What should we do on an 8-hour Amtrak ride with our train-loving kid?
February 18, 2014 10:12 AM   Subscribe

My family is taking a trip this weekend up on Amtrak from Richmond, VA to New Haven, CT, on the Northeast Regional. My 9-year-old son loves trains, but has never been on Amtrak. How can I make this the Best Trip Ever for him?

I have taken the Northeast Regional many, many time between Richmond and DC, and several times up to Philly or New York. So it's all a bit of old hat to me, and I'm trying to figure out what to point out and do with my train-loving kid on the trip.

So I will definitely point out the switch from diesel to electric at DC, we'll check out the snack bar and hopefully the conductor will be friendly. (On our southbound return trip, we're booked on the Silver Star, just so we can get him to have a meal in a "better" dining car.)

But beyond that, what other railfan-type stuff should we try to do or spot on the trip? We'll have laptops and Internet access (beyond the onboard wifi), if that helps.

My nine-year-old was really into Thomas the Tank Engine as a little kid, but, unlike his older brother, he never outgrew it. He has been assembling a bunch of LEGO trains he received this past Christmas, and he's endlessly watched some train documentaries on TV. Rides on the DC Metro, the Chicagoland L and Metrarail, and even airport transit trans were lots of fun. But he currently doesn't express a lot of rail knowledge beyond "I like trains. Trains are cool. We don't use steam engines any more." (NTTAWWT.) Can you hope us and him on our journey?
posted by QuantumMeruit to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Amtrak Kids Depot has "games, activities and downloads"
posted by exogenous at 10:14 AM on February 18, 2014

Old fashioned book of maps!
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:14 AM on February 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

You may already know this if you've taken Northeast Regional before - or, it may be the kind of thing you clicked past when you signed on to the onboard wi-fi. So if it is something you skipped over: the home page for the onboard wi-fi actually has a little map that you can keep checking that pinpoints where your train currently is right that minute. That may be a cool thing to just keep open and running so periodically you can check "hey, where are we right this minute?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:15 AM on February 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't know about that particular route, but sometimes if you go to the lounge car, there are volunteers giving tours. At any rate, definitely visit the lounge car.

Also, could you watch a train documentary in advance?
posted by aniola at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2014

Ooh! Get your hands on a handheld GPS (ala a TomTom)... while they are neat to have in a car, they are COOL AS HELL to have in a faster mode of transportation. Mr. Julthumbscrew and I took one on a plane once and were totally enraptured by seeing the terrain whizzing by on the lil' screen.

Also: it would be super neato to pack snacks that corresponded with the locations you were passing, if you could swing that. You're already the coolest parent alive for taking the kiddo on this trip, but that coolness would ONLY BE MAGNIFIED by whipping out some soft pretzels as you rolled through Philly...
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:33 AM on February 18, 2014

here are some thoughts:
1. don't PRE watch the train docs. watch then along the ride. 9 hours is a long time and tv helps.

2. if you have a cell modem (it seems you do) i would suggest getting some gps mapping software (along the lines of what was suggested re the tomtom) that works on your laptop so that you can richly follow the ride (oooh, that's the maumee river, oooh this is the fantastahasset* switch yard...

3. buy a book on spotting diesel locos. try this one, it's the best.

4. definitely talk to the conductor and see what he can do to help. there are lot's of fun areas he may be able to show your mini-conductor

5. pre research your line. trains are still old timey enough that one of 2 things is possible: social engineer your way into the cab of the diesel for a look around. most or manned by unioneers and they are almost completely always bored as hell. OR #2... MANY lines let you either pre-buy a ticket for a tour, or pre-arrange one. research research research!!

last thought: trains rule.

*i made this name up. sounded vaguely new englandish.
posted by chasles at 10:52 AM on February 18, 2014

Riding the Rails is an awesome train documentary.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:54 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The staff on the Silver Star are wonderful; I've ridden that route North and South a number of times with kids taking their first rides. They'll be happy (barring handling a disaster) to chat with him a bit, and congratulate him on his first train rides, and so on.

I'd suggest he get and keep his little train tickets for souvenirs; those little slips they write your destination on and stick above your seat to show that it's taken.
posted by tilde at 10:56 AM on February 18, 2014

Great stuff, I agree with all the above. I don't know if they have such a thing for your journey, but I've been on long train rides before with a kind of guidebook of interesting things to look for out the window (helps if there's mileposts or something). GPS & maps is really great, and if you can get a bit of background info on what you're looking at it's even better.
posted by mjg123 at 11:20 AM on February 18, 2014

Best answer: The RailJoy phone app has a lot of interesting info and history about interesting things you can see on the DC-NYC part of the NE corridor. It uses your phone's GPS to locate you and then tells you about things as you pass them.
posted by overhauser at 11:25 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Each locomotive engine and car has a unique identifying number. My own little raifan son has kept a log of all the equipment he has ridden (which is a lot by now... he works for a railroad...) In addition, he keeps track of every freight locomotive he sees if close enough to read the number.
posted by maggieb at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2014

Can you get him a conductor hat?
posted by inertia at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2014

You could get route maps for the other transit systems you'll intersect with on your way, and try to spot trains from those systems. So in DC as you leave Union Station you'll see Metro red line trains and MARC trains; in Trenton you'll start to see NJ Transit trains and maybe some SEPTA; between Newark and NYC you'll see the PATH trains; leaving NYC you'll see MetroNorth and maybe some LIRR in Sunnyside Yard. Maybe you could make a bingo card or something.
posted by yarrow at 11:37 AM on February 18, 2014

Each locomotive engine and car has a unique identifying number. My own little raifan son has kept a log of all the equipment he has ridden (which is a lot by now... he works for a railroad...)

There are a ton of people who do this, "Train Spotting" (having nothing to do with heroin) is a real hobby with websites and everything. Lots of folks keep track of serial number, etc. with notebook and pen, but increasingly taking photos of the engines and cars and publishing them on the web is a thing. So, does he have a camera?
posted by anastasiav at 11:42 AM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

They're kind of pricey, but people who are very into trains take radio scannerson Amtrak--it's the train version of the air traffic control channel on a plane.
posted by hoyland at 11:57 AM on February 18, 2014

Best answer: Sit in the very end car, back of the train. This lets you go into the vestibule (the area between the cars where the exterior doors are) and look out the very back window and see the retreating tracks behind you. Even as an adult I find this hypnotic.

There is, conversely, nothing to see if you sit in the first car; the back of the locomotive is just a big slab. (And the engineers are prohibited from letting anyone into the cab anymore to look around, although if you are at a high platform and your kid is really cute and the cab door is open he might be able to kinda look in there at the controls.)

If you bring a computer and hook it into the train WiFi, the splashpage that comes up when you connect will show you your train's position in real time. A GPS could be fun too, but you can just use the map if it doesn't work or you don't want to deal with an extra gadget.

A paper map might be easier than trying to track the whole trip on a computer though. I wish I could recommend a good paper map that has the NEC clearly shown, but I'm not aware of one; any decent AAA road map would probably be okay.

You're aware of the switch of headend power at Washington so I assume you'll get off to watch them do that ... if you can stand somewhere where your kid can actually see the couplers, and then explain how the knuckle coupler works, I found that fascinating when I was a kid.

Sometimes there are interesting old private cars parked under cover in Washington Union Station. Not sure if they are there right now, but sometimes there are a few old Pullmans that get stored there (by whom I'm not sure). I believe they are on the north side of the station most of the time.

Explaining where the various tunnels are when you go under them might be of interest (or at least make the lack of view from within the tunnel marginally more interesting). E.g. the tunnel just south of Union Station takes you under the Capitol, and then a bit later you get to go under Baltimore (which is a little neat because you can feel quite a sharp curve within the tunnel; it's one of the only ones on the NEC like that), and then as you get close to New York, the tunnels under the Hudson, and then out the west side under the East River and into Sunnyside.

There's a big Amtrak maintenance facility just north of Wilmington that's very visible from the tracks. There's a long building that looks (and probably functions, among other things) like a carwash, where locomotives drive in one end and out the other. And sometimes a lot of cool equipment like ballast tampers or big continuously-welded-rail emplacement machines sitting around.

Sometimes there's also interesting maintenance equipment sitting around Sunnyside, other times it's pretty dead.

At New Haven they'll change from electric back to diesel, so if he wants to see that process again there's an opportunity.

And just getting up and walking around the train -- and getting to press the buttons on the pneumatic doors that make them slam open -- is always a good distraction if anyone starts getting bored. An interesting diversion is to either open a train door, or find a door that's standing open, and then go down to the opposite end of the car from it and look back as the train is moving ... particularly if a third door is open at the other end of the far car, you can very easily see the train bend as it goes around curves. (On the Acela you can even see the cars lean as they go into a turn, but not so much on the Amfleet trains.)

If you're feeling more adventurous:

After you get off the train in New Haven, and particularly if your kid is interested in steam trains, there is a huge coal tower in New Haven but unfortunately it's north of the station. (It's along the tracks that you'd take if you went up to Hartford on the shuttle.) You can see it from I-91 north, on the left, and you can get pretty close to it on surface streets if you want to drive around. The New Haven Railroad switched from electric to steam just as Amtrak switches from electric to diesel today, and the coal tower was for refueling the steam locomotives. There are a couple of smaller ones at various points along the NEC but unfortunately I can't remember where they are. The New Haven one is the biggest of them all though, maybe the biggest still standing.

Since you said you're heading south on the Silver Star, which originates at NYP, but presumably you are staying in New Haven or somewhere convenient to it, you might want to consider taking your return trip from New Haven to the city by way of Grand Central Terminal, by taking a MetroNorth train. You'd have to take a cab (or subway, or whatever) from GCT to NYP, but it might be worth it if your son has never been to Grand Central before. There's lots of stuff to see there. As far as I'm concerned, GCT is the quintessential train station, plus it's just a neat place to go since it's in so many movies, etc.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:06 PM on February 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

sometimes there are a few old Pullmans that get stored there (by whom I'm not sure)

One of them was probably the Dover Harbor.
posted by exogenous at 1:19 PM on February 18, 2014

I'm not sure how likely you are to see freight trains on your trip (as opposed to passenger trains) but here is some stuff you might find interesting:

Here is a list of different types of train cars and what kinds of things ship in each type.

Here is an online virtual tour of a BNSF freight train that lets you see each type of car and read about it as the train goes by.
posted by CathyG at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2014

He might have fun learning what the horn signals mean.
posted by maggieb at 3:10 PM on February 18, 2014

My sister and her husband really like to play Ticket to Ride when they go on long train trips.
posted by ktkt at 3:40 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for the advice. We had a great time on the trip!

The RailJoy app looked awesome, but we only have Android devices! We had some fun with the physical maps and GPS though. Books also looked cool, but we didn't want to be lugging 'em around while juggling kids and luggage.

My kids are big Ticket to Ride fans, but the thought of keeping all those little plastic trains on the trip gave me chills. Our kid settled for the computer version. ;)

Seeing the switchover in DC was probably the train highlight of the trip. We had a friendly conductor who talked a bit about the locomotive and coupling. It was cooler than what I as a parent had to say. My 11-year-old panicked when he thought that the locomotive was going "backwards" when it coupled. ;)

Food was a problem for us on the return trip. We didn't provision up adequately at Penn Station, and the snack car options weren't doing it for them. Ah, well.

Overall, I felt that the kids -- even my train-lover -- spent too much time with their noses buried in their screens instead of watching the Northeast Corridor, but they all had some real excitement at a bunch of times.

Victory! A+ Would ride again. ;) Although after seeing them on the Silver Star I have some of 'em clamoring for a sleeper car trip...
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:35 AM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

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