Plane, train or automobile? Which is best if you’re heading someplace that’s not really close, but not all that far away, either? To help you decide, we took all three transportation modes to the on-the-cusp destination of Raleigh, N.C.
I felt it coming on, a bout of Goldilocks Syndrome. The affliction often crops up with medium-range journeys such as Raleigh.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to sample various vessels of transportation when we decided to determine the most preferable mode of travel for a weekend escape to the North Carolina capital: I was handed a conductor’s cap and told to board the train. But had this been a trip of free will, well, then . . . I would have dismissed flying for the punishing airport security and spatially challenged conveyances. And I would have rejected driving because of my Pavlovian reaction to traffic: panting, growling, teeth-gnashing. Plus, my sunroof is busted. But the train, a softly rocking cradle, was “just right.”
The Carolinian had started this Friday in New York and would call it a night in Charlotte. It left Washington at 10:55 a.m. and was scheduled to pull into Raleigh, nine stops later, at 4:42 p.m. The train pulls into the downtown station, and the short walk to my hotel would barely count as exercise.
I left my Adams Morgan apartment at the lazy-bird hour of 10 a.m. and hopped onto the Red Line to Union Station fully provisioned. I’d stuffed into two sizable carry-on bags (no twee “personal item” for me) my round-trip ticket, a bottle of water (1.5 liters, not the airport’s 3.2 ounces of teardrops), three shifts of snacks, headphones and a music source, and enough reading material to fill six hours, plus an extra magazine in case Bessie stumbled onto the tracks.
A few minutes before the final boarding call, I dropped the shoe I was admiring at Nine West and glided over to the J Gate. A line bound for New York moved like a slug around the waiting area and disappeared through a portico to the tracks. I walked unimpeded to my train, peering through the train windows at my seating options.
I chose the final row of the last car, which was lightly salted with travelers. My neighbors, two middle-aged sisters, were deep in an iPad trance. In southern Virginia, one of the siblings, a first-time Amtraker, drifted across the aisle to curl up in an empty row for a nap.
“I can stretch out and sleep,” she told me before nighty-night. “I can never do that on a plane.”
With so much room at my disposal, I set up an easy-listening station next to the outlet, a commissary on the seat-back tray and a small library on the adjoining seat. I assembled my bags like a levee. An employee mumbled that I needed to store my luggage in the overhead rack, but she never enforced the rule.
Though the train moved at interstate speeds, I could easily discern sharp details in the passing landscape. Fields with bales of hay rolled up like sushi. Rivers rippling with fishing boats and good catches. Grand homes cinched by porches and topped with cupolas. Vestiges of lost industries drifting by like fading memories.
At Richmond, the conductor encouraged us to “step off, stretch and smoke.” The fresh air, lightly scented with eau de tobacco, must have stoked appetites, because as soon as we reboarded, a crush of people beelined for the cafe car.
I stood beside a mycologist from Rockville, Md., who was going to Raleigh to celebrate a friend’s waning days of bachelorhood. He said that he prefers trains to planes because of the higher level of comfort and the low cost (from $52 one way). By the time we reached the counter (coffee for me, veggie burger for him), I knew most of his life story, plus the best way to wash and store mushrooms.
At Rocky Mount, a new voice — bubbly, genial, twangy — rang through the loudspeaker.
“Welcome to North Carolina, the Tar Heel State,” said William “Bill” Cole, a state train host volunteer. “We’re so delighted you’re riding with us today.”
A grandfather with a boyish love of trains, Bill walked up and down the aisles, carrying a digital speedometer. When it flashed 76 mph, a passenger asked with surprise, “That’s all?” The numbers, as if offended, started to slowly creep up: 78, 80, 81.
“The train is a social experience,” the goodwill ambassador said, after sharing with us his 12-day Western train adventure with his grandkids, “especially compared to the plane.”
Outside Selma, the penultimate stop, Bill issued an apology and an update. “We lost 25 minutes in Rocky Mount,” he said. “We might make up 15 minutes in Raleigh.”
In a plane or a car, I would have reacted to this announcement with a stream of grumblings. But on the train, nothing could ruin my perfect bowl of porridge, not even a delay.
Total time (one way)
Total cost (round trip)
Stress level (1 to 10)
The upshot of our experiment? Well, the plane is fastest, the car cheapest and the train the least stressful. But basically, how you choose to go really depends on your personality type. So here’s our quick and easy guide to the best mode for you:
The friendly skies are made for: Goal-oriented travelers who just want to get there and hit the ground running or rich-as-Croesus travelers for whom money is no object. And, of course, loyalty-club travelers who just want to rack up those frequent-flier miles.
Riding the rails is best for: laid-back travelers who think that the journey is half the fun and timid travelers who fear flying and don’t dare to drive. Also eco-minded travelers concerned about their carbon footprint.
You’ll drive if you’re: a control-freak traveler who wants to go when you want to go or a cheapskate traveler who hates to shell out more for transport than absolutely necessary. Or a lots-of-luggage traveler who likes to haul along half your household.