In Praise of Train Travel
Since starting my work as a tour guide, I've noticed that there are certain questions or types of questions that pop up pretty frequently. I thought it might be nice to do a series of posts answering some of these questions so that people who can't do tours or people who toured and were afraid to ask questions can still get answers. The question I structured this post around is one I get pretty consistently as an out-of-stater: how do you get to and from Oberlin?
After what seems like a very short time back in Oberlin, I'm back in Niskayuna again, courtesy of the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited. I take the train for almost every trip between Oberlin and my hometown and have done so since the end of my first semester. People are pretty consistently surprised when I tell them I do this. I imagine this is because Amtrak has a reputation for being slow, unreliable, and inconvenient and I won't lie, all of these complaints have elements of truth to them.
When my parents and I drive to and from Oberlin at the beginning and end of the year, it takes less than nine hours. My journey by train has never taken less than 10 and has taken much longer. Once while going to Oberlin at the beginning of the spring semester my train stopped for three hours in the middle of western New York because the lever used to change the course of the tracks had (allegedly) frozen in the wrong position. Just this past week my train got to Elyria nearly two hours late and I had no choice but to stand in the wind and rain until the train finally arrived. I should also mention that this standing and waiting occurred between 4:45 and 6:45 AM because the eastbound train is scheduled to leave Elyria shortly before five. And just in case you were wondering, the westbound train is scheduled to arrive about half an hour earlier, so travel times are not ideal.
But in spite of all that, the train works for me. As I said above, I take the train between Elyria, a small city less than 20 miles from Oberlin, and Schenectady, where the station is about five minutes from my house. That convenience is just one of the perks of living and studying in the Rust Belt - if you're close to a city that used to have a large-ish factory or mill, you're probably close to a train station. Getting to the station in Elyria isn't difficult either. I typically try to carpool with another Oberlin student, ask someone to drive me, or just book a cab.1
But all that aside, traveling by train is far more comfortable and interesting than traveling in any other moving metal box. On a train I can pick my own seat, wander from cabin to cabin, and chill in the dining car. The baggage restrictions aren't as strict as a plane's, so I can bring water and snacks, which make the journey so much more pleasant. I can people-watch and overhear conversations in a variety of languages - I've heard Spanish, French, Pennsylvania Dutch2, Hindi, Chinese, and a variety of other languages I can't name while on the train. If I'm feeling more solitary I can just put on my headphones and read my book. But mostly, I end up staring out the window for long stretches of time, looking out at the varied scenery of my favorite state. I can already picture the train ride back to Oberlin on Saturday night. It will take me along the Mohawk River, past expansive farms and rolling hills and through the rustiest sections of America's former industrial heartland. The view may not always be beautiful, but it's a view that I love and one that never bores me.
1Even if I pay $20-30 for a cab, the overall travel price is usually lower than if I bought a plane ticket.
2Not only are Amish allowed to ride trains, but I see them every time I ride the train between Elyria and Schenectady.