Fight gas price hikes with train trip travel

By the time you read this, I’ll have returned from a trip to Germany that involved planes, trains and no automobiles.

Mass transit has long been my preference when traveling a long distance. It’s good for the planet, my pocketbook and my sanity. Let’s add my eyes to that list: They are having a harder time reading maps, especially at night and especially if I’m roaming solo when behind the wheel.

So it’s with great pleasure that I acknowledge the 40th anniversary of Amtrak and creation of the first transcontinental railroad 142 years ago. On May 10, 1869, almost 1,800 miles of Central Pacific and Union Pacific track were joined as one, in Utah.

As gasoline prices continue to increase, so does America’s interest in train travel, particularly since flights are increasingly annoying because of security hassles, fewer flights, cancellations and delays.

Amtrak’s 28.7 million passengers in fiscal year 2010, on 300-plus trains per day, set a record. The total was 27.2 million one year earlier. Another record is expected when the 2011 fiscal year ends in September, since ridership increases month after month.

“Our ridership has grown more than 36 percent since 2000, and I expect that trend to
continue – and if gas prices continue to rise – to accelerate,” reports Joe Boardman, Amtrak president and CEO. “Our only restriction will be the available capacity.”

The Amtrak network connects 46 states, the District of Columbia and three provinces in Canada.

In Germany, I have used trains to reach cities the size of Green Bay and Kenosha. Had I a reason, I could have connected with communities as small as Marshfield and Fond du Lac. It’s been the same in other countries, including Spain, where I rode the high-speed AVE rail, similar to what had been proposed for Wisconsin, then scrapped.

For this trip, we stayed a dozen miles from Hamburg and hopped an intercity rail to reach the downtown in 15 minutes. The trains ran often, on time and without hassle.

We have a long way to go in the U.S. before we can begin to mimic the mass transit structure and mindset that other countries have used to their advantage for centuries.

Amtrak’s longstanding reputation for being tardy – sometime by hours – also needs to change. Punctuality, in part, depends on who owns the tracks. The majority of Amtrak’s 21,000 route miles are owned by freight railroad companies.

One long-distance Amtrak train, the Empire Builder, includes daily stops in seven Wisconsin cities (Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, Sturtevant, Portage, Milwaukee, La Crosse and Columbus). The Hiawatha provides seven Milwaukee-Chicago roundtrip runs daily, and ridership was up 6.1 percent from 2009 to 2010.

That’s another record, so book early if this mode of transportation sounds appealing – especially this year.

For more about Amtrak: www.amtrak.com, 800-872-7245.

I’m too impatient and frugal to put up with Chicago traffic and the city’s “this-would-buy-dinner” parking fees, so I almost always use a train to get to the city.

Metra, Chicago’s regional train system, extends to Kenosha and Harvard, Ill. (near Rock County and the closest Metra station to Madison). The fare to downtown Chicago is less than $10. Add parking: $1.50 for 24 hours in Harvard.

Amazingly, a $7 ticket allows unlimited Metra riding on Saturdays and Sundays. For more: www.metrarail.com, 312-322-6900.

The two-hour trips from Harvard are smooth and usually uneventful. Trains are punctual. Conductors keep people civil, and train cars relatively tidy.

Once in Chicago, an efficient network of buses and trains takes me just about any place I want to go. A one-day Fun Pass from the Chicago Transit Authority provides unlimited rides for $5.75. It’s $14 for a three-day pass.

For more: www.transitchicago.com, 888-968-7282.

Still on my “to do” list: Ride the light rail in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Route 55, the Hiawatha Line (don’t confuse it with Amtrak’s Hiawatha), runs from the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to Mall of America in Bloomington. The 19-station route includes the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Under construction is an 11-mile route that will connect the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trains will operate every 7.5 minutes during peak times, and the trip will take 39 minutes.

Completion of the $957 million project is expected in 2014.

For more: www.metrotransit.org, 612-341-0140.

Taking a bus is another logical way to reach big city rails. That includes the sleek Megabus, whose rates between Madison/Milwaukee and Chicago or Minneapolis go for as little as $1.

Those cheap seats are limited, but they do exist. For more: www.megabus.com, 877-462-6342.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.