Amtrak Transport Day 1: Masks are nonetheless required whereas the meals service is a factor of the previous
Editor’s Note: Reporter Orion Donovan-Smith takes a train across the country from Washington DC to Spokane to celebrate Amtrak’s 50th year of service. This story is part of a series of broadcasts along the way.
HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. – The bus section of the train was almost full as we rolled through this historic town where West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia meet at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.
When the Capitol Limited emerged from a tunnel and glided into town over a bridge over the Potomac, a conductor reminded us that despite the increase in passengers – Amtrak’s driver numbers fell 95% a year ago due to the pandemic – we were still going a long way far from it was a return to normalcy.
Masks are still required on Amtrak, he reminded us – interstate travel is subject to a federal mask mandate, even though the states we travel through have relaxed their rules – and the lounge car would remain closed. The only exception is the “active eating or drinking” of takeaway provisions from the café car, which those of us have to bring back to their seats on the bus.
“An occasional sip or bite of your favorite meal does not constitute actual food or drink,” intoned the conductor tiredly and repeated the memory no doubt for the umpteenth time.
Most of the passengers observed the mask requirement. The few who did not were not reprimanded.
On the other side of the cafe car, passengers with sleeper tickets were sitting at diner stalls that we plebeians on the bus had no access to. Their microwave dishes, far from the dining cars that Amtrak eliminated in 2019, were likely not worth the premium they paid for those tickets, though the chance to sleep horizontally on the night trip to Chicago might have been.
As of this writing, a bus ticket for the nearly 18-hour Amtrak trip from DC to Chicago next Sunday is $ 84 and a sleeper roomette is $ 450. For comparison, a direct flight from Reagan National Airport outside of DC to Chicago takes just over two hours and costs $ 185 for coaches and $ 350 for business class.
Despite the slowness, lack of amenities, and high cost of comfort, traveling by train is strangely luxurious. As we rolled out of the nation’s capital, away from the noise of the incipient cicada pocalypse, there was no roar of jet engines, no stop-and-go traffic. We slid out of town and through the suburbs of Maryland almost silently, the car rocking gently back and forth, and I felt more comfortable than ever on a flight or long drive.
(Additionally, one of the benefits of riding the bus is that you are a few cars away from the locomotive, where the engineer whistles at every intersection.)
When my journey was just beginning, I looked out the window at the thick foliage of West Virginia until the patchy internet connection enabled me to submit this update, and looked forward to the first scheduled “smoke and stretch” break in Pittsburgh shortly after November 23 Clock
Orion Donovan-Smith’s coverage for The Spokesman Review is funded in part by Report for America and members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information, please contact the senior editor of our newspaper.