Romancing the Train: A Ride from Raleigh to Charlotte

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The conductor didn’t yell out: “All aboard!”

Maybe he should have. At exactly 11:50 a.m. the train began to move, and one poor soul was late, trying to run up to the train as though he were on a movie set and might actually leap up and grab the handles to pull himself in.

Those romantic ideas, as well as the conductor’s famous cry, are inaccurate. Luckily, most of the other nostalgic ideals one might attach to a train ride are actually true.

All aboard at the Raleigh Amtrak station. Photo by Leo Suarez.

There’s nothing quite like riding a train, and around the world people use them to get from place to place. America, it seems, does not share my love for this travel. We’ve got more practical ways to get around. The trip isn’t faster than a car. At $50 for a round-trip ticket to Charlotte for an adult and $25 for a child, the three-hour ride isn’t even cheaper.

But the federal government is planning to install high-speed rail that will run from D.C. to Charlotte, so faster will soon be possible. Meanwhile, Amtrak is ramping up its trips within North Carolina and added a new mid-day route two months ago.

And more people are riding. As reported by the Triangle Business Journal, (link: ridership on trains between North Carolina’s two largest cities climbed from 5,258 in June 2009, to 15,426 in June 2010. Amtrak says that’s due to the new mid-day route.

Ridership is also up overall: For the period of October through June, ridership overall jumped 26 percent, with 65,956 people riding the rails so far this year compared to 52,347 during the same period a year ago.

All Aboard

I set out this past weekend to investigate the experience of riding from Raleigh to Charlotte.  My boyfriend and I bought the tickets online in advance, something I recommend. The two-car train was sold out on our return trip from Charlotte to Raleigh and not all of those who walked up to the window were able to get a ticket.

We live downtown, so we walked to the small station on Cabarrus Street. If you’re driving, parking is free. But there’s not much of it, so get there early. We stood in line to get our pre-ordered tickets, surrounded by a surprising number of people. The tiny train station could barely hold us all.  In 2009, Raleigh had the state’s busiest train station, with more than 141,000 people passing through its doors. Charlotte counted more than 134,000 that year.

After we got our tickets, we were ready. I didn’t have to wonder if I packed sunscreen in the wrong bag, to be confiscated after a trip through the X-ray machine. I kept my shoes and belt on at all times. And I didn’t have to pay to check my bag.

The train whistle alerted us to its arrival long before we could see it. One kid sat on his dad’s shoulders to watch the train snake around the curve. Not everyone likes the sound of train horns, but to me, it sounds like excitement and adventure – a new trip begun.

Riding the Rails

There are two trains running through the Tar Heel state: the Piedmont and the Carolinian. If you’re Charlotte-bound, you’ll probably be on the Piedmont, which had two passenger cars and one lounge car.

Once parked, everyone lined up and the train staff grabbed a portable metal stair so that we could reach the train step. (Note to Amtrak and Raleigh: train station upgrades should include platforms level with the train step.)

We climbed aboard, stepping into the car on the right, the Honeybee, as directed by the train staff. Those taking the trip all the way to Charlotte are put in one car, while other passengers are put in the second car.

The first surprise was just how large the seat area is. It felt like the exit row of a plane. I could stretch out my 5-foot-8 frame comfortably. My 6-foot-1 boyfriend also had no trouble. There was an enormous amount of room for overhead storage, and it didn’t have the sardine-can feeling that small jets impart. Unless you’re in a van or luxury vehicle, even a car isn’t this comfortable.

The large windows afforded a spectacular view of downtown Raleigh, and there were even two electrical outlets to plug in laptop and cell phone. Best of all, when using the drop-down tray to eat, I didn’t have to squeeze my elbows in to avoid the person next to me.

The train left on time, whooshing through to Cary in a quick 10 minutes. We stopped for two minutes and were on our way, hitting each of the seven stops toward Charlotte on time. One of the inefficiencies of train travel is the stopping, but aside from Raleigh and Charlotte, each stop lasted for only one or two minutes.
Of course, trains aren’t always on time. Amtrak shares lines with freight, which means that if a freight train is ahead of your passenger train, there’s not much you can do about it but sit there and wait. According to Amtrak’s figures, 80 percent of trains running in 2009 were on time.

Riding from Raleigh to Charlotte on the new midday train. Photo by Leo Suarez.

Luckily, our train to Charlotte suffered no freight waiting. Instead, the train clicked and clacked along the tracks in a rocking motion, speeding toward our destination. Some might find the train’s movements nauseating or irritating. I find it soothing, and on the trip home, half of the passengers were asleep, blankets pulled up, heads leaning against windows.

Apparently, I’m not the only one with a sense of train romance. At more than one stop, a family member watched their loved one get on the train, and waved to them through the window as the train departed. Sadly, that luxury is long gone from security-tightened airport gates.

Like a plane, snacks are hard to come by. Sometime after noon, my stomach was rumbling. I ventured up to the lounge car at the front, which offered vending machines, free coffee and free mini bottles of water. I took some water, but I had no cash for a junk food meal. (The Carolinian boasts a café car.) On the return trip, we wisened up, packing sandwiches to eat for dinner.

I spent half of the trip staring out the huge windows. From a car on the Interstate, all you see is concrete and truck stops. The behind-the-scenes feeling of the train car view feels like a trip through real America: glimpses of farmhouses, tobacco, fields and gravel roads. Each city stop gave us a chance to check out downtowns that you can’t see from Interstate 40 or 85.

I spent the other half of the trip working. I suppose you could get work done as a passenger in either a car or plane. But aside from the space issue, to me, it simply felt more comfortable. I used the tray table and outlet to set up my laptop and write part of this story. I stretched my legs out and leaned the chair back a little without bumping the person behind me. I sent text messages and played with my phone, a no-no while driving or flying. I later used the foot rest to prop up my feet and delve into a novel.

The three hours flew by. We arrived right on time, at 3:02 p.m.

As I stepped off the train, I noticed something. I wasn’t feeling that hangover-fatigue I get from pressure changes while in an airplane. My legs didn’t feel cramped or in need of a stretch as they do after a long car ride. Instead, we stepped out into the sunshine, ready to explore Charlotte.

The Bottom Line

Would I take the train from Raleigh to Charlotte again? Not always. Right now, a car is simply cheaper and faster. But as more people ride, the prices will go down and the number of upgrades will increase, making it a more practical option.

Still, I’m glad I tried it. I think about the small scenes that make up my weekend trip: families waving good-bye on the platform, the sound of the train horn, the feel of the train speeding through fields, the boy on his dad’s shoulders watching the train arrive.

Maybe America is just too practical sometimes with our cheap gas and Interstate travel, our X-ray security lines and air-pressurized cabins. Shouldn’t a trip be flavored with excitement and adventure instead of headaches and cramped legs?

Once in awhile, paying a little extra to use a train to get from point A to point B seems like a good deal. After all, who couldn’t use a little romance with travel?