Planes, trains and automobiles

For my recent vacation, I used a variety of travel modes, partly out of necessity and partly out of frustration. I flew to Florida. Took the train to Charleston. Then drove from there back to Baltimore. You won't be surprised that I preferred the flight. But you may be surprised that I would rather drive than take Amtrak, no matter the price of gas and despite a recent New York Times story that says Amtrak ridership is up because of rising fuel costs.

Let me just say up front, it's not the fault of Amtrak or its dedicated employees -- it's Congress' fault for allowing the national rail system to deteriorate to its current state.


I didn't fly to Charleston because a) it's a connecting flight of about 6 hours total travel time from Florida and I hate connecting flights; and b) it cost $275. Also, I would have had to pay for another flight from Charleston to Baltimore. For my entire trip, I would have spent nearly $1,000 in plane fare, which was a bit steep for me. Instead, I found a multi-city ticket fare on Amtrak for less than $150, using an AAA discount. It sounded like a good deal, but it wasn't.

My train was sold out. I was seated in a rail car that looked like it had been pulled from its retirement. Turns out it was built before I was born - I asked. It was also the last car of the train. I could look out the back door and think about jumping. The ride was jostling and the train was late both coming and going.


The snack food was of poor quality -- possibly worse than what you would find in a vending machine. The dining car offered what looked to be better fare but at a much higher cost. There was no power strip in my train car to plug in a laptop. The bathrooms broke down midway which required an unscheduled stop. Luckily, it was so cold on the train that my temper did not quite reach boiling. It finally arrived in Charleston more than an hour late.

Now, to be clear, I spent just $58 for a ticket from West Palm Beach to Charleston. I can't fill-up my car for that price. So, hey, you get what you pay for. But I'd be willing to pay more for a better rail experience.

I did have a train ticket from Charleston to Baltimore, but I just couldn't make myself do it. I rented a car in Charleston and drove home. There were plenty of drivers on the road, especially in Virginia, where I-95 was backed up for an hour because of an accident.

Still, by the time the train from Charleston pulled into Penn Station nearly two hours late (I checked), I was relaxing at home on the sofa.

(Photo: Miami Herald)