Point of View: Choo-choos or not to choose:plane vs. train

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It is seven months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Quite a few Americans, particularly New Yorkers, have not fully recovered from that shock. So psychologically they are not ready to travel by air. A member of my family is one of them.

In fact, traveling by air is much safer than before, thanks to beefed-up security. I recently drove friends to JFK Airport twice and noticed that passengers had to go through lengthy luggage checks before they could board the plane. But few complained about the tedious process. Those who plan to fly should get to the airport as early as possible, about two hours before the scheduled departure.

The airlines industry is making changes daily for a safer sky. Nevertheless, terror fear lingers despite the changes and tightened security.

Is there any alternative to air travel?

Yes, it is the train for now. Amtrak has been doing a brisk business since the WTC attack. Travelers have to make reservations early as ticket availability is not guaranteed on the departure day. There were few open seats. That’s a far cry from the erstwhile days. I tried to make a reservation for two coach seats via the Internet six weeks before our planned departure for Greenville, S.C., but the response was that all coach seats were sold out.

It’s probably due to the fact that more people go to Dixie these days on Amtrak, which offers services just twice a week between New York and South Carolina. Of course, there are connections between Washington, D.C. and that Southern state.

I remember that two decades ago Amtrak almost went under because of a lack of passengers; Uncle Sam had to come to its rescue. A clerk at the Amtrak terminal in Greenville said that the government was expected to end its subsidy in October. So Amtrak is planning major cuts in budgets, personnel and services.

It seems unlikely that Amtrak would carry out that plan during a period when it is enjoying a robust growth in its history. In 2001, its ridership reached an all-time high with more than 23.5 million passengers. Each day, about 60,000 people travel on Amtrak.

It was a maiden train trip for both my wife and me. We enjoyed our journey for two reasons. First, the fare is lower than that of air travel. Second, all the amenities and services are better than those on the plane. The seats on the train are wider with more legroom and wider aisles.

Some think Amtrak is immune to terror attacks. But don’t break out the champagne just yet. Upon our return from the trip, we were shocked to hear that an accused hijacker in the WTC attack was plotting against Amtrak before the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Amtrak has since taken precautionary measures against possible attacks. For security reasons, a passenger is allowed to bring only two carry-on bags. But some still found loopholes to get big suitcases onto the train. No luggage was checked. This caused jitters in that the terrorists might take advantage of these superficial security measures to achieve their destructive goals. Like the airlines industry, Amtrak ought to get tougher in luggage check before it’s too late.

We arrived in Greenville, a clean and small town that has everything, including a gorgeous concert hall that occasionally presents hit shows from Broadway.

Small townsfolk are friendlier. Motorists and pedestrians waved to us. It seemed as if they knew we were from the Big Apple.

The housing price there is about a third of that in Queens.

Unlike Flushing and its neighborhoods, Greenville has numerous beautiful apartments clustered near highways. Detached brick houses and shopping malls are seen everywhere in the newly developed suburbs. It’s really an ideal place for the retirees.

Because of the influx of new immigrants, Flushing and its surrounding areas face severe housing shortages. As a result, the apartment rent has hit the roof. Local politicians and community leaders must work together to find ways to solve these housing woes.

On our way back, we switched from the coach to the sleepers. Of course it costs a little more but is worth the price. The sleepers has a number of tiny rooms and suites. Sitting on a convertible bunk bed, everything we needed was within arm’s reach—a sink, a toilet, a TV, a radio, a fold-down table doubling as a chess board, a climate control, individual reading lights, electrical outlets for a shaver and hair dryer, and what not. Besides, we had free breakfast and lunch. All in all, it’s a pleasant ride home.

If you want to see the countryside, the train is perhaps the right means to help you fulfill your travel dream. We may take Amtrak again this fall to California.

Reach columnist George H. Tsai by E-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 140

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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