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Thursday, January 16, 2003

The Only Way to Travel

I wake up at 9 o’clock and my train leaves at 10. If I woke up an hour before a flight there is no possible way that I could make it to the airport, let alone have time to shower and pack. I shower, pack, AND make a cup of coffee. I could take the #55 bus to the station 20 blocks away in Pioneer Square but I indulge myself with a $6 cab ride.

To say that Seattle’s King Street Station isn’t the best looking train depot I’ve ever seen is an understatement. I arrive five minutes before my train leaves so it’s not like I have much time to consider that station’s aesthetic shortcomings. I find my seat on the train—more room than in any airline’s first class section. Trains are comfortable.

The fare is $23 one-way to Portland from Seattle. Round trip is double that at $46 (I cater to readers who suffer from math anxiety). Try getting a one-way fare from an airline. Book this fare one month in advance and it’s $23, step on at the last minute and it’s $23. No Byzantine pricing schemes, no price-gouging for last minute travelers. Trains are cheap.

There is a cool observation car between the passenger cars and the dining car. This train is all double-decker cars and below the observation area there is a concession stand. I grab a coffee, a Heineken, and a roast beef sandwich and watch the mist rise above the south Puget Sound. Did I mention that trains are comfortable?

An announcement comes over the intercom that lunch is being served in the dining car. I’m not really very hungry and I would rather eat in Portland but eating on trains is cool. On trains you are seated with other passengers to fill up the tables. At first, the two guys at the table are a little hesitant about sitting with total strangers, but we are all soon talking. It turns out they are making a documentary film about modern music and are returning home to Portland after seeing Erika Badu perform at Seattle’s Showbox Theater.

They give a bunch of recommendations about Portland and one of them actually calls a friend to inquire about a French restaurant called Le Bouchon (Sorry, closed on Mondays). I remark that I have almost never had a decent conversation on a plane. Everyone agrees. Time flies. Portland pops up out of the left window. The train winds around and the station appears on the right. Not really wanting the ride to be over we say good bye and hurry to get our luggage. It took four hours. I’m always ready for plane trips to end. Trains are fun.

Boarding the train wasn’t preceded by a security check. No one searched my bags, no metal detector or X-ray machine, no questions were asked, and I sure as shit didn’t have to take off my shoes. I heard no dire warnings over the station’s P.A. system about leaving bags unattended. Plane travel is degrading. Trains are sophisticated.

I could have driven to Portland. Driving would have been cheaper, at least at first glance. For one thing, my car is paid off and I can afford to splurge on the train. A lot of people are so over-extended on their car payments that they need to amortize every trip to justify owning a car they truly can’t afford. My contention is our society can’t afford to further subsidize car travel while ignoring trains. Voices on the Right scream about the government giving Amtrak a few hundred million dollars while they are silent to our horrifically expensive subsidy of private automobiles, a subsidy that is expensive in monetary and environmental terms.

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