November 29, 2013
Hello Fellow Train Travelers:
The Train Traveler is back! As you may have surmised, The Train Traveler has been on a bit of a hiatus. While I have been continuing to write, I have mainly been working on and, finally, finishing my e-book, “United States and Canadian Rail Travel : A Primer.” The e-book will be published on Amazon around the end of the year, and I will send out a notice when it is. Here’s the photo from the cover, the Olympian Hiawatha in the Cascades, circa 1949.
To get myself back in the routine of publishing this blog, I will write a bit here about a trip I am planning for February (to get me thinking “train trips” again). The next few posts will include updates from my part of the country, which will include some extremely positive news about the Downeaster (Maine to Boston) and the Cape Cod Express (the widely successful Boston to the Cape summer train, so successful that service was extended from Labor Day to Columbus Day weekend. I will also be posting some brief excerpts from the book, as well as information about the next project that I am undertaking – creating an app based on the book, giving travelers fingertip access to all sorts of online information that neither this e-book, nor the train web sites, nor print materials provide in such a streamlined manner.
My Plan for February and early March 2014:
I love Quebec, the sophistication of Montreal and the European nature of Quebec City. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in a number of years. So I am planning (buying tickets, so I will be forced to go) a later winter trip.
I will be taking the Downeaster from Portland, Maine to Boston and will then transfer to the Acela Express to New York City. And that transfer still is an annoyance, in that the Downeaster arrives in North Station and a traveler must then take the T (subway) to South Station. Amtrak – will this ever be remedied?
After staying over in New York City, I will board the Adirondack for the spectacular, 10 hour journey up to Montreal. Much of the route is right alongside the Hudson River and the views are spectacular and the history compelling.
After staying over a night or two in Montreal, I will head east to Quebec City on VIA Rail, making one stop in Saint Hyacinthe to take a class in cooking with chocolate. Okay, a non-sequitur, but that’s what I am doing.
The rail line from Montreal to Quebec City travels through spectacular country, along the St. Lawrence and is always relaxing and awe inspiring.
Ironically, I live six and a half hours from Quebec City. Yet I will be traveling more than 21 hours to get there on this trip. But I won’t be driving, I’ll be experiencing the comfort, camaraderie and viewscapes of the Downeaster, Acela, Adirondack and VIA Rail. Sounds like a great trade off to me.
It’s great to be back, on this blog and on the rails.
May 7, 2013
As I spoke about in my last post, the 20th Century Limited that ran between New York and Chicago was an iconic train and, in many ways, one of a kind. One aspect of the 20th Century Limited was the presence of Century Girls, modeled on airline stewardesses, who acted as hostesses on the train. I had the great pleasure of interviewing one of the Century Girls and, as you will see, their experiences onboard were incredibly interesting and rewarding to them.
Joan Jennings Scalfani
I spoke with Joan Jennings Scalfani, now 80, who was a Century Girl for fifteen months in the early sixties. Joan was a New Yorker who had worked as a stewardess. She had a roommate who was a Century Girl, and who informed her that they were looking to hire more Century Girls. Joan was hired and was then well on her way to what may in fact have been the job of a lifetime.
I spoke with Joan about the job and who she met during those fifteen months. She explained that the job was similar in some respects to that of a stewardess, but in other respects very different. For example, she did not have to serve food and drinks, as on airplanes and, given the length of the trips, had much more of an opportunity to wander throughout the train and meet the travelers.
And, oh, what a prestigious roster that was. Joan spoke to me about walking through the dining car and greeting President and Mrs. Harry Truman, who were friendly and gracious. They then asked Joan to join them for breakfast. How exciting! It’s hard to imagine a current President being in such a position given current security needs. It’s also hard to imagine our current elected officials even slowing down long enough to dine in leisure and get where they’re going when they get there.
Joan also told the story of meeting Ernest Hemingway, who was traveling with Mary Welsh Hemingway, who was called Miss Mary. Joan was invited to call on them in their stateroom, which she did and had a lovely conversation with both Hemingway and Miss Mary. Sadly, this was the last train trip Hemingway ever made, as he committed suicide soon after.
Presidents, writers and also singers! Joan had the pleasure of calling on Lena Horne and her husband, Lennie Hayton, in their stateroom and having a interesting conversation. She notes that Lena was somewhat reserved, but Hayden was outgoing and both of them were charming people.
Joan recounted a story of meeting an old gentleman on the train, someone from the silent film era, called Harold. He was traveling the country via rail and visiting college campuses to promote silent films to the students. Harold offered to buy lunch for Joan in New York City, but she needed to return to her family and declined the nice offer. When she arrived home she told her father about the invitation and the conversations with Harold, and noted that she felt a bit sorry for him, traveling throughout the country trying to interest folks in silent films. Her dad informed her that she didn’t need to feel sorry for him, as he was Harold Lloyd, and he was one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, had kept copyright control of his films, and made more films than his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin.
Questioning Joan about the uniforms they wore, she noted that they were designed by Dior, in a light worsted wool and a river blue color. She was proud that they wore pillbox hats, which were all the rage at the time because Jackie Kennedy wore them.
I asked Joan if she would do it all over again and, of course, I knew the answer – yes, a thousand times over. These were the days that offered comfortable rail travel, when people weren’t in a rush, and when a President could invite a worker to dine with him and his wife. Might we ponder whether this genteel and gracious age could ever return?
Joan Jennings Scalfani will be appearing at the Parade of Trains at Grand Central Terminal on the weekend of May 10 – 12. For information, see
Parade of Trains.
May 4, 2013
A very exciting historic rail event will be happening during the weekend of May 11-12, 2013. Historic rail cars from across the nation will come to Grand Central Terminal, in honor of Grand Central’s centennial.
This “Parade of Trains” will include some of the most famous trains in the U.S. and the event will be very special for the train traveler. The display will be the most diverse collection of privately-owned rail cars ever assembled in Grand Central, including a sleeper-observation car from the iconic “20th Century Limited,” which traveled from New York City to Chicago. This car, the “Hickory Creek,” was built in 1948 by Pullman Standard. The 20th Century Limited is considered the most famous train in the world, having departed daily from Grand Central and carried such luminaries as President and Mrs. Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, silent-film star Harold Lloyd and singer Lena Horne. The train was christened in 1948 by Dwight Eisenhower and actress Beatrice Lillie, with a champagne bottle filled with water from the Hudson River, Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, symbols of the railroad’s “water level route. A special appearance at the “Parade of Trains” will be one of the “Century Girls,” hostesses who worked on the train until the early sixties. I will be posting an interview with this lovely woman on May 6th on this site.
Other trains that will be represented at the Parade of Trains include the “Montana,” part of the Olympian Hiawatha, which ran between Chicago and Tacoma/Seattle. The Olympian Hiawatha was a stunning train, that traveled a scenic route through Idaho and Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains and the Cascade range in Washington. Also displayed will be the “Vista Valley,” a sleeper-observation car serving the West Coast, which hosted many movie stars and VIPS in its day; and, the “Phoebe Snow” cars, tavern-lounge observation cars build in 1949 for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western line, which ran between Hoboken and Buffalo and, later, to Chicago. These cars currently serve as Metro-North Railroad’s two inspection cars.
Contemporary, technologically advanced commuter cars from Metro-North, offering roomier seats, larger windows, better lighting, and more advanced communication options will also be on display. The event includes Grand Central’s first model train show and the “Railroadiana” antiques and collectibles event, along with a variety of retailers and regional railroading museums with displays in Vanderbilt Hall, offering items for sale, as well as exhibits of unique railroad-related items.
Our young friends and family members are not forgotten. Part of Vanderbilt Hall will be transformed into “Kid Junction,” which will offer free activities for children and families, including an activity area and a modular display from the “Chigginton” animated train series, seen on the “Disney Junior” channel, demonstrations with a Master Builder from the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Westchester, and hands-on activities led by New York Transit Museum staff and New York Botanical Garden employees and Metro-North employees.
The “Parade of Trains” presentation of historical railroad equipment comprises the largest and most diverse collection of privately-owned rail cars ever assembled in Grand Central Terminal and is a “not to be missed” event for the train traveler.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Parade of Trains at Grand Central Terminal
April 13, 2013
VIA Rail Station, Woodstock, Ontario
Canada’s VIA Rail provides the opportunity to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts of Canada and view some of the most incredible scenery in North America. From the Pacific Coast, to the Canadian Rockies, from Jasper National Park to Toronto, from Montreal to the Gaspé Peninsula, from the St. Lawrence to Halifax, VIA Rail offers it all.
VIA Rail’s rolling stock offers a layout that is somewhat different than Amtrak. Coach is similar to coach on Amtrak. However, the next level of accommodations is the berth option. This is just as it sounds, an upper or lower berth with a pullover curtain, in a car with other berths, and access to a lavatory. Think of the wonderful scene with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot.” This is a very economical, although not very private, way to travel and far more comfortable than coach if one plans to sleep on the train.
Sleeper class offers a larger compartment than the standard, two person sleeper on Amtrak, with more room to move around. As those of you who are familiar with the standard Amtrak sleeper, when the bunks are open there is absolutely nowhere to move – just crawl in, crawl out. (That said, of course, if you spend the evening socializing with other passengers, you just might be ready to crawl in!) However, when the very comfortable VIA armchairs are converted into bunks, there is still room to walk into the sleeper. In addition, each sleeper has a private lavatory, with sink and toilet, and access to showers at the end of the car.
While the price of the sleeper is somewhat less than the price of the Amtrak standard sleeper, only breakfast is included in the VIA price, so all other meals must be purchased. However, the continental breakfast is excellent – an all-you can eat meal, with fruit, yogurt, muffins, croissants, jams and jellies, juice, coffee and tea. And since it is served buffet style, you can take your food back to your sleeper to eat if you wish, or to the domed rail car. This car is one of the most enjoyable parts of many of the VIA trains. Travelers can sit high up in this car, in comfortable seats, and look out over the the beautiful Canadian countryside.
VIA Rail connects to Amtrak at three points: Montreal, Quebec; Buffalo, New York; and Vancouver, British Columbia. From Vancouver, the traveler can catch the Canadian, travel through the Canadian Rockies, through the British Columbia, to Jasper, Alberta. From Jasper, you can continue on to the final destination of Toronto, or change trains for a two-day daylight journey to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. This route travels through the spectacular Jasper National Park and the Canadian Rockies, on its way to the Pacific Coast.
If the traveler continues on the Canadian to Toronto, a connection to Montreal can be made and there the traveler can board the Ocean to Halifax. The Ocean is an overnight journey along the St. Lawrence, through New Brunswick and on to Nova Scotia. However, some of the most beautiful scenery is in the morning, so breakfast in the domed car is a must. Alternatively, from Montreal the traveler can board the Montreal-Gaspé train, another overnight journey, this time to the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula and Forillon National Park.
VIA offers some great deals on travel so check the Express Deals page before making your reservations. Many of the deals offer 50%, 60%, even 70% off, and not just on economy fare but also on sleepers. The deals are not just for last minute travel, although they do require a particular departure date and there are a limited number of seats. When those are gone, the deal is over. As an example, a review today of the deals page shows an upper berth-sleeper plus, meals included, from Vancouver to Jasper, reduced from $611 to $244, with just two left. That is a great deal!
March 18, 2013
Le Massif de Charlevoix
As a train traveler, do you seek exciting vistas, unbelievable luxury train trips, great dining, all while traveling through gorgeous countryside? Look no further for some of the best train trips available.
LE MASSIF DE CHARLEVOIX
Not a dinner train, but also not a multi-night luxury rail tour, Le Massif de Charlevoix is a new entrant into the luxury short-rail market. Traveling between Quebec City to Baie-Saint-Paul and on to La Malbaie, this rail cruise offers not only unique scenery but a sense of history and geography and cuisine prepared with gourmet sensibilities in mind. And the term rail cruise is appropriate given that this train traverses 140 km, 85 of which are in the corridor along the St. Lawrence River shoreline.
The round-trip rail excursion to La Malbaie includes a Charlevoix breakfast on the morning trip, and a four-course gourmet meal on the return trip. If the traveler chooses a longer stopover in Baie-Saint-Paul, there are various “discovery circuits” to choose from, including a gourmet food tour, an outdoor activities circuit and a history and culture trail. The return trip, if the longer visit to Baie-Saint-Paul is chosen, includes a nice gourmet snack, rather than a full, multi-course dinner.
The Charlevoix is a four season region and this rail cruise offers a luxury introduction to the beauty of the region, the people and the fine regional dining. The brainchild of the co-founder of Cirque de Soleil, this train trip is sure to delight the most discerning train traveler.
For further information: http://www.lemassif.com/ or 1-877-536-2774
EUROPEAN TRAIN TRIPS WITH ALTITUDE
The Bernina Express, completed in 1910, travels 38 miles and is the highest railway crossing in the Alps. Train travelers can board in Chur, St. Moritz or Davos and ride on this train that climbs grades of up to 7% to more than 7,391 feet at the Bernina Pass summit, then drops to 1,408 feet at Tirano, Italy. Breathtaking! Riders will view the glaciers of Piz Bernina, viaducts as high as 295 feet, and other natural and man made phenomenon. This is a daytime only journey – of course – and offers first and second class Panorama cars.
Combine your Bernina trip with a ride on the Glacier Express, considered to be the world’s slowest train. The trip takes almost eight hours on two narrow gauge railroads to traverse the 168 miles between St. Moritz and Zermatt. The train passes over 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels, 6,660 foot Oberalp Pass. A simple but great lunch is served to passengers.
The Glacier Express offers first and second class Panorama cars that are wheelchair accessible, with a information system available in 6 languages.
For further information: The Glacier Express, The Bernina Railway
The International Society of Rail Travelers also offers train packages that include the Bernina and Glacier Expresses. www.irtsociety.com, 1-800-478-4881.
THE BEAUTY OF SOUTHEAST ASIA VIA RAIL
Since 1993, the Eastern & Oriental Express has made the three night journey between Bangkok, Thailand and Singapore, with great splendor and wonderful service. The train travels along the Malaysian peninsula through breathtaking scenery and the amenities on the train are incomparable. The cabins are paneled with cherry wood and decorative inlays. All have private baths, and there is 24 hour room service. For the single traveler, this is a train that won’t require the very annoying single supplement, since there are six single Pullmans that are almost as large as the doubles.
Breakfast and afternoon tea is served every day, and lunch and dinner are taken in a lavishly appointed dining room. The cuisine is a delicious blend of Western and Eastern styles. Best of all is the Observation Car at the end of the train. A traditionally decorated space, the car contains a bar that is open all day and well into the night and which offers nightly piano entertainment.
For further information: The Eastern & Oriental Express
THE EMPIRE BUILDER TO GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Glacier Park Lodge Lobby
While I do love and appreciate our national railroad, Amtrak, I’d be the first to admit that most of the Amtrak journeys would not be considered luxury. That said, however, Amtrak does go to some pretty fabulous places, and one of my favorites is Glacier National Park.
Leaving Chicago on the Empire Builder, you will travel along the shore of Lake Michigan, and then experience fabulous views of the Mississippi. The next day the train will traverse the North Dakota plains, cross the Missouri and arrive at Montana’s Big Sky Country. The Empire Builder, ultimately headed to Seattle, not only provides great scenery, but also fun social events, offering a daily wine and cheese tasting, with wines produced in Washington and cheese produced by artisans in Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. This partnership with small dairy farm operations is very important to maintaining the family farm in the towns along the route of the Empire Builder.
The Glacier Park Lodge was built by the Great Northern Railway and opened in 1913, so this year is its Centennial. What I love most about this trip, aside from the great scenery and activities along the route and in Glacier Park, is that the train pulls right up to the Glacier Park Lodge. Travelers walk about 30 feet to the Lodge. No connections, no taxis, no car rentals – just like in the days of the grand railroad lodges, the train brings you right there.
Once you are checked into the Glacier Park Lodge, you will be able take the excellent transportation throughout the Park, including to the Prince of Wales Hotel in the Waterton, Alberta section of the Park. The Prince of Wales was also built by Great Northern and is a lovely hotel with a very different style than the Glacier Park Lodge. The National Park Service provides extensive information about recreational activities and tours in the park.
This is a fabulous, affordable trip that will be fun, and memorable, for the whole family.
For further information: Amtrak Empire Builder, National Park Service, Glacier Park Transportation
February 12, 2013
Grand Central Terminal Turns 100!
Having grown up in New York City, Grand Central Terminal (the official name) was an iconic part of my childhood. It was the early sixties when I began riding the subway alone and I was drawn to everything beautiful in the city – the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Met, Central Park, Grand Central Station, to name a few. Plus, Grand Central had a dramatic place in the hearts of those of us who loved fiction and films. To this day, I remember the first line of John Cheever’s short story, “Reunion” – “The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.” How visual, how poignant, how meaningful to young people estranged from a parent.
And the films! You can see this landmark in Arthur, The Cotton Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Fisher King, I Am Legend, Little Nicky, Men In Black, The Prince of Tides and, most memorably, North by Northwest. It is said that Hitchcock so loved Grand Central that he worked harder on the lighting for her than for many of his actors.
Now there is a year of celebration and I will periodically pass along the various events that are happening. I will at least go to the one that really touches me, and report on it – the Parade of Trains on May 11 and 12, 2013 – and perhaps a few others, travel from Maine to New York permitting. But for those of you in the New York metropolitan area, try to go to those events that you are able to attend. Grand Central is a wonder in architecture, a working transportation hub, a New York City icon, a movie star in her own right, a historic preservation success and one of the most beloved sites in New York City. She is to be celebrated.
The evolving events calendar can be viewed at Grand Central Terminal Events.
New York Transit Museum and Gallery Annex & Store at Grand Central
March 6, 2013 – July 7, 2013
An exhibition presented by MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design, featuring more than a dozen contemporary artists capturing moments in Grand Central’s history. The beginning and end of countless journeys, the welcome homes and, more poignantly, the goodbyes, sometimes forever.
Nick Cave – Heard-NY
From March 25 through March 31, 2013, Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall will include an installation and performance piece by internationally acclaimed artist Nick Cave. The piece is choreographed specifically for Grand Central Terminal and will feature thirty colorful “horses” periodically breaking into movement. A must see!
Inside the Archives: Printed Ephemera
April 2, 2013, 12:30 pm, reservations required. Corner of Boerum Place & Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn Heights
My old neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, will be the location for a fun exhibit for anyone who loves train “stuff.” The Transit Museum’s archives will be revealed for all to see – thousands of tickets, postcards, timetables and transfers, oh my!
Poets and Artists Honor Grand Central
April 10, 2013
Join MTA Arts for Transit and the Poetry Society of America to honor Grand Central’s 100 year history as a glorious stage for the drama of daily life, with the clock at the center. Poets Billy Collins, Aracelis Girmay and Jeffrey Yang, among others, are featured, along with performers from Music Under New York, for this evening performance.
February 8, 2013
February 2, 2013
This is my recent post on Amtrak Dining, which was published on Solo Dining. Check it out, it’s a great site!
When I last wrote about Amtrak Dining, more than ten years ago, I described how the dining car is set up of booths of four and unless there are four in your group, you will be seated with some soon-to-be new friends. The dining cars on the Amtrak routes remain the same and continue to be a choice for enjoying a good meal and some good conversation.
However, Amtrak dining has changed in a big, and positive, way so I thought I would use my return visit to SoloDining to describe some of those changes. The most positive change is an overall one, impacting all of the routes. While the food I wrote about ten years ago was good, sometimes very good, sometimes okay, and sometimes not okay, over the years Amtrak has focused very hard on improving the quality of its food. They have put together a team of prominent and well-respected chefs, restauranteurs and authors to help create the onboard menus. And what is driving the new menu design is a focus on regional flavors and locally produced food.
So, what this means is that on the Downeaster (my beloved Maine train, jewel of the Amtrak crown, ridership up consistently since kickoff day – shameless plug!) train travelers can sample refreshments that epitomize the local bounty produced right along the Downeaster route – Cap’t Eli’s Soda, made in Portland, Legal Seafood Chowder, a Boston highlight, Amato’s sandwiches, first sold on the docks of Portland in 1902 by Italian immigrant Giovanni Amato, and Cold River Vodka, distilled right in Freeport. The Downeaster takes train travelers from Boston to Brunswick, Maine and points in-between.
Both the City of New Orleans, which travels between Chicago and New Orleans, via Memphis, and the Texas Eagle, traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles, via Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, have created menus reflective of Tex-Mex and Creole cooking, including items such as chipolte black bean and corn veggie burger and griddle-seared tilapia fillet. These trains now also include Cross Country Cafés, which offer an alternative to the dining car. The Cafés focus on regionally inspired cuisine and offer a bistro type experience, with enhanced ambiance, more comfortable seating and adjustable halogen and LED lighting. A nice place to meet and chat with a new friend. And the City of New Orleans often has live jazz performances onboard.
The Coast Starlight, traveling from Los Angeles to Seattle, Washington, has always been a leader in onboard ambience and their menu has been upgraded even further, now offering such dishes as Braised Beef Short-Rib in Ancho Molasses BBQ Sauce. The Sauce was created by Amtrak Culinary Advisory Team Chef Tom Douglas. And this exciting new menu can be enjoyed in the Parlour Car, not just the dining car. The Coast Starlight also offers a daily wine and cheese tasting featuring wines and artisanal cheese produced in California, Oregon and Washington. These events are very social and offer an opportunity for the solo traveler to get involved in the life of the train.
Some of the cheeses included in the tasting include a Marco Polo Black Pepper Cheddar, a Vella Dry Jack and a young Tillamook Smoked Cheddar. A few of the wines poured include a Chateau Ste. Michelle Rielsling, from Washington’s Columbia Valley; a J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet from Paso Robles, California; and a Pinot Gris from Oregon’s Firesteed winery. And these are just a sample of the eight or nine wines that are poured.
The Empire Builder, which travels from Chicago to Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, also offers a daily wine and cheese tasting, with wines produced in Washington and cheese produced by artisans in Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. This partnership with small dairy farm operations is very important to maintaining the family farm in the towns along the route of the Empire Builder.
The Empire Builder’s wine and cheese tasting offers Lavender Cheddar from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery; Jalapeno Pepper Jack from California’s Rumiano Cheese Company; and Roth Kase Sharp Cheddar from Wisconsin. Some of the excellent wines poured include a Pacific Rim Gewurztraminer from Washington’s Columbia Valley, an Airfield Estates unoaked Chardonnay from the Yakima Valley and a Hudson-Shah Malbec from Rattlesnake Hills, Washington.
In short, Amtrak dining is likely to be a source of pleasure and companionship for the solo diner. Yet there always remains a place onboard for the readers and writers and ponderers of the world, so if that’s you, take your wine and cheese over to a solo table and enjoy!
January 25, 2013
When skiers took to the slopes in the 1930′s and 1940′s, they traveled by ski train. Sadly, the rise of our automobile society in the 1950′s paralleled a similar demise in ski trains. However, almost fifty years later, the pendulum is swinging back. Over the past few years, each winter season has seen an introduction of new ski trains and expanded services on existing trains, and the numbers show that they are well traveled.
We recently took Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express to Vermont’s Killington ski area. This time the journey, rather than the destination, was the purpose of the trip.
We left Penn Station on a sunny, cold January afternoon, after our skis were stowed onboard. The Ethan Allen is a comfortable train, with coach and business classes and a selection of regional foods and beverages in the cafe. The ambience onboard is lively, since many of the travelers are on their way to ski, or engage in other winter sports activitives.
For most of the trip, the Ethan Allen follows the route of the Amtrak Adirondack, traveling along the east bank of the Hudson River. This path was the route of such legendary trains as the Empire State Express and the 20th Century Limited, and though a traveler knows that just beyond the trees there are towns and man-made structures, it is difficult to reconcile that with the nineteenth century views seen by that same traveler. When we passed Bannerman Castle, on an island in the Hudson, the sense of having time traveled was particularly strong.
At Glens Falls, the train heads east into Vermont’s Champlain Valley, a broad valley of rolling hills between New York State and the Green Mountains. The train’s first stop is Fair Haven, Vermont. One of the earliest developers of this town was Congressman Matthew Lyon, a colorful character whose imprisonment under the Alien and Sedition Act lead to repeal of that unconstitutional law. Lyon was reelected to Congress while in prison and took his seat just in time to cast the tie breaking vote what made Thomas Jefferson, rather than Aaron Burr, president.
An hour after entering Vermont, we arrived at the Rutland train station. Rutland, known in the nineteenth century as the “Marble City” has a revived downtown area, with a particularly good selection of restaurants. If you have the opportunity to spend some time in Rutland, visit the Norman Rockwell Museum. This museum displays all of Rockwell’s magazine covers, and ads, posters, portraits and other Rockwell illustrations.
From Rutland, we took the one hour shuttle ride to Killington, arriving around 9:15 pm, relaxed and anticipating an enjoyable few days of skiing before our return trip. Killington currently has a Snowblind special, whereby you can save up to 30% off lodging and 25% off lift tickets. If you are flexibile in terms of where you stay, book online and once your reservation is paid for your find out where you lodging is. That is a great way to get these deep discounts. Check it out and enjoy the snow!
January 23, 2013
This incredibly comprehensive article, by By Marco Ferrarese, was originally posted on the Indie Travel site, BootsnAll and is reprinted with permission. And since some of us do fly some of the time (Yes!), check out their new multi-country flight finder, called Indie.
You have just tucked your backpack under the seat, and you gaze out of the window. Thoughts roll along the curvy edges of low hills dotted with exotic plantations. It will be a long, slow ride. A great opportunity to catch up with those books you have been shuttling across continents, but haven’t read yet. As you relax and extend your legs under the seat, the carriage rocks gently along an iron path, taking you far into never ending greenery.
Train travel in Southeast Asia has a great feel. Forget the traffic jams, the honking, the backpacker traps, and the risk of having your bag razored on a crowded overnight bus. If you travel by train, you can have increased security and comfort at affordable prices, as most trains provide clean and comfortable beds serving as overnight moving hotels.
Furthermore, train travel in Southeast Asia will take you through patches of land that would be impossible to see from the major highway routes. Traveling on the rails allows you to get to know the locals better. The train is by far their favorite mean of transport. Spend some time indulging in conversation, accept their invitations, and propel your travel experiences to unexpected, more rewarding territories.
The main routes
Train travel is possible in most of Southeast Asia. It is currently impossible to travel by train between Singapore and China directly. As of yet, Laos still does not have a functional rail network. It is possible to ride a train from Singapore to Chiang Mai or Vientiane using few train connections.
The main North-South rail artery stretching from Singapore through Malaysia and Thailand is fully operational. Moving eastwards, Vietnam has a great train network connecting Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and further north into China proper. Cambodia is currently renovating a link between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and further extensions into Vietnam and Thailand’s easternmost railhead at Aranyaprathet have also been planned. Once such works will be completed, it will be possible to travel non-stop from Singapore to Beijing, and from there onwards into Europe using the Trans-Siberian line .
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Myanmar has a functional -although extremely slow- train system connecting Yangoon to Mandalay and branching further north to Myitkyina and east and west to the tourist highlights of Bagan and Inlay Lake. You may still want to avoid Burmese railways, as they are controlled by the military junta who still has power in the country.
A bit removed from mainland Southeast Asia by the sea, Indonesia also boosts a good rail network in southern Sumatra and Java. You may travel from Jakarta to Surabaya and Yogyakarta, and then head to Bali by bus and ferry.
Tickets, carriages, and classes
Train travel in Southeast Asia generally offers more comfort than traveling by bus.
Thailand and Malaysia: Trains in Malaysia and Thailand are extremely modern and equipped with air conditioned carriages and overnight sleeper coaches. They come in 1st, 2nd and – increasingly rare– 3rd class, seating or sleeping coaches. The difference between 1st and 2nd class lies in the quality of the seat. The 3rd class is literally a wooden bench, only available on shorter routes in Thailand. The 3rd class is not too uncomfortable for short distances and is extremely cheap; traveling from Bangkok to Ayutthaya costs only 13 Thai Baht (a mere $0.40USD). If you’re looking to mingle with the locals and don’t mind some overcrowdedness, 3rd class train travel may fit your fancy. Expect a slow market-like atmosphere on rails; the carriages fill up to the brim with food hawkers in colorful robes at every stop.
1st and 2nd classes reach the standards of most Western trains: clean, spacious, air-conditioned, and equipped with both western and squat toilets, they are the best choice for long overnight journeys. The popular 20 hour ride from Bangkok to Butterworth/Penang in Malaysia would cost you $34USD. It’s a 600 mile journey in a comfortable berth provided with fresh linens, blankets, and pillows. At these prices, it is not really worth saving on a seat.
Vietnam: Vietnamese trains are of the Chinese type and have a further classifications of hard and soft sleepers and seats. Slightly inferior to Malaysian and Thai 1st and 2nd class, soft sleeper cabins are equipped with four berths, and hard sleepers with six. The difference is minimal. The softer bunks offer increased privacy because of lesser people. However, hard sleeper is still very comfortable by backpacker standards. The price difference relates to the position: top bunks will be cheaper than middle and lower bunks.
You may prefer to sleep at the top, as lower bunks are used as daily seats by the other occupants. A top bunk in hard sleeper class covering 1000 miles between Hanoi and Saigon would cost you around $69USD– a more comfortable and safer alternative to the buses, which always drive at top speed up and down the only national coastal highway.
Myanmar: Trains in Myanmar are mostly of the 3rd class, uncomfortable type. They still evoke images of a colonial past and are a great way to get very close to the locals, but they are limited in carriages and filled to the brim with people. If your idea of adventure equals strong human contact, this may be the best option.
There are also more comfortable sleeper services connecting Yangon to Mandalay by overnight train costing around $33 for a sleeper and $22 for a 1st class seat. But again, train travel in Myanmar brings the ethical implication of paying the country’s repressive regime … the choice is only yours.
Booking your tickets
Train travel in Southeast Asia requires a reservation. This means that your ticket will list the day and time of departure, your carriage and seat/berth number.
Thailand and Malaysia: In Malaysia and Thailand it is possible to buy tickets online using a Western credit card – although at times systems may be unresponsive. Otherwise, you may purchase at the train station’s ticket office, or with the help of a travel agent. It is generally not a problem to buy tickets for popular destinations –Bangkok to Butterworth or Hat Yay, Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth or Singapore, or Hanoi to Saigon – a few days in advance, but be careful, train travel on weekends can get difficult because of the big numbers of regular commuters. If you do not fancy overnighting in a seat, it would be better to plan a few days ahead. Major stations such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur may also sell you tickets for departures from other cities, and English is generally spoken.
Vietnam: In Vietnam, you can buy tickets directly at train stations’ counters; since 2002, the reservation system has been computerized, making it possible to purchase tickets for departure from any station within the country. Bring Vietnamese Dongs as both US$ and credit cards are not typically accepted.
Unless you travel during Tet – Vietnamese New Year, between late January and February according to the lunar calendar , you won’t have problems in finding a ticket for the destination you want, even at short notice. A bit of flexibility in your berth or seating choice would be necessary.
You may also decide to use the services of a guesthouses or tour operator in Hanoi or Saigon. If you prefer to book online, though, you may do so at Vietnam Railways official website, but you will have to pick up your tickets once in the country. Be ready to provide an accommodation’s address or meet the seller at ultrabusy Hanoi and Saigon train stations. Alternatively, International Rail Australia in Melbourne is a reputable train-travel agent who may help you with bookings.
Myanmar: There is no computerized reservation system in Burma, and everything is still done by hand, notebook, and paper. You will have to buy your ticket at the departure station, and it won’t be possible to program your trip for other destinations. Don’t be put off by the no-English signage, as most people in Myanmar speak excellent English and are very willing to help. In general it is not too hard for a foreigner to get a berth/seat when booking even only one day in advance.
There are a few reputable agents that may help you in this sense if you want to travel with peace of mind and you may want to try browsing these links:
Singapore: If you plan a visit to Singapore, consider buying your tickets elsewhere. They cost about the same amount as tickets purchased in Malaysia, but are priced in Singapore dollars. In other words, if a ticket fare is 40 ringgit, you will be charged 40 Singapore dollars, with a difference of $20USD! A very annoying detail once you know that the Woodlands train station is just 10 kilometers away from Johor Bahru in Malaysia.
The best way to have a memorable experience in Southeast Asia is to savor the breadth and length of its railways. There are two potential main routes branching off the big travel hubs of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Bangkok.
- Start off by taking a train to Kuala Lumpur.
- Then, travel north to Butterworth/Penang, or cut through the pristine forested interior of Malaysia via Gemas and Kota Bharu via the “Jungle Railway”.
- Continue to Thailand via Hat Yay.
- Then on to Bangkok as a single overnight trip, or stopping in the coastal towns or popular Thai islands along the way.
- You may continue north by train to Vientiane in Laos and make your way by bus to Hanoi, Vietnam.
- Here you may take a southbound train to Saigon, stopping off en route in Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang.
- Once in Saigon, take a bus (or boat from the Mekong area south of Saigon) across the border to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
- From here, continue by bus or shared taxi to Thailand’s easternmost border at Aranyaprathet and get on the slow train to Bangkok for a final ride, completing a circular route from Bangkok.
- Alternatively, take an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, or stop off along the route at Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok to visit the majestic ruins of Sukhothai. Once in Chiang Mai, get off the rails and start exploring the area by bus or rented motorbike.
Pros and cons of train travel in Southeast Asia
There are many pros to train travel in the region:
- For long journeys you will end up paying less than a combination of bus and night accommodation.
- You will arrive at your destination early enough in the morning to make the best out of your day.
- Keep in mind that train bunks are very comfortable and clean and can even be of a higher standard compared to the cheapest guesthouses.
- Long distance trains also have the restaurant carriage perk. These “dining clubs” can provide interesting encounters and party times as the train chugs over rails.
The main cons to train travel:
- Being bound to a time schedule, getting to the station half an hour before departure, and experiencing delays (which seem to happen more times than not).
- The necessity to pre-arrange your bookings in order to travel overnight may also be a nuisance for many.
- Too much planning may limit the time you spend in each place; however, remember that tickets can be canceled and refunded up to a few hours before your scheduled departure.
Safety tips and concerns
Train travel in Southeast Asia is generally a safe affair if you take simple precautions. Lock your packs and possibly chain them under the lower bunk if you are a deep sleeper. Trains are modern and have electric plugs situated at the middle of the carriage. Do not leave your charging devices unattended when going to the bathroom or if you are carried away in the conversation with your newly acquired, chatty friends.
International border crossings are also generally safe. The train will stop to let you go through immigration clearance and new formalities before you may board your carriage again. Conductors usually do not require you to grab all your belongings, especially the bulkier packs and bags. However, I recommend you carry your electronics and important documents with you across the border at all times. As simple as it may sound, the relaxed atmosphere you will experience on board may make you lower your defenses. Unfortunately, petty crime is quite common during border crossing buffer time, but easily avoidable if you keep your wits about you.
Advice and tips from my own experience
I have traveled almost the whole length and breadth of the Southeast Asian railways, collecting fantastic memories. The slow pace and interesting plethora of characters on the Bangkok to Butterworth express has made it my favorite.
22 hours of relaxing rail apnea are a perfect time to unwind and indulge in some serious reading. Let the scenery unfold from the greyish Bangkok suburbs to coastal towns and endless rice paddies, culminating in the saw-toothed limestone karsts’ magic dotting northern Malaysia. By taking the bus, you will miss all of the above.
Arriving at Bangkok or Butterworth really gives a traveler that special sense of completion of a long journey. Plus, the train makes its way straight into Bangkok’s city center, avoiding the constant traffic jams on the way to the airport. To me, $34USD for this journey is an incredible price.
Using the overnight express from Bangkok to either Chiang Mai or Thanaleng/Vientiane is a bit more expensive than the bus at around 900 baht/$25USD, but much more comfortable for overnight travel. In the case of the Chiang Mai route, the morning scenery you will see across the villages and slopes of northern Thailand are worth the price alone. I loved to wake up early and watch the sunrise coloring the bamboo thatched huts in shades of pink and orange – difficult to see from the bus.
If you have time to soak in Southeast Asia’s slow pace of life, experiencing it by train is a great way to do it. Those iron tracks slung all the way to the horizon will help you make life-long, lasting, vivid memories of great human encounters.