What's so special about long-distance train travel?
July 8, 2013 2:21 PM   Subscribe

For short haul trips in the Northeast, buses and trains can sometimes be more convenient than flying. But when it's longer than four or five hours, I'll typically take the plane. For those of you who prefer trains over planes for long-distance travel, I'd love to understand the allure of the trains. What do you like about them? What's been your favorite long-distance trip?
posted by akka to Travel & Transportation (44 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Less obnoxious security theater.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:26 PM on July 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

I've taken quite a few long distance train trips in the US.

I don't really think of them as "preferable" to flying, but train travel interests me and I enjoy the process of taking the trips. I often have more time than money, and I like the idea that, for about the same price as a flight, I can spend a day or two on a train with complete freedom to do fuck all while watching gorgeous scenery go by. You also meet interesting people and see parts of the US you otherwise might not. But frankly I just like the permission to loll about reading novels and eating junk food.

Note that I'm still in a place in my life where I'm happy to sleep in a cramped train seat and not shower for a couple days.

I'll also say that some trips are better for this than others. My ten hour train trip from New York to Montreal is one of my favorite travel memories. New Orleans to Los Angeles through the Southwest was lovely. New York to Chicago overnight, not so much.
posted by Sara C. at 2:27 PM on July 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

And, yes, as Jacqueline says, train travel dispenses with most of the really awful things about flying:

No security theatre.

Arrive at the station whenever, as long as you can physically get yourself on the train before it leaves.

Train stations are usually in centrally located downtown areas, so less of a hassle to get to and arrive in. Also sometimes gorgeous old architecture.

You're free to walk around the train as much as you want and even encouraged to hang out in lounge and cafe car areas. There are also "smoke breaks" at some station stops along the way.

Bathrooms are roomy, and there are plenty of them.

There are some restrictions on luggage, but nothing compared to what you face with the airlines.

Bring your own drinks and snacks!
posted by Sara C. at 2:31 PM on July 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Here are the things I like about trains:

— you can get up and walk around, you can hang out in the lounge car and be social, you're not stuck in a seat for the entire trip
— the scenery is much more interesting
— the cheapest seats on Amtrak are easily as big and comfortable as the first class seats on a plane—plane seats are really brutal for more than 2-3 hours if you have longer legs
— buy a ticket, go to the train, get on the train; no pornoscanners, no patdowns, one can take an entire trip without seeing a single machine gun
— people like to complain that Amtrak is just as expensive as flying, and there are occasions where that is true, but it depends on your route. For smaller cities Amtrak can be much cheaper. I can fly (from Chicago) to NYC for about the cost of a train ticket, but if I want to fly to the smaller city in upstate New York where my family is, the plane ticket is more than double that to NYC, whereas the train ticket costs the same.
posted by enn at 2:32 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

My only significant/long distance trip by train was when I moved from Chicago to NYC...it was dirt cheap, I could bring as much luggage as I could carry, check 3 trunks, and 3 more for $5 each (this was the 90s) ...I couldn't even picture doing that on a plane.
oh...also took the shinkansen from tokyo to kyoto...but that's a totally different experience...like taking the subway at airplane speeds between cities...def much more like an extended subway trip
posted by sexyrobot at 2:32 PM on July 8, 2013

It's generally more comfortable, less stressful, more scenic, and can be more convivial than flying. There is something indulgent about being able to take days instead of hours to get from A to B. It has interesting and even romantic historic antecedents. It encourages card playing, which can be fun.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:35 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've taken some long distance trains before for various reasons. Some already mentioned.

1. Ease of after-travel. I can train from Boston to DC and subway to my destination in 10 minutes on either end for the price of the cheapest flight + without a crazy annoying car ride in traffic to my destination after landing.

2. Difficulty of trip. I took a train to a ski town in Vermont once from NY. It was snowing and amazing outside. A drive or bus would have been a nightmare!

3. Fear of flying. I got over it.

4. Drinking. Hanging with friends for 6 hours on a train getting blitzed is waaaay more fun than doing than for 3 on a plane.

5. Scenery: I took a train from Portland OR to Boston once, the first leg from OR to Chicago was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Chicago to Boston sucked butts, but that's a different story.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:35 PM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Let me elaborate on the "you will meet interesting people" statements above. You will meet Amish, Mennonites, cowboys, drunks, students, foreigners, grandmas, children, families, immigrants, wealthy people, poor people, runaways taking Amtrak back home (Amtrak has a program for that!), modern day hobos, and more.

One of my favorite scenes from a train ride occurred while I was taking the train from southeastern Iowa where I'm from, to California, where I now make my home. It involved a man trying to talk to an elderly woman who only spoke Spanish. An Amish man who was going to an organic farm convention (his family dairy farm supplied milk for Organic Valley) intervened, and just confused the whole situation even more. It ended up with everyone saying something pleasant in their own languages, smiling, and nodding a lot. This kind of thing delights me, which is why I love to take the train (in addition to the above list of good reasons).

Or, on the other hand, if you choose, you can hole up in your seat (or your private room should you choose to shell out), and not meet anyone!

For me, the train is all about freedom.
posted by Temeraria at 2:56 PM on July 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

I can take as much liquid as I like, turn up ten minutes before it leaves, and no one gropes me before I board. Add in the generally better location of train stations vs airports and overall trip times are often similar (assuming high speed trains as I've been taking in Europe over the past year). So choosing the more civilised option is pretty easy.

My favourite trip so far was Stockholm to Copenhagen. Wide seats, lots of leg room, smooth trip and amazing views. Often the view from a train sucks, trees and high dirt banks blocking everything. This one was through open countryside and very pretty. Only cost forty euros for two tickets as well. Suck on that flying.
posted by shelleycat at 3:05 PM on July 8, 2013

Planes hum and shudder and roar and sometimes they bounce, and you have to travel in a giant vacuum-sealed Pringles can, because the outside temperatures could kill you. You get stuffed in a tiny seat for hours and you have to choose between the window seat, where you will be able to see some of the scenery but won't ever get to pee, and the aisle seat, where your elbows will be bumped by the drink cart and you won't be able to see anything, but at least you can go to the bathroom. If you do manage to fall asleep in your tiny seat on a long-haul flight, if you have my luck, you always fall asleep before they start serving food, and you don't wake up until they've already served breakfast, and you get so hungry you start eyeing the in-flight magazine and wondering if it's edible.

Trains, on the other hand, rock in a really soothing way, and there's actually air flowing through them. The seats are bigger, so you can get past your seatmate and walk up and down the train whenever you like. The cafe car is open for most of the trip, so you can go whenever you get hungry. And travelling at ground-level gives you a very different perspective on a place than flying above it: I would say I know something about the places I've travelled through with the train, but I would not say that about everywhere I've flown. Another advantage of trains in these modern times of ours is: no TSA. I've gotten groped by so many TSA agents at this point that they should at least start buying me dinner, but you can still just walk into a train station and then onto your platform and get on the train.

And finally, perhaps perversely, I like trains because you don't get molly-coddled. There's an information board that tells you which platform you're leaving from, but that's it. No gate agent, sometimes no sign confirming that you're even in the right place. The train pulls up into the station, the doors open, maybe there's an announcement, "This train to Boston," and maybe not, and you get on and go look for your seat and hope you're going in the right direction.
posted by colfax at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

A couple of years back, I did a lot of Toronto-Ottawa business trips. If I factored in travel to the airport, waiting, security, etc, travelling Via1 took 20 minutes longer and cost $15 less. The seats were comfy, the food great, and there was enough free booze to get quite royally munted before Fallowfield. Via1 had a good enough rewards plan and late refund policy that ms scruss and I had a couple of nice holidays by train on the proceeds.

Unfortunately, any work trips now I'm supposed to look really busy, so slacking for five hours on a train is right out. Dammit.
posted by scruss at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I haven't taken a long train trip in over 20 years, but the appeal then, and now, is that it was, generally, more humane, than flying ever was.

There were some exceptions. The last trip was being 12 hours late on what should have been a 16 hour trip. The earliest train trips I took in summer had some problems with failing AC systems, though this was mitigated somewhat by being acess to open air between cars (something that is, as I recall, no longer possible).

I'd like to take another long-distance trip though. I look forward to being able to walk around, seeing open country and the back doors of cities, of showing up, checking in quickly, and finding my seat, of not being anally probed and packed into a sardine can.
posted by Good Brain at 3:17 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Paul Theroux has made a career out of writing about marathon train journeys. Read just one of those books and you'll start to understand the appeal.

In a word: trains are civilized. (I've taken trains all over India, Thailand, the west coast and the Acela corridor.)
posted by seemoreglass at 3:17 PM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

on certain trips (california zephyr and coast starlight spring to mind) you will see scenery/places inaccessible by any other mode of transport. that's reason enough for me. and just the passion of the answers already given show how much people still *love* train travel. it's getting kinda difficult to find folks these days who love flying. i like flying still, but love? that's a stretch.
posted by iboxifoo at 3:18 PM on July 8, 2013

Much less of an invasion of your privacy on a train - no one goes through your bags and confiscates your penknife or lighter. You don't need to measure out your shampoo in small travel size bottles. No one is going to hassle you over your shopping bag that might carry a few bottles of wine you picked up while away.

For these same reasons, my friends who smoke pot prefer to take trains when traveling.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:19 PM on July 8, 2013

What I love about train travel is that you very gradually leave your point of origin and slowly arrive at your destination, in both physical location and mindset. A trip from New York to New Orleans starts out in frenetic Manhattan and very slowly becomes less urban, and then noticeably less Northeastern, and hours later you find yourself rattling through Civil War towns. The magnolias get bigger. Civil War battlefields give way to Grisham novels and To Kill A Mockingbird. There is time to appreciate it all. You arrive in New Orleans with your circadian rhythms mostly intact, and a feeling that you really moved through the landscape -- so, so different than the door sealing on you in JFK and opening into an airport full of crawfish and Tabasco keychains two hours later.
posted by apparently at 3:29 PM on July 8, 2013 [22 favorites]

Lower CO2 emissions (train vs. plane)
posted by travelwithcats at 3:31 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I travel by train twice a month (distance takes a bit more than 5 hours one-way by train). Usually I use those 20+ hours/month for work. In terms of personal efficiency I can compare it to working at a coffee shop.

If you're interested in the environmental impact of personal travel: "If you can, choose public transport like a train or coach for your holiday or business trip."
"Try to use flying only as a very last resort – what is emitted thereby in one trip is hard to compensate for by other personal measures like cycling, a vegetarian diet or using green electricity."

posted by travelwithcats at 3:45 PM on July 8, 2013

Also, there is this:

My worst train journey involved a 6 hour stoppage when someone jumped off a bridge onto the line and caused extensive rail delays. It was not great, but we could get up and walk around, the cafe car was open, there was ample access to bathrooms, there was extensive card playing in the aisles, and eventually we resumed and carried on with our trip.

My worst plane journey (except for the plane crash) involved 5 hours sitting on the tarmac in sight of the terminal, with nobody allowed to get up, nobody allowed to use a bathroom, and no drinks service because we were on a runway. After all of that, the flight was cancelled and everyone returned to spend the night in the terminal before being rebooked on flights the next day. It sucked utterly.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:02 PM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I love trains. My favorite trip was the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco. Incredible scenery. I brought a bag full of books to read, but all I ended up doing was staring out the windows in the observation car. I like train travel because it's just so much more comfortable than flying. Roomier seating, freedom to walk around whenever you please, showing up at the train station 20-30 min early - easy peasy.
posted by koselig at 4:07 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trains are the only form of transportation I've ever been able to sleep on, aside from a couple of flights where I'd either been up all the night before or was sick etc. But even in those cases I slept terribly and woke up feeling worse.

Trains on the other hand, they actively put me to sleep, and I wake up feeling great. It must be something with the general rocking motion that takes me back to being a baby, but whatever it is, if I could I would own my own mini-train and sleep in it every night.
posted by mannequito at 4:33 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

oh, and, my favorite train ride was Paris to Barcelona overnight, through the Pyrenees mountains.
posted by mannequito at 4:34 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

We are heading from Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC on vacation in a few weeks. We could drive, fly or take the train - and we are taking the train.

No traffic hassles, no airport hassles. We show up, board, and hours later we are in Vancouver. We can walk around, read a book, meet new people, use the on-board WiFi, eat the food/drinks we take on-board in our carry-on bags, take a nap, snap a photo, plug in our electronics, whatever we want.

If you don't have to be there "now", enjoy the trip and take the train.

Favorite trip? I don't have a bad one, so I could say all of them...
posted by Leenie at 4:49 PM on July 8, 2013

What everyone else said. Plus that trains never make my ears hurt or my eyes feel like they're popping out due to depressurization.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:15 PM on July 8, 2013

As a counterpoint, my letter to Amtrak customer service a few years ago:

For many years I dreamed of making a cross-country train trip. My father impressed on me a love of train travel, of seeing the America that the the airlines bypass, and that cars isolate you from. My wife took some convincing; we take the Keystone from our home in Exton to Philadelphia every day, and was wary of spending days on a train. I reassured her that cross-country trains were different, that we'd have meals, and a sleeping car, and jaw-dropping views. So, last week, she and I flew to Chicago and took the California Zephyr west all the way to San Francisco, stopping in Glenwood Springs for a few days in the middle. We have come away from the experience less than impressed. Here are our specific complaints. On the first leg, our compartment was in very poor physical condition. The window was filthy on both sides (we could clean the inside, but not the outside), making the view terrible. The A/C was stuck "on"; the vent could not be shut - it was less than 60 degrees in our room. The shower leaked constantly, making the toilet area wet and smelly. I am much more concerned, however, with the behavior of our car's attendant, Isaac. I am under the impression that one of the attendant's responsibilities is to attend to passengers and do things like help make up the beds at night. When we rang the call button Monday night, he arrived approximately 90 minutes later only for the following conversation to occur: Isaac: What do you kids want? Me: Could you show us how to set up the bed, please? Isaac: I'm sure you will figure it out. Isaac then cleared the call light and left. When we arrived in Glenwood Springs, we decided not to tip Isaac, considering this rather rude behavior (and the fact that he did not provide any services whatsoever en route). As we walked away, Isaac held up his middle finger at us. (This was observed by another passenger disembarking whom we had befriended.) We had a lovely time in Glenwood Springs - up until Thursday, when it was time to get back on the train. The westbound Zephyr was due at 1:53 PM. It actually arrived at 7:05 PM, more than five hours late. Now, I am fully aware that Amtrak is at the mercy of the freight lines on which it operates, and that there's absolutely nothing Amtrak can do if there's 25 million pounds of coal at a standstill blocking the tracks! The problem is not the lateness, it's the way in which that lateness was handled. We arrived at the station around 2:30, having checked the train status online, where it was reported one hour late. For the next four hours, we were told by the staff at Glenwood Springs every 30 minutes or so that the train would be moving in "about half an hour"; thus we were forced to spend half a day of our vacation waiting by the track. I mentioned that this was a sightseeing trip. Because of that five hour delay, we missed the portion of the route we most desired to see (in fact, one of our possible vacation plans had been to fly to Denver, take the Zephyr to Salt Lake City, and fly back from there). Instead, the sun had set by the time we got out of Glenwood Canyon, and we were almost to Nevada before it got light again. The conductor was rather flippant about this; as we passed through Ruby Canyon, he announced "Right now we're passing through Ruby Canyon, you'd love it if you could see it, but you can't!" Our room on this second leg of our trip was also in poor repair. Everything squeaked and vibrated madly; the sink sputtered and spit all over; one wonders if maintenance crews ever examine the train while it's actually in motion. By the time we got to Emeryville, the train was more than seven hours late. This meant we had to take an expensive taxi ride to our final destination, as public transit was shut down for the night. I would appreciate your comments on our experience.

To their credit, Amtrak refunded 2/3rds the cost of the trip.
posted by dmd at 5:18 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Go watch Before Sunrise, to get a gist of the romance of train travel AND romance on trains. But otherwise, it's pretty much: you can pretty much do WHATEVER YOU WANT on a train, and planes are full of rules and crying babies.
posted by mokudekiru at 5:40 PM on July 8, 2013

Amtrak charges $5 to transport a bicycle, $15 if you can't be arsed to go scrounge up your own cardboard box beforehand. I moved from Chicago to New York by Amtrak.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:46 PM on July 8, 2013

Favorite train trip - Oslo to Bergen
2nd favorite - Copenhagen to Oslo (also involved an overnight ferry)

Both incredibly scenic, did get searched by customs entering and leaving Sweden.

Worst trip ever- Boston to Washington DC, spent the entire time on the metal luggage shelf because they oversold the train.
posted by cairnoflore at 6:54 PM on July 8, 2013

We took the Coast Starlight from Portland to San Francisco during our trip to the US in 2006/2007. It was lovely! We got to read our books and take in the atmosphere. There was a lounge car with a transparent roof so you could enjoy the view, and they had cheese and wine tasting. Can you imagine doing that on a plane??!? We had our own little roomette, which gave us some privacy to converse during the day, and we brought along some delicious snacks and a bottle of wine to share in the afternoon. We met a very nice couple at dinner and had a pleasant conversation as we ate, at a real table with real cutlery. In the evening out roomette chairs converted to beds, and even though I slept very badly (I hate the top bunk!) I don't regret it. The train journey was one of the most memorable parts of the trip.

I hasten to add, this is not for everyone. While waiting for the train in Portland we overheard a woman with 3 kids under 5 trying to rent a portable entertainment unit for the train trip. They were travelling much further than us (for some reason I'm thinking it was Oxnard) and would be in upright seats the whole way. I remember thinking "Surely the plane couldn't be THAT expensive!" For us the trip cost probably more than the flights would have been, but was pretty comparable with flights + a night's accommodation we didn't have to pay for because we were on a train.

Also some horror stories: Niagara Falls to NYC in December 2003: it was snowing outside and the ends of the carriages were insufficiently insulated, so those at the ends of the carriages kept asking the attendant to turn the heat up. In the middle of the carriage it was so hot that I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants legs trying to keep cool. Also, NYC to Washington DC the night before thanksgiving - spent the whole trip sitting on a stool in the dining car next to a very smelly toilet. (We had been awake for 36 hours by that point and our general level of coping was pretty low, so the memories of this trip have something of a nightmarish quality.)
posted by Cheese Monster at 7:35 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've done this many times in Europe and Asia as an overnight trip. You get a bed for the night, and you wake up at your destination. You can sometimes meet new people (although in Asia the language barrier made this difficul ton a couple of legs).

In China they came by with some nice noodle soups.

You can stare out the window as the country rolls by. The scenery seems better in Europe and Asia than in North America, where you tend to go though more industrialized areas.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:00 PM on July 8, 2013

First up, I don't take long distance trains in Australia because the distances are huge & the fares are not cost effective, so this is all about train travel when on holidays overseas:

- You actually get to see the changing landscape, and all the little towns etc instead of zooming over them.

- In planes you only ever brush past the upper middle classes, while on trains you meet a wider variety of locals, and can spend more time talking, sharing meals, etc.

- When backpacking on a budget somewhere expensive like Europe, a railpass can save you $$$ on accomodation. Just hop on an overnight train & sleep on it. I'm probably beyond this now, but it was good at the time.

- Compared with roads, in developing countries you see a lot more landscape from trains. Roads are often just an endless string of crappy shops selling motor oil, repairing tyres, and so on.

Favourites so far would be any trip in India (although I never managed a toy train), North of Mandalay & South to Moulmein in Myanmar, one across the desert in Egypt, and I think it was Kashan to Tehran. A nice winding route in eastern Turkey, too. Looking forward to some Japanese trains now.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:06 PM on July 8, 2013

I've done the Indian-Pacific twice. One of the biggest advantages was I could take more stuff. I was moving both times, so extra baggage was a huge advantage. Once I took my car (full of stuff) for significantly less than sending it separately.

Another advantage was that the trip was more proportional to the situation. It was good, after the madness of packing up my whole life, to have three days to do not much before having to start the madness of establishing a new life.

And, trains are cool.
posted by kjs4 at 8:40 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have spent a lot of time between Boston and NYC on the Amtrak. I prefer it for most of the reasons given abudandlty above, but also because of the relaxed uninterrupted time. It is really unequalled in terms of work time (the reason many people like the Acela for travel between Washington DC and Boston). You have plenty of room in your seat to read or work on your laptop; you can make notes, switch between many books, use Post-Its, and other stuff-intensive work. It is nowhere near as distracting as the plane, where you're constantly interrupted on a schedule not of your own devising (beverage service, random announcements, turbulence, snack service, trash pickup, blah blah blah) and you have to make strategic decisions about when to try for the bathroom and you can't be online (Amtrak has Wi-Fi).

-you can go into your own bags whenever you want, even if they're stored overhead
-you can stretch your legs whenever you want
-you can hang in the bar car for a half hour if you want a change of scene
-train stations are nicer than airports for layovers. You can walk out into the city if you have time, and they do not have the same kinds of airlocked crap restaurants that overcharge for nasty food.

Finally, I also really like the scenery. On that run, you cut through miles of beautiful unspoiled green marsh and get views of Long Island Sound that are unavailable from any road. Shorebirds aplenty.
posted by Miko at 9:08 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

NYC to Washington DC the night before thanksgiving - spent the whole trip sitting on a stool in the dining car next to a very smelly toilet.

Oh yes. I am very familiar with traveling on that day. In a word, don't. They don't guarantee you a seat, and the train is very overcrowded and overstuffed with luggage. There is some fun in the general festive holiday going-home mood, but since I was a college student in my early 20s I have avoided the train on the day before Thanksgiving like the plague. Go on Tuesday if you have to take the train; even that will be busy.
posted by Miko at 9:10 PM on July 8, 2013

-- Better leg space than planes generally.
-- The sensation of speed on high speed trains is akin to being on a runway and never taking off - plenty of unable to wipe big smile off face potential if that's your kind of thing.

Seconding Oslo to Bergen as a brilliantly beautiful train trip. Switzerland seems best viewed through a train as well (I did the short trip from Lugano to Lucerne).
posted by tillwehavefaces at 11:45 PM on July 8, 2013

I went on full day trip to the southwest and it would have been more fun if we had HSR here in the good old USA but otherwise I still enjoyed it over flight. Less virtual body cavity searching and being treated like a potential terrorist. The only time I had to take off my shoes was so I could relax in my wider seat with better leg room. The scenery is generally better especially in the spacious lounge car. I don't have a stewardess telling me to turn off electronic devices, set my seat upright and stow baggage. Beyond the relaxing atmosphere I get to relax even more. One guy in the lounge car was carving wood figures, he would most likely have been arrested at the security checkpoint carrying those knives and carving tools.

I met plenty of people on the train because the relaxation makes everyone more friendly.

It could be better if the US even invested a tenth the amount of money it wastes on air and road networks. If you encounter any problems it is more likely a result of crappy funding than anything else.
posted by JJ86 at 5:50 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I generally enjoy train travel, so it's a bit appalling that I haven't done terribly many long-distance trips.

The rail network in the US is rather sparse (and we have way too few trains on the schedule), so the whole process of getting to and from an Amtrak station with decent service can certainly create a drag on the experience.

I took a train from DC to Charleston, SC last year, and although the connection to the station in DC was great, the Charleston station is actually further from the city than the airport is. That being said, there were no connections to make, the seats were huge, the ride was comfortable, and I slept for almost the entire trip (something I almost never manage to do on planes).

Also, because the entire process is so much less stressful, it's generally much easier to start conversations with strangers. Personally, planes put me in an antisocial/defensive mode. A few years ago, on one particularly long train trip, I started writing just for the hell of it (which is completely out of character for me). It was nice.

Favorite trip: Anchorage, AK to Fairbanks, AK. It's scenic, to say the least, and the vintage 1950s dome cars are awesome.
Close second: Glasgow to Fort William (I'm told that the Fort William to Mallaig section is even more spectacular, but it was closed when I was there. Also, the equipment that ScotRail uses on this segment is rather uncomfortable)
Least favorite: Anything on the NEC. It's a needlessly bumpy ride, too expensive, and not at all scenic.
posted by schmod at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Miko: "Oh yes. I am very familiar with traveling on that day. In a word, don't"

Have you ever driven or taken a bus on that day? Sitting on a stool next to a toilet on the train sounds like an extravagant luxury by comparison.
posted by schmod at 8:19 AM on July 9, 2013

The reasons why I love trains have been pretty well ventilated above, so I will just nth everything said (except about Amtrak, which I have never travelled on).

Favourite trip: I have two.
In 1996 I travelled from Vancouver to Halifax by train sitting up all the way. Got to see Mt Robson by moonlight. Better than the view that I didn't get at 1 pm on the way east because a thunderstorm came up at the wrong time.
Earlier this year I travelled from Leipzig to London by German ICE, Thalys and Eurostar. Admittedly I took several days to do it (stopping overnight in Baden-Baden and Cologne) and it was first class all the way, but really, who wouldn't go by train. I found that if you score a quiet zone seat on the ICE, you can look out through the driver's windscreen and watch the snowy German landscape explode past you at 300 km/h ... mind-blowing.
posted by Logophiliac at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2013

Have you ever driven or taken a bus on that day? Sitting on a stool next to a toilet on the train sounds like an extravagant luxury by comparison.

Yes, of course I have; I've spent my whole life in this corridor and deal with the travel challenge every year. There is no good way to get anywhere that day; that's why I no longer plan to travel on that day. However, even though I have a choice of all the methods, I would still not elect to take the train that day over driving. Driving is ridiculously miserable, but at least you can stop to walk around, get a meal, pee. The bus is always sort of crappy, but there is a maximum number of people that can legally be put on the bus, while the train seems to impose no such limits. The train is so unbelievably packed to standing room that day that you can't walk around, and you can't really relax, and you can't eat or drink easily because there's no room, especially if you do not get on at the train point of origin because then you're very likely to be standing. They also seem to run out food in the cafe, or just close it due to volume. It's really not a good idea if you have another option, at least not for the Boston-Washington corridor. Believe me, I learned this the hard way over several years of putting my game face on about it all.
posted by Miko at 8:45 AM on July 9, 2013

My experience with long distance train travel is almost completely in Europe, but there:
* I can show up 10 minutes before the train leaves and get right on. I don't have to get there 90 minutes early, park two miles away, get on a shuttle, etc.
* Fewer lines. Little or no ticket line. No security line. No boarding line.
* Train cars are better than airplanes. Train seats are MUCH larger and the space between them is larger. Aisles are larger bathrooms are larger. Windows are larger. I can get up and walk around. I don't get yelled at by the flight attendant for waiting outside the bathroom.
* I don't have to walk through a naked machine at the train station.
* Train stations are larger and more varied than airports. They tend to have higher ceilings and feel less confined. I feel less like cattle.

Train travel is actually relaxing. Air travel is an enormous, but unavoidable, pain in the ass.
posted by cnc at 9:00 AM on July 9, 2013

As a kid, I loved the fact that I could essentially run free on the train, because it was a contained environment. I liked the dining car -- its familiarity and also its strangeness. I loved/love the trip from one car to the next, when you are out of the quiet and containment of the car into a strangely loud, jostling junction. I loved sleeping in a sleeping car, where you could make bunk beds magically appear and snuggle yourself into gently rocking darkness. It was all sort of magical, in a totally different way from the mindless logistics of spending an hour or two on a plane getting from here to there -- the actual train ride was a big part of the adventure.

I imagine that I would catch a whiff of those amusments if I took a train ride today, but the general lack of time in my schedule means it's hard to prioritize them over just getting where I'm going. Might feel differently when it comes time to tour the west with my kid though -- worth replacing a drive with some train travel, for sure!
posted by acm at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

In a word, don't.
Fair point, and I would certainly be wary of that if I was doing it again - but if I recall correctly, we flew in to JFK and went straight to the train station because the price of a hotel (or even hostel) room in NYC that night would have blown our budget! For other reasons, it wasn't really feasible to start the holiday several days earlier or several days later, and if I had to choose again I would still choose the stinky, sleep-deprived train ride over no holiday at all!
posted by Cheese Monster at 4:50 AM on July 14, 2013

I guess that's why it's crowded.

And I suppose part of the vexation is that if you take that train often, it's insane how different it is that day, while someone for whom it is unusual and the prelude to a holiday may be more tolerant. I used to be tolerant of it too, actually, when I was younger - I just can't deal with it any more.
posted by Miko at 5:41 AM on July 14, 2013

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