Travelling by Train, Again!

Penn Station

Welcome aboard Amtrak!

I’ve written before about the importance of taking your kids and grandkids on the train. Too many model railroaders and railfans simply don’t connect their hobby and love of trains with the real thing. I think this is actually a fascinating concept, especially as it’s so foreign to me. My love of model railroading is inexorably tied to my love of real trains. If I haven’t worked on my layout in a few weeks I start to get antsy. Similarly, if I haven’t taken a real train in a few weeks I have to take the train somewhere, even if it’s just out and back so I can ride the rails for a few hours.

When I’ve written before about encouraging people to take the train, I’ve been met with a lot of excuses why it’s inconvenient. In fact, I’ve actually received some angry emails from people. How dare I tell them how to plan their vacation? They don’t want to take the train, so stop making them feel guilty for not taking the train!

I also know a number of people – my wife’s aunt and uncle especially – who will ride trains in every country in the world but never seem to have the time to ride them in Canada or the USA. Here, they fly, even between two cities 300 miles apart. If we want to keep our passenger trains here in North America, we need to use them! So Uncle Brent and Auntie Sora I look forward to arranging your next VIA or Amtrak trip!

Hopefully the next few paragraphs and photos will convince even the most ardent “model railoaders don’t take trains” guys – and Uncle Brent and Auntie Sora – to maybe think about booking that next train ticket.

Washington Union Station

Washington Union Station, December 2014

I try to incorporate train travel into every family trip, whether it’s purely a vacation or a business trip with the kids dragged along for the ride. When travelling with the kids it is often inconvenient or just too expensive to take the train the whole way, so we incorporate it into the middle of a trip.

Recently I had some business to do near Washington DC, which is conveniently where my brother lives. We spent a wonderful weekend with him and his family, and then headed to New York City. I hadn’t been to New York in over five years and the kids had never been there. Of course, it was mainly an excuse to take the train…

Washington Union Station

Inside Washington Union Station
No, I don’t know why she’s still with me either.

If you haven’t been to Washington’s Union Station since the days of Penn Central, you would not recognize the place. The train shed has been converted into a boutique shopping mall and is a destination in its own right. The cafes and restaurants are lovely, as are the gift shops and accessories stores. Let’s put it this way – your wife will find plenty to do while you’re waiting for the train.

As for the platforms… well let’s just say they haven’t yet lost that Penn Central feeling. I think I see a new Righteous Brothers hit single coming on – “You’ve Lost That Penn Central Feeling”…

You never fall apart on the tracks wherever you are
And there’s no rust showing through the paint on your passenger cars
You’re trying hard at product service
And caring, caring about us

You’ve lost that Penn Central feelin
Whoa that Penn Central feelin
You’ve lost that Penn Central feelin
Now it’s gone, gone, gone whoaohoh

 OK, OK – I won’t give up my day job.

Aboard Amfleet

Boaz and Isaac get comfortable in an Amfleet coach.

As we walked alongside our Northeast Regional train bound for New York, we noticed that the last set of doors wasn’t open. So we boarded the second-last car, and proceeded to walk through to the last car, which we then had pretty much all to ourselves for the first hour or so. Dalya made herself quite at home in the front seats…

Dalya Shron on Amfleet

Dalya writes in her diary on board.

Our train – all eight cars of it – eventually filled up as we were travelling at the height of the post-Christmas rush. This time of year has always been my favourite time to travel by train. Sure, there is something to be said for riding a lightly-used line and chatting with the crew for most of the trip because they aren’t too busy.

But travelling at Christmas is when Amtrak and VIA are working their hardest at doing their job – that is getting lots of passengers where they need to go. As the train started to fill up, some of the characters that got on board were a hoot.

Amtrak at Trenton

Our car at Trenton, New Jersey

One fellow boarded with his wife at either Philadelphia or Newark, Delaware. I’ve never seen someone so farmisht. (Look it up.) He seemed confused about where they should sit, and oy-va-voy it’s so busy and would this spot be OK? His wife kept telling him, “Honey, be suave.” I felt for this guy, because I am sure my wife is thinking that all the time. “Please Jason – Don’t embarrass me again – Please…”

I told Sidura about this guy and we shared a smile. And then not ten minutes later someone gets stuck at the door to our car. He can’t get it to open and he’s starting to panic. He’s holding two snack boxes and having dexterity challenges with the door. I go and let him in and – what do you know? – it’s Mr. Suave. “Oy, I couldn’t get the door open. What’s going on? Oy vey – this isn’t my car. Is there another car after this one? Oy – I walked right past my wife. I’d better go back.”

After helping him out of the vestibule back the way he came I returned to my seat. Sidura looked at me with a twinkle in her eye. I answered the unasked question: “That was Mr. Suave.”

There are some people you meet that you instantly take a liking to. I immediately felt a kinship with Mr. Suave because most guys feel exactly like he does; we just keep it more to ourselves. We look at our wives after 15 years of marriage and think, “Why on earth is she still here? What if she wakes up and finally sees that I’m really a complete idiot? Oy-va-voy how do I keep making her think I’m suave?” If I ever meet him again I’m inviting him over for dinner.

Times Square

The junior Shrons in Times Square

New York City is a wonderful place to take the family at any time of the year. The crowds are obviously more dense at Christmas time and it’s probably not the best time to do the touristy things like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. But the great thing about New York is you don’t have to do anything – you can just walk around, soaking in the history and the atmosphere.

But those fluffy characters in Times Square? Give them a miss. The kids wanted to hug every one and then they come to the mums and dads and ask for tips. And then there are more characters. And more tips. We finally had to tell the kids to stop hugging all the furry creatures! We were running out of money!

Central Park

Taking a carriage ride in Central Park

We could easily have spent a week or two in New York, but we only had two days. It was still enough to get a taste of Manhattan, and it left the kids eager to come back. Boaz and Dalya were already planning their next trip before the first day was finished. Obviously you need to tailor your visit to your party. Isaac would have done a very good job decluttering the Tenement Museum by throwing all of the historical items over the fire escape, so we ruled that one out.

Singing on Broadway

Isaac, Boaz and Dalya on Broadway

New York can actually be a very inexpensive travel destination for a young family. The kids wanted to sing on Broadway. So Boaz wrote a song and then, the next day, he sang it on Broadway. Dalya and Isaac were his dancing troupe. When we returned home, the kids were all excited and told all and sundry that they had performed “on Broadway.” Total cost: $0. Similarly, we spent a lot of time riding the subway or just walking around, and that was enough to keep the kids entertained (and me pooped).

We stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel New York – Times Square South. It was typical of Manhattan in that the elevator and the room were a bit squishy, but the room was very clean and the bathroom was both spacious and recently renovated. Most importantly, it was affordable – $199 per night in the high season. When I discovered that our mini-fridge had been unplugged and our groceries ruined, the manager came to our room with free breakfast vouchers. I didn’t even have to ask. The service was excellent and I recommend the hotel.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

We met some friends and walked to Grand Central to show the kids the “really big room.” They were awe-struck, although Boaz – ever the Canadian patriot – commented that it was “almost as impressive as Union Station” (in Toronto). I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Union Station’s crumbling Great Hall would fit inside Grand Central’s beautifully-restored Main Concourse about three times…

Enterprise Shuttle

Enterprise rests on the Intrepid

Most people can mention the top museums and tourist destinations in Manhattan off the top of their heads: the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the MOMA, the Met, the Transit Museum (of course), etc. But actually very few people know about the Intrepid. I didn’t know about it until a friend with a similar interest in big machines and science fiction told me I had to take the kids there. Boy was I impressed.

Isaac Shron

Yo, Dad. Why did you wake me up?

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is one of the coolest museums I have ever been to. It’s on a retired aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid. It features a wide variety of airplanes and helicopters, a Concorde, a submarine and even a SPACE SHUTTLE. It also features, well, an AIRCRAFT CARRIER! It was well worth the price of admission and I only wish we had more time there. If you want to tour Concorde, you need to contact them in advance. We didn’t, so I missed the chance to finally go inside my favourite airplane.

I can only imagine how many other hidden gems this city has to offer…

Penn Station New York

Waiting to board the train to Washington

The trip to New York was intended as just a taste for the kids, and I think we were successful. The great thing about taking the train on a trip like this is that, while you enjoy being away, you are also looking forward to the ride home.

But I won’t lie. After two days traipsing around Manhattan with three kids I was completely exhausted…

Penn Station Waiting Room

Taking a load off in Penn Station

When I was in Penn Station I picked up an Amtrak guide to New York and was quite chuffed to see a photo of… a VIA train. After Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, VIA lent some equipment to Amtrak. I wonder if the design team putting together the magazine realized that each of the passenger cars in the cover photo has a big “Canada” emblazened on its side…

Amtrak Magazine

VIA Rail Canada HEP1 coaches on an Amtrak New York magazine…

While the Northeast Corridor is not known for being a particularly scenic route, there is still plenty to see from your train window. I am a big fan of 19th- and 20th-century industrial urristory, and there are hundreds of examples of such history alongside the tracks. To some people these pieces of the past are an eyesore, but they stoke the fires of my imagination. The signal boxes, the freight sheds, the bridges – when I see these remnants of the past I smell the steam engines; I hear the ding-dong of the switcher bells; I see the 40-foot boxcars lined up and I hear the calls of the men on the loading docks.

Traveling the Northeast Corridor I understand in my gut why so many people still model the mid-20th century in their layout rooms. I wish I could go back there, just for a visit, to be a part of American history when trains were still the kings of industry.

15-Train

One World Trade Center dominates the Manhattan skyline, as viewed from the train.

Everyone experiences train travel in a different way, and my kids are no exception. Dalya generally finds the kids nearest to her age and immediately starts up a play date. Boaz will sit and stare out the window, even if we are on a multi-day journey. He has stared out the window from Halifax to Vancouver. My wife, Sidura, will usually read or start up a conversation with some interesting strangers. On the trip back from New York she met a Yiddish storyteller. Now that’s an interesting career!

Boaz on the train

Boaz contemplates the passing scenery.

Isaac treats the train as a massive kindergarten. He does activities in one spot, then another, and then another. I usually bring at least three sticker books every time we ride The Canadian. Similarly when we’re on The Canadian he will march from the Park Car at the rear to the baggage car at the front and back again. And Daddy has to follow him, which is no mean feat when the train is 21 cars long…

Isaac and Jason Shron

Isaac and Daddy play Thomas on the train.

The important point to remember is that there is no correct way to travel on the train. I remember once telling a hobby shop owner that on board The Canadian we all congregated in the Mural Lounge in the Park Car to watch an episode of Doctor Who (it was “The Android Invasion” part one, by the way). He chastised me: “Well I hope it was at night time! You can’t miss any of the action during the day by watching a video!” The last word was spat with contempt.

There is nothing wrong with watching a video on the train, though you might miss the goodies outside the window like this little baby:

Amtrak F40

Amtrak F40PH outside Philadelphia Station

Or this one:

Amtrak Switcher

Amtrak SW1000R 793 (ex-SW9) switches Washington Union Station.

Or these:

Wilmington Shops

Amtrak power at the Wilmington shops.
Photo courtesy Cliff Kendall. (Mine were too blurry!)

On the train, there is nothing wrong with having a snooze, doing work, spacing out, listening to music, making friends, having a drink… you name it. Everyone finds their own space on board the train.

I am hoping my kids will remember these train trips for their entire lives, and I hope that when they grow to be young adults, a train ride will evoke warm, fuzzy feelings and memories of happy times spent with Daddy travelling to new and exciting places.

-Jason