It's a sign of the times that while most little kids you meet nowadays have traveled on jet planes, relatively few have taken train trips.
"But I went on the subway," said three-year-old Katie Dye.
The subway, wonderful as it is, just isn't the same thing. There are no timetables you can take out of the rack, no people waiting on the platform with mounds of baggage, nobody to kiss you goodby at the station, no conductors to help you on and off, and no paper hat.
When the station master at the funky but nice Alexandria station saw us coming, he got out a stack of red-white-and-blue Amtrak hats. Our train -- the Colonial, enroute from Newport News to Boston -- would be on time, he assured us. So we sat on the bright blue benches, put on our paper hats, and relaxed. At least most of us did. Some of the kids looked a little apprehensive.
Kevin McMahon, four, confessed to being a first-timer.
"Well, I can tell you all about it because I've been," three-year-old Lucy Pfeiffer comforted him. "One time I went to Chicago and one time I went to my grandma's."
Before she had time to give Kevin any tips on trainriding, however, the station master's voice boomed over the loud speaker that the train would arrive in five minutes on the other side of the tracks. Then the station master put on his red jacket and escorted us across the tracks by way of a wood-plank path.
"Don't step on the tracks," a baggage man warned the kids, who had a great time leaping over them. Once on the other side, we had a good view of the red-brick station, which has a comfortable look about it, like the stations people come home to in 1940s movies. Alas, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, (RF&P) which owns the station, wants to tear it down and build another Crystal City, the station master told us.
Before we had time to contemplate such a dastardly deed, the train streaked 'round the bend and the kids' eyes widened. It was a silver train trimmed with red and blue, and it was big, much bigger than the Metro. There were uniformed conductors standing on the steps of each car, and one of them motioned to us that there was room in the last car. The parents who had driven us to the station were forgotten, as the kids lined up to be helped aboard the train. Once they were in their seats, there was plenty of time to wave and chant "bye-bye." In fact, the chants of "bye-bye, bye-bye" continued throughout the 25-minute trip. Katie, however, started a rival chant: "choo-choo, choo-choo!"
"There's a real choo-choo," she shouted as we passed a freight train in the sprawling railroad yard that lines U.S. 1.
"I see more trains than ever," said Four-year-old Will Monroe-Wise, watching gravel being loaded into an open freight car.
As we passed through the canyons of Crystal City, a voice announced that the cafe car would be closed until after Washington. Undaunted, the kids lowered their airplane-type food trays for pretend snacks. Then they discovered the reading-light switches. But before they could do any damage, we were clackety-clacking across the Potomac on a bridge.
Once we crossed the Potomac, familiar landmarks kept popping into view like the Jefferson Memorial and "the field where my brother plays soccer."
"I see a blimp!" said Will, as we passed the Hains Point tennis bubble.
"I see ducks!" shouted Katie and we crossed the Washington Channel.
Just past the back of L'Enfant Plaza the train drifted to a halt.
"Why is the choo-choo train not going?" asked Katie.
"That was blocking us," explained the conductor, nodding out the window where a long freight train chugged past. The kids counted the cars as they went by, but most of them can't count past 18 and the train was a lot longer so interest shifted to the conductor.
Three-year-old Michael Schwartz looked at the conductor, then at his paper hat and said excitedly: "This is the hat of people who help little boys on the train!"
Past the Market Inn and the Rayburn Building, we entered a tunnel. It was long and very dark, but nobody was scared.
"This is like the Metro," said Katie.
A voice on the loudspeaker told us our arrival was imminent, then put temptaton in our path.
"For those of you going beyond Washington . . ." it said.
"We're going all across the country, right?" said Lucy, who, like all of us, had gotten into the spirit of training. Why get off so soon, we mused, when just about everybody has a grandmother in either New Jersey or Boston?
But cooler heads prevailed, and as we saw the light at Union Station we lined up to be helped off, then trudged through long passageways and out the front door of the visitors center toward the bus stop.
"I've never been on a bus," said three-year-old Duke Fox, as we headed for another new adventure.