Impressions of Amtrak – Pere Marquette Line

Amtrak arrives in Holland

This past weekend, I took the Amtrak from Holland to Chicago with my family.  This was only the second time I’d done this, and I was hesitant this time around because the trip I’d taken in 2008 had been a little hairy.  Our trains had been significantly delayed both on the way to and from Chicago, and one of the passengers on the way back had been so severely intoxicated that the train had to make an additional stop to drop the gentleman off with local law enforcement along the way.

Thankfully, this trip was different.  Any time one travels with three children ages five and under, one wishes fervently for a smooth ride.  And it was a great experience.  The train arrived in Holland on time, the conductors were friendly and helpful, there were no delays along the way, and we arrived in Chicago exactly when we’d expected to!  I thought that nothing less than a miracle.

I’ve read a few explanations for this pleasant surprise – that some sort of action was taken to encourage freight rail to yield more reliably to passenger traffic, that the downturn in the economy has meant less freight traffic, that the stimulus package improved the state of the rails. I wasn’t able to sort this all out today, so I leave you with rumors rather than links. 🙂

My husband is returned from Japan, and was both surprised and impressed by his first experience on an American passenger train (the fact that it was on time couldn’t have hurt!).  He found the Superliner train we were to be more spacious and the seats more comfortable than the shinkansen he rode last week.

We were both surprised by how busy the train was – I didn’t see any empty seats as we left Chicago to return home.  The platform in Holland was full both for our Friday morning departure and our Sunday evening return, with at least fifty people embarking and disembarking with us.  Clear demand for increased frequency, I should think (not that demand really means anything here!).

Amtrak in Union Station
Amtrak in Union Station

I’m far too accustomed to Japanese passenger rail service (where I also lived for two years), however, and there were aspects of this trip that I just found STRANGE.   A few items I noticed:

  • All the Japanese trains I rode were zero-entry, by which I mean that the passenger steps from the platform directly into the car at the same level as the seating.  The Amtrak required a twisting walk up a narrow, steep stairway to the seating level.  I understand that there were alternative seating options for the disabled, but this couldn’t even have been a comfortable climb for anyone more than slightly overweight. And why should someone in a wheelchair have to sit in a different location than everyone else? Japan is NOT disability-friendly (many subway stations and buildings are not in any way accessible), so it boggles my mind that they have us so soundly soundly beaten in this instance.
  • When we got to Union Station, it felt like we were walking around a loading station, not a functioning passenger train station (see the photo above).  The grandiosity of the place is apparently reserved for wedding receptions and corporate events now (GAG).  My kids were freaked out by having these huge engines making huge engine noises six inches from their ears, and understandably so. The platform is ridiculously narrow.  Compare this to the platform of a Meitetsu train in Japan (photo below). A completely different type of train, obviously, but note how the platform offers plenty of room for passengers to move through. There is no sense of being about to fall onto the tracks here.
Meitetsu Train Platform in Nagoya
Meitetsu Train Platform – photo credit http://www.tiltrotor.com
  • Also in Japan, when the train arrives you just… get on.  Any waiting occurs on the platform.  At Union Station, we waited in a a teeny-tiny cramped waiting area with several hundred other people until a station representative told us it was time to get on the train.  We didn’t have any security to go through at that point and I couldn’t discern what possible reason there might be for this. It almost seemed like Amtrak was taking a page from the airlines. Note to decision-makers: don’t!  This was silly.

I found these things interesting, but not surprising.  It’s no secret that Japan has a world-class rail network, and America’s network was faster and more reliable a hundred years ago than it is now. Given that, I was pleased that our trip went as smoothly as it did. Despite the odd experiences noted above, it was wonderful to be able to sit back and enjoy the ride – no traffic, no weather, no wayfinding, no semis. When a child (or adult who had consumed too much coffee, ahem) had to run to the bathroom for the third time in an hour, we could just go.  It was great to be able to get up and walk around whenever we wanted to.  I’d make the same choice again in a heartbeat – how about you?

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3 thoughts on “Impressions of Amtrak – Pere Marquette Line”

  1. Anything to and from Chicago is terrible as far as times go. Amtrak doesn’t own any rails outside of the Northeast, so they’re totally at the mercy of the freight lines, and it’s the worst around Chicago.

    1. I’ve always heard that too, though the people I was talking to on the train told me it wasn’t as bad as it used to be on this particular line. It’s also why I find the derailment in Niles to be so maddening – it occurred on some of the only Amtrak-owned track outside of the Northeast. I’d thought that having Amtrak own their own lines would be a positive thing, but this incident calls that into question for me. Maybe they really just can’t hack it.

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