dickens novel forced to decide between a train, a horse and buggy or a hot air balloon.

Yes, I have been made quite aware of the inventions of the automobile and the airplane, but I usually opt instead for a trusty, 19th-century mode of transportation. Since moving to Chicago six years ago, I've ridden the rails to the tune of 10,000 miles, making frequent trips to Springfield to visit family and extended cross-country trips to New Orleans, Philadelphia and L.A.

Here's why you should consider joining me on Amtrak for your holiday travel or next long-distance trek:

Very little prep work

Sure, a commercial airplane would easily zoom past a train in a race, but most people don't take into account the time you waste before and after the actual plane ride. You arrive at the airport two or three hours beforehand to check in your luggage, stand in snaking security lines, and then walk somewhere else to wait in a second line for boarding. Upon arrival, you have to wait in line at baggage claim. It's Line-A-Palooza. With Amtrak, I've strolled into Union Station 15 minutes before my train leaves, shown an agent the eTicket on my iPhone and immediately boarded.

It's chilled out

Airports are the most stressful places in America. Just look at people's faces! They all appear to be on the verge of mild strokes from dealing with confusing luggage policies, unhelpful airline agents and overzealous TSA agents scoping out your junk with fancy X-rays. True story: I got frisked last time I was at the airport due to excessive back sweat! For road trips, highway driving isn't much better (there's a reason why the term "road rage" is a thing and rail rage isn't). Compare that with Amtrak, where you can relax in your seat, walk over to the dining car for a snack or hang out in the sightseeing car to take in the scenery. Bonus: You can use your smartphone without fear of being scolded by a flight attendant or getting ticketed for texting and driving.

Friendly faces

When I'm on the Blue Line, 90 percent of my fellow riders sit quietly with a grim, expressionless look that says, "Talk to me and I'll punch you in the face or scream!" Amtrak must cast a magic spell to break down people's resistance because I've found that complete strangers tend to open up to each other on the train. I've chatted up expats from New Zealand, England and Russia, played poker with a group of college guys and swigged free beer with Saints fans who turned the dining car into a traveling tailgate party. Sometimes it feels as much an adventure as a mode of transportation.

I'm not saying Amtrak is all rainbows and unicorns. Not all rail passengers are shining examples of the human race. I've run into Loudmouth Lady, Guy Who Thinks Everyone Needs to Hear His Music and Jerk Who Sneaks Cigarettes. Also, sleeping isn't easy, and until President Obama's high-speed rail system is finished, taking the train is not particularly speedy. But the upsides far outweigh the negatives. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a train to catch.

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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