When I told my colleagues here at the Growing Community Media that I would be taking a train to New York, some raised eyebrows rose. After all, it takes the Lake Shore Limited train almost 20 hours to travel from Chicago to New York (if you count all the layovers), and the coach car prices are about on par with the cheapest flights.
I have good friends who have lived in New York for the past 15 years, and, before the pandemic, I mostly visited them by train. The one time I took a plane to New York was last year, for official business where time was of the essence. With my plane experience still relatively fresh in my mind, I thought now would be a good time to compare the two and see whether the things that made train travel worth it to me would still be true three years later.
The short answer is that, for the most part, it did — but not without some caveats.
Taking the trains everywhere made me take certain things for granted. Carry-on luggage limits are much more generous than anything any airline would ever allow, there are no long security checks, there is more leg room, and the seats are more comfortable.
While most of what you see out of the airplane window is clouds, the Lake Shore Limited route has many scenic stretches. It weaves its way past sprawling steel mills, forests, mountains and farm fields. It weaves its way along the rivers, through small towns and large cities.
On my trip back, watching the rays of the setting sun reflect off the solar farm panes, I wondered if that’s why the term “flyover country” exists. It’s so easy to miss many parts of America when you’re flying high above them.
On the plane, you’re mostly chained to your seat. Lake Shore Limited’s five coach cars, on the other hand, give you some room to stretch your legs, and the café car has tables where you can sit, buy some tea and a snack, plug in your laptop, and work or just look out the window.
Lake Shore Limited is one of the few long-distance trains that has onboard Wi-Fi. This time around, it only really worked in the café car — but after a while, I realized how nice it was to be disconnected. No pitches and press releases, no notifications — just hours of writing time with beautiful scenery around. Being a news reporter can be a grind, an endless churn of stories, and it’s easy to forget how rare and precious true relaxation is.
I should also mention that there are opportunities to get out and get some fresh air — mostly for a few minutes at a time, but at the Albany-Rensselaer station passengers can walk around for almost an hour.
There are some downsides. Sleeping in the coach chair, even with all the extra leg room, is a skill, one that takes some practice to develop — and even for a seasoned coach car traveler like me, a full night’s sleep is not guaranteed. No matter how much you stretch your legs, 20 hours inside the train is a long time. And the sad fact is that, in some ways, the Lake Shore Limited onboard experience has declined over the years.
The complimentary pillows are gone. Dining cars that served meals cooked onboard used to be available to sleeper and coach car passengers alike (the latter did have to pay for the food). The dining cars were taken out of service on Lake Shore Limited during the Trump Administration, and, when they were brought back, they became exclusive to sleeping car passengers. And, on this trip, passengers weren’t allowed to put any personal belongings in the seat pockets — which I don’t think even airlines do.
But overall, the latest trip affirmed the many things that keep me coming back to trains. Domestic flights have one thing going for it — speed. But when it comes to comfort, the ease of boarding, a chance to unplug and relax, to see this country in all of its many dimensions, planes don’t even come close.
Igor Studenkov is a staff reporter for Growing Community Media newspapers.