Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why I'm a Railfan

While some of the people in this Times article clearly have a passion for rail travel that far eclipses mine—at the very least, many of them have an enthusiasm for documenting trains that I understand but don't share—I would still say that I qualify as a railfan. Catherine and I far prefer taking the train over any other mode of transportation; fortunately, since the Northeast Corridor is both the most active and well-serviced passenger service in the U.S., we're able to indulge our preference.

In 2004, we celebrated our 10th anniversary with a vacation to Paris, Cornwall (where the Navy had posted Catherine's brother, Brooke, and his family for three years) and London. The key to the trip was, of course, planning and scheduling our train connections—a somewhat daunting proposition since I didn't know anything at all about how the system worked in Europe. I wouldn't say that visiting the Eurail website did a lot to alleviate my apprehensions—there are many ways to use the system and a variety of package offerings at different price levels. And since we'd be taking the Eurostar from Paris to London, I wasn't certain if that would be included in any of the passes I was considering (I suspected—correctly as it turns out—that it wouldn't).

After several visits to the site, I'd narrowed it down to a couple of options that I thought might be right for us and called Eurail: oh, what a difference a phone call made! After I explained our goals to the very helpful sales associate, she steered us to the perfect option: a pass that gave us four trips over two months (we only used three, including the train we took to Gatwick Airport to come home, but it was still cheaper than individual tickets) that also allowed us to purchase our one-way Eurostar ticket at the lowest price. I think it wound up being about $300 each so renting a car would probably have been cheaper but it would also have been far less relaxing—at the time, I found the prospect of deciphering maps, trying to figure out exits and entrance ramps to highways, and the inevitable "we're going the wrong way" moments too irritating to even consider. As it was, apart from the somewhat harried taxi ride from Waterloo Station (the Eurostar terminus at the time) to Paddington, we couldn't have asked for an easier journey (there were other trains leaving shortly after our target, if we'd missed it, but they all had more stops and would have gotten us to Cornwall well after dinnertime).

Riding the Eurostar was a particular joy: Paris to London in just over 3 hours can't be beat.* It was an easy taxi ride to Gare du Nord, we sailed rather quickly through customs and were comfortably in our seats less than an hour after we left our hotel in the 7th arrondissement. Catherine had worried that she might get motion sick on the high-speed train but the route through northern France, where the speeds were greatest, was almost entirely over flat farmland—the ride was so smooth and she could see such great distances out the window that she never even felt queasy.

Coincidentally, while I wrote this post, Catherine has booked us train tickets to Boston. Amtrak is offering a special price: $49 each way on their regular service (which is fine with us: Acela shaves, on average, less than an hour off the four-ish hour trip but it costs more than three times as much). So for our 16th anniversary, we'll be seeing the Punchdrunk adaptation of Macbeth, Sleep No More. It's a whirlwind trip—we leave Penn Station at 10am on December 12th and come back the following evening at 5pm—but for just over four hours both days, all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

*Actually, it can now: in 2007, they finished upgrading the tracks in England and changed the London terminus to St. Pancras; the train now arrives a mere 2 hours and 15 minutes after it leaves Gare du Nord

Eurostar photo:
Lauritz B.,

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