Thank you to Stephen Goadhouse for this guest post:
Charlottesville now has an affordable option for traveling by train to Washington, DC. It is a new route on the Amtrak Northeast Regional service. After my first experience with the Northeast Regional, I highly recommend it as a great way to visit the big city. Read on for the nitty-gritty and a little soap boxing.
Let’s Have An Adventure!
For several years, I heard about this interesting attempt to bring usable and affordable rail service to Charlottesville. It was fun to fanatasize about taking the kids to the National Zoo on a Saturday, all by rail travel. Well, the train is real and, for now, the fantasy is gone. The train’s weekend schedule only gives you an hour or two to spend in DC before having to come back, but if you spend the night in DC (I hear good things about using Priceline.com) you’d have about 26 hrs to enjoy there. The weekday schedule is much more useful; you have from about 12n to 4p. So, with a desire for adventure, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and book a day trip.
The train station in Charlottesville is accessible by car, bus and even bike (there’s a nice bike rack next to the station). It costs $5 per day to park your car there, which is not really that bad – its downtown afterall. Being the cheapskate I am, I decided to park in my UVa spot instead and I took the #7 CTS bus. Had there not been a chance of rain, I would have opted for the bike.
A few quick words about Charlottesville’s CTS bus service. I’m impressed. It’s free with a University ID but would have only been $0.75 otherwise. How did I know which bus to take and how much it would cost? Google maps, my dear. Charlottesville somehow makes their bus schedule available to Google. You simply go to Google maps and get directions. Make sure to pick the By Public Transit option.
For future trip planning, you can also specify when you want to arrive and Google does the rest. It even gives you the fare.
Right on time, the bus was clean, inviting and friendly. The bus driver greeted me with a big, “Good Morning”. In just a few minutes, I was at the train station, lickety split. I was super early (50 min before departure), as I have a tendency to be late, and so padded my schedule with lots of time just to be sure. Being forced to be early is a consequence of public transportation. Not driving in my car all the way to Washington, DC meant that I had no illusion of making up the time if I left late (you know its just an illusion, right – I have not quite learned that myself).
Arrival at the Train Station
When I got to the station, I rushed to stand in a slow line, got half undressed (shoes and belts off) and shoved my coat and bags in the X-ray machine to get irradiated all while a TSA official considered my risk factors and the suspicious color of my shampoo. Oh wait, that was my last trip via CHO. Here, I got a smile and traded my reservation receipt for tickets in under 2 mins. No hassle whatsoever! Along with my tickets, I also got the news that I was an extra 20 min early as the train was late already. (Once on the train, I overheard the conductor tell someone that they got home late last night so they gave themselves a few extra minutes this morning. I’d do the same myself. Being always on time, though, would help the passenger rail industry in this country. Switzerland knows how to do it, but they are probably the only country with a rail system that does stay right on time.)
A few words about the train itself. It is a part of Amtrak and not the Virginia Railway Express. It runs daily from Lynchburg to DC making only a few stops (apparently for a higher fare, you can continue on to BWI airport after DC – interesting way to catch a flight). It is called the Northeast Regional as it connects with the existing Northeast Regional line in DC that runs from Boston to Newport News. However, I think they could have created a better name like the Blue Ridge Run or something. Since when is Lynchburg, or Newport News for that matter, the Northeast?
If you book at least 14 days ahead, it is only $29 each way and it is currently only $22 each way as a special to introduce the new service. Considering that it takes you within a few blocks of the Capital, you can’t do better driving (what with gas and parking fees). From Union Station in DC, you can take the Metro anywhere else for it’s small fee. You are also fairly close to Capitol Hill so walking is a good option too.
Waiting for the train in downtown Charlottesville, I could have easily gone to a local restaurant to wait but I opted for the station instead. It’s nice and clean. Before I knew it, the waiting area had overrun and a near mob of people were waiting outside. Wow! At least for now, this is already popular. As someone else said, “Meredith Richards would be proud.”
One of the biggest mental hurdles to public transportation, at least to me personally, is the thought of having to wait and not being in complete control. However, sitting here waiting, it occurs to me that I have complete control of how I use my time. There is always something to do and not having to concentrate on the road gives me the freedom to do it. Yea, I have to get up and leave the house earlier than if driving myself, but there’s always some book that I’ve been meaning to find time to read. Now, I have the time. With today’s communication tools, like the iPhone, you could even spend this waiting time writing emails, or listening to music or calling a friend or even playing a game of Sudoku. This time waiting for the train really is a gift, if I choose to see it that way.
The call has gone out that the train is nearly here. Let’s go!
Waiting for the train.
It is difficult to tell from the photo, but I estimated nearly 100 travelers getting on the train this morning!
7 Coaches Long
The coach cars are really comfortable and have plenty of leg room and headroom. Also, there is plenty of room to have a laptop with you and to actually use it. It’s not crowded at all once we got inside. There is even a standard 120VAC outlet for each seat for your personal electronics (they are the black dots below the window in the picture – a little awkward if you are on a row seat). There is no need to shut off electronics for take-off. In fact, there’s even cell phone service, although I expect it to come and go as we travel – it’ll keep the conversations quick. The cabin does feel a little old but not much more than the 737s and A320s on the budget airlines I’ve been on.
Are we moving? It is such a smooth and quiet take off. A little rattling here and there as we go along and the call of the train whistle but nothing like the roar and shaking of a puddle jumper that you’d most likely be on if flying out of Charlottesville. This is really comfortable.
There goes Charlottesville High School, the future Meadowcreek Parkway, Rio Rd up above and the Rivanna River down below. The train is slower than I imagined, but really no slower than by car. There is time to really take in the scenery. Barboursville, with the Southwest mountains and its changing colors in the background, looks beautiful from the train. There’s an old friends’ house, right by the tracks painted in glorious periwinkle.
I cannot ever remember a time in my nearly 40 years being so comfortable traveling. A ferry ride to Ocracoke is the only thing that comes close, and you are going to Ocracoke after all. I’m traveling to the nation’s capital and I have absolutely no worries. Here comes the conductor and yes, they still punch the ticket like in the movies. Are we already in Orange? I think a nap would be nice. How about seeking out the snack car, instead?
Being that the train is already late and I have a 12 noon engagement, I decided to check out the snack car. There does not seem to be time to grab a bite to eat on my way out of Union Station.
Walking through the coach cars is fun. You push the handle on the door of each car and they quickly and automatically open up to let you pass. It is sort of like being on the Starship Enterprise – sort of. When I arrive at the snack car, I’m surprised to see bench seating with fairly large tables. Having never traveled by train, it never occurred to me that there would be actual tables.
I went with the attendant’s suggestion of the cheese and cracker tray along with a bottled water. $6. Being a captive audience, I expected movie theater prices and thought the $6 was quite reasonable, considering the location. I checked out the menu for other prices. Burger or hot dog for a couple of bucks. Potato chips and sodas for about what you would expect. They even have beer! However, it’s mass-produced domestic brands for $4-$5. Ugh! Let’s get some local brews like Starr Hill or Blue Mountain Brewery on tap. Then you’d have something.
The cheese and cracker tray was surprisingly really good. Commercial brands for sure, but good commercial brands that I would buy myself like Tillamook, Cabot, Carr’s water crackers and Wheatsworth. For a snack, this was excellent.
Although I could have taken it back to my seat and used the seat-back tray, the dining area with it’s bench seating and large tables looked really inviting. I’m glad I stayed. Without the seats in the way, you had an ever better view of outside. If traveling with friends, I could easily see hanging out here playing cards or chatting. We are crossing the Potomac River now, so we are nearly there, unfortunately 30 min behind schedule.
Arrival at Union Station
Union Station has got to be one of the most chaotic places I’ve ever been (that’s not saying much – I’ve never been to New Delhi or even New York city). Regardless, after such an easy and stress-free journey, it was eye opening to say the least. If your journey continues on the Metro, it appears that you have to leave the building (what a magnificent monument it is) and go to the right along the sidewalk. Up and to the right is a sign for the Metro with an escalator going down.
Another potential option than going to Union Station, as we stopped there to pick up passengers on the way home, is the L’Enfant train stop in DC just prior to Union Station. You can also easily access the Metro from this stop as the Metro entrance is very close to the train plaza. Alexandria is another choice, also with nearby Metro access. Both of these stops were open-air with a roof – something to consider. However, they seem to be as easy to navigate as Charlottesville’s train stop. If you decide to go this route, be sure to book the trip as such so they’ll know to stop the train.
Even with Union Station’s chaos, I was able to bob and weave my way fairly quickly out of the building. I even made it on time to my 12 noon engagement, which was a 15 minute walk from the station, but only in the nick of time. After an afternoon of sights along the Mall, it was back to Union Station to catch the train home. Luckily, there was just enough time for a stop at Capitol City Brewery in the National Postal Museum across the street from Union Station. After a refreshing stop which included onion rings, chili, an Octoberfest and a great stout, it was on to Union Station with 20 min to spare. While waiting for my beer, I had called 1-800-USA-Rail and verified, via the automated service, that my train was on time, so there was no time to delay.
Once I bobbed and weaved my way to my gate, it was easy to get on the train when we started boarding. I was cutting it close by stopping at the restroom and ordering an Americano at Primo Cappuccino right by my gate. However, I made it with little stress and I am now settling in for a relaxing trip home. I cannot ever remember leaving DC looking forward to relaxation. It’s usually a matter of psyching myself up to deal with the traffic and the long drive home. At exactly 4:50pm, we pulled out of Union Station, right on time. In fact, we arrived in Charlottesville at 7:10 pm, 10 minutes early!
My only regret is that I did not have more time in DC. I could have easily enjoyed two more hours. However, this is a day trip to DC from Charlottesville afterall. Driving my car to DC would have allowed me to decide when to arrive and leave, but I would have most likely lost most of that extra time dealing with traffic and parking. I know I would not have enjoyed a late lunch at the brewery if I had to drive myself home. I would have also been exhausted by the time I finally arrived home.
Taking the train to DC on a weekday only gives you about 4 hours, just enough time to really only visit one museum. So keep this in mind. Considering that it was such a relaxing trip and the train ticket price was reasonable, I feel this is an acceptable trade-off. If Amtrak adjusted their schedule to give you more time in DC, then I would like it even more.
After this wonderful experience, my wife and I will have to try an overnight trip by rail to DC. I am sure I have many fun day trips in my future as well. It was definitely worth taking a day off for this adventure by rail. The Northeast Regional to/from Charlottesville is, in my opinion, another great thing about living in this area. If you have any interest in doing this yourself, I highly recommend that you book right now. Me thinks this is just going to continue to get more and more popular.