The Truth About U.S. Trains? Italiani non capisco.
I tend to start planning my travels well in advance. I work up a rough itinerary and spend the next several weeks, or even months, tweaking it . . . adding a day here, checking out various hotels there, looking at train schedules and, assuming it’s Europe, considering different trains based on their arrival or departure times.
Partly, I think, it’s concern that I’ll make a mistake, either by overlooking a better option or by missing an important detail that can potentially cause a big hassle. For instance, during my two weeks in Italy this past summer, I knew that traveling from Siena to Lucca required that I change trains in Florence, but at the last minute and quite by accident I realized that I not only had to change trains, I had to change stations.
And, of course, things can go wrong that are beyond your control, although I do try to allow for a “what if” in some situations– Amtrak connections, for instance. I’ve been burned a couple of times, the most recent being last February when I was connecting from the Lake Shore Limited to the California Zephyr in Chicago. Train 48 hit a car in Erie, Pennsylvania, which cost us three hours and we kept falling farther and farther behind all the way into Chicago. While still a couple of hours out of Chicago, I got an accommodating Amtrak reservations person to cancel my roomette on the Zephyr that afternoon and book me into a miraculously vacant roomette on the train the next day. Thank goodness for cell phones!
That, by the way, is a big source of misunderstanding with Europeans traveling by train in the U.S. The idea that your train could be hours late astonishes them. And then you get to boggle their minds all over again when you tell than that the very next train won’t be until tomorrow. I was explaining this to an Italian gentleman at the railway station in Lucca (photo above) this past June. He had spotted me as an American and started a conversation by apologizing about the Italian trains. His was on time, he said, but mine was going to be 10 minutes late. When I told him about my not making a 4:15 connection in Chicago four months earlier, he protested that it must have been a rare occurrence. I started into an explanation of how Amtrak runs on track owned by the freight railroads and about grade crossing accidents, but the poor guy started to glaze over. Mercifully, that’s when his train arrived and we parted company.
I do remember sitting there on a bench at the Lucca railway station for the next ten minutes or so and actually getting angry. Here’s a small city in Italy–a population of less than 90,000–and they have dozens of trains in and out all day. These people have affordable public transportation–multiple trains every day, making the entire country accessible. All of Europe, for that matter. And Americans are afraid to take a chance on making a four-hour connection with a train that only runs once a day. I mean–seriously–that’s embarrassing!