Almost 'All Aboard!'

Following a full day of work improving the facade of our house, I put my papa Hans on the train this morning bound for his home in southern Vermont.  The once daily train service, Amtrak’s “Vermonter” – which originates in the sleepy northern Vermont hamlet of St. Albans and continues south all the way to Washington, D.C. – departs the Essex Junction train stop at 9:00a.m. and shuttles south to arrive in Bellows Falls (the closest stop to their home) just before noon.  The best parts of the journey include the Vermont-resident $12 fare (one-way), the comfy seats, and the fact that someone else does the driving.  Making the same trip in a car at 55MPH (the fastest we drive to improve the efficiency of our increasingly infrequent car trips) will take you exactly the same amount of time.  Pretty cool comparison considering the negligible carbon footprint of a train when compared to that of a passenger vehicle.

A word to the wise :: Buy your ticket before you get there.

Although it is possible to show up at the train and pay cash on board for a ticket to travel within Vermont, the best and most assured way of getting the special $12 fare is to make a reservation at least 24-hours in advance either online via Amtrak’s site or by calling Amtrak at 1-800-USA-RAIL.  And, in order to actually receive a paper ticket prior to arriving at the train station (this applies to small stations like all of those in Vermont), you’ll have to book days in advance since Amtrak’s automation is in the dark ages (no online option) and they actually send your ticket through the mail (!).  So, paying cash on board is necessary since there is simply no other option for trips lacking appropriate lead-time.   In comparison, in larger states, stations are staffed and/or feature automated ticket kiosks.  Again, here in Vermont, just make sure you take care of the reservation at least a day in advance and bring cash to avoid a heated discussion with the conductor.

More on the need for a reservation.  Prior to putting my dad on the train, and knowing from past experience that you must pay on board for short notice trips in Vermont,  we checked Amtrak’s website and called and spoke to a reservations agent.  The website was silent on the discount and cryptically lacking on the ticketing process for non-staffed stations (I searched for fifteen minutes and found nothing at all useful).  The agent I spoke with confirmed that the $12 rate was still in effect but failed to offer the fact that one needs to make a reservation to secure the rate.  So, after settling in his coach seat on a train not even 1/10th occupied, my father was informed by the conductor that he’d need to pay $54 for the ride!  Although he managed to negotiate the charge down to $24, the normal non-discounted full-fare one-way price, the conductor failed to give any exception for his senior status (normally a $3 discount off the regular price) – it was true robbery on the tracks!  You can be sure that we’ll be contacting Customer Care about this.  Its almost as though they don’t actually want people to ride the train.  Classic Amtrak and an unfortunate and easily preventable experience for my father who was already soured on train travel given his many personal experiences with his home country’s still-sometimes-inept public train system.  [Please don’t misconstrue this criticism of public transportation as anything but criticism, I am a big believer in properly run and managed publicly-owned transportation systems.]

In Support of Trains

Now, if you’re still reading this post, please consider speaking-out in support of this train.  Options are submitting a “Letter to the Editor” to a Vermont newspaper, using, for example, the Burlington Free Press’s online form, or emailing the Rutland Herald or the Brattleboro Reformer andespousing this inexpensive transportation alternative.  Or use Amtrak’s online form to encourage them to do a better job of advertising Bike Carand explainingthe great Vermont-resident program on their site and elsewhere.  For even greater impact, call Amtraks’s corporate office at 202-906-3000 and/or snail-mail a letter to Amtrak Corporate Headquarters, 60 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002-4285 and tell them we’re clueless about the promotion and we need them to blanket the state with advertising promoting this little known option.  And lastly, don’t forget to write the Vermont Tourism Board using their online form and urging them to improve their t.v. and newspaper outreach and publicity surrounding this opportunity with a particular focus on their “in-State” tourists – those of us that actually live here and can take advantage of it.  As an alternative, reach out and touch someone by calling 1-800-VERMONT and/or addressing a letter  to the Vermont Dept. of Tourism and Marketing, One National Life Drive, 6th Floor, Montpelier, VT 05620-0501.

I suggest this advocacy not because of my father’s recent poor experience, but because even though I consider myself fairly “in-the-loop” (“fairly” since, after all, we don’t have a t.v.), this discounted fare only just came to my attention a week ago – not good considering not only has it been available for months, the decision was recently made to extend it to the end of the 2010.  Round trip the length of Vermont for $24 is a steal and more people need to know it’s available and how to get it.

Don’t Forget the Bicycles!

The only other deficiency I will note with this train (one I am able to circumvent with the help of my Bike Friday bicycle – although one shouldn’t have to have special travel bicycle just to get it aboard a train!) is that the train no longer has a baggage car and therefore will not accommodate bicycles[!].  Make sure to include in your letters and telephone calls some cogent discussion on the shear idiocy of not including an option to bring your bicycle aboard the train in Vermont, criminal in a state so largely dependant upon tourist revenue and one renowned as a cycling destination (not to mention its fair share of multi-modalists).  This seems to me a no-brainer.  Its been years since we could bring a bike on board the train here and I guess some State bureaucrat or Amtrak executive still can’t get out of their own way on this issue.

We need to improve upon what we currently have so we can apply a multi-modal approach to this wonderful Vermont asset.  Think of the opportunities!  Take the train to Brattleboro and then spend a couple of days riding back north to home, or vice-versa.  Incorporate a jaunt into New York or New Hampshire with the time saved!  Using the train this way could be a great way to sneak a multi-day, multi-state tour into a few days (long weekend anyone?) where ordinarily you’d need the better part of a week for a solely two- wheeled round trip.  Or perhaps a ride to a closer station, say the state capital, Montpelier, buy some  lunch, and then complete the forty or sixty mile jaunt back home.  Road bikes need only apply; no bags or racks necessary!  I recall making a similar outing via a tourist train that once ran from Burlington to Middlebury.  Of course, none of this is possible if you own a regular bike since you are not allowed to bring bikes aboard the train.  This must be changed.

Ridership on this train keeps increasing and this means we may actually have some pull with decision makers.  Lets make this great train even better!

Viva la train!

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