I’ve gotten a respectable distance through the United States. I’ve been from the extreme north to the extreme south, extreme east to extreme west. And here’s a kicker which people these days may not believe: My journeys to the extremes all took place on land. There were some buses and cars involved, but I’ve mostly become known for my primary reliance on a form of old-fashioned travel which is so forgotten that a lot of people don’t even realize it’s still around: Train. It was the Amtrak that opened up the vast expanses of America for me and allowed me to view and experience firsthand the sights we sing about in all our popular National Anthems.
This didn’t happen because I had anything against air travel, per se. Except my fear of heights. But I always knew that sooner or later, I was going to have to get over that. And when my sister got married, I found myself nestled on an Alaska Airlines flight to California asking “Is this really so much better than the train?” So let’s do this! Trains vs. airplanes. One day, I’ll learn.
The point of both trains and planes is to get passengers from one point to another. Now, everyone knows the fastest way between two points is a straight line, and that how airlines operate: They fly from point A to point B in the straightest line they possibly can. Furthermore, they can frequently make those flights in a matter of hours with minimal interference. Trains are land-based, and can only travel on sets of parallel rails, which means that if things are crowded, they can’t simply turn onto the next rail because it’s moving faster. Trains also move slower than airplanes – yes, they’re faster than cars, but they still take a matter of days to make trips airplanes cover in hours. Of course, you’re allowed to get off a train to stretch when it stops.
Airplanes. There’s virtually no way trains are superior to airplanes in pure efficiency. I saw very few delays in the airports that I was in, while trains will frequently get held up for the slightest of reasons: They can’t keep the tracks clear, there’s a shift change, the engineer channel-surfed into a rerun of Battlestar Galactica that he really liked. Furthermore, the primary train system in the United States – Amtrak – is a government-run passenger train which is forced to run on privately-owned freight tracks. If you can’t guess what gets the priority on the freight lines, you’re probably not an American. My first-ever train journey was delayed three times because of this.
Good service can make a long ride a little bit more pleasant, and both trains and airplanes have certain kinds of service. Trains have their conductors, who walk from car to car taking tickets, writing down ticket information, and giving passengers notice of what stops are coming up next. Trains also have service exclusive to the dining and lounge cars – two different things – and they all excel at their jobs. All the dining car service I ever experienced was faster than The Flash; after placing my order, I had my hot food placed down within a few minutes. The lounges don’t have roving service, but the server standing behind the snack counter has always been very fast. Instead of a handful of different kinds of servants handling designated roles, airplanes make do with their flight attendants. The flight attendants are in the business of doing a little bit of everything, from handing out little trinkets to serving drinks and snacks as well as being a line of first aides who present safety procedures. It’s the flight attendant who greets you as you board and cheerfully sends you off after the flight. In between, the flight attendants perform all kinds of services, from giving out complimentary snacks to taking food orders to cleaning up your garbage. And they all do it with a politeness which is almost superhuman.
Much as I like the service on the train, the flight attendants take this one because they’re asked to do a more impressive number of tasks in a much smaller space. Flight attendants are the be-all-and-end-all on an airplane. Not only that, but they also bring the service to the passengers rather than standing in one place so the passengers have to get up and approach them. Also, I frequently found myself looking to them for how calm they are in the face of everything a flight can go through. After all, they make their living on the airplane, so they’ve seen it all.
If you have to wait, you should at least be comfortable while waiting, right? And trains have stations that resemble palaces in certain locations. The train station in Albany is a modern glass and steel structure with all the amenities of a western skyscraper. Grand Central Station in New York City and Union Station in Chicago offer giant underground networks filled with restaurants and kiosks, comfortable waiting rooms, and even vehicles which span for several blocks and protect travelers from the elements. Unfortunately, those fortresses are rare, and if you’re in some backwoods outpost like Rugby, North Dakota, or Elyria, Ohio, your train station is more likely to resemble a quickly-assembled tool shed. Its amenities will include virtually no security, bathrooms which offer no reason to trust them, and a few vending machines. And there are cities with the aforementioned palace stations that don’t even have their palace stations anymore: Buffalo and St. Louis both ran train stations which were art deco masterpieces before they were left to decay. Both have been rescued, but Buffalo is struggling to find a new purpose for its old station while the St. Louis station is nothing more than an odd gathering of random food outlets and small outlet stores. Airplanes park at airports, which take up enormous tracts of land and provide an aesthetic beauty which is less than underwhelming. Douglas Adams once wrote that it’s no coincidence that in no language exists the phrase “as pretty as an airport,” and he was dead on. Airports are built more for functionality, and that makes up for their ugliness. Most airports offer a bevy of places to eat and buy newspapers and souvenirs. More importantly, an airport can hold several different flights going to many different places at the same time, while the average train station will be a single train stop for five minutes while some people get on and others get off, which is why there are so few trains that go in and out of any given city per day.
Airplanes. The good train stations are too few and far between, and they’re actually becoming less common with fewer people taking long-distance train rides. In any case, even the largest train stations can hold a handful of trains at once. Airports have a lot of terminals and are built to get a lot of people to their flights. Airplanes aren’t as large as trains either, so airports are built to be convenient for a bunch of different airplanes to dock at the same time.
Prices on both the train and airplane tend to shift according to how many people are traveling. I’ve seen prices for both run close to $300 for round trips. The difference is that for the train, a price like that could take you across the country while an airplane ticket with that price tag could take you a couple of states. Oh, and there are these other differences too: After you pay the ticket price for the train, that’s the end of all monetary transactions unless you decide to buy the food on the train. Otherwise, you show up at the station, collect your ticket, get on the train, get off the train, and that’s that. With airplanes, the ticket prices tend to waver a lot more on a day by day basis. Then you go to the airport, and pay to have the pass printed, and to have your luggage checked, and to get most of the food. Although I did notice that the airplane food you have to pay for is cheaper than the train food.
Train. Maybe you could make an argument that the airplane offers better advantages for the higher prices, but given unlimited time and money, do you think that’s going to matter? Cheaper is going to be better in most cases, and the train is one of them.
There’s a reason trains and airplanes have windows: It’s so the people traveling can get some sweet views of the outside scenery. The great thing about airplane windows is that there are covers which easily slide over them if you think too much sun is getting let in. Trains have curtains, but they’re a pain in the ass to move. Airplanes offer some incredible views which you’ll never find anywhere else – if you overcome the height, you’ll get to see entire coastlines, whole mountains from above, and big cities which you can cover with your hand. It offers a chance to see things in an entirely new way. The view from the train is dramatically different. It offers more of a pioneer point of view as it takes travelers, ground-level, over expanses of land which a lot of people will never get to access in their cars. Trains tracks are built in a way which allows them to cover any kind of weird stretch of terrain, no matter how unlikely. The kinds of things they’ve done with steel rails are still things no one has really attempted to do with asphalt, because a train needs only a narrow confine to move around, and that leads to incredible sights as travelers are taken across swamps, along canyon bottoms, and even through cities.
Trains. While an airplane can give travelers a unique view from above, it offers its best upon takeoff and landing. At some point, the level is just about perfect, and that can be before the airplane levels out. Also, train travelers don’t have to try to look through cloud cover the way airplane travelers do. There’s a lot more to see, and you can easily view the little details which lend color and artistry to the landscape. But what really takes points away from the airplane here is that the best views of the scenery are only available to the people next to the windows. This isn’t a problem on trains, where windows are very large and you can head to the lounge for a view of everything the surrounding scenery has to offer.
Trains serve both regular meals and snacks, but they use two different cars to do so. The lounge car offers several snacking staples – a little alcohol, pop, and some small, cheap, handheld sweets. They also offer more lunch-like treats like burgers and hot dogs, but those are wrapped up and thawed in the microwave. In my book, that makes them no good, since parts of them stay frozen anyway. The food in the dining car is actually pretty good, and served nice and hot. And in all honesty, Amtrak serves one of the better cups available anywhere. Airplanes serve complimentary snacks and drinks – at least some of them do. They also have full meals available, but the trouble with this category is that I haven’t eaten a full airplane meal. I’ve heard the food in first class – which I’ve never flown in – is much better than the food in whatever non-first class is called, but having never eaten either, I don’t think it would be fair for me to judge the nice train food against a couple of bags of mini-pretzels.
Incomplete. Ask me again after I’ve made a longer-distance flight. Actually, I’m just including this for completion’s sake – I tend not to order full meals during lengthy travels. Even on the main leg of my journey to the west, I subsided mostly on a loaf of bread from Whole Foods and Amtrak’s coffee.
The most hated and disrespected form of long-distance travel in the country is probably the bus. There’s a reason for that: Buses are cramped, loud, slow, and have very little space to move around. Imagine that same atmosphere in the sky. Okay, that’s not fair to airplanes – airlines do everything they can to make the flight more pleasant than any bus ride will ever be. They offer refreshments, and the flight attendants are always around in case you need anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that airplanes have to cram a lot of people into a small space, and there’s going to be a little bit of discomfort on a few levels like that. The seats tend to be on the smaller side, it’s difficult to walk out of your row, and having your carry-on bag by your feet can make you feel a little cramped. Trains, well, the dining cars don’t have a whole lot of space available, so you may sometimes be asked to share a table with someone you’ve never seen before. And like on airplanes, there’s a risk of slamming your head against the overhead compartment. Airplanes seat people three to a row, unless hey paid for a first class ticket, in which case it’s a roomier two to a row. Trains offer two to a row in coach, with large seats and sizable spaces to get in and out – which train travelers use to move around in the car quite often. The aisles on a train are significantly larger, and two people can easily get around each other. And although trains don’t call it that, they do offer a first-class spot for people willing to pony up the cash; it’s called the sleeper car.
Trains. There isn’t a spot I can think of where airplanes are more comfortable than trains. Even the first class goodies on airplanes don’t come off as any more comfortable than the average coach seat on a train. Furthermore, the room trains have is important on long trips, where passengers will want to get up and stretch their legs a few times. Even if a passenger feels crowded in a seat, they can easily get up and spend a few hours in the lounge car reading, using the internet, or watching the world go by. Airplane passengers also have more engine noise and turbulence to deal with, while the train is almost silent and makes little more than gentle rocking motions.
I don’t intentionally write these things to be ties, you know. I try to be as honest and objective as possible, even if my preference isn’t what comes out on top. (That was the case in my Cleveland vs. Buffalo sports curses post.) But, for a third time, I’m not able to place one above the other. Airplanes and trains both have their merits.