One of Chicago’s most beautiful, most historic, and busiest buildings hosted a major event earlier today.
National Train Day is an annual open house event held at Amtrak’s big stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. It gives train lovers a chance to walk around trains they might never have the opportunity to board, and exposes the wonder of train travel to people who might not have considered it before.
The buzz this year was about high speed rail, with several booths and displays detailing the coming midwest high speed rail network, what’s been done so far, and how much longer we’ll have to wait for our favorite cities to be connected by train faster than they are by car.
Every year, people get a chance to walk the length of a long-haul Amtrak train and see what it’s like inside. They can sprawl out inside the various types of sleeping compartments, smell the food in the dining rooms, see the toilets and the snack car and wonder about how they might accomplish their next trip to grandmother’s house by train.
This year there were a couple of new exhibits. One was a train made up of privately owned rail cars. Some of the cars were owned by Quad Graphics, and are used to entertaining clients and holding meetings. Another set belongs to a company using the Pullman name that offers luxury train trips from Chicago to New Orleans, and soon New York. And the third set was for a company out of Houston, also offering luxury train travel in restored vintage splendor.
Also new this year was the opportunity to take an actual train trip. Of course, this isn’t anything new to the 120,000 people who use Union Station each day. But National Train Day is an attempt to reach people for whom train travel is a novelty. It must be working because all three trips were sold out within an hour of the show opening.
Speaking of the 120,000 people who use Union Station each day — here are some other local train facts:
- Amtrak operates 56 trains a day out of Chicago.
- 3.4 million people boarded an Amtrak train in Chicago last year.
- Chicago Union Station is Amtrak’s fourth-busiest station.
- The station with the least number of Amtrak boardings in Illinois is Gilman, in Iriquois County, with 2,758 last year.
- The place in Illinois that makes the most money off of Amtrak isn’t Chicago, it’s the village of Mark in Putnam County. It has just 192 households, but Amtrak spent $61 million there last year.
- Your Illinois tax dollars help subsidize train service between Chicago and Saint Louis, Carbondale, and Quincy.
- Your Wisconsin tax dollars help subsidize train service between Chicago and Milwaukee.
- $1.1 billion of your federal tax dollars are being spent to develop high speed rail service between Chicago and Saint Louis.
- $268 million of your federal tax dollars are being spent on seven new locomotives and 48 new passenger cars for Illinois.
- IDOT is trying to establish passenger rail service from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa via Rockford. Iowa has already gotten federal money to continue the line from there to Iowa City; Des Moines; and Omaha, Nebraska. The goal is to complete the route in the next three years.
- IDOT is trying to establish passenger rail service from Chicago to the Quad Cities.
- More than 240 Metra trains go through Union Station each day.
Personally, I’ve taken close to 30 trips on Amtrak, both cross-country journeys and commuter hops. And I’ve taken close to double that many train trips in various countries around the world. Something struck me today as I was walking down one of the passenger cars today — Even in coach class, Amtrak trains are far more comfortable than any other I’ve been on anywhere.
The seats are roomy, there’s plenty of leg room, plenty of places to store your luggage, power points throughout, and it’s quiet. My most recent train trip overseas was in England aboard a First Great Western train. It was noisy, crowded, smelly, and even though I had a ticket, I still had to stand for the entire two hour journey, while holding my luggage. Relief came half way through the journey when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere for half an hour for no apparent reason, and people got off to mill around. I used the opportunity to steal someone else’s seat.
Here’s how the passenger trains I’ve experienced rank in terms of comfort and service:
- Amtrak business class
- Amtrak coach class
- Trenitalia first class (Italy)
- VIA Rail (Canada)
- JR East (Japan)
- KTX (South Korea)
- TGV (France)
- SNCB (Belgium)
- South West Trains (England)
- Virgin Trains (England)
- First Great Western (England)
If you haven’t taken a vacation by train yet, it’s worth doing. And Chicago is the best place in the country from which to start your journey. Some people think that travel by train is too expensive. But when you factor in the cost of hotels and meals, it is sometimes cheaper than flying, if you have the time. It’s certainly less of a hassle, as there are no long lines to wait in so that some TSA agent can inspect your junk. On my recent trip from Chicago to Seattle, my wife and I took six huge suitcases — no charge! Doing the same on United would have cost a fortune.