Long haul train trips make sense when you have plenty of time, you want to save money, you care about your carbon footprint, and you yearn for adventure. The first three factors worked in my favor for a 19-hour expedition to Livonia, Michigan, recently, a trip that takes just five hours by plane including an hour in the air and the drive to and from the airport.
So when I had plenty of time, and the plane ticket for a midweek trip was costly (more than $500 roundtrip, not counting airport parking) I took NJ Transit to New York Penn Station, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited to Toledo, Amtrak’s bus to Detroit, and a taxi to Livonia. Cost: $64 in coach or $343 in the sleeping car, one way.
Plus I could pat myself on the back for saving energy. Planes use twice the carbon dioxide of trains.
Was it also an adventure? Yes, but I had a much more harrowing experience than I expected.
The Lake Shore Limited (sometimes dubbed the Late-for-Sure Limited) pulled out of Union Station on Monday at 4:09 p.m., almost on time. Ensconced in my tiny two-seat, two-bunk private room, listening to Mozart’s 39th on my laptop, I could feel my tension drip away. This journey was partly a tribute to my mother, who loved train travel, and it was also supposed to be a kind of retreat, an uninterrupted time to consider where my life is and where it is going.
Since my room was on the port side I had magnificent views of the clouds shielding the setting sun on the Hudson River. And because my roomette ($260 of the total fare) entitled me to free meals in the dining car, I feasted on salmon and key lime pie as we came into Albany. The best part of the meal was sharing it with a young single mom who is eager to be a journalist — she at the beginning of her career and me tapering off from mine. We made plans to correspond.
So far, this journey offered no excitement, just bucolic pleasure. “Please wake me at 5 a.m. for getting off at 5:30 a.m. in Toledo,” I told the porter (I nicknamed him Hapless Harry) when he converted the seats into bunk beds. I snuggled down under a too-thin blanket. Rather than call the lethargic Harry to ask how to turn up the heat, I added my coat as a second blanket, kept the curtains open, and alternately dozed and watched through the night as we passed through Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester.
Then Harry knocked on my door, late. It was already 5:17 a.m., and I had been sleeping soundly. “We’ll be in Toledo in a few minutes,” he said. I was frantic. I threw on my clothes, stuffed things into my suitcase, and seven minutes later I was out of the train. Rummaging for a $5 bill, I told Harry I would have tipped him more, but that I was very unhappy that he didn’t wake me at 5 a.m. as I had asked.
He answered by going back to the train, shutting the door and closing the steps, leaving me there on the platform, empty except for a baggage cart two cars away.
Along came the baggage cart. “Are you for Cleveland,” asked the cart driver? “No, I’m for Toledo.” “This is Cleveland,” she said. “Toledo is two hours west.”
“Help,” I shouted, and beat my fists on the side of the train.
The head conductor came to my rescue. He had been helping coach passengers disembark about 10 cars away. Knowing that no sleeping car passenger should be getting off in Cleveland, he alerted the baggage truck and ran through the train to open the door, help me up the steps, and take me and my suitcase back to my room.
It was a narrow escape. Cleveland is two hours from Toledo, and it would be 22 hours until another train would come along, too late for me to see my granddaughter sing the lead in a church musical. I learned later that Amtrak would have taken care of me somehow, perhaps by sending me to Toledo in a taxi.
I tried to think positive thoughts. Scrambled eggs helped. Had the train been on time, I would have gotten off in Toledo before the dining car opened. Instead I have the priceless memory of being in the dining car, with its wall-to-wall windows, as the sun cast a luscious pink glow over Lake Erie.
I pieced together what had happened. The conductor had promised to rouse Harry in time to get me off in Toledo. Because we were running two hours late, he didn’t. Harry probably woke up in a panic, looked at his watch, didn’t ask if the train was running late, and thought he had to get me off quickly. I bet he never does that again.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. For the return, my plane ticket was just $98, and I took public transportation (SEPTA and New Jersey Transit) from the Philadelphia airport. It cost $9 at the senior citizen rate and took three hours, but I had to wait 20 minutes for the shuttle from Philadelphia airport (it runs every half hour) and I just missed the hourly R7 train from the 30th street station. But that gave me time for lunch and time left over to visit a handful of eco-transportation exhibits. I felt smug. I had done my bit for Mother Earth.