Photos By : Richard Fusillo
When I was seven, my mom and I joined my father on a business trip to Japan; he had to hand deliver a computer build there that was too precious to mail. While this sounds like the opening scene to an exciting J.J. Abrams film, unfortunately, for my overactive 7-year-old imagination, it was far from that. Once Dad made the delivery to his Japanese counterpart, he was off the clock and our family enjoyed two very calm, serene weeks of wandering around Japan and its network of narrow alleys filled with small eateries, bars and trinket shops, slurping udon noodles and sitting peacefully in parks admiring the sakura (cherry blossom) trees and koi ponds.
Halfway through our trip we traveled from the bustling city of Tokyo to the more subdued Kyoto, 284 miles away. We boarded the Nozomi train in Tokyo, also known as the bullet train, and arrived at our destination in two and a half hours. Taking that trip was my first foray into the world of trains, and I was hooked. After the long, cramped plane rides to get to Japan, traveling on a train seemed like heaven.
Not only were the seats spacious and comfortable, but they also swiveled! My parents and I positioned the chairs to face each other so we could play card games. Charming snack carts made their way up and down the aisles! I filled up on a bento box and ice cream. When I was antsy, Dad and I walked through the other train cars and admired the happenings there. I could choose whichever bathroom, on whatever train car, to use!
And when the novelty of the amenities wore off, I remember sitting back, staring out the window and watching the Japanese landscape pass me by. It was so damned dreamy. This was the moment I became enamored with journeying by railroad, and 36 years later, I’ve traveled over 5,000 miles on trains across the United States. It’s my travel mode of choice, which seems to surprise most people I tell, many of whom have never taken a train anywhere.
I get it. There’s an image of trains stuck in people’s heads, planted there from when we were in elementary school learning about the ceremonial golden spike that connected the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads in the late 1800s. The formed transcontinental railroad made travel and transportation of goods out west easier. The idea of train travel was born from that era and the industry can’t seem to escape its old-school roots, while also being replaced by the preferred speed of airplanes.
But as our culture becomes more infatuated with capturing the perfect shot for Instagram, and continues the constant quest to find the most beautiful — everything, is train travel poised to make a comeback?
Take Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner track, my favorite train trip in in the country. The path connects stunning California hotspots San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego. It quite literally hugs the coastline, offering a feast for the eyes, million-dollar views of the Pacific Ocean, vineyards and farmland, vistas and hilltops.
In one trip from San Luis Obispo to San Diego I’ve seen dolphins bobbing in the ocean, wine grapes being harvested and the so-often-overlooked glamorous architecture of Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, before arriving in San Diego to take in a Padres baseball game. All of this for less than a quarter of the cost of a plane ticket from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, with a built-in sightseeing tour. And no traffic.
Train travel appeared to be on the up and up in 2019, when Amtrak experienced its best year ever in ridership and revenue. It seemed travelers were ready to give train tripping the respect it deserved. And then the pandemic hit, leading the company to furlough employees and reduce service levels in response to the shortfalls.
In April of this year U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced that the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration is making more than $1.69 billion available to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) to provide relief from the impacts of COVID-19 to the company’s business operations, workforce and state funding partners.
The Amtrak fleet is now modernized, and next year the organization will debut the first Acela high-speed trains, which will reduce current energy consumption by at least 20 percent due to the new trains being lighter. Even sooner, travelers will begin riding new state-owned railcars and diesel-electric locomotives. Overnight trains with refreshed interiors, including sleeping cars, lounges and dining cars, are also coming in the next several months.
A pilot program is being tested on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston and Washington, D.C., where guests will be provided their trip-specific carbon emissions savings. They’ll be shown two figures, how much they saved by taking the train instead of driving and instead of flying. On the NEC, train travel produces 83 percent less emissions than driving alone and up to 73 percent less than flying.
“Climate change continues to be one of the world’s most pressing issues, and we want passengers to know that traveling by train can help lower their carbon footprint compared to traveling in another manner,” says Caroline Decker, Amtrak Vice President of NEC Service. “Adding this feature to our ticket reflects our commitment to sustainability, and provides customers with real data on their carbon emissions savings when they ride an Amtrak train. We know that train travel is better for the environment and now we are able to quantify that savings.” Currently Amtrak’s NEC trains are the country’s only all-electric trains.
As the pandemic-caused pause in global tourism got us rethinking how we travel, slower and more intentional journeys might just be the way of the future. With an emphasis on the beauty to be taken in along the way.
I’ll take it. Now excuse me as I go check out the bathrooms in the other train cars.